The BFI Musical film season: why we need musicals now more than ever

Singing in the Rain

The last few years have seen a major resurgence in the popularity of the musical film, with La La Land, The Greatest Showman and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again  taking a combined global box office of more than $1.25 billion. Movie execs have talked about a second Golden Age of Hollywood, when MGM musicals ruled the box office.

We are also seeing stage musical successes being developed into feature films – such as Tom Hooper’s upcoming Cats (2019) movie, based on the long-running stage musical of the same name (in turn based on the poems of T.S. Eliot) and next year’s adaptations of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights and the much-loved Everyone’s Talking About Jamie – it’s clear that the movie musical is here to stay.

At a musical-themed event this evening, the British Film Institute (BFI) revealed the programme for the UK’s greatest ever season of musical films. Petula Clark, Clarke Peters and Patricia Ward Kelly, wife and biographer of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly were all out to celebrate the programme launch.

But why are we seeing such a revival of musicals on film? It’s interesting that the Golden Age of Hollywood’s box office boom coincided with WW2; audiences were seeking escapism and fantasy on screen in order to avoid the reality that their house could be bombed to the ground.

Could it be that we are all sheltering from the current political mayhem by seeking out escapism in film? The Trump leadership was certainly a stress factor for the LA filmmakers proclaiming he was ‘not my president’, could this denial of reality have spawned the desire to make films like La La Land, that hark back to a simpler time?

Damien Chazelle’s filmography and choreography in La La Land owes a debt to The Umbrellas of CherbourgSingin’ in the Rain and The Young Girls of Rochefort all made at least 60 years before.

But the musical genre hasn’t always been about escapism. The BFI programme intends to “shine a light on the musicals which engage with socio-political themes, such as racism or the horrors of the Depression as well as celebrate the films which provide escapism from political uncertainty and troubled times.”

Musicals like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, were both made at the height of the Depression and involved themes influenced by the socio-economic environment of the time.

Think about the 2005 Musical Rent which tells the story of a group of struggling young artists in New York, living with HIV/AIDS, or LGBTQ+ musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch about the “internationally ignored” Hedwig,  a non-binary/genderqueer East German singer on her quest for love and stardom.

These are great, original stories offering a simplified and shiny lens through which to understand personal struggles. They also offer hope that no matter how bad our current circumstances, that it will turn out alright in the end.

The film industry, in general, has become very formulaic in recent years, preferring the box office safe bet of a remake or reboot to the gamble of a film that’s totally new – and the phenomenal successes of The Lion King (Jon Favreau, 2019), which has already surpassed $1.5 billion globally is testament that the formula pays off.

But creating a pastiche of older work is certainly not new. Like La La Land, what the iconic Singin’ in the Rain did so well was to pay homage to a bygone era; it was harking back to the late 1920s, when talkies began replacing silent films.

We have a tendency to romanticise the past, and have a thriving TV genre based entirely on voyeuristically examining romances set in the past. But as technology moves us on at a breakneck pace and an age gap of a few years can feel like several generations have passed by, is it any wonder that our nostalgia for the past is increasingly a past that is set not so very far from the present?

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