Feel A Song Coming On? The Movie Musical Returns 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?
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Feel A Song Coming On? The Movie Musical Returns

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Feel A Song Coming On? The Movie Musical Returns

Feel A Song Coming On? The Movie Musical Returns

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As soon as films learned how to speak, they just had to sing. From the very first talkie in 1927, all the way through the 1970s, the musical lit up the silver screen.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Goodbye.

(Soundbite of film, "Meet Me in St. Louis")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actor): (As Esther Smith) (Singing) Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.

(Soundbite of film, "Singin' in the Rain")

Mr. GENE KELLY (Actor): (As Don Lockwood) (Singing) I'm singing in the rain.

(Soundbite of documentary, "That's Entertainment")

Unidentified People: (Singing) That's Entertainment.

(Soundbite of film, "Mary Poppins")

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (Actor): (As Mary Poppins) (Singing) Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down...

KELLY: Such great stuff. But in the '80s and '90s, the film musical basically disappeared. That all changed this past decade. Think "Hairspray," "Chicago," "Mama Mia," "Dreamgirls," also "Sweeney Todd," "Phantom of the Opera" and, fittingly, one of the last movie releases of the decade was a musical, "Nine."

Our film critic Bob Mondello joins us once again to take a look back at the decade gone by.

Hello, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: It is good to be here.

KELLY: All right. So before we get to these past 10 years, tell us, why was there such a drop-off? Why just a handful of movie musicals in the '80s and '90s?

MONDELLO: Well, because the ones at the very beginning of the '80s were terrible, which helps a little bit.

KELLY: Get off to a bad start, yeah.

MONDELLO: My theory is, if you think about it, in 1980, '81, this other thing happened. We started watching music in a different form, music videos on TV.


MONDELLO: Exactly. And so, I think that because we had this other way to look at it, it wasn't necessary to have the whole long thing with stories.

KELLY: But what happened - because you're saying these type of musicals made a big comeback in the last 10 years. Well, we still have music videos out there today.

MONDELLO: Right. But there was something that happened in Hollywood, which was that they made this little musical called "Moulin Rouge," and it made lots of money. That was in 2001. And it was a story set in 1899 with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. And Ewan McGregor was writing a musical, and as you will hear - I'm about to play a clip - he was not entirely in period.

(Soundbite of film, "Moulin Rouge")

Mr. EWAN McGREGOR (Actor): (As Christian) (Singing) All you need is love.

Ms. NICOLE KIDMAN (Actor): (As Satine) A girl has got to eat.

Mr. McGREGOR: (As Christian) (Singing) All you need is love.

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Satine) She'll end up on the street.

Mr. McGREGOR: (As Christian) (Singing) All you need is love.

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Satine) (Singing) Love is just a game.

Mr. McGREGOR: (As Christian) (Singing) I was made for loving you, baby. You were made for loving me.

MONDELLO: Isn't that nice? I mean, it was really kind of fun what they were doing with it. They used a whole bunch of other songs, big hit songs, and turned it into a lovely collection of music videos, in a sense, and it was big and splashy and gorgeous, and the audience bought it.

KELLY: Gorgeous to watch. And that kind of opened the floodgates, or we could put it apr�s Moulin Rouge le deluge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Yes. And a lot of those pictures - the ones you mentioned at the very beginning - went over the $100 million mark. And that's really what's different about this decade. These pictures are gross enormous amounts.

KELLY: Huge box office hits.

MONDELLO: Right. And especially "Mama Mia!"

KELLY: The ABBA musical...

MONDELLO: That's right.

KELLY: ...that's been a huge hit onstage.

MONDELLO: Which grossed more than $600 million.

(Soundbite of film, "Mama Mia!")

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actor): (As Donna Sheridan) (Singing) Whoa-oh-oh. Mamma mia. Here I go again, my, my, how can I resist 'ya?

MONDELLO: Man, I wish I could have resisted that one. That drove me crazy. That was that big a hit, because it's by no means one of the great musicals to come along. But it is - I mean, it was very popular, and audiences all over the world loved ABBA and therefore loved that show.

KELLY: And a few of this genre, of the film musical genre, have been actually good movies. You could name "Chicago," for example, which actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture a few years back.

MONDELLO: That's right, in 2002, and it was the first one to win in that category since "Oliver!" had in 1968. So we'd had a long dry spell about all of that.

(Soundbite of film, "Chicago")

Ms. CATHERINE ZETA-JONES (Actor): (As Velma Kelly) (Singing) Hold on, hon, we're gonna bunny hug. I bought some aspirin down at United Drug in case you shake apart and want a brand new start to do that jazz.

KELLY: Why do you think these film musicals are making a revival?

MONDELLO: Well, the theory usually put forward about why musicals stopped being popular was that audiences just felt uncomfortable with the fact of people bursting into song all the time. And I was thinking about it, and I think in around 2001, 2002, people started walking around on the subway, at least here, singing.


MONDELLO: It's iPods. And I suddenly realized, oh, how weird. And I think it is that we got used to the idea that we have a soundtrack in our heads as we're walking around, and so it didn't seem so strange for characters to have that.

(Soundbite of film, "Once")

Mr. GLEN HANSARD (Actor): (As Guy) (Singing) I don't know you, but I want you.

MONDELLO: There was one musical that actually took that idea and sort of ran with it. It was about a couple of musicians in Ireland, and they decided that they were going to try to put together a song. And one of them recorded the music onto a tape.

KELLY: I'm remembering this.

MONDELLO: You remember this?

KELLY: This is - "Once" it was called.

MONDELLO: That's right.

KELLY: Right.

MONDELLO: And he gave the tape to his girlfriend. And she put on headphones, and she's coming up with the lyrics. And so, she's walking down the street, wearing the headphones, listening to the music, and she's singing.

(Soundbite of film, "Once")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HANSARD and Ms. MARKETA IRGLOVA: (Singing) Take this sinking boat and point it home. We've still got time. Raise your hopeful...

MONDELLO: So it makes perfectly good sense, even if you're a stickler for realism, that they would be singing like that.

KELLY: This is obviously easier done with a film that's about music, a little bit harder if you're doing about a movie about - or musical about Wall Street or something.

MONDELLO: Yes, that's true. Let's hope they don't come up with a musical about Wall Street.

KELLY: Gordon Gekko sings and dances. Well, last question for you, Bob. Is this a trend we're going to see continue?

MONDELLO: Oh, yeah. Actually, this coming summer, they're remaking "Footloose."

KELLY: Oh, dear.

MONDELLO: "Hairspray 2" is coming along. Emma Thompson, I read, was working on a new script for "My Fair Lady," and they're talking about Keira Knightley as Eliza. So we're going to see a bunch of stuff. And actually, there's a whole bunch of others that are in theory coming along like "Carousel" and "Aida" and "The Color Purple" and "Wicked" and "Sunset Boulevard." It's going to be another musical decade.

KELLY: Movie critic Bob Mondello, who's been reviewing the decade in film for us these past few weeks. It has been a lot of fun. I know Guy has had a lot of fun, and I am so lucky to be able to sit in for the grand finale.

Bob, thank you.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure.

KELLY: And we'd like to hear from you. What was your favorite movie musical from the past 10 years? Join the conversation at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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