Friday, August 12, 2011

Musicals about Musicals (and musical people)

With the 3D version of "Glee" coming out this summer, it seems like a good time to look at the long tradition of musicals about musicals, or musicals about musical people.   Story lines about musicians add a dose of realism when characters break out in song!  It's also a little easier for musicians who have been thrust into the role of an actor to pull off their "character" when that character is virtually identical to themselves.

There have been a few instances of this in opera, most notably Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg, by Richard Wagner.  It's the story of a master singers (Meistersinger) who compete for a grand prize: marriage to Eva, the town goldsmith's daughter. 

The Jazz Singer of 1927 was the first musical film about a musician and also the first film with music.  Based on a Broadway play, it featured Al Jolson as the son of a Jewish cantor who wanted to sing "jazz" instead of following in his father's footsteps.  You can watch it for free at, a site that archives historic materials in all formats.

42nd Street (1933) A chorus girl takes over for the star of a Broadway show.  Busby Berkeley's stunning choreography adds to the glamor of the story.

The  Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), is another of the early films featuring choreography by Busby Berkeley.  The story combines romance with a plot about staging a Broadway production.  Music by Harry Warren includes  the song, "We're in the Money."

The Gold diggers in Paris (1938) is the third Busby Berkeley film about the ambitious theatrical troupe.  In this installment, they are invited to put on a show in Paris. 

Blues in the Night, 1941, features Jimmy Lunceford's band and a series of musical numbers interwoven throughout the story of a blues band's travels and travails.

The Gang's All Here (1943) is another Busby Berkeley film, this time focusing on a chorus girl and her love interest, a
sargeant shipping out during
World War II.

Toast of New Orleans (1950) is about an opera star and an unlikely talent (Mario Lanza) discovered in the bayou.

Star is Born was a vehicle for Judy Garland in 1954 and the 1976 remake showcased Barbra Streisand.

The Blues Brothers, (1980) featured John Belushi, Dan Akroyd as musicians reuniting their old band for a good cause.  Famous musicians appearing in the film include Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cab Calloway.

Fame, about fictional characters attending the real-life High School of Performing Arts in New York.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), with Michelle Pfeiffer as a singer who enlivens the act of piano-playing brothers (Jeff and Beau Bridges).

Saawariya (2007) is a Bollywood (India) musical about a musician and his new love.

Straight from the Heart (2005) is another Bollywood film about a musician, this time a devoted father.

Dreamgirls, (2006)  Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx & Eddie Murphy star in this story about a 1960s R&B all-girl trio.
Burlesque, with Cher and Christina Aguilera, portrays the showgirl lifestyle.

Many musical films from the earliest days of 'talkies' to today have been profiles of actual musicians.  The "biopic" is a classic film genre now, as is the musical film.  Some famous films based on musicians:

The Great Caruso (1951),with famous singer Mario Lanza portraying Enrico Caruso, one of the first stars of the recording era.

Walk the Line tells the story of Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter.

'Round Midnight:  Real-life jazz saxophone player Dexter Gordon portrays John Coltrane

Ray (2004), based on the life of Ray Charles, starring Jamie Foxx, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the blind musician.
La Vie en Rose (2007) about French singing sensation, Edith Piaf.

The Runaways (2010) is about rocker Joan Jett's early career as a musican.

Burlesque, with Cher and Christina Aguilera, portrays the showgirl lifestyle.

Pirate Radio  is about radio airplay for controversial rock music. 

For more information, go the the Reference collection on the First Floor and take a look at Hollywood Musicals Year by Year.  Click here to see a list of all musical films available on DVD in the Educational Resources Collections.

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