America embraces a new kind of cinematic musical

There was a time in America when the movie musical ruled Hollywood. For decades, movie musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, or The King and I dominated both the academy awards and the box office. These films had mass family appeal, featured amazing soundtracks, and starred some of the most multifaceted performers ever to walk the stage. So where have movie musicals gone?

Some might argue that they never went anywhere, citing the recent success of La La Land or Beauty and the Beast. However, do these stack up to the movie musicals of old? Not really. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone talking their way through dreary piano plunking is not quite Grease. Similarly, Emma Watson’s robotic auto tune could never compete with Judy Garland’s passionate “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The truth is if these modern movie stars had lived anytime during the 30’s to the 60’s, when Hollywood was cranking out musicals, they would have been waiting tables. The reason that our modern musicals can’t hold a candle to their predecessors is because of sheer talent. Take Gene Kelly, for example, the star of the wildly popular 1952 musical Singing in the Rain. Kelly, a war veteran, could sing, act, and was regarded as one of the greatest dancers of his generation. Julie Andrews could belt out a ballad in musicals like Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music and have no trouble carrying the scene. There are few performers left in Hollywood who can act successfully, let alone sing, dance, and serve in the military. A lack of multifaceted performers leads studios to cast actors who can’t carry a tune.

The second major reason for the change of the modern musical is the lack of Broadway composers. To have original musicals, you do need original music. Over the past few years, we’ve seen Hollywood remake every stage musical from Les Miserables to Into the Woods. Not that there’s anything wrong with these musicals, except for the fact that they’re not original. Movie studios are simply remaking established Broadway shows with actors who cannot sing. With the notable exception of La La Land’s bleak score, no one is composing original movie musicals. I’m certain that in a few years we’ll get a Hamilton movie; I just hope they hire the original Broadway cast.

The death of the old movie musical has left a vacuum in American cinema. That vacuum is being filled by a new spin on the musical: the soundtrack film. The massive success of Guardians of the Galaxy and subsequently Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has opened a new chapter in movie musicals. While not a traditional musical, both Guardians films used a classic rock soundtrack to punctuate the movie. My favorite example is the director’s decision to play Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” while the protagonists escape out of prison. This new species of movie musical is perfectly suited for our time. It does not require a Broadway composer and lyricist creating a score. Nor does it require incredibly talented performers singing and acting. The nostalgic soundtracks expose children to the music of their parents’ generation, bridging cultural gaps.

While the success of the soundtrack movie is groundbreaking, the idea of using music to tell a cinematic story is not new. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas incorporated songs like “Rags to Riches” and “Beyond the Sea” giving the movie atmosphere and flavor. But the modern use of the soundtrack in movies like Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is much more than providing background noise. Baby Driver elevates the soundtrack musical to a new level. The film is about a young getaway driver named Baby who uses a retro playlist to drown out his tinnitus. The entire movie is built around this soundtrack. The car chases and shootouts are choreographed to the music, not the other way around. Baby Driver takes the use of the soundtrack one step further than Guardians of the Galaxy. For one, Baby Driver’s album is more than double the length of Guardians. Deeper than that, Baby Driver’s soundtrack tells a story. And that’s the whole idea of a musical. If you listen to Les Miserables or Hamilton, you will hear the story through the music.

A far cry from the musicals of old, today’s musicals face the challenge of lacking high-quality original scores and a suffering from a shortage of performers capable of fulfilling musical and dancing roles. However, in the gaping hole left by musicals, the modern soundtrack musical has arisen, and while it may not have the trappings of a 1930’s Hollywood sing-along, it continues the legacy of the American musical.

Alexander Arroyo is a first-year Political Science major. He enjoys jazz, seafood, and sketching. Contact him at