- Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity, and Mayhem
Histories of American film musicals tend to focus on the genre’s glory days—times when Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Vincent Minelli, and Hermes Pan created magical musical moments on the screen. Such histories implicitly endorse a “declension theory” of the film musical: the genre peaked both artistically and financially during a golden age of Hollywood, and then precipitously declined during the 1960s. In Destabilizing [End Page 80] the Hollywood Musical, Kelly Kessler does not argue that post-1950s musicals like Paint Your Wagon 1969 are on a par with Singin’ in the Rain 1952, but she does explicitly reject the declension theory, takes seriously those film musicals produced between 1966 and 1983, and works through why post-1950s musicals differed from their predecessors. Accordingly, she argues, different does not necessarily signify “bad.”
Kessler has organized her book thematically rather than in a strictly chronological fashion. After the introduction, each of four chapters provides a wide overview of a variety of films relating to broad topics: the shift away from narrative utopia; realism versus idealism; the new stars in these new musicals; and the place of men in musicals. Nearly each chapter then concludes with an in-depth case study of a particular musical such as Zoot Suit 1981, Tommy 1975, and Hair 1979. Finally, an extended epilogue begins to explore film musicals of the late 1980s through the early 2000s.
The introduction outlines what Kessler calls the early, “arcadian” period of film musicals between the 1920s and 1950s, a time when heterosexual romance and idealized communities dominated the form. As Kessler and the other film historians she cites have noted, song, dance, and music in these arcadian musicals provided the means through which characters and communities resolved their differences, resulting in (obligatory) happy endings. This early history is important because it allows Kessler to define post-1965 musicals as “ambivalent.” This ambivalence emerges from the unsettled time period, shifting ideas about masculinity and how to perform it, and the relationship these later films had with the presumed functions of music, song, and dance within the genre itself. Ambivalent musicals more often than not seem to reject one of the most important genre rules of arcadian musicals: song and dance rarely leads to a happy ending and heterosexual closure. Instead, endings are ambiguous, if not downright depressing, and the boy barely gives the girl a second glance.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Kessler is particularly interested in the place of men in ambivalent musicals, and indeed she generally ignores the ways in which women fit within the films she considers. While it is true that these films often subvert the traditional boy-meets-loses-finds-girl narrative of arcadian musicals, given that Kessler’s book is the first in-depth study of musicals from the 1960s–1980s, approaching the films from the wider perspective of gender, rather than the more specific concern with masculinity, might have provided even more insights into the ways in which these films were ambivalent about their position as musicals, as well as the changing roles of men and women more broadly. That said, Kessler’s examination of the new male stars of new musicals and the ways in which violent, ‘manly’ behavior, rather than song, [End Page 81] dance, and romance, emerged as the primary mode for masculine emotional release, highlights the ways in which the film musical as a genre was changing.
Another strength of the book is Kessler’s analysis of the historical, cultural, and social shifts —in the United States generally but also within a Hollywood that had abandoned the studio system—that resulted in new types of movie musicals. Kessler makes the point that it is impossible to examine and cogently analyze the creative choices made in films such as Godspell 1973—everything from narrative structure, set design, and the deployment of song and dance—unless one understands the context in which these films were made.
Yet while Kessler is clearly very well versed in film...