Friday, September 2, 2016
5 Important Notes For Musical Filmmakers
Having just watched Into The Woods and spending about an hour playing Sweet Transvestite from The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack over and over again, it's safe to say musicals have been on my mind for a few hours. I found myself wondering why it is that I don't like most musicals I watch. I love movies, I love music, and I enjoy watching dancing and choreography as much as any normal person. So why is it that most musicals just really bug me instead of leave me wanting to sing along, or dance around or whatever? Well, here are the 5 main things I find myself seeing as the most important aspects of any good musical, and more often than not, you'll find at least 1 or 2 of these are not present in these movies. I might be wrong, but I've spent over 5 whole minutes thinking these things up, so I'm probably right. Like, super right.
1. The songs have to be catchy or memorable sounding (even just a few of them)
Most musicals have at least a half dozen melodies or more, and you can always tell which songs they've put the most thought into simply by how catchy they are. Disney's Frozen, for example, makes it painfully obvious that the only song they really put much thought into was Let It Go, which has a fairly simple but memorable melody. The result is a movie filled with songs that basically nobody can remember because they've been overshadowed by one great number. This isn't ideal, but at least there was *one* good song for people to get behind. It gave you one tune to think back on, so some of the other failings weren't as bad. But having just watched Into The Woods (which is generally considered a pretty solid movie), I couldn't even hum the melody of a single song from it. Some of the songs were alright at the time, I guess, but not leaving you with something catchy to recall makes it so you can't remember any of the words, either. And the words are every bit as important, since they're basically telling you what's going on in the plot or with the characters. But this is for later.
Ultimately, if you can't make any music that gets stuck in your head at all, or strikes you as particularly melodic, you shouldn't be writing a musical in the first place. Just giving an actor the words they're supposed to be singing isn't the same as providing them with a full, complete song. A somewhat casual delivery is fine for some songs, but when every song just sounds like someone saying their regular lines but with an opera voice, it doesn't really leave the audience with much to hold onto. Catchiness isn't everything to making a good song, but it is an important place to start.
2. The songs need to serve the plot or help with character development
Here's another one I'm going to use Frozen as an example for (I'm doing this because everyone has seen that movie, and I want my points to be easily understood), because it is both a good example of how well it can work and how evident it is when it fails. Let It Go gives people a window into Elsa's character, and what do you know, she's the most popular character in the entire movie. I don't think that's a coincidence. And then, we have the Olaf snowman song, which...I guess is supposed to be funny and reveal the fact that he doesn't know that snowmen will melt? Okay, but couldn't that just be Mae into, like, a single line of dialogue? They really didn't need to make that into a song, and the result is like 3 minutes that doesn't help add anything to the movie or much of anything to his character. Besides, his character is basically pointless anyway, so this song was just padding. The same can be said of the pie-making song in Sweeney Todd. 10 seconds of dialogue is all it would've taken, but instead they just shoved this song in there.
This is honestly probably the easiest part of making a musical, since a lot of songs in musicals don't necessarily follow traditional rhyme scheme, so fitting the words you need into a song becomes a lot easier. If you want to develop a character through a song, the emotion and presentation is even more effective than traditional voice-over narration. A musical number like the tap-dancing scene in Chicago reveals the sensationalism and showboating of Gere's character while also letting you see how the trial is progressing. Anne Hathaway's big scene in Les Miserables goes the opposite direction, with a very minimal approach, but is also incredibly useful in giving her an emotional outlet and providing insight into how her character feels. Granted, there are other aspects to this than the actual words, but hearing and seeing the purpose of a song and how it relates to the plot or characters makes it all the more important and useful.
3. The actors/singers need to sound good and emote well
I mean, this one is also very obvious, but it needs to be thrown out there anyway. A musical CANNOT be good if the singers can't make the songs affect the audience. This is a two-parter, in a way, because there is more to good singing than just having a strong voice. For particularly emotional songs, a singer can't just belt out the lyrics like Michael Buble and have it work as it might for someone with a less "pretty voice" like Joe Cocker. Being able to emote means more that making it sound right or good at all times, but also means making your voice truly express the deepest feelings the character is going through. Sometimes even the smallest vocal changes can make all the difference, and this is all without even taking into consideration how the character even looks while they're singing.
In a musical, since you can both see and hear the actors, they need to use the full range of their voice as well as the physical expressions necessary to really drive in the meaning of a song. As mentioned before, Anne Hathaway performing I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserables wasn't just a powerful vocal performance that hit all the right emotional notes, but also gave the visuals that were needed to really give the audience a window into her depressing situation. Not to say every song needs to be filled with actors dripping snot and crying the entire time, but in instances where the song is showing something tragic, it's kind of a necessity. Frollo's song in Disney's Hunchback Of Notre Dame is another example of a very emotive vocal performance, desperate, pleading and wrathful in its delivery. And on the other hand, we see Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, which...well, just look it up, because holy crap is he bad. His performance and singing is so off in every way, you can't get connected to how the song relates to the movie at all. And this is what even one poor song can do to destroy a musical. Unlike traditional movies, a musical needs to make every song count. If an actor in a regular movie gives one or two weak lines, it doesn't distract you too much, but in a musical one poor performance can suck the life out of several minutes in what should be an important moment in the movie.
4. Set pieces and choreography shouldn't be ignored
A good portion of what musicals usually get right is seen here. Building an interesting set or utilizing an environment in a creative way can be tricky, but most musical numbers succeed at this. Obviously, this isn't always the case, and sometimes songs can be underwhelming in how they don't implement enough of these aspects into the performance. In a way, Les Miserables is often guilty of failing at this, due to how many close-ups and lack of interesting sets are used during the songs. Sometimes, it works in its favor, but there are plenty of songs in that movie that could've been much more intestine to sit through, but pretty much chose to plop their characters down and just sing, without anything else going on at all. It worked in the Hathaway song because of the stripped down emotions in that scene, but more often than not it just felt lazy and uninteresting to look at. It's like if every line delivered in a movie was a monologue. Some of them would be interesting, but they can't all be that way, and more often than not, they'll fail and it will get really boring.
A musical needs to be expressive, that's the purpose of the songs. And sometimes it helps to make numbers interesting to look at, even if just because of the time it takes to get through one. Part of that means making the sets and costumes interesting, but other times it takes a little more than that. Beyond just the acting by the singer, having some creative dancing or choreograph of some kind can be really interesting, fun, or even very effective at establishing the tone of a scene. The scene in Disney's Beauty and the Beast where Belle is walking through the town reading and we see how all the townfolk interact in a choreographed way is a lot more interesting than if she was walking around singing with nothing else happening. Hell, sometimes the choreography and visuals alone make for the most interesting part of a song. The Roxanne scene in Moulin Rouge is easily the best moment of the movie, and a large part of what makes it work is the ballroom dance choreography and visual design of the scene. Without that creative look and flow, it wouldn't have been nearly as effective.
5. Don't overuse music, but don't forget it's a musical
Okay, this one is being presented as one point because I feel it is important that a musical finds that right balance. Certain movies are able to get away with constant singing, as I apprehensively use Les Miserables as an example yet again. In that film's reality, singing essentially serves as its own language. Instead of speaking, breaking for song, and then going back to speaking again, almost every single line of dialogue in the movie is sung, which works just fine. But for normal musicals, song and dialogue are split, and finding that balance can be very difficult to achieve. As I have brought up before, all songs need to serve an actual purpose to help the story or characters in some way. Any pointless or frivolous music needs to be discarded right away. But on the opposite enc, a lot of musicals seem to forget that songs aren't only used as a means to introduce an idea or character, and wind up basically forgetting to be a musical by the third act. Which is a pity, because that's when most of the important events of a movie are taking place, and staying true with the nature of a musical should take a certain precedence. Frozen, yet again, is guilty of failing at this test. I don't even remember if there was a single song in the last 30 minutes of the movie.
Even though I found myself getting slightly annoyed at the lackluster musical numbers in the film, I feel Into The Woods did a good job at maintaining itself as a proper musical, never getting too packed full of pointless songs, while also giving the songs a purpose throughout the entire story. It doesn't feel the need to replace action with music, or vice versa. In Frozen, it felt like the filmmakers didn't have enough faith in their songs to allow them to be prominent near the finale, which ultimately left you wondering why they even bothered to make the rest of the movie a musical, since they clearly didn't want it to be one by the end. Granted, sometimes songs can be a little distracting in the middle of more action-packed moments, but when they're good songs that serve a purpose to the story, they can actually do a lot to add to the tension of a scene. Sweeney Todd does this well during a fatal shaving scene, letting the song serve as the entire set-up to an important and violent moment. Sure, it's not the climax of the movie, but it still demonstrates how well a musical number can be implemented into a scene focused on a real action.
Overall, very few movies do well at making every song count. Even the musicals I love most have at least a song or two that could either be improved or removed entirely. But these are things I find myself thinking about when I'm watching a musical. Maybe someday we'll see more well-rounded ones, but until then, we can maintain certain expectations and just hope for the best. Thank you for joining me.