David Phelps


Voted for

Fieldwork Footage1928Zora Neale Hurston
The Man I Killed1932Ernst Lubitsch
An Autumn Afternoon1962Yasujirō Ozu
All My Life1966Bruce Baillie
Emitaï1971Ousmane Sembène
A IDADE DA TERRA1980Glauber Rocha
Un JOUR PINA A DEMANDÉ1983Chantal Akerman
Chronicle of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron1992Cauleen Smith
Star Spangled to Death2004Ken Jacobs


Fieldwork Footage


Hurston has been criticised recently for her interest in ethnography as a form of poetics – one that dangerously archetypes its subject. I'm not in any great position to weigh in, so all I'll say is that Fieldwork Footage's problems – that it is beautiful, that it is moving, that it is invested in its subjects primarily as performers of rituals and ceremonies, and that even so it's one of the only American films in the first half of cinema history that gives a shit about the daily lives of irreducible people who aren't performing for a parasol catalogue – are in some sense its subject, are good problems, and are the problems of documentary. Watch it as a musical and see not only how radical Hurston's soundtrack is but how she's stress-testing documentary as a genre.

The Man I Killed

1932 USA

In a career defined by the dialogue of sound and image in suggestive conversation, Broken Lullaby ends with the most aching attempt to reconcile the two – as well as the two lovers, two soundtracks – in a shot that recognises how barely it can contain the scene. It probably sounds silly to say that music is the only rapprochement in war, but that's also why the movie is called Broken Lullaby: because the dream of any musical, that we can find some kind of harmony on a shattered geopolitical stage, is only really possible if we make it our job to put on musicals. The power of the ending is partly in two people deciding, like Lubitsch, that that delusion is worth the time.


1939 Japan

Maybe the first great movie in which the sequences of staged theater play as documentary while the sequences of everyday life play as melodrama – the art, and artifice, is in watching those two poles collapse.

An Autumn Afternoon

1962 Japan

I prefer to think of this as Ozu's musical, a film about people who have never been able to pursue their true dreams of singing and dancing – outside the military, of course.

All My Life


Half a life of watching this film, and I'm no closer to explaining its strange hold over me. All I can say is that at a life-changing moment last year, my instinct was to watch this and to cry – and even then, I had no idea if it was an elegy or paean. All My Life is proof, at least, that you can make a musical without any actors, nor humans, nor animals at all.


1971 Senegal, France

I thought it was impossible to make a radical WW2 movie, but Emitaï goes where no other film would go in showing the global stakes of the war: that is, who would get to colonise the rest of the world. It is also perhaps the only radical musical comedy, at least in the sense of using both music and comedy as weapons – both its own, and its subjects'.


1980 Brazil

There are many End of Cinemas, but Rocha's – a comic-book musical loosed on the documentary reality of Brazil, transformed back into spectacle by local pageantry, only to be revealed as documentary by endless retakes, all of which turns language back into spectacle – is the ultimate exorcism of cultural imperialism it can never escape, but can surface, confront, and grapple to the ground, the story of a filmmaker struggling to control his own film at a time and place where it's no longer possible to do so. The ultimate Christ-meets-Hollywood, Christ-loses-Hollywood, Christ-gets-Hollywood-again tale of cultural conquests.


1983 France

I almost put 10 Akerman films – and likely all 10 could be conceived as musicals. I like to think there's a kind of tension at the heart of Akerman's movies to have *both* kinds of post-classicism at once: to have the camera as a kind of sovereign recorder of irreducible bodies it can see but can never quite capture, on the one hand, and to have it as an active shaper-of-scenes, a magic wand summoning bodies through space as figures in the scenery, on the other. What both these approaches have in common is something endemic to musicals: seeing people for how they express themselves as bodies through gestures and noises on the edge of language. No post-classic filmmaker was better suited to make musicals, in other words, and the dialogue of camera and choreography means the camera is always at the edge of documentary, at the edge of dance.

Chronicle of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron


The ways sound determines images, including our self-image as bodies. An oral tradition but also an ossification of a story retold to abstraction. A musical without music, and a dangerous one at that – because to hear the music might mean missing what's being said.

And in a weird way, a revival.

Star Spangled to Death


It takes a real bastard art to capture the full spectrum of the human experience in all its abstraction and historical nuance, and it takes Ken Jacobs to realise that that art is vaudeville. Anyone working in any other genre is just limiting their palette.

Further remarks

I have no business being here and almost didn't participate, but I wanted to offer some kind of corrective to my submission a decade ago, which I kind of hate. It's an asshole list by the faintly lost asshole I was then, using movies to dissociate throughout the early 2010s. I still owe a lot of people apologies, and I hope I can do – be – better.

I decided to organise this list around 'broken lullabies' – almost-musicals – partly because musicals are a bastard art whichw, as such, can usually leverage movies-as-a-toolkit to exemplify cinema itself as a great bastard art, sure, but also because 10 slotw *really* aren't enough, and I wanted to find some way to limit my options. As it is, I regret not including One Froggy Afternoon (Jones, 1955), Beau Travail (Denis, 1999), and Light Year (Kristersson, 2008), all of which I might have included had I done this a different day. Anyway, you'll get the point: seeing each of these films as musicals might open up the ways we experience them as genre responses, but more importantly, seeing each of these films as musicals might change the way we see musicals generally. Modest hope.

As an addendum, I also compiled a list of greatest 'real-ish' musicals, one per decade, below:

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1916)

Spione (Lang, 1928)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy/Berkeley, 1933)

Broadway Melody of 1940 (Taurog, 1940)

The I Don’t Care Girl (Bacon/Cole, 1953)

Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 1966)

Four Women (Dash, 1975)

Ishtar (May, 1987)

Gremlins 2 (Dante, 1990)

Bamboozled (Lee, 2000)