There’s a reason author Jeanine Basinger’s books are so thick: they’re filled with classic film knowledge and analysis you won’t find anywhere else. Whether it’s deconstructing star personas or the marriage movie, every one of Basinger’s tomes is clearly written, for both the novice and the expert, and comprehensive. Her latest, simply called The Movie Musical, is an expansive, all-encompassing work that examines the musical from every conceivable angle you can think of.
Movies have always relied on sound, even if they started out as silent features. As Basinger notes in her opening, whether it was via live orchestra or music played on the set, there’s always been sound involved in the picture-making process. A key question Basinger sets out to answer throughout the book’s 656 pages is “what constitutes a musical?” Is it just a movie with sound, like a silent? Is it only when someone spontaneously bursts into song? Using a chronological layout, Basinger will look at how the musical started in the early ’30s and the attempts directors have made throughout the decades to do something new with a genre that seems pretty clear-cut.
It’s hard to describe a visual medium like film, even more so when you’re describing singing and dancing yet Basinger does it all with aplomb. She gives you a crash course in the good, the bad, and the weird of the movie musical. You’ll have more than enough movies to watch after reading this. What’s great is how she looks at the various subgenres of the musical, from the biopic – generally popular in the ’30s and ’40s involving composers or figures of the great American songbook – to the backstage musical (there’s a whole section on 1954’s A Star is Born). As the ’50s would give way the desire to not be directly associated with Hollywood took over, leading to movies like Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris (1954) or The Sound of Music (1965). Every movie referred to by Basinger gets explication of how it employs music, charting where it diverges from the conception of the musical that came before it.
While the basic premise of the book is to deconstruct the musical narrative, Basinger also explores musical stars, both the successes, the failures, and the flukes. Major players like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Judy Garland all warrant their own section, but what’s more fascinating is the spate of names who never became famous, like the Dan Daileys and Virginia O’Briens. Stars like Esther Williams, Sonia Henie, and Belita are also spotlighted because even though they don’t sing in their features, their narratives all revolve around the integration of dance and music.
And even in examining the triumphs of the musical Basinger takes time to look at the flaws of the genre. A large section is devoted to African American musicals, several of which existed during the silent era. She devotes time to the Nicholas Brothers and other Black performers, always reiterating that Hollywood never gave them enough screentime before their internalized racism. It’s not a denigration of these fantastic movies but a criticism we need to always acknowledge as classic film fans.
The Movie Musical is essential! A must-buy for the classic film fan or musical lover in your family. Buy it along with Jeanine Basinger’s other wonderful books. One of the year’s best!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.