The musical film first made its debut on American screens in the late 1920’s, and is characterised by its ability to intertwine song and music into a film’s storyline. Songs were used in place of dialogue or to express characters innermost thoughts and were usually accompanied by dancing. American Theatres first explored the idea of modern stage musicals, which often wanted to separate themselves from the opera of the time. The growing popularity of films and the development of sound technology meant there was a natural advancement in the way stories could be told. This lead to the Golden Age of Musical Theatre in the early to mid-1900’s in which classical musicals of the era such as Mary Poppins, West Side Story, and The Wizard of Oz were made.
The 21st Century saw the rebirth of the musical film genre. Musicals were no longer rigid in structure but could be rich with dark plot lines, become epic dramas or even increasingly comedic in nature. A musical trend of our time has been the jukebox musical in which films make use of existing music from popular musicians to tell their stories. Such musicals include the films Mamma Mia! (ABBA) and Across the Universe (The Beatles). Biographical films about showmen and musicians also became popular with films like Ray (based on the life of musician Ray Charles) and Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) being made.
Other musicals of the 21st century became notable for their acclaim with Dreamgirls, Les Miserables and La La Land all winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in their respective years. This year The Greatest Showman, which stars Logan-actor, Hugh Jackman, and Disney idols Zendaya and Zac Efron, has also received Oscar nominations.
South Africa has also recently explored the musical film genre in movies such as She is King (starring former idols contestant, Gugu Zulu and actor, Aubrey Poo) and the anticipated release of the biopic on the life of musician Brenda Fassie, which is set to start production soon, pending a court ruling over a film rights matter.
It is undeniable that there is something about the musical film genre that draws people in. We watch them because their entertaining musical numbers transport us to a new world of excitement and spectacle. At the same time, they find a way to deal with stories that speak to the experiences of our time.