Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Review: Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter

The second book on my 2014 Summer Classic Film Book Reading List is DANGEROUS RHYTHM: WHY MOVIE MUSICALS MATTER by Richard Barrios.

Barrios previously wrote another valued book on my shelves, A SONG IN THE DARK, a history of early film musicals. Since musicals were how I first came to fall in love with classic films, I particularly looked forward to and enjoyed reading his new book on the topic, DANGEROUS RHYTHM.

DANGEROUS RHYTHM is a survey of the musical genre and its long history, which also considers questions such as why musicals have fallen out of favor for long periods and why the genre seems to attract less attention and respect with some film fans. (Part of his theory regarding the latter question is that musicals tend to be a very collaborative effort and aren't seen as the vision of a particular filmmaker, though he acknowledges exceptions such as director Vincente Minnelli.) I particularly appreciated the inclusion of a chapter on animated musicals, as they mean so much to me and they are sometimes overlooked in the musical genre.

Barrios's book calls to mind books by favorite film writers like Jeanine Basinger, in that to some extent it feels like a "conversation" about movies; the author shares a steady flow of thoughts and the reader mentally compares notes, agreeing, disagreeing, and occasionally jotting down a movie title to put on the "to watch" list.

As usually happens in a book of this type, I concurred with many of his points, such as his appreciation for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) and Doris Day; on the other hand, I tend to find the opinion of anyone who doesn't appreciate my beloved WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) both suspect and too easily predictable -- he at least acknowledges "the affection that many hold for WHITE CHRISTMAS." I also looked askance at what is clearly a grudging admiration for THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). That said, it's perhaps more interesting to read a book where the author's opinions don't always mirror my own!

While Barrios's opinionated style makes for entertaining reading, I did wish at times that things were a little less emphatically black and white. I felt that he tended to see musicals as great or bad, without much room for the gray area in between; there's a vast number of musicals out there which might not be classics but which have brought me great pleasure over the years.

He does periodically mention some bright spots in movies for which he otherwise doesn't have much use, such as admiring the dances by Ann Miller and Bobby Van in SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953), and he accurately acknowledges THE BELLE OF NEW YORK (1952) as "flimsy but engaging," but I wished I felt a little more admiration for those "in between" films I love. I also would have liked to see some appreciation of Deanna Durbin, who sadly only merits passing reference in this musical history; indeed, sopranos in general (i.e., Grayson and Powell) receive short shrift from Barrios.

As a side note, simply because I see it happening so frequently: I do wish film historians would have the self-restraint to refrain from political snark, which immediately alienates half of a readership which otherwise would be united by interest in the topic at hand.

While my own comments here have tended to focus on our areas of disagreement -- I'm clearly just as opinionated as Mr. Barrios! -- DANGEROUS RHYTHM is a well-written, informed, and at times thought-provoking book which I recommend.

DANGEROUS RHYTHM is 276 pages, including footnotes and index. It is illustrated with black and white photographs sporadically printed on the text pages.

Sincere thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of this book.

4 Comments:

OpenID vienna said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review. Sounds like one I should get soon.

12:20 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura
I should start by saying that musicals are not my favourite genre but that doesn't mean I don't like them or do not occasionally feel like watching one. I certainly do appreciate the talent, the glamour and the spectacle involved.

Currently, I am watching a very fine 13-part TV series on UK TV called "Hollywood Singing & Dancing" that premiered in 2008 at The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Maybe you were there! It is a very comprehensive and interesting programme, hosted by Shirley Jones. We even got to see a brief interview with a still-gorgeous Rhonda Fleming!

I feel sure you are fully aware of this great series and loved it!
Best wishes,
Jerry

3:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you both, Vienna and Jerry, for your comments. I hope you'll have a chance to enjoy the book.

You know what, Jerry, I don't recognize the series you mention off the top of my head -- and how interesting it premiered at the Egyptian! I need to look into that further, given my love for musicals. Thanks!

Best wishes,
Laura

1:41 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Laura,
I may have crossed wires slightly here. The premiere at The Egyptian appears to be a film which is an edited-down version of the longer TV series. It is the series I am watching and which I think you would absolutely love!
It can be purchased in entirety from Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Hollywood-Singing-Dancing-1920s-2000s/dp/B003VE9WK6/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1403024014&sr=1-2&keywords=hollywood+singing+and+dancing
Sorry, that is a lengthy link but I hope it helps and is of interest.
Best wishes,
Jerry

10:01 AM  

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