Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Musical: Race, Gender and Performance/The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Musical: Race, Gender and Performance/The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity

Article excerpt

Susan Smith, The Musical: Race, Gender and Performance, (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), 130pp.

Raymond Knapp, The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 470pp.

review by Connie Wallcraft

In The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity (Princeton University Press), Raymond Knapp explores musicals, film musicals and their precursors through musical and textural analysis. The book is a rather challenging read and, given the sheer breadth of material explored and theoretical approaches adopted, may most usefully be considered as a reference resource. Within Knapp's analysis of film musicals in particular, there is a disconnect between the different elements of the filmic continuum and a sense that 'classic' film narrative analysis is the overriding concern. Classic narrative film can be defined by a step-by-step cause and effect linearity, in which image is subservient to narrative. Knapp introduces the descriptive term MERM (musically enhanced reality mode), which places emphasis upon notions of realism and naturalness that are questionable given the genre under discussion. In contrast, Susan Smith's study, The Musical: Race, Gender and Performance (Wallflower Press), focuses quite specifically on the film musical and is, as a result, a more accessible read. The book provides considerable discussion of narrative (plot) and how performance, vocal style and lyrics can be analysed in an integrated manner to provide a flexible interpretation of the filmic text. But while Smith attempts a more integrated approach to analysis and considers several elements of the filmic continuum simultaneously, she nevertheless continues to make the distinction between narrative and numbers, and lacks the musical analysis to support some of the arguments.

The Musical is an interesting introductory text. The book provides fresh insights into how race, gender and performance can be considered, and challenges the continued adoption of racial and gender stereotypes in Hollywood musicals. Racial stereotypes, particularly in relation to the film musical, can be described as the white appropriation of black style, the adoption of blackface, or the inclusion of the token black character within a mainly white film. Gender stereotypes might include the white heterosexual couple, masculine/feminine oppositions, or the notion of the female form as object of desire, although, in instances such as An American in Paris, the object of desire could quite equally be Gene Kelly. In subverting standard stereotypical race and gender readings, Smith provides divergent interpretations of the filmic texts under discussion. In addition, whilst considering the impact that DVDs have on an audience, Smith describes how spectators can reorganize and engage with the musical film text in different ways. These different forms of engagement, she hypothesizes, provide 'the opportunity to move from number to number in ways that are able to by-pass the narrative sections of the film altogether' (2), an idea that implies a disjunction between numbers and narrative, and suggests, like the work of Knapp, a form of 'classic' narrative analysis. This fissure could be regarded as a problematic and somewhat difficult position to maintain, particularly when considering a more integrated approach to the analysis of performance, vocal style and lyrics.

Looking specifically at The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943) and Show Boat (James Whale, 1936, and the George Sidney remake, 1951), Smith provides a critique of various views on minstrelsy and the use of blackface (Dyer, Rogin, Bogle, Stansfield, McPherson, and others), covering issues such as the appropriation of musical style and exclusion. While discussing the practice of blackface, Smith suggests that current methodologies for explaining the film musical, which place emphasis upon whiteness or blackface, fail to engage with other important dimensions of the filmic continuum, namely the close interpretation of lyrics and performance style in relation to the narrative. …

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