Few people consider movie musicals as a defining genre of the 1970s, but Lee Gambin is working to change that perception. In his upcoming book “We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the ‘70s,” Gambin offers a vibrant reconsideration of the decade’s musical highs and lows.
We chatted with Gambin about what made the musicals of the 1970s so interesting.
For many years, I’ve seen film critics claim that movie musicals started to go out of vogue in the 1960s, or even the late 1950s. But some of the most commercially successful musicals were released in the 1970s. Why do the critics seem to forget about the decade’s musicals?
Many critics tend to speak in absolutes and this kind of thinking can be completely damaging to the reputation of a genre and completely untrue. The idea that musicals “went out of fashion” come the sixties is completely bogus. I mean “West Side Story,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” are three obvious incredible examples of classic cinema. They were not only box office successes but the epitome of iconography. And the decade gave us bizarre innovative musicals such as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” as well, that played with the genre.
Of course, the duds, the ones that lost studios money, were the ones that stood out in the minds of folk like Pauline Kael and so forth, such as “Dr. Dolittle” and “Hello, Dolly!,” but there is always this weird ignorance that permeates – I mean, hello, “Oliver!” happened!
But yes, the ’70s delivered extremely successful musicals that were all extremely diverse! I mean if you look at the golden age of movie musicals (the thirties and forties) there are many similar styles and narrative elements (look at the brilliant but very set-in-their-way musicals of Arthur Freed) but in the ’70s you had insanely different musicals and many of them, as you say, major successes.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is incredibly different to “Cabaret” and yet both were major hits. The influence of rock ‘n’ roll also helped resurrect or generate a new interest in the movie musical, but many critics completely overlooked these films because they were possibly too interested in non-genre specified films that were starting to surface during an era of anti-glamour.
Ultimately critics can be very quick to judge. I remember reviews that read “The Wiz: If It Only Had A Brain” and “Xana-Don’t!” and I strongly believe these people have completely missed the point. While both these aforementioned films are no way near perfect, they are however incredibly inventive and stylistically captivating films that not only celebrate Motown and urban Harlem (“The Wiz”) and marry big band era with disco/prog rock (“Xanadu”) but they also explore the African American experience and the concept of artistic influence being whimsical but also fleeting. To dismiss films like “The Wiz” and “Xanadu” without thought is just stupid.
The year 1973 was unusual because there were two big-budget films based on hit Jesus-inspired Broadway musicals, “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” – and both films did not have any major stars in their casts. How did audiences react to these offerings?
“Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” are incredible films. Absolutely brilliant and perfect in every way. They constantly get saddled to together in comparison simply because of their subject matter, but I can tell you they are remarkably different. But yes, to answer your question there were no noted stars in either film. Barry Dennen who played Pontious Pilate in “Superstar” had a small role in “Fiddler on the Roof” (the other Norman Jewison musical of the ’70s), but other than that, the casts were generally unknown talented geniuses.
Audiences were definitely divided about both movie musicals. And there was a lot of religious backlash for both. I have spoken to some of the people responsible for both films and they share some of that experience in the book! It’s amazing.
The decade also had a number of smaller, independently-produced musicals (most notably “Catch My Soul,” “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and “The First Nudie Musical”) that were poorly received in their day, but now seem ahead of their times. Why didn’t critics and audiences appreciate these films when they were new?
Once again, because critics miss the point. I adore a film like “The First Nudie Musical.” It is so well written and so sophisticated. And dirty! Real dirty! And I love that. Another independent musical that must be taken note of is Philippe Mora’s “Trouble in Mopolis” which is an oddball musical set in the prohibition era, however it’s milk and not booze that is banned! Yes, critics need to take note of these films and stop praising the same old “classics.”
The decade also saw a surprisingly small number of rock-oriented musicals, like “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) and “Tommy” (1975) as well as rock-focused documentaries like “Let it Be” and “Woodstock” (both released in 1970). With MTV a few years off on the entertainment horizon, why wasn’t there a greater number of rock-focused musicals?
I disagree. A lot of musicals from the ’70s were exceptionally rock ‘n’ roll driven. Rock musicals flourished in the seventies but found their way into the mainstream on stage in the sixties. Come the ’70s, rock musicals like “Phantom of the Paradise,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Hair,” “Tommy,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Apple,” “200 Motels,” etc. Some of those musicals may not be traditionally considered “rock” in sound, but they most definitely are. They are, at core, rock musicals. They are not musicals written/composed in the traditional book musical sense that was set by legendary authors such as Rodgers and Hammerstein. Hell, even something like “Les Miserables” is essentially a rock musical – its foundation is rock music.
For the benefit of those that know nothing of the decade’s musicals, what would you categorize as the “essentials” for viewing, and why?
Goodness me, a lot of them! Let’s just say there is something for everyone in the decade in regards to musicals. If you want melancholy sweetness you should take on “Pete’s Dragon” which is a terrific play on the absentee father/lonely young boy motif, if you want quirky intelligent character driven drama get onto “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” if you want ridiculousness grab hold of “Can’t Stop the Music” … I mean, the era has something for everyone!