Monday, February 08, 2010
Why A Great Movie Musical Number Is So Great
I've said before that even though I don't care for the movie of Bye Bye Birdie overall (almost all the charming satire has been bled out of the original, and what George Sidney puts in its place is exactly the kind of showbiz phoniness that the original version was making fun of), the "A Lot of Livin' To Do" number is one of my favorite scenes in any movie musical. It may well be the best movie musical number of the '60s, and it surpasses the very different stage version.
Because I was watching that number again, and because the disaster of Nine has made it clear that Hollywood still doesn't really know how to make a musical number for the screen, I was thinking about what goes into the creation of a great cinematic musical scene in the "classical" style. That means, roughly, doing it without a lot of cuts or close-ups, capturing the singing and dancing in long shot, and still making it look like cinema rather than filmed theatre. That's incredibly difficult to do, which is why it's easier to put a number together in the editing room.
So I decided to watch the number again and try to identify, step by step, what director George Sidney and choreographer Onna White (Canadian alert!) do to convey character, emotion and conflict cinematically, while still filming the dance number in full view. Sidney was a director with an incomparably vulgar, brash visual style, and his vulgarity overwhelms this film at key points, but his MGM training and visual sense made him years ahead of almost anyone working in movie musicals in 1963, let alone now. And what he and White do here (I'm saying "he and White" because it's hard to know where the director leaves off and the choreographer begins in the way these numbers are filmed) is to make the tools of filmmaking -- camera movement, lighting, color -- work with the singing and dancing at every point, enhancing it and helping to make this a true scene, rather than just a variety number on film.
Before I start, I want to say that while I may be over-analyzing a bit, I'm not identifying anything that isn't there on the screen. That is, I'm not talking about hidden political/social subtexts (there's a place for analyzing that, but that's not what I'm doing right now). I'm just talking about the way the tools of cinema (including what the actors are doing and where they are) are used, and to the question "does a director really, consciously use these tools to create these specific emotional effects?" the answer is "yes." If the director is any good, he knows that doing X will have X effect on us, the viewers, whether we're conscious of it or not. And George Sidney, when he was good, was very good.
So, here's The Number. I would suggest watching this clip in full screen if possible, since some of the things I'm going to talk about aren't easily identifiable in the small embeddable box.
And now, here's The Analysis
The number begins on Hugo (Bobby Rydell) in the parking lot outside the hangout where the number takes place. He sees Conrad Birdie's motorcycle outside, so he knows Birdie is in there with his girl Kim (Ann-Margret). He makes an angry gesture at the motorcycle and then walks toward the club. The camera moves with him, and as he gets to the swinging doors of the club, we move without a cut into a different world: from the night and the placid town, we're hit with bursts of color. Hugo himself passes through a reddish light on the way to the door -- introducing us to the main visual motif of the scene, people moving from one colored light to another. And the bright color of the door suggests that there's something inside that is different from, and crazier than, the world outside. Again without a cut (but with the movement of Hugo's eyes cuing the camera movement), we go to Conrad Birdie, a cartoon of sexual confidence, the opposite of everything Hugo is.
Though there still hasn't been a cut, Conrad now takes over the scene, moving to show us the decor of the club -- a combination of weird (the masks at the back) and early '60s commercialized normalcy (the soda machine). Conrad starts to sing the song as the girls gather around him. As he sings, the camera tracks back, revealing red and yellow streamers hanging just above the characters; the streamers give us an almost jungle-like sense of what the place is like, subliminally telling us that normal rules don't apply here.
Finally there is a cut, to a long shot, as Conrad jumps down to another group of girls. We are able to orient ourselves, to know where the door is, where the bar is, where the streamers are. And Sidney uses the Panavision frame to tell us, very simply, where things stand here: Hugo on the left, alone and frustrated; Conrad on the right, surrounded by girls. And it's not only composition: the light and color are different on the two sides of the screen, with Hugo's area looking drab while Conrad is bathed in color. And as Conrad walks across the club floor and the camera (and girls) follow him, he walks through several changes of color. Color and change, the visual themes of the scene, and he controls them.
The movement of Conrad and the camera reach Kim, sitting at a table with friends. Though her bright, all-pink outfit and equally bright hair immediately set her apart from everyone else at the table (plus that she's Ann-Margret and they're not), she is lit in a fairly harsh way, covered in shadows; Conrad's world is right near her, but she's not quite part of it. But then (and here we get another cut; there haven't been many) Hugo approaches her. Now notice that Hugo is not walking through changes of color; he's walking through shadows. That's the visual motif of the "normal" world.
Kim moves away from Hugo, singing her refrain (these lyrics were mostly written for the film) about how she's going to start living it up. But Sidney does not flood her with color, not yet. She's still in normal light and going from shadow to shadow, the way Hugo did when he approached her. It's only near the end of her refrain ("Drink champagne...") when the boys start following her the way the girls follow Conrad, that she moves into a rapid succession of different-colored lights, as Conrad did. Kim has embraced Conrad's philosophy and has won control of the number...
...And then there's an offscreen rhythm. Sidney starts close on the faces of Kim and the boys, reacting to the rhythm, and then uses the zoom lens -- still unusual in big-studio American movies in 1963 -- plus a fast pan to get us to the source of the rhythm, Hugo. He looks almost as surprised as Kim that the rhythm is coming from him, but he goes with it, pounding on the table and then snapping, as the rhythm attracts the girls. The girls are bathed in greenish light (color, again) as they join him, snapping along with him. This gives him confidence and he stands up to lead them, imitating Conrad; both Kim and Hugo have now imitated what Conrad did in his first refrain, but they've each done it in different ways. (That's the point of different refrains in a musical number: each refrain has the same music and theme, but each one does it a little differently.)
While Hugo is doing his number, we get two reactions from Kim. Sidney moves the camera in a little, but just a little, on her first reaction, when the boys are still with her. As even the boys get up to join Hugo, Sidney does a fast tracking shot in on her; the further and quicker you track in, the more you convey the intensity of the character's emotion, and the shot conveys Kim's realization that she's lost control of the scene.
Trying to regain control, Kim grabs the first boy she can find and -- running through red light and heavy shadows -- begins to dance. Hugo, accepting the challenge, grabs the first girl he can find and imitates her steps. We now get a very traditional moment in the movie musical number, the "challenge" dance, with two (in this case two pairs of) people trying to outdo each other at the same steps. Part of the challenge dance is that when one challenge is met, another, tougher one is offered, and in this case Kim and her partner increase the stakes by doing the famous move that Onna White created for this film: arms out, legs apart, head tilted to the right.
Now, without a cut, Kim and her partner move into the centre of the dance floor, as the challenge dance becomes an ensemble dance. (The "challenge" part couldn't last long, because Bobby Rydell wasn't really a dancer.) Kim leads the dance, an expression of the kids' sense of new-found freedom; the streamers are clearly visible in the shot, bringing back the "jungle" motif. We're increasingly conscious that the lamps are blinking on and off, and this becomes part of the rhythm of the dance.
Then, a sudden cut, the dancers freeze, Sidney executes an elaborate and smooth camera move to show us Conrad, the man who started all this, arms outstretched as if conducting the kids like an orchestra. The lighting scheme of the scene changes, becoming dimmer and darker (but still colorful). We follow Conrad onto the dance floor until he seems to choose a girl. As he does, the lighting changes again and the scene is flooded with red light. At this point, Sidney has completely given up the idea that the colored lights are coming from anywhere. He started semi-realistically, and he is building on that to create a sense of pure fantasy: the light and color of the scene changes according to Conrad's will and Conrad's mood.
Conrad continues to walk around, as girls follow him, and every time he decides to lead them in a few dance steps, the scene explodes in red. (Though it changes in reverse-angle shots, probably mostly because they couldn't light it that way from both ends.) But when it does, Kim and Hugo -- at opposite sides of the frame -- don't get the full effect of the color change. They aren't sure if they want to be part of this. And they are, at all times, connected to each other: whatever visual motif one is involved with will soon be taken up by the other.
But now Conrad decides to test his effect on Kim, the one woman who has not completely succumbed. Walking in front of him, seemingly hypnotized, she walks toward Hugo, and we're subliminally asking the question: is she under Conrad's influence, or is she trying to get to Hugo? Hugo knows what he thinks the answer is, because he grabs another girl and runs onto the dance floor. Kim looks upset; it was Hugo she wanted, not Conrad. Accepting Hugo's challenge as he accepted hers, she grabs a boy and joins Hugo on the floor.
Once again, a brief challenge dance gives way to an ensemble dance. The camera tracks back and up, to a bird's-eye-view shot of the floor, shot through those streamers again, and with the lantern in the middle of the shot blinking on and off. The blinking originally could have had something to do with the changing colors (a combination of that and all the streamers), but at this point, it has nothing to do with any light effects we've been seeing in the number. Again, the light is not naturalistic and it would be a mistake for the director to try and justify the light. The blinking is just something to underline the wild dance, to create the sense that things are out of control.
Sidney cuts in as everyone steps back and lets Hugo and Kim have the floor to themselves, in a dance that is like a combination of challenge and mutual attraction, and combines steps from the second, wilder dance with hints of the first step Kim did to kick off the dance in the first place. Everyone freezes and Conrad enters the shot, walking between Hugo and Kim (again, it's obviously a conscious director/choreographer choice to have him walk between them, not past one or the other). The camera moves up a bit as he exits the shot, and as it moves up, it reveals the row of streamers and the multicolored lamp: color, light, jungle rules.
The kids flood back onto the dance floor; as they do, the camera tracks back to reveal Conrad, in the left-hand corner, admiring his handiwork while doing the things associated with him: snapping his finger and being bathed in colored (yellow, in this case) light.
Now comes the big climax of the dance. Kim is leading it, happy, confident, but not imitating Conrad's method; she is sometimes a bit out of step with the rest, enjoying herself and not worrying about making everyone else follow her. Hugo is standing behind her, looking a bit lost; he doesn't know how to express himself. (Again, this is making a virtue of necessity, since Bobby Rydell can't fully participate in this part of the number.) And here's where White brings back the famous head-tilting move, now fully established as Kim's move, the move that gives her control of the number.
Conrad starts singing again, and after a bit of biplay with him, Kim and Hugo -- showing that Kim is still attracted to Hugo but won't let him see it, finally causing him to leave in disgust -- he stands in the middle of the floor, singing, enjoying what's happening. The number is not the number Conrad began, and he's no longer in control of the kids: instead of doing what he tells them, they are taking his advice ("live!") and expressing themselves through the dance moves that they own. In this part of the number, Kim is more part of the ensemble than the leader; there is no leader at this point because they don't need one.
His work done here, Conrad starts toward the door, the camera following him over to the crowd of non-dancing girls that met him there (bringing the number full circle). Sidney cuts to a medium close shot of Conrad at the door, and takes the shot through several quick color changes. We cut back and forth between these two compositions: Conrad at the door, constantly changing his color environment; the kids on the dance floor, with their light environment defined by the blinking lamps: not drab and shadow-y like their original environment, but not garish like Conrad's world.
With a cry of "Live!" Conrad leaves (we don't follow him out; as he goes, the kids remain in control of the shot). The kids complete the number. Again, Kim stands out from the number by her outfit and hair, but at this point she is a happy part of a group that knows what it wants. The number ends with White's trademark move repeated over and over; it has "won" the number over the various competing movement ideas that have been presented.
As the number ends, the light fades. Again, completely un-natural light, and unlike lesser directors (Rob Marshall) Sidney feels no need to explain it or present it as a fantasy. He knows that as long as the number starts kind of normal, we will follow it as it builds, and the light will have a logic of its own. So what happens next -- Kim, hearing Hugo drive away, rushes into the foreground, and is fully lit while the kids resume dancing in the darkened background, with only blinking lamps to guide -- makes no sense in terms of a real club with real light. But it makes complete sense as visual storytelling: Kim, who has grown as a woman in the course of this number (there's a reason Sidney photographs A-M more seductively than ever before), now realizes what this whole number was about. She gained that confidence and power so she could realize what she really wants. And what she really wants is Hugo, whom she lost (seemingly) in the course of that same number.
Finally, The Conclusion For Those Who Have Read This Far
There are other great numbers and great non-musical scenes in film that could be analyzed bit-for-bit this way, I did this one because I happen to love it so much, and because A-M's opening and closing number seems to get all the attention these days (it's cool, but this is better). Writing this has made me feel exhilarated in a way that blog posts rarely do, becasue watching the scene and picking out every detail and how it works didn't make me love the scene less, but more. Looking at it and realizing how much hard work and conscious effort goes into the total effect this scene has -- well, damn, great cinema is hard to make, and it's so wonderful when it all comes together. And a musical number without fast cutting and thousands of setups doesn't require less cinematic imagination; done right, there's nothing that is more truly cinematic than a musical number filmed mostly in long shot.