by Gina Sestak
The theme of the month is things for which we are thankful.
Everyone who's been reading my posts for the last few years knows I love movies, so it's a no-brainer that I'm thankful for cinema magic. What you may not know is that my very favorite form of film is the musical, so I guess I'm thankful for those most of all.
Huh? you may ask. Aren't musicals kind of silly? I mean, people breaking into song in public places, suddenly dancing in the street and wearing fancy costumes. That's not realistic!
So who said movies have to be realistic? The characters on film change size from tiny little ants seen from a high-set window to massive faces speaking at us from the screen. They travel in a matter of seconds from LA to London or the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of North Africa. One person can age 30 years in minutes, be born, grow up and die before we finish eating half that tub of popcorn.
Movies are not realistic. They are works of art, and musical sequences add a subtext of emotion that may be difficult, if not impossible, to express solely through dialogue.
[Unfortunately, I had trouble importing youtube videos into this post, so you'll have to click on the links to view the musical interludes mentioned below.]
I first realized I loved musicals when I saw Oliver!, the song-and-dance version of Oliver Twist. Watch how this scene captures the young orphan's wonder at the bustle of London life, while keeping Dickens' focus on the contrast between poverty and wealth. Spectacular, isn't it? Can you imagine replacing it with dialogue?
Oliver: It's nice to wake up in a clean room instead of with those other kids at Fagin's.
Servant: Just look out the window. [Scene of people hawking wares in street.]
Oliver: Wow. Having money really makes a difference, even though there are a few things money can't buy.
Doesn't have the same magic, does it?
My favorite film of all time is Reefer Madness - The Movie Musical. No kidding. This version of the 1930s anti-drug movie is a hilarious satire that questions both the dictates of a misinformed government and the power of manipulated peer pressure. Not to mention featuring one of the most extreme reactions to a toke imaginable, when innocent high school student Jimmy is lured to the reefer den with the promise of a dance lesson. Watch this. [Warning - it's a bit risque, with near nudity and sexual content. If you think you'd be offended, please ignore this link.] If you really want to be offended, watch this one, too. If you prefer something tame and literary, or would like to see what Jimmy was like before encountering the evil weed, try this.
Then there's Mamma Mia, the story of a woman who comes face to face with her past when old friends and lovers come to attend her daughter's wedding. Here's a sample, full of infectious exuberance. [Oops. That's kind of risque, too, but only a little. Blink when Christine Baranski takes the red flower out of the vase and you'll miss it.] Who would have thought Julie Walters (Ron's mom in the Harry Potter films) could move like that? Or Meryl Streep?
Lately, I've been getting into Bollywood films, one of the more extreme versions of the movie musical. The incomprehensibility of the lyrics bothers a word-oriented English-speaker like myself, but the amazing dancing more than makes up for that. Witness the following sequence from Dil Se, a serious movie in which a radio reporter (played by Shah Rukh Khan, the guy in the red jacket) falls in love with a mysterious woman who has a dangerous secret. I originally saw this video playing on a screen in an Indian restaurant, and didn't realize it was from a film. My first thought was, "Those people are out of their minds!"
My current favorite Bollywood film is Om Shanti Om (click this link to watch the trailer), which pokes fun at films and stardom but has a wonderful (albeit strange) story line of love and loss, murder and justice, death and rebirth. It was hard to pick something from it to link to - I like it all. There's a long party scene in which many of the stars of Indian cinema make cameo appearances, and a hilarious music video called The Pain of Disco. I finally decided to include this sequence, in which a Bollywood bit player (Shah Rukh Khan again), who has a major crush on a superstar, imagines himself in her latest movie. I really like this silly stuff.
What's all this got to do with writing? you've probably been wondering. A lot. There's more to writing than putting words down on a page, or crafting an accurate description. We have to convey emotion, too, and make our words do the work of the performers in these videos. Our words have to sing and dance and act upon the emotions of the reader. That's what separates well-written prose from a traffic report, in my humble opinion.
So, how do you feel about musicals? Love them? Hate them? Please comment below and, if you like musical movies, what is your favorite? Why?