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A Modest Proposal: Make Your First Low Budget Film a Musical!

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Horror is a safe bet for young filmmakers. Horror low budget films that were box office hits have shown us that darkness and killer craft can make up for lack of resources. That is awesome, but I want to make the case for another genre: the musical. After many attempts at revival, it does not seem to connect with contemporary audiences. Why? Well, because it’s ripe for reinvention. The degree of difficulty seems daunting, but it would garner your lots of attention. 

An Unfulfilled Promise

Every few years, a high-profile production hits the box office with promises to take us back to the golden age of the Arthur Freed unit at Paramount. And somehow, as good as these movies can be, they never quite deliver on that promise. At best, they turn out to be self-contained hits. Sure, Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) won six Oscars, including Best Picture, but the target audience leaned towards middle age and geriatric. Marshall’s next film, Nine (2009), fizzled out.

Consider Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). You can blame the pandemic for its 20th anniversary passing with nary a sigh. Recently, I was able to catch a screening at my local art house, part of a monthly program that revives classic musicals. It gives you a pause when a film you remember seeing on the opening night gets called a classic. But in this day and age, two decades is an eternity.

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Whether Moulin Rouge! is worthy of the “classic” status is debatable. What’s very clear is that nothing compares to it. Sold as a musical for the MTV generation, it popped up 20 years after the foundation of the cable channel that killed the radio star. But the network had moved on from music video clips to original programming. To be more precise, the success of The Real World franchise brought upon a deluge of reality shows. 

What did young audiences make of the romantic plot? The movie serves as a star-crossed romance between beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and penniless poet Christian (Ewan McGregor), set in a fanciful turn-de-Siecle Paris that would not be out of place at an adult iteration of Disneyland. The hook was that the movie’s songbook consisted of pop hits from all eras, following somewhat cult classic movies of the genre. Lead characters had signature songs to belt in showstopping solo numbers. His was Elton John’s Your Song. Hers was Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away. The Police’s Roxanne became a combative tango. But by and large, the musical numbers were maddening medleys combining verses from songs that no one in his right mind would unite. A call and response between prostitutes and top hat-clad johns mixed Labelle’s Lady Marmalade with Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit.

Forget MTV. It was a jukebox musical for the Napster generation. The movie opened in the early days of the MP3 revolution when burnt CDs displaced the mixed tape as a token of affection. Luhrmann betted on the audience’s familiarity with the songs. Resistance is futile. Those earworms would hypnotize you into surrendering to the heightened emotions of a romantic tragedy. Moulin Rouge! made 57 million dollars domestically. But foreign box office pushed the tally to almost 180 million dollars. It was a bonafide hit, but it failed to convert the young to the genre.

The Cost of Licensing Hits Can Be Prohibitive for Your Low Budget Film

Having recognizable songs brings you a built-in audience. Mamma Mia!(Phyllida Lloyd, 2008) and its sequel, Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (Ol Parker, 2018) had generations of Abba fans who already had made the stage show a success. The rise of jukebox biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018) and Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019) coasted alone on Queen and Elton John fandom.

But check out La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). The bittersweet romance between an actress and a jazz musician in a dreamy version of Los Angeles with mid-20th century spirit moves to the rhythm of all original songs. Chazelle was so sure of his concept and craft that the opening number features unknowns, anonymous men, and women turning a traffic gridlock into an impromptu musical number. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling only appear at the end of the sequence once the musical shenanigans are over. Nowadays it has been upstaged by its role in the wildest Oscar moment before the slap, when it almost took the Oscar for Best Picture away from Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) after Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway fumbled the presentations at the Academy Awards. 

The cost of licensing hits can be prohibitive. Unless you have a hitmaking uncle, let’s keep that option off the table. All-original songs are the way to go. If you are not musically inclined, hook up with up-and-coming talents, composers and lyricists beginning their careers.

We think of musicals as a genre, but one could argue it’s more of a medium, very much like animation.

We think of musicals as a genre, but one could argue it’s more of a medium, very much like animation. The spectrum ranges from farcical comedies like The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967) to gut-wrenching autobiographical drama like Distant Voices, Still Lives(Terence Davies, 1988). If we are talking horror, attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007). You can tell any story with songs.

Why a generation that grew up watching mini-musicals did not warm up to this genre is a phenomenon to be studied. Contemporary audiences have no problem granting suspension of disbelief to flying superheroes crossing parallel universes, but not to a human being bursting into song. In a way, I feel like the action genre took over audiences’ need for kinetic spectacle. And what are action set-pieces, if not musical numbers without songs? The camera dances with the mayhem, and the actor’s athleticism takes center stage.

Full disclosure: I love musicals. I want new talent to tackle it because I want to see more of it. I could rewatch Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944) until the end of my days, but I can’t shake off the idea that we are missing out by leaving behind such a rich medium of expression. Dabbling into it has become so rare that it will earn you a lot of attention. Most of what gets made is tinted by nostalgia if not downright aping the past. The scene is ripe for a low budget film about the here and now. Be bold, and cue up the band.

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