Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

January 27, 2008

Once More, With Feeling

I know, I know! "Blog? What blog?" I wish I could say I was one of those bloggers sympathy-striking with the WGA. In fact, it's just been busy. In all kinds of wonderful and bizarre ways. Though somewhere in there I managed to see a good many movies, including most of the Oscar noms. Bully for me.

So. Where were we?

Riiiight. Something about breaking down movies! Well. Over the last few months, I've seen three musicals in the theatres. THREE. And they couldn't be more different: Across the Universe, Sweeney Todd, and Enchanted. All strange and beautiful in their own ways.

But this got me thinking. What is it about musicals that just feel funny on screen? Here's what I've come to. (And I hope you'll forgive me if this is just general consensus -- I've never articulated it to myself before.) The problem with musicals is that, when characters break into song, generally the story stops. Musical numbers tend to express a particular -- but usually static -- emotion. Sure, maybe a decision is made in there. Or something new is revealed. But generally, it's about the feeling, not plot development.

And to savvy moviegoers, it just feels artificial to go from plot point to emotional consequence like a switch is being flipped. In great non-musical movies, we get both of those things in the same scene, so intertwined we don't distinguish between them.

The best musical numbers, I think, are the ones that somehow incorporate a real turn. In Sweeney Todd, the barber's decision to not slash the judge's throat during "Pretty Women"; in Across the Universe, Jude's outburst at Lucy in the protesting offices, during "Revolution". Simply put, in these scenes, we're engaged by how this musical number is affecting the character... we're not just watching and waiting for what's next.

To recap: don’t forget to have both story and emotion in all of your scenes, whether they're catchily hummable or not!

*To address the thinly-veiled reference in the title, the musical episode of Buffy knew this lesson to be true. The proof? You can listen to just the songs and follow the entire story.

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