Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Music Note #4:" Is Disney the Baby of MGM?

If you are old enough, you should remember the Golden Age of the Musical Film from the 1930s to the 1960s in which MGM studios was the king. If not, you may recognize some of the most famous musicals in history:

An American in Paris (1951)

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Babes in Arms (1937)

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Broadway Melody (1929, 1935)

Easter Parade (1948)

For Me and My Gal (1942)

Funny Face (1957)

Gigi (1958)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

High Society (1956)

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Kiss Me, Kate (1953)

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

On the Town (1949)

Show Boat (1951)

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Ziegfield Follies (1946)

In those days, it was good to be a triple threat- a singer, an actor and a dancer; even if you could not sing or dance that well, you had to learn (Marlon Brando had to with Guys and Dolls). Some of MGM's most famous stars included, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Donald O' Connor, Ann Miller, Howard Keel, Leslie Caron and Kathryn Grayson. The studio even had MGM Records, which was created in 1946 to release soundtracks to their musicals. But they also signed artists who were not in the musical films, such as Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis Jr., The Righteous Brothers, and Roy Orbinson.

Other studios produced quite a number of musicals that were hits, too. Paramount pictures produced Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's Road films, while RKO produced musicals with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Twentieth-Century Fox produced Shirley Temple films, musicals with Betty Grable and later the great The Sound of Music.

However, as films in the 1960s and 1970s began to focus more on being realistic, the Golden Age of Musical Film grew dimmer. Audiences became more cynical and the musicals of the past seem just too artificial and after a while it felt like studios were making musicals with no real or original story to them. But that happened in 1933, when the studios overdid the musicals, too...

It is now the new millenium and what do we have to replace MGM...Disney! Once again, other studios have released live action musicals, such as Cry Baby (Universal/Imagine, 1990), Chicago (Mirimax, 2002), Moulin Rouge (20th Century Fox, 2001), Dreamgirls (Dreamworks/Paramount, 2006), Mamma Mia! (Universal, 2008) and Hairspray (New Line Cinema, 2007). But, as wonderful as they are, these musicals ran in the same direction as the view in the 60s and 70s, which is more gritty and realistic films or films that have to do with social problems or contemporary issues (like a single mother who does not know who the father of her child is in Mamma Mia!). That sense of innocence and just pure fun is somewhat lost in those films (even though I do love them, too.)

Only Disney has been able to keep that sense of innocence by broadening the audience of these musicals to younger audiences. The age group have not grown old enough yet to be cynical when it comes to musicals and just enjoy them for what they are: two-hours of escapism from the world. Disney has had a long history of musicals, but it was mostly animated musicals in the past:

Snow White (1937)

Pinocchio (1940)

Cinderella (1950)

The Little Mermaid (1989)

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Aladdin (1992)

The Lion King (1994)

Pocahantas (1995)

The Huchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Mulan (1998)

Now, mostly through telelvision, Disney has continued with the MGM style of musicals. The three High School Musical movies (2006, 2007, 2008) , the three Cheetah Girls movies (2003, 2006, 2008) and the new Camp Rock movie (2008 and the upcoming sequel) have revitalized the musical film genre. Also, like MGM, Disney has its own record company, called Hollywood Record, which has signed artists like the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Raven Symone. Although it has other non-Disney artists (Queen, Atreyu, Ballas Hough Band, Breaking Benjamin and Plain White T's), several of the artists on the label also appear is the Disney Channel shows and musical films. Most of the actors on the channel are also expected to sing and dance, even if they cannot do either well (they have to learn). De Ja Vu? In addition to that, others channels are trying to cash in, like Nickelodeon and their new musical, Spectacular. It even has certain stars from the channel, such as Miranda Cosgrove and Drake Bell, who are starting music careers.

In the broad American audience, the MGM-styled musical films are a part of the innocent, nostalgic past. On the other hand, on children-centered networks, like Disney and Nickelodeon, its soul still lives on...

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