What Is A Musical

Contributed by: G Mollison

Musicals? When I think of musicals I used to think of Fred and Ginger and how I knew Fred Astaire was a genius but I wasn't a fan. Yet before I could dismiss musicals I had to remember that West Side Story is in my top ten films and I've loved everything Baz Luhrmann has done.

So if music and films get it right then the soundtrack to a film can change it from an okay film to something wonderful. But I'm not talking about soundtracks - I'm talking about music actually participating in the film. This has happened in a number of modern films and caused me to rethink about musicals.

Read on and hopefully you'll see what I'm saying.

Although West Side Story is in my top ten films, or was before Moulin Rouge! came along, its not young enough for this discussion so reluctantly I won't be able to talk about that particular favourite.

Let's start with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. A timeless Shakespearean classic about star-crossed lovers told in a refreshing innovative way. This film brought Shakespeare to the masses and delivered a vibrant, exciting interpretation of the famous tale. The young leads Leo diCaprio and Claire Danes oodle chemistry and the two sound track albums are excellent. Some may argue that this wasn't a typical musical as the actors themselves don't burst into song but I argue that without the songs this film would NOT have worked. The music for this film is so integral to the whole essence of the film that it has to be considered a musical. I would say that Lovefool by The Cardigans is the song that evokes the film every time I hear it. You can see Leo and Claire staring at each other through the fish tank. The innovative interpretation, the modern songs and costumes are a sensory delight and you would need to be heartless not to be moved by the final dénouement.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the story of three transvestites travelling through the outback to put on their own brand of entertainment to often bemused audiences. And Abba at last! Yes, I am a huge fan, so when this film came out I was immediately won over. This film, like Romeo & Juliet, may not be your typical musical but as music, in particular Abba, is so integral to the plot and the fact the stars do actually sing - although the singing is part of their act - I have included it. I defy you not to smile at Terrance Stamp dressed up in dress and wig singing, or you not to start tapping your toes at the sound of Dancing Queen.

Pulp Fiction: Tarrantino's classic depiction of a day and a night as experienced from four different view points. "What?" you all cry! Now she really is having a laugh! But stop think about it. Each part of the film has its own soundtrack and again the music becomes part of the film. What would John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to? How would this part of the film work without the music? Bruce Willis is now forever associated with Captain Kangaroo. The soundtrack really does evoke the film because of the numerous extracts from what is one of the best scripts every written that accompany the music. Joules speech, The Honey Bunny and Pumpkin speech just to name a few. Without the music I believe this film would not have worked half as well as it did. Quentin Tarrantino has the knack of being able to select the most esoteric music for his films and I have definitely started appreciating songs that I wouldn't normally listen to as a direct result of his films.

Billy Elliot: the story of a young boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Set in the middle of the 80's coal miners strike he hides his ambition from his angry widowed miner father who thinks boxing is a more fitting pastime. The Jam, Queen, Marc Bolan. Without music this is another film that wouldn't exist. After all a tale about a wannabe ballet dancer would be very odd if he didn't have music to dance to. The most amazing scene is Billy's frustrated stomping dance to The Jam's A Town Called Malice. Innovative and captivating. The best thing Jamie Bell has done so far in his young career.

Moulin Rouge!: the tale of doomed romance set in a decedent absinthe fuelled Paris. A courtesan dreams of bigger things and a penniless writer falls in love with her. From this story the most captivating modern musical arises. In 2002 the best musical ever was denied the Oscar for best film and actress. Moulin Rouge! was innovative, the songs were brilliant, and the actors great. I am still awe struck by the opening. The compilations are brilliant. The sight and sound of Jim Broadbent singing Like A Virgin will never leave me and the soundtrack spends most of its time in my car. Baz Luhrmann does it again.

You'll probably all agree that, at last, this film would be classed as bone fide musical as well. Nicole Kidman and the rest of the cast did their own singing and surprisingly enough their renderings are listenable, and led to Nicole enjoying a number one duet with Robbie Williams.

I could add various Bollywood movies, but as this a complete film industry in its own right I'll select a Hollywood interpretation of a Bollywood film instead.

The Guru: a shy Indian dance instructor is persuaded by his cousin to leave India and come to New York. After a stint as a really bad waiter and a short time as a reluctant 'porn star' he suddenly finds himself as a guru to New York's rich who feel the need for some mystical revelations and sound bites about sex. Any film that uses the dance the macarena as a plot device has to be worth seeing! The fact that it pulls off the Bollywood style with aplomb has a lot to do with the engaging lead in Jimi Mistry and the hysterical Bollywood style musical numbers. Oh, and it's a fraction of the length of a typical Bollywood movie!

Chicago: the film of the stage musical. A tale of two female murderesses who, with the help of a publicity hungry slick lawyer, are after get-out-of-jail cards. Overrated. I admit it was fluffy entertainment and, yes, Catherine Zeta Jones was the best thing in it. Having trained as a professional dancer obviously helped. But if it wasn't for the previous year's Moulin Rouge! I doubt this film would have been as successful as it was. I will, however, praise the song and dance routine in the women's prison - it is mesmerising with some of the women being given the chance to sing their tales of how they ended up in the clink! If you get the opportunity to see this film this is the scene worth waiting for.

So you see what is a musical? I personally don't believe the typical definition is applicable anymore. My small selections all have the right to be called musicals according to my definition as they all use music integrally. Not just as a soundtrack but actually participating as part of the film. In most films a soundtrack is there to keep the flow of the film but it is not an integral part of the film as it is in the films I have talked about above. Thus although I have classed Billy Elliot as a musical I can't class Star Wars, for example, as music is not actually participating in the film (the bar scene doesn't count). True without the soundtrack it would lose something but you could change the soundtrack and probably not lose anything, yet take away one of the songs from Billy Elliot - say A Town Called Malice - and then see what happens...