If there's one eternal truth about the entertainment industry, it is that innovation engenders imitation—in format as in content. The new Music On Film Series from Limelight Editions, which kicks off with volumes on A Hard Day's Night and Grease, hews closely to a single inspiration. These little paperbacks with their handsome trade dress, each focused on a single specimen of a populist art form—in this case, the movie musical—have a clear antecedent in Continuum Books' 33 1/3 collection, devoted to classic albums.
Read the last Popdose on the genius of Chris Foss.
Like the 33 1/3 books, the Music On Film series, with their hip-pocket size and singular scope, are the perfect diversion for an airport layover, and the genially obsessive schema tickles the brain's trivia centers pleasantly. Ray Morton's rundown of A Hard Day's Night is particularly fun. Even when retreading well-ploughed ground—an occupational hazard, when adding to the vast canon of Beatles literature—Morton writes with panache and manages to explode a few of the myths that have grown up around the film.
Contrary to legend, for instance, little of the dialogue was improvised per se, although the script was constantly being revised on the fly throughout production. It's a fine distinction, but a critical one, shifting much of the credit for the Beatles' performances "as themselves" back to screenwriter Alun Owen. And Morton gives a breezy take on the mercenary motives that brought A Hard Day's Night into being—United Artists, taking advantage of a loophole in the Beatles' contract with EMI, bankrolled the film for the sole purpose of releasing a soundtrack album on its own record label. The quality of the picture was purely of ancillary concern.
As with any good making-of, there's some amusing dirt, as well. One story I'd never heard finds Paul McCartney so anxious to be taken seriously as an actor that he kept overplaying his big scene—and so a long dramatic sequence that was to be his showpiece ended up on the cutting-room floor.
By contrast with A Hard Day's Night, Stephen Tropiano's volume on Grease is a rather dry affair. The property's tangled history is a great cautionary tale of how artists who engage with the machinery of commerce can lose by winning. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, the creators of the original independent theater production, made their fortune with Grease even as they saw their work taken away from them, rewritten by diverse hands, and supplemented with material by hired-gun songwriters.
Tropiano drops hints about their discontentment with the process, but doesn't seem interested in finding the drama there. What he gives us instead is lists: lists of the numbers that appear in every variant version of Grease from Chicago's Kingston Mines to off-Broadway to Hollywood and the later stage revivals, lists of all the performers who've played the various roles in various versions, a where-are-they-now list of the movie's leads. Add in 15 pages of endnotes and an eight-page bibliography, and this little book can lay a claim to being the definitive reference work on all things Grease.
Which is both a compliment and a complaint. For all that the Music On Film books ape the outward particulars of the 33 1/3 books, evidence suggests that they will lack the latter's idiosyncratic ambition. By encouraging a strong auctorial voice, Continuum has allowed for some brilliant wild cards in the 33 1/3 series; Stephen Catanzarite's theological exegesis of Achtung Baby, the typographical shenanigans of LD Beghtol's 69 Love Songs, Carl Wilson's provocative cultural theorizing prompted by Let's Talk About Love—even occasional forays into fiction.
Music On Film, by its very design, seems unlikely to go to those places—and there's no reason that it should really. It's enough, I suppose, to be a destination imprint for reliable, concise-but-comprehensive popular histories of great film musicals. But while it's probably unfair to complain about what a book line isn't, imitation invites analogy, and it's a little saddening to realize that there is as yet no equivalent to 33 1/3 for the movie musical.
I realize that even in an ideal world we would be unlikely to ever see, say, a David Lynch monograph on the psychedelic underpinnings of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But it would be nice to think that if such a book did exist, we would already know exactly where to find it.
When Jack Feerick's emotion becomes too strong for speech, he sings; when it becomes too strong for song, he dances; and when it becomes too strong for dance, he writes it down, as Critic-at-Large for Popdose.