Feel A Song Coming On? The Movie Musical Returns

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When Walls Come Down: In Nine, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a famous film director struggling with writer's block — and looking for inspiration in the assortment of women who have shaped his life. David James/Weinstein Co. hide caption

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The past decade saw a resurgence of the film musical, with Mamma Mia! raking in the bucks at the box office while Chicago cleaned up at the Oscars. The new year is shaping up to be a banner year for big-screen musicals, too. How did this decade revive this kind of moviemaking and why did it go away in the first place?

"Because the ones at the very beginning of the '80s were terrible," film critic Bob Mondello says.

One theory, he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, is that we started watching music in a different form — the music video on TV.

"I think, because we had this other way to look at it, it wasn't necessary to have the whole long thing with stories," he says.

That all changed this past decade, with a movie that seemed like a string of music videos in itself: Moulin Rouge! starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

"They used a whole bunch of other songs, big hit songs," Mondello says. "It was big and splashy and gorgeous — and the audience bought it."

It was a hit, as were the musicals that followed, including Mamma Mia! — which grossed more than $600 million worldwide. "I wish I could have resisted that one," Mondello says, laughing.

"That drove me crazy, that that was that big a hit, because it's by no means one of the great musicals to come along. But it was very popular. Audiences all over the world love ABBA — and therefore loved that show."

In addition to box-office success, some of the films were actually pretty good movies, like Chicago, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003. It was the first musical to win that category since Oliver! in 1968 — a huge shot in the arm for the genre.

Another theory that attempted to explain why musicals stopped being popular was that audiences just felt uncomfortable with people bursting into song all the time, Mondello says. But the iPod may have changed our attitude this decade.

"Around 2001, 2002, people started walking around on the subway ... singing," Mondello remembers. "We got used to the idea that we have a soundtrack in our heads as we're walking around — so it didn't seem so strange for characters to have that."

In the movie Once, one character even dons headphones and walks down the street singing lyrics to a song she's writing. "So it makes perfectly good sense, even if you're a stickler for realism, that they would be singing like that," Mondello says.

This past decade may have seen the resurgence of the musical, but the next one seems just as bright. This summer expect a remake of Footloose, Mondello says. Hairspray 2 is on the way, and Emma Thompson is rumored to be working on a new script for My Fair Lady starring Keira Knightley as Eliza.

"It's going to be another musical decade," Mondello says.

Don't see your favorite movie musical of the decade here? Tell us what it is in the comment section below!



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