Monday, August 1, 2011

Month of Movie Musical Moments

Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome.

August. Gosh, where have I been?  Did I not even bother dropping by here to complain about Transformers: Dark of the Moon?  Was my last post really about Weird Al?  So many questions.  So many answers I don't want to dwell on.

Point is, I'm back, and making a conscious effort to breath some life into this blog.  That's why I'm launching a month long project that ought to keep me (and you, right? right?) coming back on a daily basis.  Inspiration struck when I realized just how often my bored self ended up on youtube, revisiting my same favorite movie musical numbers time and again.  So I got to thinking what one might consider the greatest musical numbers on film, which lead to an entirely new debate of exactly how to define a musical number.

I've got some thoughts on each, and based on the criteria below, you'll be getting from me one full Month of Movie Musical Moments.

True to my favorite compulsion, this will be in list form.  A countdown from 31 to 1, saving, of course, the best for last.  Long and drawn out as this project is, that ought to ensure a healthy amount of speculation.

My thought process started out simple enough.  The chief criteria I had in mind from the outset was that these were first and foremost movie musical numbers.  That wasn't to say that stage musical adaptations had no place in the countdown, but it would surely be an up hill battle, especially with how lazy most theatrical imports are and have always been.  That brings us to rule one.

1. The Musical Number Must Be Cinematic. 
Difficult, perhaps, to distinguish from face value.  A number could take place on the stage (as a few of the songs to come surely will) and it could still feel like it belongs in a movie.  But by contrast, simply importing stage songs to a studio set and pointing the camera does not a classic number make.  Original movie musicals fair much better on my list, and indeed, in history itself.  So much can be accomplished through the lens of the camera and the eye of an editor, and the great movie musical doesn't take these tools for granted.  That being said, one of top 5 songs on my list comes straight from a stage musical, and it's a case where a director's singular vision actually elevates the stage number into something far greater.

2. Diegetic Music Only
That is to say, the music must be occurring within the world of the film.  This is done to eliminate montages from the running, which, honestly, could be a list for an entirely different month.  Granted, there are some murky cases (specifically when lyrics aren't involved), but my general rule is that so long as anyone is dancing in time to the music, then they must be hearing something in that cinematic world of theirs.

3. It's All About The Spectacle
While not every song calls for synchronized swimmers, we are talking about musical numbers here, and spectacle counts for something.  It's not about pageantry, although pageantry has produced many a movie marvel, but more for the spark, the spirit of adventure, the wonder, the glamour, and the general fascination with the fantastical.  Because that's what musical numbers are at their heart, flights of fancy, and cinema has means to carry these moments to heights impossible in musical theater.  Spectacle, or the unexpected, all the same to me.

4. When In Doubt, Opt For Inclusion
The final rule, in which I give myself free license to undo or ignore everything previously mentioned.  In attempting to draw lines in the sand to aid my in my selection process, things just kept getting murkier and murkier.  There's not a musical fanatic out there who could make a case against Bob Fosse's Cabaret, but does that not open the door for all night club acts?  If Liza and company are fair game, then why not any of the other great cabaret performances of cinema, some of which have a lethal dose of spectacle themselves.  I've made room for a few among these ranks.

Or dance sequences.  True enough, these are a hard sell, rarely rising above the category of filmed performances, but I simply can't see the difference between a beautifully photographed ballet sequence and the light-as-air Astaire/Rogers romps.  What of animation?  Does it have a place here?  Naturally, though narrowing a selection of those proved one of the most trying tasks of this whole project.

The only category that I seem to have shied away from are the more stripped down performances, the kind that appear to arise organically from their films, and thus feel natural, rather than fantastic.  My reasoning, feeble though it may be, is that they're not musical numbers in the sense that I've defined them.  They're instances of song breaking out quite naturally in the world, and (unlike the Cabaret example) they don't feel like performances, or at least not of the caliber that would admit them to these esteemed ranks.  Or maybe the truth is that with only 31 slots available, I simply couldn't cram any more in.  Some stellar examples of what I'm talking about here would include "Falling Slowly" from Once, "Take Me Home (Country Roads)" from Whisper of the Heart, "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's, "Whale of a Tale" from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie.

If I weren't so anxious to get this up and running, I might spend some time with honorable mentions.  But it's getting later, and I still want to get down to business on the first of my selections, so I'll just leave off with the lament that so many great showstoppers will be inevitable falling by the wayside.  Three movies will be gracing us with two spectacular songs, while countless others will have none, including one entire decade (from the 30s to the 00s), though honestly, that one shouldn't be too hard to guess.  Overall, I'd consider it a diverse mix, peppered with any number of numbers that are going to require some explaining on my part.  But therein lies the fun, while you roll your eyes and I swallow my pride, or as I prepare to dodge the dishes broken in outrage of my exclusion of several beloved classics.

Shall we dance?

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