Book review: Musicals at the Margins

New from Bloomsbury, this academic textbook looks at the screen musicals which exist at the margins: that is, those which do not fit smoothly into the traditional genre box.

Across five sections and seventeen chapters, a variety of film types are discussed including the short form pop film, the rock documentary, the live musical, and the dance film.

Concentrating on material released to cinema and broadcast on television, Musicals at the Margins argues for a new definition of what the screen musical might be, taking both classic and contemporary examples to build a case.

It is clear that over time the genre has been fluid in its identity. The sung-through form seen in (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) may have been described as marginal in the 1960s but films such as Les Miserables are fully embraced in the genre now.

The evolution of the accepted and marginal forms of the musical is not just attributed to taste, but also technological innovations (such as the birth of MTV and the story-based pop video, notably Thriller).

Whether the music is story- or soundtrack-based (for example Baby Driver), it is equally valid and open to close study, argues this accessible and interesting book.

In also discussing the ‘choir’ films such as Joyful Noise and Disney’s jazz infused animated classics like The Jungle Book it makes a case for even wider definitions. Indeed, one example given (Sister Act) has been reworked to a full stage musical in recent years.

Musicals at the Margins adds a new perspective to film and genre scholarship, casting the net widely to encompass contemporary series (Magic Mike, Pitch Perfect) as well as Black films of the early sound period.

This is an important study that although largely viewed towards Hollywood, does consider generic hybrids, specialty acts and film-making outside the accepted American canon.

It even makes a case for films with musical perrformances that sit outside the usual genre (here, Sophia Loren in Houseboat but surely we can all think of mamy more examples; Loren’s former inclusion in Aida and other films is touched on).

This is a hard book to put down, but I did find myself scribbling down names of films with which I wasn’t familiar – the Marseille film operetta is one such blind spot. I also put together a list of familiar favourites to revisit.

Richly referenced and meticulously edited, Musicals at the Margins is an essential book in cinema scholarship and will surely lead to wider conversations and more specific studies in the future.

Musicals at the Margins: Genres, Boundaries, Canons, edited by Julie Lobalzo Wright and Martha Shearer, is published by Bloomsbury and available now in various formats.

You may be interested in my ongoing list of film musicals on Letterboxd.