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Crisscrossing beams of light splinter a black Los Angeles night sky. Searchlights explode at a Hollywood benefit concert. A self-destructive screen idol wreaks havoc backstage, shattering glass and assaulting performers. As terrified dancers scream in the wings, a big band belts out a jazz number in the orchestra. Although this depiction could well have taken place in the real-life Hollywood of the twentieth century, what is described here is actually a scene from the 1954 musical film A Star Is Born. When the out-of-control screen idol staggers onstage (in the film), chaos ensues. Using distorted, erratic images and camera angles, the film allows the audience to experience the idol’s inebriated point of view with unbalanced hand-held shots. Fans gasp and studio moguls cringe until a performing jazz singer (played by Judy Garland) dances the drunken star out of the spotlight. A Star Is Born is a musical; however, its pervasively bleak tone and shadowy aesthetic more closely simulate the visual style of film noir. Presenting the disturbing story of Hollywood fame driving an eclipsed star to suicide, the narrative unfolds not with the lighthearted singing, dancing, and happy endings of the typical “musical,” but instead cloaked behind the stark noir lens and even literally in the shadows, as suggested by a camera pan to silhouetted figures caught in struggle. This complex film strains against tidy categorization. Its darker variation on the musical is staged and shot like a musical, but in a distinctly noir vein. Gilda, on the other hand, from 1946, is a film noir on its face, but in blending musical production numbers into its classical noir framework, it becomes another film, like A Star Is Born, that defies conventional definitions. In it, a chapter one The Noir Musical 2 m us ic i n t h e s h a d ow s distraught nightclub proprietor hears a bluesy arrangement from the stage downstairs . He peers through venetian blinds, voyeuristically watching the show—a striptease-like number. With a spotlight illuminating her, seductive Rita Hayworth sings and dances alluringly and then tosses her hair as a jazz ensemble plays to wild applause. Although its brooding style and storyline make Gilda a noir film, it is arguably most recognizable for its musical performances and is therefore in many ways also a “musical” film. In this book I investigate the seemingly unlikely connection between the musical genre and the shadowy world of 1940s and ’50s film noir as well as how cinematic genres evolve in relation to cultural history. The atmospheric world of the “noir musical” was characterized by smoke, shadows, and moody strains of jazz and blues. When we compare this characterization to what we traditionally think of as a musical, we will see where “noir” and “musical” intersect. Storylines involved antiheroes—tormented performers and musicians—battling obsession and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. They struggled equally with their art and with their ill-fated love triangles. Thus, these dark 1940s and 1950s noir musical films strayed from the norms of more typical musicals. Their plots uncovered what was happening backstage, contradicting the glamour onstage. What was supposed to stay in the shadows in unvarnished backrooms emerged into the spotlight. Extraordinary films like Blues in the Night (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), Gilda (1946), Black Angel (1946), The Man I Love (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), Young Man with a Horn (1950), A Star Is Born (1954), Young at Heart (1954), and Love Me or Leave Me (1955) pulled back the curtain to expose the seamy underside of ambition, performing, and stardom. At first glance, film noir and the musical appear to be diametrically opposed in terms of atmosphere, lighting, character motivation, and moral outlook. But earlier realistic dramas with thematic connections to music act as preludes to the noir musical. Although the classic Hollywood musical has been stereotyped as sentimental “let’s all put on a show” escapist fare, films about musical performance , such as Applause (1929), Broadway (1929), and Bolero (1934), have from the very beginning handled some heavier subjects. A unifying aspect has been the use of jazz. Film noir was noted for its smoky jazz nightclubs, risqué musical performances, and duplicity also iconic of show business of the time. Just as film noir embraced jazz, a series of dark musicals invoked noir conventions. Even some of the earliest films about show business and musical performance, in which the protagonist suffers failure or heartbreak...


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