The Modern Musical [June 11-15, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — Georgia State University
June 07, 2012 – 18:08
Monday, June 11, 2012 - John Trenz (University of Pittsburgh) presents: From Red Boots to African-American Roots: Footloose as a Modern Dance-Movie Musical
Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - Carol Vernallis (Stanford University) presents: Music Video and the Audiovisual Turn
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - Nilanjana Bhattacharjya (Colorado College) presents: Is Bollywood Still Producing Musicals? (Have They Ever?)
Thursday, June 14, 2012 - Beth Carroll (University of Southampton) presents: Gestalt in Dancer in the Dark
Friday, June 15, 2012 - Kelli Marshall (DePaul University) presents: Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages, Giving Until It Hurts
Theme week organized by Darcey West Morris (Georgia State University).
Image from Rock of Ages.
Footloose 2011’s opening celebrates the 1984 original by mimicking its cultural reality as a reproducible myth. Footloose ‘84’s opening isolates “Footloose” to the soundtrack set to a purely music-video style montage of dancing feet prior to any story world drama. The 2011 party, announced by a disc-jockey over the production company logos, evokes the way real teens have related to “Footloose” as a shared cultural text: something to dance and sing along to, watch, and perform as or like a staged musical (1998). But this Footloose sells out real teens as privileged and irresponsible for dramatic pretenses of realist, to-the-bone blues reform.
Both versions use MTV-style editing, pop rock and hip-hop infused songs and dancing, and a classical folk narrative to reconstruct the musical into a modern form more familiar to contemporary audiences (Jane Feuer). But Footloose ‘11 constructs a mythic perspective upon cultural division in the rural south through a discourse that substitutes nostalgia with mourning. Footloose ’84 mimics the freestyle culture of break-dancing exhibited with the athletic pop of Gene Kelly musicals. Footloose ‘11 portrays hip-hop as modern folk to legitimate its pastiche to class politics of 1980s dance-movies but amplifies the drama artificially in black and white stereotypes.
Ariel acts out her sexual deviance through hip-hop dancing. Ariel’s transformation from red boots to passive femininity in a prom dress signifies the reconciliation of working class and elite community. But the film completely isolates the youth and working-class black men from the elite at the myth-made cotton gin prom. In the original, Ariel’s parents surreptitiously watch over the prom from a visible distance and reflect upon their own courtship, “almost dancing”; nostalgia is their own song. I think audiences and the stage show negotiate similarly a nostalgic courtship with Footloose through recognizable songs that easily transcend the film.
Footloose ‘84 rehearsed resistance to deindustrialization by making professional song technologically-stable and everyday-dancing performative. Reverend’s use of the bible parallels Ren’s own, but Ren does not preach from a legitimate stage. Ren rehearses what Moore does as a preacher for political purposes. This somewhat is the essence of modern dance-movie-musicals. They allow audiences to experience the musical in a way that admits the technological distance of film from reality/liveness. Footloose ‘11 kills the empowering sense of celebrating entertainment as/in everyday reality (from a real distance). It uses everyday dancing as a mythical realm for professionals to legitimate entertainment as real instead.
MTV’s launch was thirty years ago. Music video has since undergone shifts in technologies and platforms. It has seen periods of intense cross-pollination with other media, financial booms and busts, and changing levels of audience engagement. While music videos hit a low point at the start of the new millenium, they have reemerged as a key driver of popular culture. This resurgence resembles MTV’s first moment: it’s again worth asking what music video can do and where it fits.
To really know music video we’d have to study this thirty-year history: we’d need to consider musical genres’ cycles of maturation, auteurs’ interests and influence, and the ways audiences use videos. By tracking the image’s response to music’s changing production practices, and vice versa, we begin to grasp a broader audiovisual turn. Comparison of the beginnings and the present might show vast differences in performance style, formal conceits, editing, depictions of space, the showcasing of new technologies-or it might not.
Today’s music videos offer ways to understand the audiovisual turn, especially when we consider them as part of a media swirl that includes postclassical cinema, video games, commercials and YouTube. Music video may be changing: some videos suggest new forms of narrative, like Jonas Akerlund’s video for Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” Floria Sigismondi’s video for Katy Perry’s ”E.T.,” and Francis Lawrence’s and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” These are made by transmedia directors who have returned to the genre after making films. While music video has long showcased technical devices, like the Quantel and the snorkel cam, Arev Manoukian’s and Skrillex’s “The Devil’s Den” suggests what can be done with the Red Epic. Digital technologies make possible new formal conceits. Color sweeps across Romain Gavras’s “No Church in the Wild.” In Mark Pellington’s “Skyscraper,” haze and smoke become players.
Freer from censorship today, Gavras and Kanye (“No Church in the Wild”) and Alan Ferguson and Rise Against (“Help Is on the Way”) produce politically engaged clips. Matsoukas’s and Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” and Gibson’s and Lady Gaga’s “You and I” suggest new possibilities of representation. Interactive clips like Vincent Morrisette’s and Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II” extend the genre’s boundaries. And prosumers’ clips go further, suggesting that music video is simply a relation of sound and image we recognize as such.
Transmedia artists who gravitated to film when music video budgets were low have returned for love of the genre. Their knowledge informs today’s music videos.
The Bollywood film industry is often distinguished by its having produced films that have almost always been “musicals” since the 1930s. As Sangeeta Gopal and Sujata Moorti note, associating the American “musical” with Hindi popular films can be misleading because many Hindi popular films elude the generic category of musical melodrama evoked by the term “musical” in its contemporary usage in other contexts.
The typical Hindi popular film blockbuster through the early 2000s was characterized by its inclusion of spectacular “song sequences,” musical numbers that featured characters singing and/or dancing. The songs featured have long been used to promote the films outside the cinema hall through commercial recordings and radio broadcasts, and today they also circulate via both audio and audiovisual formats including Internet streaming, digital downloads, television programming, and DVD and VCD compilations. Song sequences often featured inventive choreography, scenic locations, and extravagant costumes alongside compelling lyrics and memorable music that made them the highlight of most commercially successful films.
The production standards of song sequences, already one of the most expensive parts of a film’s production, were further enhanced by the unprecedented financing enabled by india’s economic liberalization policies during the 1990s. During this era the Bombay film industry transformed into the globalized industry now known as Bollywood and attracted new international audiences. (Just last month, Richard Corliss from TIME cited Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 film Devdas, a film defined by its extravagant sets and costumes— especially in its song sequences, as one of the “" rel="nofollow">10 greatest films of the millenium.”)
Several recent films, especially those associated with the wave of “indie” films, have however begun to feature songs in a manner more familiar to Hollywood conventions, namely, in the background. This move away from the song sequence is motivated at least partly by their expense and the fact that their inclusion lengthen films’ duration in relation to shorter length media from Hollywood and television. In its twilight, the spectacular song sequence today most often appears in self-referential contexts such as parodies that emphasize its aesthetics of excess, homages that reiterate its history, and in the case of the following sequence “Main Agar Kahoon” from Farah Khan’s 2007 film Om Shanti Om, scenes that simultaneously construct and deconstruct its nostalgic appeal as the rapidly disappearing foundation of Hindi popular films.
The musical is not dead and nor does it have any intention of being so. The success of Glee and musical theatre demonstrate its enduring popularity. Yet film theory positions it as the often neglected family member avoided at gatherings as they are known to be difficult. Why the difficulty and reluctance? It is due to that essential element: the musical number. What are musical numbers and why do they work? Musical numbers should be seen as a Gestalt: where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Analysing either music and/or visuals in isolation will not lead to an understanding of the whole as it is a synthesis of the two. Any reading, therefore, should pay constant attention to the relationship between the two aspects: music and image.
Musical numbers are great for analysing this relationship. The Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) epitomises perfectly the complexities of the medium. The ‘Cvalda’ number illustrates how audio-visual space is actively played with. Images alone provide a fragmented space, so how is a coherent space created? We watch this scene and accept that which is presented to us. Closer inspection, however, shows us that there are 199 shots in the complete number, with an average shot length of 1.2 seconds. We move from long shots to close-ups with dizzying effect and providing little help with spatial cohesion. Yet our ability to negotiate the space remains due to the use of sound.
The industrial sounds of the machines build to create a pleasing harmony. The images, particularly at the beginning, are used to visually locate the sound sources. They are emanations of the music and provide us with an audio-visual proxemic relationship which is logical (when the camera shows a close-up of a machine, it provides us with a sonic ‘close-up’ with noise emitted). Here we have an example of sound driving the image, as it is the sound we first experience. We are happy to move around the scene as frantically as we do because the sound provides reassurance and stability with its regular tempo. Whilst the sound alone varies very little, the images provide no fixed point of reference; together they create a coherent space. They are a Gestalt and conventional film studies analysis that focuses on narrative and visuals therefore fails when attempting to understand musical numbers.
Toward the end of Rock of Ages, washed-up club owner and band promoter Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) receives a bag of cash from Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), an eccentric, sex-crazed, and perpetually bare-chested, strung-out veteran of rock-and-roll. Upon seeing the $3000, which Jaxx’s manager initially confiscated, Dennis utters, “That Stacee Jaxx, he gives until it hurts.” This line, like much in Rock of Ages, makes little sense. First, nothing in the narrative suggests Jaxx is philanthropic. Second, who’s hurting here? Certainly not Jaxx with his limos, Hollywood mansion, and groupies. The statement does, however, make sense when it’s ascribed to Cruise’s star persona.
Some see Tom Cruise as a(nother) weird Scientologist, a closeted gay man, a fake husband, and/or a surrogate father. Similarly, my colleagues regard “post-TomKat” Cruise as “skeevy,” “Level-15 creepy,” and someone who “freaks me the hell out.” But the star is also widely recognized for his work ethic and performing his own stunts. See, for example, his (alleged) eight-month training ritual for The Last Samurai and firearms/combat training for Collateral; there’s also his daring motorcycle maneuver in Knight and Day and running atop the world’s tallest building in MI: IV. Finally, whether fabricated or not, Cruise’s co-stars also frequently praise him for giving his all during production.
Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that Cruise purportedly spent months preparing for Rock of Ages, that his contract allowed him an out if he couldn’t sing, and that this preparation, like his stuntwork, was promoted heavily alongside the movie—at least in words. Significantly, unlike his co-stars, Cruise’s Stacie Jaxx isn’t featured prominently in the original trailer; rather, he’s mostly in long-shot, face obscured, back turned, not singing (the second trailer offers a tad more).
Indeed, like Spielberg’s dinosaurs, mostly concealed during marketing to lure audiences into theaters (697), Cruise’s musical performance and, thus, the question on everyone’s mind—can he pull this off?—is unveiled almost only via the movie. And even then, Cruise/Jaxx doesn’t perform until nearly 40m in. That the spectacle is withheld this long, in these ways is interesting. But perhaps more notable is that because of his appearance (exposed nipples, roving tongue, tattoos emphasizing his crotch), Cruise/Jaxx remains a spectacle even after his numbers end (31-33). Ah, Mr. Cruise, still giving…
Thu, 07 Jun 2012 23:08:36 +0000