Reality in Movies and Rules of the Genre

28 Mar

When La La Land came out, I must have read a half-dozen reviews that began with something akin to “I don’t usually like musicals, but…”. I confess, this actually scared me away from the film (perhaps unjustly), because I usually do like musicals (I love them!). But there was so much talk about the resistance people normally feel towards musicals that it started me thinking.

What is the usual charge against a musical? That it is not realistic. That people cannot buy the transition between normal talking to that moment when a character suddenly bursts into song. Some say they simply cannot take that level of artifice.

Which really struck me, because I had honestly never thought of musicals as being especially artificial. I thought that is what movies were all about: artifice. There is no such thing as true realism. It reminds me of a story I heard, about a man talking to Picasso on a train and complaining about how unrealistic his paintings were. Picasso asked the man what he considered to be realistic and the man showed him a picture of his wife. To which Picasso responded by asking if the man’s wife was really three inches tall and two-dimensional (I’ve paraphrased, because I do not remember the exact details of the story).

I think the point is that there are many ways of portraying reality. Reality has many layers. There is physical reality, emotional reality. And there are many ways to tell a story, convey emotion, reveal truth, and explore concepts. If all one did was watch real people go by, you would miss a lot. You would see what they look like, what they do, hear what they say, but you would not necessarily know what is inside of them. They would have to reveal that to you (and often mere words are not adequate). You would not necessarily grasp overarching ideas, feelings, philosophies and beliefs. That comes with expression…through mediums that are not always “real.”

Another thing that puzzled me about the reaction to musicals is that it seems to ignore the fact that every movie genre has its own set of rules and musicals are not unique in this way. I recently saw Pacific Rim. What’s the point of Pacific Rim? To watch machines punch giant sea monsters. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you probably won’t like Pacific Rim. It’s the same with a melodrama. A Bette Davis melodrama has specific rules. A horror film? Screwball comedy? A superhero movie? Fantasy? Every genre has certain rules, boundaries, expectations. A monster movie is criticized, not for its lack of plot, but for its lack of monsters.

Original Godzilla

So I guess my question is, why is the musical singled out? People don’t usually complain about ballet. Or silent films (well, there can be complaint about that). Opera? Stage plays? Poetry? Is Singin’ In The Rain really less realistic than X-MenShades of GreyMetropolisDark Victory, Hunger GamesLord of the RingsTerminator, or King Kong?

Though often a film can transcend its genre and rules, like Godzilla (or Gojira). I like the example of Godzilla, because on the surface it may just be a monster movie, a guy walking around in a rubber suit, but it is also so much more. An exploration of the horror of nuclear holocaust, trauma, and science.

Perhaps people feel that the musical is inherently inferior because musicals tend to be (though certainly are not always) upbeat and happy. But I think joy (which is perhaps best expressed through dance and song) is just as worthy of exploration as nuclear holocaust.

This topic has been a pet peeve of mine, so I apologize for the ranting tone of the post. 🙂 But I would like to know what you think? Do you find musicals unrealistic? Are there certain genres whose roles you have more trouble accepting? Do you love it all?


Posted by on March 28, 2017 in Movies


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21 responses to “Reality in Movies and Rules of the Genre

  1. Michaela

    March 28, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for a while and I just haven’t taken the time to do it yet, so this could get lengthy. My thoughts are this: no movie is truly realistic (except maybe documentaries). I’m not sure where this expectation of reality came from. That’s part of why I love classic Hollywood so much — they suspended belief on so many things and they were aware of it. One of the biggest complaints I hear about old movies from my classmates is that people fall in love with each other way too fast. They find it weird and laughable. Do people really fall in love after one day? Maybe not, but isn’t it nice to believe that it could happen? Doesn’t it get the movie rolling along, instead of drawing it out for two-plus hours?

    I loved La La Land. I truly hope it makes people realize that musicals are viable entertainment. However, there was a really interesting article I read (I’m kicking myself for forgetting where I found it) that pointed out that the filmmakers deliberately tried to make it as realistic as possible. The director even said that people wouldn’t believe it if Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone burst into song. But the article argued that people would believe it, especially lovers of classic musicals.

    Honestly, I just want happy, fun musicals to return. It’s important to look at social issues, yes, but we all need our Esther Williams/Gene Kelly/Judy Garland/etc. fix to keep us sane, especially now. Alright, rant over. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 28, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      As a ranter myself, I totally appreciate your thoughts! 🙂 And totally agree. Isn’t it odd how people constantly bring up the reality thing about films? I wonder where that came from?

      But the very success of La La Land does seem to show that many people really do like musicals. Perhaps if they made more happy musicals, as you suggest, they would find that there are a surprising number of people eager for it.

      The thing that made me hesitant about seeing La La Land was that I wasn’t sure how the singing and dancing would be. I was frustrated with the singing in Les Miserables, but what did you think?


      • Michaela

        March 28, 2017 at 12:22 pm

        Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the singing and dancing. (But I’m also huge fans of Gosling and Stone.) The songs were fantastic, too. I still get them stuck in my head all the time. The numbers were very well-done and there were a few moments where I actually got goosebumps — I won’t spoil it for you which moments those were. I will say, though, that I was expecting more numbers than there were. Other than that, I was totally satisfied with the musical aspect of it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 28, 2017 at 12:26 pm

          I will probably have to see it, then. 🙂 And perhaps if we all see it, they will realize that musicals are profitable and will make more musical, as you were saying !


  2. FictionFan

    March 28, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Hmm… interesting! Yes, I do find musicals unrealistic because of the whole bursting into song thing, but I still love lots of them. For me, they’re entertainment though, rather than being particulalry revealing about the human condition – they do so often tend to be frothy romances. But then I feel the same way about disaster movies or Die Hard stuff – great entertainment, not particularly meaningful. And nothing wrong with that! The major exception for me in terms of musicals would be Stephen Sondheim, who I feel transcends the genre quite often to actually cast a light on humanity… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 28, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      I have not yet had a chance to see/listen to much Sondheim, but will definitely have to. That is always a remarkable achievement when someone can transcend their genre that way.

      I so agree about entertainment! I think it’s a little unfair how musicals get singled out as being unrealistic, when so many other things are, too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Alba

    March 28, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    I really think is extremely telling of the society that we live in that we, as a group, find the notion of a couple of people bursting into song in the middle of the street, but are 100% able to accept as believable that there are a group of powered people that solve everything through punching. It’s really sad that violence, even impossible and fictional violence, is more accepted as common place than song.

    It’s a topic that fascinates me in the most twisted way possible. I’m a film lover, and I like a good movie regardless of the genre; singing in the rain, west side story and, yes, la la land are all good movies. So when people say to me (and I can attest that they do) “bfff, I just don’t like musicals, they are too unrealistic” I always wonder the same; they can’t buy into song and dance and yet they flock to see Batman v Superman (which is an awful movie to top it all)…

    Sorry for the rant. Great article, by the way

    Liked by 2 people

    • christinawehner

      March 28, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      Ranting is most welcome! I’m so glad to know there are others who feel strongly about this, too! 🙂

      That is a good point about fictional violence (and violence in general) being considered acceptable, considered more realistic, than song. My grandmother was telling me that when she was in high school, she and her friends would literally burst into song (because everyone knew the same songs)…that in a way it was completely natural. She compared songs to our facebook – the way people connected.

      But it is very encouraging that La La Land was such a success!


      • Alba

        March 28, 2017 at 12:56 pm

        Sure, song is integral to childhood, but for some reason its erradicated from our lives when we become adults…

        And I couldn’t agree more; La La Land’s success is great, let’s hope it helps get more musicals out there 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 28, 2017 at 3:45 pm

          I wonder if it’s how we listen to music now – often via earphones, which is a very private way to experience music. Could it be that music has become more private and less social?


    • Alba

      March 28, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      I really think is extremely telling of the society that we live in that we, as a group, find the notion of a couple of people bursting into song in the middle of the street *RIDICULOUS*

      …. I missed a key word …. note to self: never write in a hurry xD

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Eric Binford

    March 28, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    I think a movie is an artificial concoction. Regardless of the genre, when you watch a movie, you are entering a world of fantasy. Unless the movie is based on a true story, everything is game. Genres do come with certain expectations, but I love when a film challenges those expectations. For example, The Blues Brothers is not a musical but people burst into songs. I love Amélie (2001) precisely because the film doesn’t follow any rules. The Purple Rose of Cairo is another film that refuses to stick to one genre. Unfortunately, today’s obsession with realism makes very hard for any filmmaker to be inventive and gutsy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 28, 2017 at 4:06 pm

      Very interesting about an obsession with realism limiting one’s creativity! That’s true, realism doesn’t leave much room for one’s imagination to flow…at least fully. Even authors like Jane Austen – noted for her realistic stories – could write a wacky, farcical romance when she was younger.

      It seems like the more creative stuff is happening on TV or Netflix now, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Animation Commendation

    March 28, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Great post and as a musical lover, I have always wondered about the hatred of musicals by many. In particular, I’ve always wondered why most guys seemed to not like musicals. Like they’re fine with songs in the background and may even enjoy the songs playing in the background, but if it’s a musical and characters sing them, they find it irritating or annoying.

    So it’s not the fact that they hate songs, what is it then? I think it’s because they feel the song that the characters sing serve as a detour in the movie or musical and puts the plot on hold. Whereas we musical lovers know the songs are there to progress the plot as well as display characters’ emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 28, 2017 at 4:10 pm

      You make a great point about why guys may not like musicals as much! And maybe people who don’t like musicals think of songs differently or listen differently? Maybe they don’t think of it as primarily a means of conveying emotion? I know one person who says he does not like songs that are too emotional because he does not want to necessarily feel those emotions.

      Has it been your experience that people are more accepting of songs in animated films? It seems like a fair number of animated films are musicals…far more than life action.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Animation Commendation

        March 28, 2017 at 5:53 pm

        Well, animated films have the same sort of bias-ness against it: they’re considered “kid’s fare” by many and not looked at seriously. But even among those who do watch animated films, I know many who are also tired of the musical ones.

        But again, they’re upset with Moana, but perfectly fine with a movie like Tarzan where the songs play in the background. Again, I don’t know if it’s just because there is still stuff going on to see while the background songs are playing so they don’t notice them and that’s why they like them better? I dunno.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 28, 2017 at 8:35 pm

          Wow, that is really interesting. I was so naive that I never considered the difference between a film like Tarzan and Moana, song-wise, but I see what you mean.

          That is a shame how animated films are judged, like musicals, as less-than kind of films. I wonder if 50 years from now, people will look back and wonder how we could have so underappreciated animated films. Kind of how people now hold genres like Film Noir in much higher esteem than it was in the 1940s and ’50s.

          Liked by 1 person

          • The Animation Commendation

            March 29, 2017 at 6:31 am

            I hope so, but these live-action Disney remakes just seem to strengthen the idea that animated films are lesser. Hopefully in 50 years, we can change the mindset.

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              March 29, 2017 at 11:07 am

              That is frustrating. And what’s so sad is that I think these live-action remakes really just show that the original animated films had a certain magic that is lacking in the remakes.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Constance Rose Metzinger

    April 1, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Very interesting post, and I couldn’t agree more….joy certainly is as worthy of exploration as any other emotion. It often bothers me, too, when critics praise a really somber film and I wonder whether they liked just because it was so moody. Films that make audiences happy tend not to get as much recognition….and the same holds true with Academy Award winning performances. Usually only the actors who display anger, or other negative emotions, are praised for their “magnificent” performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      Oh yes! It seems seriously underestimated how much work it takes to do comedy or express joy or happiness. It’s like people assume that the projection of positive emotions must come naturally, like how people talk about Doris Day as if she were happy and perky all the time and that it doesn’t take any effort.



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