- Free and Easy? A Defining History of the American Film Musical Genre by Sean Griffin
With his 2018 book Free and Easy? A Defining History of the American Film Musical Genre, Sean Griffin joins a long list of authors who have tackled the genre, from Rick Altman, whose 1987 text The American Film Musical is foundational, to Jeanine Basinger, whose The Movie Musical was published in November 2019. What separates Griffin’s book from the others is his central question: What constitutes a film musical? For decades people have routinely declared the musical dead and, as he discusses in his final chapter, it is especially relevant question in an era when we could debate whether online video productions and social media posts of amateur musical performances qualify.
Griffin, who teaches a musical film genre class at Southern Methodist University, challenges the reader to consider more than the post-World War II norm of the integrated musical, in which characters sing to share their feelings with others (think “You Were Meant for Me” from Singin’ in the Rain, 1952) or with themselves (think “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, 1939). This norm continued through a half century ago, when the failure of most post-Sound of Music roadshow musicals (Star! and Paint Your Wagon, among others) contributed to the death knell of the studio system. Chapter 9, “The Sound of Money: Musicals in the 1960s,” chronicles this phenomenon.
To help the reader consider the relative primacy of the integrated musical, Griffin provides a chronology of musical film, starting with the developing art forms and technologies that merged in the late 1920s. Minstrelsy and vaudeville coincided with operetta to form the theatrical musical of the 1920s, which included the landmark integrated musical Show Boat (1927). Simultaneously, cinema and the phonograph led to the advent of sound films, which Griffin presents as an age of experimentation.
The book’s title comes from Free and Easy (1930), a Buster Keaton comedy with a couple of musical numbers, the kind of film at the center of Griffin’s examination: Is it a musical? Griffin suggests that the genre has room for many intersections of song and dance and film, but explains in the middle chapters of the book about how the studios, particularly MGM’s Freed Unit, limited viewers’ ideas about the genre. Griffin writes, “The central aim of this volume is to argue that there has been far too much emphasis on the comfort of the familiar structure of the integrated musical, and not enough celebration of liberation from that definition” [page 8].
Much of the book is told in a chronology that reflects the histories of both the cinema and the United States: the earliest years of film musicals featuring revues and a glut of backstage musicals; Busby Berkeley’s experiments with a freed camera and showgirl bodies; the Production Code (Mae West out, Shirley Temple in); Depression-era optimism (“Pick Yourself Up,” “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”); the American Songbook composers’ work in film (Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin); the wartime flag wavers like Yankee Doodle Dandy and This Is the Army; and the Paramount Decision that marked the end of the major studios that served as movie factories for genres such as musicals. For a while in the 1950s and ‘60s, Broadway adaptations carried the day, but the massive success of The Sound of Music (1965) and others led producers to throw millions at the roadshow attractions, with their intermissions and entr’actes, which felt out of step with the Woodstock generation, and ever since then, production of filmed integrated musicals has been sporadic. Rather than leaving it that, Griffin takes the reader on a tour of how pop music continues to guide production of musicals - again, depending on your definition. This means that in addition to familiar titles like Jailhouse Rock (1957) and A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Griffin includes concert documentaries [End Page 92] (including 1970s’ Woodstock), as well as the MTV music...