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The Musical Problem

Tuesday 14 May 2013, 12:47

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

Why is it that so many people say they have a problem with musicals. Is it really harder to buy in to than any other genre of cinema?

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    Comment number 1.

    I just do not like the the singing, the dancing and the music, in musicals

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    Comment number 2.

    When I was a child my dad taught me, to my mother's dismay, that musicals were of the devil and needed to be avoided at all costs. As such the only musical I ever watched, until last year, was the 1960s film adaptation of West Side Story at school which, in honour of my father, I made no attempt to enjoy. This all changed when I decided to take the plunge and see Les Miserables in the cinema. To the shock of both my parents, I found the experience rather enjoyable, with the film only being let down by a brief stall in the second act rather than the relentless singing. Although I still treat musicals with a degree of apprehension, I feel like a great weight has been lifted and that an entire avenue of cinema is now open to me which had previously been locked off.

    As for sci fi, I can find a way past noises in space most of the time, but what I really can't stand is teleportation as a mode of transport. The suggestion is that you're torn to pieces in one place and rebuilt swiftly in another, which negates the fact that you must be killed at the start of the process and an exact replica is rebuilt at the other. The copy will act in an identical way and have your memories but your consciousness will surely have died with the first body and a completely separate one will have been created in the second.

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    Comment number 3.

    People talking one moment and bursting into song the next moment is absurd. It's silly, and it breaks the illusion of cinema. I don't particularly like plays for the same reason, because I can never immerse myself in them like I can a film. To me, it's a bunch of people standing in an artificial space pretending to do something. I don't get that with my favourite films.

    The only 'musicals' I can sit through are the rock n roll ones, which would only loosely fit into the definition. E.g. Jailhouse Rock, Rock N Roll High School. I like those because of Elvis and the Ramones, not because they're musicals.

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    Comment number 4.

    I'm a huge fan of musicals. Huge. Always have been but I do understand people's problem with it- not the suspended disbelief in regards to the numbers but rather the genre as a whole. I personally hate swords and sandals movies- ancient Rome; middle earth; Knights of the Round Table and all of that. It's not that I don't recognise the films as great pieces of work I just don't get on with the genre. Just like I don't get on with Irish folk music- there's nothing wrong with Irish folk music, it just ain't for me. I doubt you'd find many right-thinking people who dislike musicals as whole, just because of the probability that the characters would really burst into song...

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    Comment number 5.

    I don't like musicals (with the obvious exception of Rocky Horror) but that's probably related to working in the orchestra pit for far too many amateur productions!

    I don't have a problem with any genre in particular but do have a problem with the writers taking liberties. This is a cross genre problem although Sci-Fi, fantasy and horror seem to suffer from it more than most.

    For example, Snow White and the Huntsman. I will accept a world with magic and dwarves and monsters and heroes and evil witches, etc. I will not accept that Snow White has spent that many years in a tiny cell without looking out of the window and spotting a large rusty nail. I will not accept her level of physical fitness after that many years of porridge. I will not accept that she can ride a horse and handle a sword that well and having spent a decade or so in the slammer.

    I will believe the big things without question, it's the little things that bother me.

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    Comment number 6.

    Well exaplained Mark, I couldn't agree more with your comments here.

    I have to say thought, I often do have a problem relation to the content of science fiction pictures. This is why it's not my favoured genre; I'd rather watch a musical.

    I love realism in cinema; epic dramas and tales of crime suit me best. However, to conradict myself once more, I love cinematic surrealism (Bunuel's work in particular) and as you said, this why cinema is so special, boundaries of realism can always be broken.

    For me, musicals are like any other genre of cinema and should be equally appreciated and watch intrinsically by any movie lover.

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    Comment number 7.

    I don't have a problem with any genre unless Richard Curtis Movies counts as a genre. My girlfriend has a problem with any movie that has a poster/cover with a white or light background and pink/red text.

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    Comment number 8.

    To be honest it's easy to say you don't like musicals when in fact you probably do. Do I like The Sound of Music? No. Will I watch Les Miserables? No. Neither of them interest me. But yet I regularly watch Tommy, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Cannibal The Musical, and Evil Dead The Musical. So what is my response when someone dumps all musicals as one and asks if I like musicals? I say no.

    Cinema, for me, is about release. It's about spending 2 hours in a different place. My preference is that this place usually involves lots of blood and gore or occasional some intergalactic travel. What I don't want from the experience, the majority of the time, is to spend two hours in a world where everyone breaks into song at every opportunity.

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    Comment number 9.

    I actually think this is a really interesting question and I don't think it's a little bit deeper than people simply saying that I don't like them because that's not what happens in real life. I think it is honestly to do with genres simply falling out of popular favour due to over saturation and something more nuanced which is that it simply feels out of time with the world we were living in.

    As you point to there was a time when the musical genre was HUGE with big studios tent-polling themselves with musicals. Crucially this was a post-war thing where moral was low and going to the cinema was like be transported away from the horrors of WWII. Between the war years and Oliver! in 68 it would seem wrong if a musical wasn't a Best Picture nominee.

    Of course because they are so popular they crank them out regardless of quality because it is what the audience wants and soon they fall out of favour with more dramatic work of the late 60s to 70s replacing them. So it's just a case that the light uplift and romanticism of musicals simply fails to capture the zeitgeist and they date very, very quickly. It's only when that formula is subverted and brought crashing into a modern day to reflect it's tensions as with Bob Fosse's Cabaret and All That Jazz and later Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! that people begin to excited by a genre that became stymied by the same conventions being rehashed over and over again.

    We have simply grown out of it. What is odd about Les Miserables is how bizarrely old fashioned and conservative it feels, sure there are great sweeping vistas and close ups but behind that there are the same old theatrical conventions of musicals that just don't work anymore because things like: characters not recognising one another just because they wearing a hat or don't have a beard, the implausibility of the plot played with a completely po-faced expression might have worked before it doesn't quite work now and it feels more than a little anachronistic.

    Or simply put: it's a societal, audience appetite thing.

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    Comment number 10.

    To follow up other genres died out also because we'd seen them and no one was doing any different or the messages and values of that genre weren't a match with zeitgeist i.e. Westerns and Melodrama

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    Comment number 11.

    I have no problem with musicals - I utterly loved Les Miserables, and was shocked to find how many people found it self-indulgent and soppy. I'm normally very cynical, especially against the French, so I was expecting to hate it, but it completely won me over. The cast were phenomenal, including Russell Crowe who, though he can't sing, played a suitably egotistical Javert. My only gripe is that I hate musicals where the singing is needless. There were points in Les Mis where I laughed just from insignificant lines being sung, such as "and I'm Javert" or simple yes's and no's. It was unnecessary and didn't allow the film much room to breathe, let alone the cast.

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    Comment number 12.

    I thought I didn't like musical but do love the south park, team america and monty python films, but this is probably because they add to the humour. But what really hate are films where they sing at each other in lieu of speaking or gangs using dance to settle their differences in that arrogant hip hop chest pouting way, while girls swoon and dance around in fountains etc etc...

    I also have a problem with film that have superhero kids or secret agent kids, kids saving the world. I've always dislike these films even when I was in the right age bracket for them. There's something extremely irritating to me.

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    Comment number 13.

    I enjoy musicals - one of the earliest I ever saw was Cabaret, and not the movie - that came a year or so later. There was a production of it happening nearby and looking for any excuse as a shy 12 year old to not go home, I went and got my first job helping out there with the sets, the costumes and the props. I was also allowed to stay and watch the performance every night, and it utterly entranced me. Maybe it was the heady rush of knowing I'd had my part to play in getting it onto the stage, but there was something about it.

    That said, I believe in some regards that is the defining snobbishness that comes with musicals. They are, or were, in many cases theatre productions first "Darling". And that still comes replete with a sort of social stigma that is taking a very long time to wear off (and most of those prejudices don't really hold up in the cold light of the 21st Century). The suspension of disbelief is something we do in movies, TV shows and video games all the time, every single day of our lives now (seriously, do you think it's realistic that everyone in soaps is trying to cheat on or kill someone?). I think there's no big leap from the idea of demonic possession and haunting to the idea someone could hear music and sing along to it, especially in the modern era with secret earphones and bluetooth and whatnot.

    This said though, I can't leave without mentioning "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling". Which was an award-winning episode of the TV series, and even went on to have its own touring production for some years with an ever-changing cast. But there are those who found the set-up a step too far; "Unrealistic and patronising" said one critic.

    Right, because the tale of a young woman who was born to battle vampires and demons to prevent them opening a hellmouth and wiping out the town of Sunnydale alongside a reformed demon, a British librarian watcher, a witch with massive magical powers and her lesbian witch lover and a carpenter who is in love with the reformed demon was all so realistic and believable, right? So the idea a suave, smooth-talking demon may come along and curse people into performing cheesy musical numbers day and night to sing about the things they wouldn't otherwise admit to was such a massive leap!

    I just don't buy the suspension of disbelief when you're already suspending it beyond normal reason. People hum and whistle every day, mouth along to the music on their MP3 Player or the radio, some even do burst into song in the middle of a park (although admittedly, last time that happened nearby it was a charity thing and good on them too!). There's something about musicals that just does seem to be... I think the term is "camp", and that - especially for men - makes it harder to be seen attached to, or liking.

    It's a stupid prejudice. But then, people sit down and enjoy Britain's Got (Questionable) Talent. In some ways, forgetting it's a modern musical in a large sense, songs peppered with variety acts and set-up dramatic scenes to the backdrop of a cheering and booing audience. So maybe some people aren't quite as prejudiced as they think they are, and just say it to somehow avoid that social stigmatisation.

    It'd be worthy of a documentary really. BBC4. On a Friday night.

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    Comment number 14.

    Suspension of Belief

    Surely the key to a believable story is having something you can empathise with? Primarily this about having identifiable characters but this also applies to the world a story inhabits. If there are surreal sequences then we want them to be in a world of magic or a dream sequence. If we have space/time travel we want it to be in the future or some kind of parallel universe.

    The most popular stories (think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star wars or Star trek) often include fantastical elements but they're in a world that we can believe in. It requires a certain amount of imagination on our part but stories still need to have characters that react in a way we'd expect and organisations or political systems that we can imagine existing in the world they occupy.

    Musicals often don't do this unless they're set in a theater or through dream sequences. Two examples that come to mind are the musical episodes of Buffy and Scrubs, using a singing-inducing demon and a head injury to explain the singing.

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    Comment number 15.

    I wouldn't say I love musicals, but I do love some films which happened to be musicals, just as I love some films which happened to be comedies, dramas, thrillers, horror movies or pieces of science fiction. Unless it's a documentary, cinema is generally about escapism and suspension of disbelief and that's why I was completely engaged by Les Misérables in the same way as Life of Pi, Argo and most of the other Oscar-nominated films from last year.

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    Comment number 16.

    Hi there Dr Kermode,

    My problem with the musical genre as a whole, but specifically in cinematic adaptations, are formal, not at all due to their fictive worlds. For me their is an intense weakness in an artform that is pretty much a merging of Opera, Vaudeville theatre and stage dramas. The main result of this merging is the mish-mash, mix of bit-parters. For example, Phantom of the Opera is pretty much as close to a full blown opera as possible in a musical: but it ain't.

    I won't disagree that musicals can be great entertainments and can be enjoyable. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a bloody good film, and show. I just feel that as an artform, they MUST be self-conscious to succeed. They must be aware of the part-pantomime formal nature of their expression. They are shows for people who aren't amazing singers, dancers or actors. Tim Minchin is a perfect example: can't sing, can't dance, can't act, yet he was a massive success.

    I am not a formalist, I just feel that - for me - they lack what a great film/novel/poem/play/opera/song have the capacity to express: an almost unlimited amount of human emotions.

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    Comment number 17.

    I don't have a problem with musicals per-se, it's more the stories that they, by and large, tend to tell. I have no intention of watching Les Mis simply because period pieces bore me. I wouldn't watch painfully sweet Disney-teen-nonsense at the best of times so the addition of grinning idiots singing their way through such a painfully generic high-school storyline would only make it more unbearable.
    However I love Rocky Horror, quite liked Cabaret and adore the South Park movie (for my money, THE best musical). It just feels like, if the story isn't going to engage me, why can't I just listen to an album of all the songs in the musical?

    My litmus test is generally, if this film wasn't a musical (and was just the story) would I still be interested in watching a film of it? For example, Silence of the Lambs is one of my all-time favourite films and there's currently a musical (which started out as a youtube joke) playing on Broadway called Silence! The Musical. From what I've seen of it, it's utterly fantastic and I'd happy sit through a cinematic version of the musical. If there were more comedy, sci-fi, horror etc musicals I'd like them a lot more.

    Or to put it another way, it's not musicals as a genre I have a problem with, it's the genres musicals tend to operate in.

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    Comment number 18.

    It's not that I don't like musicals--in fact, it turns out that I love them (ranging from more traditional musicals such as Singin' in the Rain and Fiddler on the Roof to rock musicals like Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise)--I just found Les Misérables to be a turgid mess of a film. Horribly shot, pretentious, and lacking any sense of musicality period, it just goes to show that no matter how poorly made and generic can a film be, if it's a typical musical and features an ensemble cast, the public will love it.

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    Comment number 19.

    It's one of the best questions you've put up here. For some reason I do have a problem with musicals, even though I watch them. For example, my favourite is Sweeney Todd. I haven't yet had the chance of seing Les Mis but I have a feeling I will like it because I love the source material and its seems to be more of an opera than a movie, when you see the trailer. Still, the people bursting into song and dance suspends my suspention of disbelief, in a way that a guy flying in its pijamas does not. Somehow, for me it has the same effect through sound that 3D has through image! About the second part of the question, I love sci fi and horror or mithology films, even those like star wars that aren't physically accurate, but if I have a problem with them or not depends on the movie itself. In some, I like them so much I let it go or don't even notice the first time I see it. In others, if the plot sucks or I can't connect with the characters, I don't excuse any detail. Having said all of this, I don't think I've actually answered your questions, but there you go...
    Have a good one, Doc.

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    Comment number 20.

    I can just about understand people for whom musicals just aren't really their thing, but people who actively dislike them baffle me. I've never once heard a convincing argument against them. Usually said arguments just make me want to tie the person down and force them to watch Phantom of the Paradise.

    And that's the hell of it.


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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