'Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter', by Richard Barrios - Review

By Leith, Sam | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter', by Richard Barrios - Review


Leith, Sam, The Spectator


Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter Richard Barrios

OUP USA, pp.288, £22.99, ISBN: 9780199973842

Do movie musicals matter? Most readers, even those who love them, will embark on Richard Barrios's short history of the genre with the thought: not much. They'll very likely, I'm afraid, finish it holding much the same opinion. But not mattering much doesn't prevent the best film musicals from being captivating. This is a book by someone who is indeed captivated: a love letter for the best of musical cinema and a blown raspberry for the worst.

Barrios is sensitive and scholarly about the ebb and flow of the popularity of musical film over the years -- the dunts administered to it by 1934's killjoy Production Code, by changes in cinema distribution models, by the rise of pop music and television, and above all by the boom-and-bust effect of a big hit appearing to presage the return of the musical (even though Cabaret and Les Misérables , in different generations, proved dead ends).

He makes the obvious but important point early on that 'musical film and musical theater are cousins, not siblings'. Or, as he rather pleasingly puts it later, in the context of transferring films to stage and vice versa: 'while it's OK for the lion to dance with the lamb, the choreographer in charge needs skill and sense'. Most of all, he argues, no musical can work if it does not connect with a) its audience, and b) the history of its genre. He outlines the ways in which film musicals found their own vocabulary of gestures and techniques -- including ways to naturalise the awkward 'bump' moment at which a character might burst into song.

Barrios is keen to scotch the idea that The Jazz Singer was the fons et origo of musical cinema. For him, the more important trail-blazers are now forgotten: The Desert Song (1929), described by one latter-day viewer as 'the oldest movie ever made'; and The Broadway Melody (1929), which 'by laying out everything that would be expanded and refined later [...] made itself obsolete'.

It's striking how -- for something we think of as dated -- musicals have always been postmodern: drawing attention to their artificiality, referencing their predecessors, tearing down the fourth wall. Many of the greatest -- such as Singin' in the Rain -- have been 'backstagers': musical films about people making musical films. That, among other things, is a classic technique for getting over the 'bump'.

Chapters on the money and on the stars have very sensible and perceptive things to say. Barrios notes the fantastic professionalism of Fred Astaire, who made himself dance slightly badly so as to make clumping Joan Crawford look better. And he judges that in a leading lady 'glamour seemed to matter less than spunk'. It's amazing to learn, incidentally, that the worldwide gross of Big Boy was not enough to cover Al Jolson's salary.

Smitten with the musicals of the past, Barrios is nevertheless unstuffy about those of the present. The late 1980s rapper Vanilla Ice even merits two mentions in the Index (under V). Barrios administers a stern ticking off to the modern TV campfest Glee for an 'abrogation of responsibility': it devoted too much time to 'the trifling oeuvre of Britney Spears' and missed a golden opportunity to educate its audience in the great tradition of musical cinema. But he delights in High School Musical and thinks, rightly, that South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is completely magnificent.

Along the way, he mentions some lost or underappreciated gems that make you immediately want to seek them out. Did you know that there was a Dr Seuss musical with the unimprovably enticing name The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T ? Or, Cecil B. DeMille's 1930 musical Madam Satan , a love-triangle story featuring a masquerade party set aboard a zeppelin, where chorines dressed as clocks sound the hour by striking themselves on the head, before lightning strikes and the heroine parachutes from the burning zeppelin and lands in a Turkish bath? …

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