Le Musical hollywoodien: Histoire, esthétique, création [The Hollywood Musical: History, Aesthetics, Creation]

Le Musical hollywoodien: Histoire, esthétique, création [The Hollywood Musical: History, Aesthetics, Creation]
N.T. Binh and José Moure, Editors

Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, BE, 2021
496 pp., illus. 48 col. Paper, 26 €
ISBN: 978-2-87449-869-5.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
September 2021

One of the genres having emerged thanks to synchronized sound, the Hollywood musical has been immensely popular, yet not necessarily critically or scholarly acclaimed during its long history. Its very popularity made it an easy target for most enemies of the Dream Factory, while its inevitable concessions to the Culture Industry (we shouldn’t forget that a musical is generally expensive to make) made its position even more doubtful, as if the very existence of the genre (fun, money, entertainment) were incompatible with the creativity and innovation that is generally asked from “art”. In the French ‘auteur’ philosophy, however, there has always been room – and even sometimes a soft spot – for revisionist readings of studio-based productions. The upshot of an international conference organized in the wake of the success of La La Land (2016) and a large exhibit in a Parisian theater, the impressive collection edited by two Sorbonne film scholars is a new and excellent contribution to this long-standing tradition.

French writing on cinema has changed a lot in recent years. It also has become truly international. Important works and authors are now systematically translated, while non-French authors have become more than welcome contributors to collective publications. Moreover, or as a direct result of this intellectual import, most French authors are now establishing a fruitful dialogue with past and ongoing research in English and other languages, as clearly shown in the present collection, with the work by Rick Altman as a good example of these exchanges. Altman’s trendsetting 1987 book on the musical was already available in French in 1992, and the author himself is present in this book with the translation of another article as well as frequent quotations and discussions in several other essays. More generally, though, one can notice in this collection an important shift from what the US-UK reception has called “French Theory” to a much more historically oriented way of reading and interpreting that is definitely the consequence of the encounter with the more empirical take on film studies in certain strands of Anglophone scholarship.

Lavishly illustrated (in full color!) and covering a wide range of topics, periods, and movies, the collection edited by Binh and Moure does more than just adding new stones to a better knowledge of the history of the Hollywood musical, which is its exclusive subject: all contributors have wisely decided to resist the temptation to stretch the corpus beyond the properly Hollywoodian limits (even in the chapter on contemporary expansions, for instance in recent television series, the focus always remains on the US production). The book is also an important step in the very revaluation of the classic musical, and it achieves that goal by combining two methods and a half (but a very special half, as I will explain).

The Hollywood Musical offers a good merger of historical research and cultural studies. All contributors display an in-depth knowledge of the movie production, they study both the masterpieces of the genres and works that are now largely forgotten, a combined approach that gives a more nuanced vision of the past, yet not to the extent that the difference between the former and the latter tends to be blurred. The comparison of Ninotchka and its musical remake, Silk Stockings, for instance, is not meant to suggest that the remake has the same qualities as the original, despite the presence of composer Cole Porter and director Robert Mamoulian, but offers many new insights, first in the practice of musical remakes as a special subgenre in the 1950s, when Hollywood was turning to technicolor, cinemascope and stereophony as survival techniques in its battle with television home entertainment, and second in the importance of the political and ideological context of the movie industry (the anticommunism of Lubitsch is very different from the later one in the Cold War period). As far as the cultural studies is concerned – and how would it be possible to seriously study the musical without taking into account gender studies, for instance?–, it is a pleasure to stress the permanent concern of close-reading and thus the use of a very “light” version of the cultural studies theories and methods. All 20 chapters of this book refrain from putting theory first and analysis second. The close-reading of details of the worlds on screen (settings, costumes, makeup, movements, music, and the manifold combinations of all these elements) is exemplarily supported by the clever page design and the excellent quality of the illustrations, which makes the reading as smooth and elegant as the dance scenes under scrutiny. In addition, readers have the possibility to open their YouTube channel to watch most of the scenes or listen to a large number of the songs that are analyzed in the various essays –a multimodal or expanded approach of reading books we are now all familiar with.

On top of these this double methodological and theoretical framework (history and cultural studies on the theoretical side, archival research and close-reading on the practical side), there is however what I called a supplementary “half”, but a half that is at the same thing “everything”: writing. Throughout the whole book, one feels a sincere love and enthusiasm of the object of study, which happily contaminates the writing style of the contributors. Thoughtful scholarship and fresh, passionate, and often very personal writing don’t have to be incompatible, and this book is the perfect example of such a match.