Lastnight, I came home to enjoy an old documentary called That’s Entertainment on television. The piece covers the bygone era of Hollywood musicals. Having sat through previews detailing the latest super-action-charged, effects-laden films, as well as the action-y, effects-filled main feature, I was struck by the simple, lovely pleasures of watching the human form move and pivot through space, to music. Somehow, the cinema of fifty-odd years ago seems purer -and for me, oddly more satisfying than many of today’s flashy offerings.
That doesn’t I’m a Luddite, however. I sometimes deeply enjoy the digital artistry on offer in modern films (Lord of the Rings was beautiful, perfect, and very moving), so long as it is in the service of a strong story and interesting characters. But I have to admit that I find the combination of simple, if carefully-choreographed, song-and-dance numbers from yesteryear thrilling to behold. Even with the reams of stylists, camera people, and dance captains, there is some kind of simple pleasure at work in watching old musical numbers. The mere act of watching a staged dance number -a la Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, or Kelly and Fred Astaire in Ziegield Follies -has a kind of magical aura that simply can’t be duplicated, even with modern Hollywood musicals like the recently-released Nine or the Oscar-winning Chicago. Call it glamour from a long-gone era; call it raw artistry; call it, as Kelly does in the telly special, a urge toward what he terms “perfection” … whatever it is, it’s magical. It re-awakens my love of dance like few others things do.
I’ve done a variety of dance -ballet, jazz, tap, and later on, bellydance -so that might be why seeing Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Charisse, Miller, et al strut their stuff affects me so deeply. I’ve seen plenty of musical stage productions, but strangely, I never get the same feeling; it’s as if the musical on-film captures not just actual dance but a moment in time, when people actually went to the cinema to see other people move around and sing to music. Looking at it from our digital super-special effects era, there’s something thoroughly quaint about the whole thing -even if Astaire’s famous ceiling-dance is still jaw-dropping, decades later. This is what special effects looked liked in the early 50s. People made them special -and that human effort can be seen in all it glorious, frail, masterful glory in such classic movie gems. Cinematic magic doesn’t have to be complicated -at least not for me; so long as there’s heart, art, and commitment, I’m happy -dancing in the dark, or otherwise.