The renowned film scholar delivers a lively history of musicals beloved and forgotten.
“The calendar year of 1927 is considered to be the official year in which sound took hold,” writes Basinger (I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, 2013, etc.), a rare instance of the birth of a genre. This follows a close argument, perhaps at too much length, over just what divides a musical, characterized by a “sudden musical rupture” in the storyline, from movies in which music is incidental. The author is generous in her inclusions, from films like Woodstock and Help! to obvious standouts such as The Philadelphia Story and South Pacific. Still, she notes, “A film is not a musical just because someone gets up and sings a song…or steps up and does a little jig.” Once the parsing is settled, Basinger digs deep into histories of the pioneers—Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Fred Astaire, and Busby Berkeley—and the talents who would follow, men and women such as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Mitzi Gaynor, Vincente Minnelli, and Gene Kelly. One constant in Basinger’s narrative is that every few years, critics grimly announce that the movie musical is dead only to be gainsaid by some surprise arrival on the scene—Rocky Horror Picture Show, say, which “made fun of the genre, and combined it with horror, rock and roll, science fiction, and even a touch of porn” and did something altogether novel by converting the audience into performers alongside the folks on the big screen. Today, critics look at musicals a touch skeptically. As Basinger notes, though the recent La La Land was clearly a musical, it was studied not for its numbers but for its approach to social issues of gender and race, with Ryan Gosling starring as “a white man who saves jazz.” Still, it suggests that the musical might enjoy new life among millennial viewers.
Though sometimes diffuse, this is an essential addition to any film lover’s library.