The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film's characters, though in some cases they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate "production numbers".
The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical after the emergence of sound film technology. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery and locations that would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the diegetic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.
The 1930s through the early 1950s are considered to be the golden age of the musical film, when the genre's popularity was at its highest in the Western world.
Musical short films were made by Lee de Forest in 1923–24. Beginning in 1926, thousands of Vitaphone shorts were made, many featuring bands, vocalists, and dancers. The earliest feature-length films with synchronized sound had only a soundtrack of music and occasional sound effects that played while the actors portrayed their characters just as they did in silent films: without audible dialogue. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927 by Warner Brothers, was the first to include an audio track including non-diegetic music and diegetic music, but it had only a short sequence of spoken dialogue. This feature-length film was also a musical, featuring Al Jolson singing "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face", "Toot, Toot, Tootsie", "Blue Skies", and "My Mammy". Historian Scott Eyman wrote, "As the film ended and applause grew with the houselights, Sam Goldwyn's wife Frances looked around at the celebrities in the crowd. She saw 'terror in all their faces', she said, as if they knew that 'the game they had been playing for years was finally over'." Still, only isolated sequences featured "live" sound; most of the film had only a synchronous musical score. In 1928, Warner Brothers followed this up with another Jolson part-talkie, The Singing Fool, which was a blockbuster hit. Theaters scrambled to install the new sound equipment and to hire Broadway composers to write musicals for the screen. The first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, included a musical sequence in a night club. The enthusiasm of audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively. The Broadway Melody (1929) had a show-biz plot about two sisters competing for a charming song-and-dance man. Advertised by MGM as the first "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing" feature film, it was a hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1929. There was a rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage to star in lavishly filmed versions of Broadway hits. The Love Parade (Paramount 1929) starred Maurice Chevalier and newcomer Jeanette MacDonald, written by Broadway veteran Guy Bolton.
Warner Brothers produced the first screen operetta, The Desert Song in 1929. They spared no expense and photographed a large percentage of the film in Technicolor. This was followed by the first all-color, all-talking musical feature which was entitled On with the Show (1929). The most popular film of 1929 was the second all-color, all-talking feature which was entitled Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). This film broke all box office records and remained the highest-grossing film ever produced until 1939. Suddenly, the market became flooded with musicals, revues, and operettas. The following all-color musicals were produced in 1929 and 1930 alone: The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929), The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), The Rogue Song (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under a Texas Moon (1930), Bride of the Regiment (1930), Whoopee! (1930), King of Jazz (1930), Viennese Nights (1930), and Kiss Me Again (1930). In addition, there were scores of musical features released with color sequences.
Hollywood released more than 100 musical films in 1930, but only 14 in 1931. By late 1930, audiences had been oversaturated with musicals and studios were forced to cut the music from films that were then being released. For example, Life of the Party (1930) was originally produced as an all-color, all-talking musical comedy. Before it was released, however, the songs were cut out. The same thing happened to Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931) and Manhattan Parade (1932) both of which had been filmed entirely in Technicolor. Marlene Dietrich sang songs successfully in her films, and Rodgers and Hart wrote a few well-received films, but even their popularity waned by 1932. The public had quickly come to associate color with musicals and thus the decline in their popularity also resulted in a decline in color productions.
The taste in musicals revived again in 1933 when director Busby Berkeley began to enhance the traditional dance number with ideas drawn from the drill precision he had experienced as a soldier during World War I. In films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Berkeley choreographed a number of films in his unique style. Berkeley's numbers typically begin on a stage but gradually transcend the limitations of theatrical space: his ingenious routines, involving human bodies forming patterns like a kaleidoscope, could never fit onto a real stage and the intended perspective is viewing from straight above.
Musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood during the classical era; the Fred and Ginger pairing was particularly successful, resulting in a number of classic films, such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937). Many dramatic actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typecasting. For instance, the multi-talented James Cagney had originally risen to fame as a stage singer and dancer, but his repeated casting in "tough guy" roles and mob films gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney's Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) allowed him to sing and dance, and he considered it to be one of his finest moments.
Many comedies (and a few dramas) included their own musical numbers. The Marx Brothers' films included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Brothers to highlight their musical talents. Their final film, entitled Love Happy (1949), featured Vera-Ellen, considered to be the best dancer among her colleagues and professionals in the half century.
During the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, a production unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer headed by Arthur Freed made the transition from old-fashioned musical films, whose formula had become repetitive, to something new. (However, they also produced Technicolor remakes of such musicals as Show Boat, which had previously been filmed in the 1930s.) In 1939, Freed was hired as associate producer for the film Babes in Arms. Starting in 1944 with Meet Me in St. Louis, the Freed Unit worked somewhat independently of its own studio to produce some of the most popular and well-known examples of the genre. The products of this unit include Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953). This era saw musical stars become household names, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney, Vera-Ellen, Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Fred Astaire was also coaxed out of retirement for Easter Parade and made a permanent comeback.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and continuing up to today, the musical film became less of a bankable genre that could be relied upon for sure-fire hits. Audiences for them lessened and fewer musical films were produced as the genre became less mainstream and more specialized.
In the 1960s, the critical and box-office success of the films West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Oliver!, and Funny Girl suggested that the traditional musical was in good health. Also, French filmmaker Jacques Demy's musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort were great successes with critics. However popular musical tastes were being heavily affected by rock and roll and the freedom and youth associated with it, and indeed Elvis Presley made a few films that have been equated with the old musicals in terms of form. Most of the musical films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music were straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions. The most successful musicals of the 1960s created specifically for film were Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, two of Disney's biggest hits.
The phenomenal box-office performance of The Sound of Music gave the major Hollywood studios more confidence to produce lengthy, large-budget musicals. Despite the resounding success of some of these films, Hollywood also produced a large number of musical flops in the late 1960s and early 1970s which appeared to seriously misjudge public taste. The commercially and/or critically unsuccessful films included Camelot, Finian's Rainbow, Hello Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Doctor Dolittle, Star!, Darling Lili, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Paint Your Wagon, Song of Norway, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Man of La Mancha, Lost Horizon, and Mame. Collectively and individually these failures crippled several of the major studios.
In the 1970s, film culture and the changing demographics of filmgoers placed greater emphasis on gritty realism, while the pure entertainment and theatricality of classical-era Hollywood musicals was seen as old-fashioned. Despite this, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret were more traditional musicals closely adapted from stage shows and were strong successes with critics and audiences. Changing cultural mores and the abandonment of the Hays Code in 1968 also contributed to changing tastes in film audiences. The 1973 film of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar was met with some criticism by religious groups but was well received. By the mid-1970s, filmmakers avoided the genre in favor of using music by popular rock or pop bands as background music, partly in hope of selling a soundtrack album to fans. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was originally released in 1975 and was a critical failure until it started midnight screenings in the 1980s where it achieved cult status. 1976 saw the release of the low-budget comic musical, The First Nudie Musical, released by Paramount. The 1978 film version of Grease was a smash hit; its songs were original compositions done in a 1950s pop style. However, the sequel Grease 2 (released in 1982) bombed at the box-office. Films about performers which incorporated gritty drama and musical numbers interwoven as a diegetic part of the storyline were produced, such as Lady Sings the Blues, All That Jazz, and New York, New York. Some musicals made in Britain experimented with the form, such as Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War (released in 1969), Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone and Ken Russell's Tommy and Lisztomania.
A number of film musicals were still being made that were financially and critically less successful than in the musical's heyday. They include The Wiz, At Long Last Love, Mame, Man of La Mancha, Lost Horizon, Godspell, Phantom of the Paradise, Funny Lady (Barbra Streisand's sequel to Funny Girl), A Little Night Music, and Hair amongst others. The critical wrath against At Long Last Love, in particular, was so strong that it was never released on home video. Fantasy musical films Scrooge, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Pete's Dragon, and Disney's Bedknobs & Broomsticks were also released in the 1970s, the latter winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
By the 1980s, financiers grew increasingly confident in the musical genre, partly buoyed by the relative health of the musical on Broadway and London's West End. Productions of the 1980s and 1990s included The Apple, Xanadu, The Blues Brothers, Annie, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Victor Victoria, Footloose, Fast Forward, A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Forbidden Zone, Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth, Evita, and Everyone Says I Love You. However, Can't Stop the Music, starring the Village People, was a calamitous attempt to resurrect the old-style musical and was released to audience indifference in 1980. Little Shop of Horrors was based on an off-Broadway musical adaptation of a 1960 Roger Corman film, a precursor of later film-to-stage-to-film adaptations, including The Producers.
Many animated films of the period – predominately from Disney – included traditional musical numbers. Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz had previous musical theatre experience and wrote songs for animated films during this time, supplanting Disney workhorses the Sherman Brothers. Starting with 1989's The Little Mermaid, the Disney Renaissance gave new life to the Film Musical. Other successful animated musicals included Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas from Disney proper, The Nightmare Before Christmas from Disney division Touchstone Pictures, The Prince of Egypt from DreamWorks, Anastasia from Fox and Don Bluth, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut from Paramount. (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were adapted for the stage after their blockbuster success.)
In the 21st century movie musicals were reborn with darker musicals, epic drama musicals and comedy-drama musicals such as Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Les Misérables, and La La Land all of which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy in their respective years, while such films as The Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Nine, Into the Woods, and The Greatest Showman were only nominated. Chicago was also the first musical since Oliver! to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
One specific musical trend was the rising number of jukebox musicals based on music from various pop/rock artists on the big screen, some of which based on Broadway shows. Examples of Broadway-based jukebox musical films included Mamma Mia! (ABBA), Rock of Ages, and Sunshine on Leith (The Proclaimers). Original ones included Across the Universe (The Beatles), Moulin Rouge! (various pop hits), and Idlewild (Outkast).
Disney also returned to musicals with Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, The Muppets, Frozen, Muppets Most Wanted, Into the Woods, and Moana. Following a string of successes with live action fantasy adaptations of several of their animated features, Disney produced a live action version of Beauty and the Beast, the first of this live action fantasy adaptation pack to be an all-out musical, and features new songs as well as new lyrics to both the Gaston number and the reprise of the title song. Pixar also produced Coco, the very first computer-animated musical film by the company.
Biopics about music artists and showmen were also big in the 21st century. Examples include 8 Mile (Eminem), Ray (Ray Charles), Walk the Line (Johnny Cash and June Carter), La Vie en Rose (Édith Piaf), Notorious (Biggie Smalls), Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson), CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (TLC), Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B (Aaliyah), Whitney (Whitney Houston), Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A), The Greatest Showman (P. T. Barnum).
Director Damien Chazelle created a musical film called La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It was meant to reintroduce the traditional jazz style of song numbers with influences from the Golden Age of Hollywood and Jacques Demy's French musicals while incorporating a contemporary/modern take on the story and characters with balances in fantasy numbers and grounded reality. It received 14 nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations with Titanic (1997) and All About Eve (1950), and won the awards for Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Production Design.
Spain has a history and tradition of musical films that were made independent of Hollywood influence. The first films arise during the Second Spanish Republic of the 1930s and the advent of sound films. A few zarzuelas (Spanish operetta) were even adapted as screenplays during the silent era. The beginnings of the Spanish musical were focused on romantic Spanish archetypes: Andalusian villages and landscapes, gypsys, "bandoleros", and copla and other popular folk songs included in story development. These films had even more box-office success than Hollywood premieres in Spain. The first Spanish film stars came from the musical genre: Imperio Argentina, Estrellita Castro, Florián Rey (director) and, later, Lola Flores, Sara Montiel and Carmen Sevilla. The Spanish musical started to expand and grow. Juvenile stars appear and top the box-office. Marisol, Joselito, Pili & Mili, and Rocío Dúrcal were the major figures of musical films from 1960s to 1970s. Due to Spanish transition to democracy and rise of "Movida culture", the musical genre felt into a decadence of production and box-office, only saved by Carlos Saura and his flamenco musical films.
An exception to the decline of the musical film is Indian cinema, especially the Bollywood film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where the majority of films have been and still are musicals. The majority of films produced in the Tamil industry based in Chennai (formerly Madras), Sandalwood based in Bangalore, Telugu industry based in Hyderabad, and Malayalam industry are also musicals.
In the 2000s, Bollywood musicals played an instrumental role in the revival of the musical film genre in the Western world. Baz Luhrmann stated that his successful musical film Moulin Rouge! (2001) was directly inspired by Bollywood musicals. The film thus pays homage to India, incorporating an Indian-themed play based on the ancient Sanskrit drama The Little Clay Cart and a Bollywood-style dance sequence with a song from the film China Gate. The Guru and The 40-Year-Old Virgin also feature Indian-style song-and-dance sequences; the Bollywood musical Lagaan (2001) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; two other Bollywood films Devdas (2002) and Rang De Basanti (2006) were nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language; and Danny Boyle's Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) also features a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number during the film's end credits.
Unlike the musical films of Hollywood and Bollywood, popularly identified with escapism, the Soviet musical was first and foremost a form of propaganda. Vladimir Lenin said that cinema was "the most important of the arts." His successor, Joseph Stalin, also recognized the power of cinema in efficiently spreading Communist Party doctrine. Films were widely popular in the 1920s, but it was foreign cinema that dominated the Soviet filmgoing market. Films from Germany and the U.S. proved more entertaining than Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's historical dramas. By the 1930s it was clear that if the Soviet cinema was to compete with its Western counterparts, it would have to give audiences what they wanted: the glamour and fantasy they got from Hollywood. The musical film, which emerged at that time, embodied the ideal combination of entertainment and official ideology.
A struggle between laughter for laughter's sake and entertainment with a clear ideological message would define the golden age of the Soviet musical of the 1930s and 1940s. Then-head of the film industry Boris Shumyatsky sought to emulate Hollywood's conveyor belt method of production, going so far as to suggest the establishment of a Soviet Hollywood.
In 1930, the esteemed Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein went to the United States with fellow director Grigori Aleksandrov to study Hollywood's filmmaking process. The American films greatly impacted Aleksandrov, particularly the musicals. He returned in 1932, and in 1934 directed The Jolly Fellows, the first Soviet musical. The film was light on plot and focused more on the comedy and musical numbers. Party officials at first met the film with great hostility. Aleksandrov defended his work by arguing the notion of laughter for laughter's sake. Finally, when Aleksandrov showed the film to Stalin, the leader decided that musicals were an effective means of spreading propaganda. Messages like the importance of collective labor and rags-to-riches stories would become the plots of most Soviet musicals.
The success of The Jolly Fellows ensured a place in Soviet cinema for the musical format, but immediately Shumyatsky set strict guidelines to make sure the films promoted Communist values. Shumyatsky's decree "Movies for the Millions" demanded conventional plots, characters, and montage to successfully portray Socialist Realism (the glorification of industry and the working class) on film.
The first successful blend of a social message and entertainment was Aleksandrov's Circus (1936). It starred his wife, Lyubov Orlova (an operatic singer who had also appeared in The Jolly Fellows) as an American circus performer who has to immigrate to the USSR from the U.S. because she has a mixed-race child, whom she had with a black man. Amidst the backdrop of lavish musical productions, she finally finds love and acceptance in the USSR, providing the message that racial tolerance can only be found in the Soviet Union.
The influence of Busby Berkeley's choreography on Aleksandrov's directing can be seen in the musical number leading up to the climax. Another, more obvious reference to Hollywood is the Charlie Chaplin impersonator who provides comic relief throughout the film. Four million people in Moscow and Leningrad went to see Circus during its first month in theaters.
Another of Aleksandrov's more-popular films was The Bright Path (1940). This was a reworking of the fairytale Cinderella set in the contemporary Soviet Union. The Cinderella of the story was again Orlova, who by this time was the most popular star in the USSR. It was a fantasy tale, but the moral of the story was that a better life comes from hard work. Whereas in Circus, the musical numbers involved dancing and spectacle, the only type of choreography in Bright Path is the movement of factory machines. The music was limited to Orlova's singing. Here, work provided the spectacle.
The other director of musical films was Ivan Pyryev. Unlike Aleksandrov, the focus of Pyryev's films was life on the collective farms. His films, Tractor Drivers (1939), The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), and his most famous, Cossacks of the Kuban (1949) all starred his wife, Marina Ladynina. Like in Aleksandrov's Bright Path, the only choreography was the work the characters were doing on film. Even the songs were about the joys of working.
Rather than having a specific message for any of his films, Pyryev promoted Stalin's slogan "life has become better, life has become more joyous." Sometimes this message was in stark contrast with the reality of the time. During the filming of Cossacks of the Kuban, the Soviet Union was going through a postwar famine. In reality, the actors who were singing about a time of prosperity were hungry and malnourished. The films did, however, provide escapism and optimism for the viewing public.
The most popular film of the brief era of Stalinist musicals was Alexandrov's 1938 film Volga-Volga. The star, again, was Lyubov Orlova and the film featured singing and dancing, having nothing to do with work. It is the most unusual of its type. The plot surrounds a love story between two individuals who want to play music. They are unrepresentative of Soviet values in that their focus is more on their music than their jobs. The gags poke fun at the local authorities and bureaucracy. There is no glorification of industry since it takes place in a small rural village. Work is not glorified either, since the plot revolves around a group of villagers using their vacation time to go on a trip up the Volga to perform in Moscow.
Volga-Volga followed the aesthetic principles of Socialist Realism rather than the ideological tenets. It became Stalin's favorite film and he gave it as a gift to President Roosevelt during WWII. It is another example of one of the films that claimed life is better. Released at the height of Stalin's purges, it provided escapism and a comforting illusion for the public.