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'The Movie Musical!': The writing doesn't always sing

Gene Kelly graces the cover of

Gene Kelly graces the cover of "The Movie Musical!" by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf). Credit: Knopf

THE MOVIE MUSICAL! by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf, 656 pp., $40)

Some years ago, I took my young son to a touring production of "The Lion King." He told me afterward that he'd liked it well enough "except for the parts when they were singing and dancing."

We must be legion, we musical lovers, for the form persists, and here to remind us just how capacious it can be is Jeanine Basinger's "The Movie Musical!" The exclamation point signifies both the zeal that Basinger brings to her decades-spanning survey and the way in which the genre itself rises, without apology, above the mere declarative. Basinger writes: "When a movie becomes a musical, it must justify its musical performance; it has to create a reason for full-scale singing and dancing, because it is asking the audience to assume musical performance is natural."

The central question has been the same from "The Broadway Melody" (1929) to "Frozen 2" (2019): Why is somebody, in this very moment, choosing to perform for us?

In the case of the truly gifted, it's because we want them to. Who cares what plot necessities require Judy Garland to open her mouth? The voice is the excuse. The farcical complications that separate Fred Astaire from Ginger Rogers matter only once they clear and those two glittering figures occupy a Bakelite dance floor.

Many of Basinger's observations are right on point. Bing Crosby, who liked to ad-lib, "kept just outside the boundaries any film set up, and often undercut seriousness with a casual shrug or eyebrow lift." She is particularly acute about choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose work is "the audience's liberation from time and place."

But too often Basinger's approach is rangy and scattershot. She has a habit of repeating herself and her prose lapses into cliche ("'42nd Street' took audiences by storm").

The real value of "The Movie Musical!" may just be to call the roll, invoking titans like Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli but also the host of forgotten, ancillary talents like a Sonja Henie wannabe named Belita, who, for her big finish in 1944's "Lady, Let's Dance," skated to Beethoven's Fifth before a gigantic copy of the Statue of Liberty. That's entertainment.

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