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Leaving La La Land: A Radical History Of The Musical Film
Joel White , April 22nd, 2017 10:25

With Damon Chazelle’s La La Land released on DVD at the end of the month, we shouldn’t let its toxic reading of musical film history obscure the form’s politically radical manifestations, argues Joel White

Damon Chazelle’s La La Land, which comes out on DVD this month, is a bad film; a terrible, glittering pillar of technicolour nostalgia that fits our shitty little moment like a vintage white glove. Making this argument in April 2017 seems belated, as critical consensus has shifted from celebrating the film’s supposed homage to Hollywood’s “golden age”, to highlighting its white-saviorism, sexism, and misguided jazzsplaining. This critical eclipse played out with stark irony at the now infamous ‘Oscars Mix Up’ in February, with Chazelle’s film losing out for the Best Picture Academy Award to Barry Jenkins’ sublimeMoonlight. Yet the popularity of La La Land persists, and its appeal rests in part on its ability to capture the emotional and escapist power of the regularly maligned musical genre. While Chazelle’s ultimate message of “one day you could be glitzy star buying the coffee rather than the morose service worker serving it” couldn’t be a more damning indictment of the paucity of what ‘dreaming big’ means under capitalism, its wrapping up of such ideas in the comforting, fuzzy and cinematically impressive cliches of the musical film demonstrates at once the affective power of the form and the screaming shame of turning such a un-hinged, fantastical genre into perfect exposition of ‘capitalist realism’ (RIP Mark Fisher), the death of alternatives.

Chazelle’s relationship to the genre seems, like everything he “loves”, to cut out between 1955-65, as he pilfers classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routines, Singin’ In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, extolling Charlie Parker and bebop, but nothing much after (as Geoff Nelson argues in a piece for Paste Magazine this situates him before Jazz and Civil Rights became firmly linked). Like an Etsy Tarantino, substituting pulp violence and westerns for tap dance and painstakingly orchestrated set pieces, he brings a certain obsessive, male logic to the form; the remake or restage as a showy demonstration of cultural cataloguing and technological proficiency: he aims to impress. The film’s chintzy score plays a huge part in this warm bath of constructed familiarity, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the very genre of “Musical Film” is at fault here - haunted by a legacy of minstrel shows, marauding sailors and countless awful songs - but for all its horror (and there is plenty), an alternative history of cinematic musicals reveals the kind of explorations and tensions around gender, race, success, and yes, capitalism, that La La Land works to erase. Here we chart eight radical moments from the history of the musical film - in no way attempting to be comprehensive (Sorry, Hedwig And The Angry Inch), but instead considering a partial history of sonorous sedition, buried within this misunderstood genre.

1931 -The Threepenny Opera - G. W. Pabst - ‘Mack The Knife Reprise’

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Weimar era savaging of corruption and bourgeois morality, The Threepenny Opera - based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 - opened in Berlin in 1928, before being committed to celluloid in 1931 by G. W. Pabst. The play’s most famous song, ‘Mack The Knife’, focuses on the corrupt, murderous subterfuge of central antihero Mackie Messer, who unlike “a shark” does not show his “pearly teeth” while murdering and abusing his way from gangster to bank boss. The song’s history is itself a fascinating journey from the original Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect” - whereby a forced distance is created between the audience and actor, to encourage dialectic, intellectual engagement on the part of the spectator - and the emotionally charged renditions made famous by Bobby Darren, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, even ending up in a 1980’s Macdonald’s advert campaign featuring a singing moon called ‘Mac Tonight’. Pabst presents the original version of the song early in the film, channelling Brecht’s unemotional intentions by having it sung by a soap-box narrator to a high-street crowd in a dirge, accompanied by a painted flip-chart of Mackie’s crimes. The song is then reprised at the end, as the central characters reflect on the boundless solidarity of the rich and banking being the safest and most profitable form of crime:

“Though a man will fight his rival,
to fish the muddy depths,
in the end they’ll dine together
and consume the poor man's bread.
For some men live in darkness,
while others stand in the light.
We see those in the light,
while the others fade from sight.”

Pabst ends the film with a fade out of despondent protesters, backs to the camera as they walk out of a history unconcerned with their plight.

1934 - Jolly Fellows [Веселые ребята]- ‘Pan-flute / Animal Herding Scene’

Grigori Aleksandrov ‘s Jolly Fellows (also translated as Happy-Go-Lucky Guys, Moscow Laughs and Jazz Comedy) is widely considered the first Soviet musical. It centres around a musically talented shepherd named Kostia, played by Leonid Utesov, a veteran of the Leningrad theatre scene, who is mistaken for a famous Italian composer by an aspiring bourgeois singer. A wild, grotesque assortment of slapstick and comic song, it channels Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers along with a whole litany of Russian folk theatre and rural songs, and was attacked for a lack of proper ideological and narrative rigour by some in the Soviet establishment, but allowed a pass apparently because it made Stalin laugh so much. Though Aleksandrov enjoyed a thorny but not fatal relationship with the Soviet leadership thereafter, scriptwriters Erdman and Mass were arrested during the shooting of the film and spent the next decade in exile, while cameraman Vladimir Nilsen would be arrested and executed a few years later while shooting Volga-Volga, another of Aleksandrov’s comedies. That many central figures of the film ended up contradicting, in morbid irony, the central notion of the film, “If you sing your way through life/ You will never lose your way”, lends a certain extra punch to the film’s anarchic chaos.

A key scene in the film involves Kostia playing a pan-flute peasant song in a decadent bourgeois house, only to attract a herd of nearby animals, resulting in a glorious Rabelaisian feast of fools as social roles, plates and tables are upturned by the beasts. This spirit of revolt is mirrored throughout the film by the assent of servant girl Anyuta, a breakthrough role for Soviet film star Lyubov Orlova, whose beautiful voice finds her leaving farm life to join Kostia, whom she falls in love with, and his tumultuous band.
As the Russian Film Symposium’s ‘Camp Cinema Russia Style’ blog attests:

Jolly Fellows presents a musical utopia, where distinctions between high and low culture have been erased. Classical music is performed on the stage of a music hall, while popular music is performed at the Bolshoi. Jazz meshes seamlessly with the folk chastushki form, rubs elbows with Beethoven, and begins to make way for the new genre of mass song.”

1943 - Cabin in the Sky - ‘Honey in the Honeycomb’

"Little Joe : Petunia, is this really you?
Petunia : mmmhmm - but not the same me that used to break her back busting suds over a tub for you"

Cabin in the Sky was an early in all African American cast musical at a time when movie theaters in many cities, particularly in the southern US states, refused to show films with prominent black performers. Cinematically things had not progressed far from Al Jolson’s infamous blackface routines in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which as the first film to feature some spoken and sung audio, had entrenched a racist stereotype at the formation of non-silent cinema.

Ethel Waters as Petunia channels the contradicting struggles of a black woman caught up in the gambling, philandering and violence of her husband, and a set of racist, patriarchal social relations that implored her only to piousness and salvation through this husband, and God. One key scene sees her confronting the spluttering cheat head-on, celebrating the boundless love she has for herself and dancing with her husband’s would-be killer:

“There's money in the savings bank
And I personally guarantee
If there's honey in the honeycomb
Then, Baby, there's love in me”

Such moments stand out in what is still at times a shallow and stereotype-filled depiction of African American life, as Ethel herself explains in her 1951 autobiography His Eye Is On The Sparrow, in reference to her original role in the theatrical production: "I rejected the part because it seemed to me a man's play rather than a woman's. Petunia, in the original script, was no more than a punching bag for Little Joe. I objected also to the manner in which religion was being handled. After some of the changes I demanded had been made I accepted the role, largely because the music was so pretty. But right through the rehearsals and even after the play had opened, I kept adding my own lines and little bits of business to build up the character of Petunia."

The film is a good entry point into a marginalized and erased history of African American song on film, stretching from “Soundies”: short 16mm “’jukebox” musical films that featured black artists like The Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan at a time when feature films wouldn’t , to a succession of late 1940s Jazz films like The Duke Is Tops, Reet Petite and Gone, Hi De Ho, Jivin’ in Be-Bop, with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington turning up in Cabin in the Sky. Jazz here is a live and transgressive form open to diverse interpretations and improvisations - Petunia is rebuked early in the film by her husband during the film’s most famous song, ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’, for seemingly going “too far” with an impassioned scat - and trailblazing: the former routine also includes Bill Bailey doing the first recorded version of the Moonwalk.

It hardly needs stating this is a history entirely ignored by Chazelle, whose films (Whiplash and La La Land both) are not really about Jazz, but a particular obsessive white-boy reading of what Jazz should be, focused on “authenticity”, technique and white figures that fit such a typology like Hoagy Carmichael and Buddy Rich (neither of whom necessarily deserve such a legacy).

1955 - Guys and Dolls - ‘La Grippe / Adelaide’s Lament’

Even the musicals Chazelle purports to love have nuanced and satirical depictions of social life that he seems to have missed, and can be understood in radical ways. Singing In The Rain is nothing without the high-pitched bullish antihero of Lina Lamont, unforgettably played by Jean Hagen, who manages to impose her will in the face of a Hollywood boys club that sought to control every aspect of a female star’s image, and sound. Even after her eventual unmasking as a benefactor of invisibilized women’s labour, as the men of the film conspire to reveal her vocals are being dubbed by the placatable, golden voiced Kathy, Lina manages to sue and cash out of the arrangement. Her caustic speaking voice links to Vivian Blaine’s wonderfully satirical turn as Adelaide in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s version of the Broadway musical Guys And Dolls. Unable to get commitment or security from Frank Sinatra’s gambling gangster Nathan Detroit, she spends the film contemplating the physical and emotional difficulties constructed for independent, unmarried women in 50s America. This culminates in ‘La Grippe / Adelaide’s Lament’, a song that both mocks and finds solace in an academic text explaining the “psychosomatic” basis of her persistent cold. As a reflection on how illness and emotional wellbeing is gendered and socialised in ways that evade medical and psychological categorisation, it's pretty singular:

“You can feed her all day with the vitamin A and the bromofizz
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the trouble is.
From a lack of community property
And a feeling she's getting too old
A person can develop a big bad cold!”

1961 - West Side Story - ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’

West Side Story was a radical departure for a musical for its time, examining prejudice, abuse, immigration, bigotry and police violence, whilst giving us a few remarkably ACAB moments for a film that won 10 Academy Awards. It was directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, from a 1957 musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim; the latter four of whom were all gay, Jewish men that had been torn apart by the Mcarthyite House of Un-American Activities Committee: Robbins had named names, Laurents and Bernstein had both been blacklisted. Mistrust of the state and the law percolate through the production, and while it's the Puerto Rican Sharks gang that are the main target of racist policeman Officer Krupke, it’s the rival Jets who get to say “Krup You” to the cop in a stinging satire on liberal modes of justice. The gang play act various circular stages in the process of criminalisation, as one member is passed from a Judge who brands him “psychologically disturbed”, onto a “head shrinker” who brands him “sociologically sick”, and finally back to a social worker who decides that, “deep down inside him, he’s no good!” and sends the “punk” to jail.

The song was banned by the BBC for its discussion of drugs and alcoholism in the role of social exclusion, and finds the boys proclaiming, “It's not I’m anti social, its that I’m anti-work” and “No-one wants a fella with a social disease.” This, in the context of a film that also satirises how, "Life is all right in America. If you're all white in America" and ends with all the main characters killed, incarcerated or heartbroken.

1978 - The Wiz - ‘You Can’t Win’

The Wiz turned Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown’s black, resolutely funk version of The Wizard Of Oz into the most expensive film musical ever made at its time of release, featuring a dream, entirely African-American, cast and musical score featuring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, and many others. Sadly, the film was a commercial failure, offering an opportunity for Hollywood studios to retreat back to safe, white staples. Since then, it has deservedly become a cult classic, largely thanks to Michael Jackson’s singular turn as Scarecrow, and Diana Ross’ underrated Dorothy (she was derided at the time for being too old to play the part).

‘You Can’t Win’ is a stinging commentary on how white supremacy attempts to limit and control the scope of black liberation: the Scarecrow character is condemned as intellectually inferior, desperately lacking confidence, and made to internalize this pervasive racism through a repeated song led by a gang of crows. As a necessary antidote to the saccharine, fake meritocracy of La La Land, the song is unparalleled :

“You can't win
You can't break even
And you can't get out of the game
People keep sayin'
Things are gonna change
But they look just like they're staying the same”

When a 2015 NBC reboot of the musical met a chorus of tweets condemning its all black cast as “racist”, Dr Riana Elyse Anderson, scholar at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, mused on ‘You Can’t Win’s contemporary relevance :

“Are they talking about how even having a Black president doesn’t erase racism? Or how when Black folks strive for equitable treatment, they are ridiculed and told that they are complaining? Or that institutions or communities that serve primarily Black folks have disparities bigger than I have the time to outline here? [...] I guess I can’t win. It doesn’t seem like I can get even – responses to The Wiz were clear on that. And yet, I still have to play the game. Where are those shiny heels to clap when I need them?”

1986 - Little Shop Of Horrors - ‘Skid Row (Downtown)’

“How do we intend to better ourselves?! Mr when your from Skid Row ain't no such thing.”

Pretty much a whole musical of biting Marxist critiques on work, gentrification, gender violence, and the idea of the sparkling 1950s golden couple, Little Shop Of Horrors is about a man literally exploiting the bodies of his friends and neighbours to try and escape poverty, by feeding them to a giant plant, voiced magnificently by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs.

Opening number ‘Downtown’ laments the systemically mandated impossibility of escaping social relations which have the power to lock whole neighborhoods into cycles of low pay, bad housing, violence and deprivation. As the useless hero Seymour, played to a tee by Rick Moranis, sings:

“Poor, all my life I've always been poor.
I keep askin' God what I'm for.
And he tells me, "Gee, I'm not sure."
"Sweep that floor, kid!"

Director Frank Oz shot a 23 minute finale to the film which had to be cut for something ‘happier’ after negative audience reactions: in it, the marauding plant Audrey II eats all of the cast and takes over the world, with a final shot of the U.S. Army fighting the plants on the Statue of Liberty and Audrey II bursting through the film screen to eat the audience.

2001 - Buffy The Vampire Slayer - ‘Give Me Something To Sing About’

Skipping entirely the 1990s, ruled as they were by Disney, Footloose and the ever present fog of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s atrocious litany of biblical figures, cats and Jean Valjeans; we find ourselves at Joss Whedon’s infamous foray into the Musical form, Once More, With Feeling. The episode finds Sarah Michelle Geller’s monster-killing feminist icon and her friends compelled by an evil demon to break into extravagant musical numbers, earning a classic but marmite-like status amongst Buffy fans.Once More, With Feeling comes a third of the way through season 6, with Buffy negotiating a tricky transition to womanhood, care-giving and a precarious economic situation following the death of her mother, all after being ripped from Heaven herself and returned to the hellish earth of Sunnydale. Whedon plays hard with the way musicals use song to communicate otherwise buried or inexpressible sentiments, accelerating the season’s plot by having the characters reveal intimate emotional secrets.

It stands within the genre as a pretty singular reflection on how the invocation to express, perform, and feel can have oppressive, as well as liberatory potential, summarising the uneasy responses many people have to musical films themselves, as ‘escapist’, ‘fantasy’ or just plain ‘unreal’. Whedon breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, mocking the unnaturalness of spontaneous song and commenting repeatedly on how: “life’s a show and we all play a part, and when the music starts, we open up our hearts” taking us right back to Brecht, almost, and certainly in contrast to the emotional force-feeding of La La Land et al.

Buffy’s existential angst is prevalent throughout, in lines like “whistle while you work all day to be like other girls, to fit in this glittering world,” while the bleakness of final number ‘Give Me Something To Sing About’ is made clear: “'life's a song you don't get to rehearse, and every single verse can make it that bit worse”

This is a very different notion of ‘breaking through the form’ than post-modern musicals like Strictly Ballroom or Pitch Perfect, both of which focus on individual characters evading the rules of their chosen discipline (Ballroom, Acapella Singing) by sampling new, globalised forms to challenge the very tenets of that field. Instead, in Once More, With Feeling, we see the struggle to find agency at all in the face of wider structures of gender, family, friendship and social obligation - and the ambiguous role music and affect play at such moments, sometimes a useful trojan horse for critiques of power, but just as easily a vehicle for those very structures themselves to assert authority, with a smile.

In the year of the Buffy’s 20th anniversary, with La La Land still enjoying critical praise as an effective channeling of the ‘musical film’ form (if increasingly little else), an alternative reading of this regularly dismissed, underloved genre can remind us that one important message should always be:
“Don't give me songs, give me something to sing about”