Gotta film dance! The evolution of the movie musical – a video essay

As soon as the movies could talk, they sang, and that got them dancing. But how has the tango of performer and camera played out over the subsequent years, with changing tunes and the increasing suppleness of film language?

There have been several fascinating studies of the feature film’s average shot length, on composite websites like Cinematrics or from individual analysers such as Stephen Follows and Vashi Nedomansky. Evidence suggests that, as our attention spans have shortened and our visual literacy increased, the number of edits within movies have generally risen.

Technological advances play a significant role in this acceleration – instantly shuffling digital files, say, versus laboriously splicing celluloid frames. Genre, too: documentaries, often following the action in front of them, tend to have the least number of cuts. Many ‘arthouse’ films – and this doesn’t just include what we now call ‘slow cinema’ – tend to linger on deliberate, controlled mise en scène; while mainstream action films, increasingly fragmenting and accelerating the kineticism they thrive on, have long been ranked at the other end of the spectrum. You’re unlikely to confuse a film by Béla Tarr with one from Michael Bay.

Between these poles, the movie musical occupies an interesting position. On one hand, like action movies, its dance scenes are all about bodies in motion: dynamism, choreography. Yet, with notable exceptions such as Busby Berkeley, those responsible for putting star hoofers on-screen tended to let them strut their considerable stuff uninterrupted. It’s not to say that the camera always remained static; but you could imagine the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or the gravity-defying Nicholas Brothers, taking it as a personal affront if they weren’t shown full screen, to fully appreciate their elegance, their athleticism.

Yet, without trying to compare direct abilities, some of the most agile, compelling modern dancers are just as likely to be showcased in a fast-paced, multi-camera montage. Is inventive filmmaking’s gain the distinctive performer’s loss? Does one synergise the other – or cover up lack of skill with carefully placed camerawork?

As with any real textual analysis, you can’t simply look at the duration of a shot so much as at what’s happening within it: how it’s being used to tell a story, evoke a feeling. Musicals, so often thought of as simple, uncomplicated pleasures, have a much more complex relationship than one might expect with where to put the camera. And with the genre’s current resurgence, it seems an apt time to examine the shifts in how the big screen has historically visualised dance – whether changes in music, from the Hollywood Golden Age of big band and show tunes to 21st-century rap and electronica, demands a different cinematic vocabulary; and what snazzy new routines the movie musical might learn in the future.

Further reading