Giving Movie Musicals Their Due

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (that is, a sequel) opened in theaters this week. I didn’t realize that the first film, Mamma Mia! The Musical was a major hit when it was released in 2009, selling hundreds of billions of tickets to folks worldwide. I wasn’t of them, having a love/hate relationship with the Abba tunes featured in the film.

In fact I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with movie musicals. La La Land lost me after the first song and dance number from the otherwise appealing leads who could neither sing nor dance. And apart from that title and a few others (notably The Greatest Showman—a recent release now available on a spectacular UHD Blu-ray), the musical hasn’t received a lot of film love in recent years. But it was, for decades, a movie staple.

As a youngster barely out of knee-pants I was lucky enough to see a number of stage musicals in New York. I had an uncle who worked in a theater box office and could get us tickets on my frequent visits from my childhood home in Connecticut. I became a bit of a snob, and rarely found movie musicals convincing. It’s one thing to hear actor-singers on stage break out in song, quite another to witness the same thing in a photo-realistic film. That’s why animated musicals tend to work better than live action; they’re semi-realistic to start with. Disney discovered that from the beginning, and its animated films still often feature songs (though Pixar, now owned by Disney, avoids singing for the most part, the most obvious exception being last summer’s Coco).

One could argue that the modern movie musical can’t hold a candle to the classics. Unfortunately the later, while they sometimes receive good video transfers, tend to have mediocre sound. But they can be listenable. If we mark the ‘50s as the demarcation line for classics, two obvious best musical candidates are The Wizard of Oz from 1939 and Singin’ in the Rain from 1952. I won’t say much about the former; books have been written about it. The story originated, in fact, from a book), and has been re-done and re-imagined in animation, in an all-black stage and film version (The Wiz) and in other forms too numerous to mention.

Singin‘ in the Rain is often called the best movie musical ever made. Even if you don’t care for musicals, its depiction of the movies as they transitioned from the silent era to talkies, and how this affected silent film stars with faces for films but unfortunate voices, has never been done better or with bigger laughs. The Blu-ray is excellent, ditto for Oz, though don’t expect a widescreen aspect ratio or better than decent sound from either. In an ironic twist on Singin‘ in the Rain’s plot about a seminal change in the film industry, both Cinemascope and stereophonic sound entered the market barely a year after its 1952 release.

The best musical of the “modern” era, or perhaps ever, might well be 1964’s My Fair Lady. Everyone knows by now about the controversy surrounding the choice of non-singer Audrey Hepburn in the lead female role of Eliza Doolittle, a role Julie Andrews created on stage. Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, a mainstay in dubbing for non-singing female actors (Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story among others).

Dubbing was, in fact, common for the filmed musical, often with comical results. In those early films the songs were recorded first and the actor (sometimes the original singer, often not) mimed to the words. On a good audio system I’ve often noticed the difference between the ambience of canned, studio recorded vocals and the ambience of spoken on-set dialogue. That was an issue that ‘50s recording technology couldn’t quite eliminate (or was assumed by the engineers to be unnoticeable in the theater) and careless dubbing is just one of the many things that take me out of those early musicals. When I saw the movie version of The Sound of Music in the theater, a lady seated behind me, on hearing Climb Every Mountain, quietly exclaimed to her friends, “I didn’t know Peggy Wood could sing like that!” She couldn’t of course; it was clearly dubbed.

The brilliance of My Fair Lady isn’t just in the songs. Most of the dialogue was carried over directly from the original play, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Its wit is brilliantly brought to life by the actors, particularly Rex Harrison’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Henry Higgins (the film received eight Oscars, including Best Picture). As with Hepburn, Harrison was no singer, but his lyrics were written so that he could sing-speak them to the musical accompaniment. It worked perfectly in both in the theater and on the screen. Interestingly, Harrison insisted on doing his songs live on the film set rather than pre-recording them. He claimed to vary their delivery so much from performance to performance (when on stage) that he feared he could never properly match his live-filmed performance with his pre-recorded version.

I found the Ascot racetrack scene one of the most interesting (and funniest). They didn’t try to “open up” the setting by filming it at a real racetrack, which would have detracted from the film’s stage-like feel. But they erred in how they showed the horses running past the bored spectators. In British thoroughbred racing the horses run clockwise, so should have passed the crowd (as we face them) from left to right as they race toward the finish line. In the film they were running counter-clockwise toward the finish line, so they pass from right to left, as they would in the U.S.

And if you look closely in the pre-race Ascot Opening Day song, you might also catch a quick, two second closeup of a young extra that looks remarkably like Stockard Channing. Channing had a major part in 1978’s Grease, where she famously played a teenager while then in her early 30s. In addition Jeremy Brett (singing also dubbed!), the actor that plays Freddie Eynsford-Hill, a young aristocrat smitten by Eliza, is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes in a later British television series that ran from 1884 to 1994.

My copy of My Fair Lady was the first release of the film on Blu-ray (2011), a release that has been much criticized despite the film having received a 1994 restoration—a restoration limited by the early digital tools then available. I was surprised, however, that despite that criticism my copy both looks and sounds impressive (on an 8-foot wide screen with a crisp image, realistic color, natural-sounding dialogue (often steered—a technique uncommon today), and a full-bodied score). But a later release, the 50th Anniversary version, is reportedly even better. For the latter the source material was exhaustively restored, this time with far better digital tools, and the original 65mm (Super Panavision 70) elements scanned in 8K and mastered in 4K for the 2014 HD Blu-ray release. I’m anxious to replace my copy with that new version, but would rather wait until when (or if) they release the film in true 4K on UHD Blu-ray with enhanced color and graded for HDR. Strong memo to CBS, the film’s current owner: Do It!