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.
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-Men, Shades of Grey, Metropolis, Dark Victory, Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Terminator, 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?