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Film Musical History: From the Beginning to the Rise and Fall Essay

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2022


Film musicals are amongst the most unique American artistic expressions, having a worldwide audience. For the past 90 years, this cinema genre has glorified individuality, self-expression, and the chase for aspirations. The film musical has long been a defiantly progressive genre, embracing difficult topics and promoting diversity while shattering traditional narrative constructs with its ostentatious experimental shows. As a result, understanding and analyzing the past of this popular genre is essential.

Main Body

The Origins

Long before sound was born, musical roots can be seen in the early film, for which researcher Tom Gunning created the name “cinema of attractions.” The cinema of attractions elicits a high level of awareness of the film image, piquing the audience’s interest, and renouncing narrative cinema’s storytelling role. In the 1920s, the interminable lines of high-kicking chorus women that characterize classical music were considered both sexually provocative and strikingly robotic in their clockwork-perfect performances (Griffin, 2018). Bringing these daring innovations to the feature film was a no-brainer and a statement of impudent freshness and vitality.

This is the first feature-length “talkie” The Jazz Singer, a Warner Bros. film starring Al Jolson, was released in 1927, while having only seven songs and a few lines of screen speech, had a significant impact on the cinema business. Within a few years, film musicals became popular and loved globally. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers Studios (MGM) secured the first Academy Award for a musical film for The Broadway Melody in 1929.

Despite the industry’s rapid growth, film musicals emerged as a new genre that directors were eager to explore. There was no established winning strategy and no proven methodology for musical filmmaking in comparison to the stage. In addition to posing challenges, this provided an incredible artistic opportunity for those who relocated from the theatre. Many historians argue, however, that the Depression killed off early musicals by 1930, only to resurrect them in 1933 (Moritz, 2017). Indeed the number of musicals produced in 1931 and 1932 dropped dramatically, not only in quantity but also in quality. At times it seemed to the public as if every film they saw was a musical, and each of them was the same (Hodgkinson, 1975). The cinemas were flooded with mediocrity, which quickly drove the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing musicals out of business.

Despite the decrease in musical film quality in the 1930s, it is still marked as a time of few great musicals. This decade had its distinction – focus on dancing. The unique and alluring view shots of dancers were produced by Busby Berkeley, a Los Angeles native who choreographed and directed 19 cinematic musicals in the 1930s. The usage of motion cameras in Berkeley’s pictures like Forty-Second Street (1933) allowed the audience to feel like they were a part of the choreography (Hodgkinson, 1975). The director is one of the most creative figures of that time, inventing new film patterns, stylizations, and props to enhance the picture of each film musical (Nina Penner, 2017). Thus Berkley was not the only king of the film musicals in the 1930s.

In the 1930s, the RKO cycle of films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was the only competition for Warner Bros.’ Berkeley films. MGM’s greatest musicals were supervised by Arthur Freed, who demanded that musical numbers progress the plot. Love Me Tonight, a 1932 classic by Rouben Mamoulian, created a synthesis of music, character, and story so complete, according to Basinger, that it has “never really been surpassed” (Bayard, 2019). Another 1930s classic is The Wizard of Oz (1939) – one of the most famous musicals of all time. Judy Garland, like Dorothy, sang one of the greatest movie songs, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg (Moritz, 2017).

Film Musicals During World War II

The beginning of World War II had almost no effect on the success of cinema musicals, and Garland continued to be a prominent figure in the field. Following The Wizard of Oz, she starred in Babes On Broadway, Ziegfeld Girl, all of which were released in 1941, and Meet Me In St Louis (1944). The 1946 biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, featuring Robert Walker and based on the life of composer Jerome Kern, was among the first films to use a soundtrack album. Despite the rise of Garland, the film music industry was severely hampered by World War II. It was a different kind of doom: death. Musicals were therefore seen as a sign of disrespect rather than a form of escapism. The musical films made during the decade, such as 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, were characterized by sadness rather than joy (Moritz, 2017). With the most poignant moment, Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the film seemed comfortable. The song references individuals who were unable to come home for the holidays owing to World War II, which was still ongoing at the period of the film’s premiere (Penner, 2017). Notwithstanding the tragic events of these years, it brought some legendary film musical actors from Broadway to Hollywood.

Gene Kelly became the iconic star of the musicals in the 1940s. Gene Kelly, who not only starred in musicals but also directed them, was instrumental in bringing the blended musical into the mainstream. He’s attempting to elevate the musical to the level of high art, using more ballet and contemporary dance elements in his film performances (Neumeyer, 2014). As Shout added in his works, the film musicals may create a dichotomy between traditional and high culture, but it’s just as likely to recognize its inheritance, implying an entirely respectable background (1982).

Kelly’s debut film, For Me and My Gal (1942), featured a freshness and balletic-like energy that he carried to a variety of films as a dancer. A Place In The Sun (1951), a musical based on George and Ira Gershwin’s songs received five Academy Awards. Singin’ In The Rain (1952), starring Gene Kelly, is considered one of the greatest film musicals of all time and was MGM’s masterpiece (Smith, 2016).

The rise of film musicals across the world

Film musicals started to spread, and by the early 1960s were produced across the Globe. Jacques Demy was creating spun-sugar musicals in France, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), that blended the visuals of Arthur Freed’s MGM musical production unit and Michel Legrand’s (Smith, 2016). Gene Kelly was also in the cast of the latter. Demy’s films were homages to the traditional form, which relished in imagination but were far richer in context than mere copy, and served as a counterbalance to Hollywood’s cheery, cheerful endings.

In the 1960s, India started to surpass the United States in the production of musical films. The Hindi-language film business has remained surprisingly true to a genre that other local theaters have mostly abandoned, and its exceptional worldwide scale has guaranteed that the production number’s most pleasurable indulgences have never truly disappeared. The most well-known contemporary musicals owe as much to Astaire, Berkeley, Kelly, and Donen as to the Bollywood framework of group dancing – a combination of mixed musical styles and lip-synching as exemplified by films like Sholay (1975), Dilwale dulhania le jayenge (1995), and Devdas (2002) (Neumeyer, 2014).).

Adapting Broadway Musicals to Film

The studio system was in decline in the early 1960s when the movie version of West Side Story (1961) found screen success by keeping Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics primarily unchanged from the Broadway production. Due to public dissatisfaction with big-budget film musicals, they were rare in the 1960s (Kessler, 2015).

They did spectacularly well when they had it right, as in The Sound Of Music (1965) and Oliver! (1968), both of which were adapted from Broadway hits. In the public imagination, a film adaptation could often surpass the stage version, as when Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for playing the same character again as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1989).

Film Musicals Fall

As much as the Broadway adaptations were thriving, “The climate didn’t help the musical after the 1950s,” said Nancy West, a professor of U.S. film history at the University of Missouri (Moritz, 2017). The backdrop of political protest and the counter-culture movement sparked by the Vietnam War was unsuitable. Filmmakers decided to use their job to make political and social statements.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, film musicals had a difficult time. Though some, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, had some success, a big-budget film around the last Beatles film failed. The low standard of some movies – Andrew L Stone’s Song Of Norway and Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love were both regarded as embarrassing flops – contributed to boredom with the genre (Kessler, 2015). Furthermore, while second-wave feminism was gaining traction against a background of murders, the Vietnam War, and race riots, certain traditional Broadway musicals were deemed unacceptable.

In the 1970s, musical films were still made, but the hits – Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, That’s Entertainment (the highest-grossing MGM musical), and Grease, which rode the nostalgia for the 1950s – were the exception rather than the norm. Filmmakers decided to use their job to make political and social statements. In the 1980s, when action, adventure, and science-fiction films were all the rage, the film industry’s hyper-masculinity wasn’t exactly accepting of Fred Astaire’s styles (Neumeyer, 2014). Many rejected film musicals because of their supposed association with femininity.

The Era of Animated Musicals

By the beginning of the 1990s, cartoon characters were the most likely to sing. Disney is responsible for one of the most famous musical animated films today. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were all published in fast succession, quickly gaining a large following (Smith, 2016). There were interesting stories, odd characters, and well-integrated songs in the story. With the choreographed piece Under the Sea, The Little Mermaid also nodded to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and grossed over $100 million worldwide.

Perhaps none of Disney’s great films of the century can equal The Lion King’s musical appeal. Non-other than Elton John contributed to the soundtrack of the movie at the request of Tim Rice. Working on the film and contributing to classic songs like “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle Of Life,” and the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” The Lion King was the second-highest-grossing film in North America the year it came out, and it went on to become one of the all-time top-grossing films in the United States (Sheikhha & Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari, 2014). The success of the animated film musicals of the 1990s and Disney, in particular, is undeniable, creating a new era of musical film.

Film musicals in the 21st century

Although the ritziness of the musical has never completely vanished – think of the Walt Disney feature animations – the genre is gradually embracing realism, as evidenced by Lars von Trier’s casual Dancer in the Dark (2000), the discreet busker love Once (2007), and the documentary musical London Road (2014). Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Baz Luhrmann’s “red curtain” aesthetic brought back memories of the Berkeley years’ visual excess, if not their narrative decorum. In 2001, Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002) both made the American Film Institute’s recent list of the 25 greatest movie musicals (Moritz, 2017). Pitch Perfect 2 in 2015 eclipsed Richard Linklater’s 2003 comedy School of Rock as the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time.

Other recent film musicals, such as Rent (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Les Misérables (2012) – where Hugh Jackman and other actors sang their songs live. – have shown that there is still a demand for captivating musicals among digital-age viewers. For example, despite receiving mixed reviews, Mama Mia! grossed more than $600 million at the box office in 2008 (Moritz, 2017). In addition, the most recent film, La La Land, has finally brought the genre back to the forefront of popular culture. The film received a Golden Globe nomination and has been dubbed “America’s second coming of the musical picture.”


The musical film is without a doubt one of cinema’s most unique genres. Frequently dismissed as conventional, it has been a defiantly progressive medium since its inception, embracing tackling difficult topics and promoting diversity while shattering traditional narrative constructs with its lavish experimental spectacles. The paper outlined the most crucial moment of the film’s musical history – from its beginning in the 1930s to the present day. The paper presented the evidence exemplifying the movies, songs, actors, and directors – the fundamental elements of the industry. Overall, this work is a comprehensive look back on the key aspects and events that shaped the film music industry and transformed it into the way it functions in contemporary days.


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Kessler, K. (2015). Roadshow: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. By Matthew Kennedy. Music and Letters, 96(1), 151–153. Web.

Moritz, K. (2017). Rewire. Web.

Neumeyer, D. (2014). The Oxford handbook of film music studies. Oxford University Press.

Penner, N. (2017). Rethinking the Diegetic/Nondiegetic Distinction in the Film Musical. Music and the Moving Image, 10(3), 3. Web.

Sheikhha, S., & Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari, B. (2014). The Evolution of the Twenty-First Century Musical Film: A Comparison Between Contemporary Hollywood Musicals to those of the Golden Age of Cinema. AVANCA | CINEMA.

Shout, J. D. (1982). The Film Musical and the Legacy of Show Business. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 10(1), 23–26. Web.

Smith, E. C. (2016). Achieving Attunement: The Evolution of the Musical Film Toward a Total Work of Art [Senior Projects Spring 2016]. Web.

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