2.2 MOVIES: moving to the beat

One of the few definite things that can be said about music video, is that it is a screen-based event. Although some critics[^1]  have pointed out critically important separations that need to made between approaches to the genre of film and that of video, there is little denying the existence of strong relationships between the two that bear examination.

In the beginning

Music's involvement with the cinema dates back to its very beginnings. In these early films, in which recorded sound was not available, sound, in the form of music was provided by a live pianist or organist. It was simply impractical to use live actors to replicate the voices, and although in some instances primitive sound effects might be provided, they usually had to be supplied by the pianist. Most movies consequently relied on conventional musical sound effects such as crescendos, sudden crashes of notes, high-speed runs, and the like. The idea was to in this way provide a kind of emotional, general mood support to the action and text on the screen. That many of the pianists in small town cinemas were of dubious ability, did not aid matters, and most films sought to rely as little as possible on the accompanying sounds.

Not really until it became possible to add pre-recorded sound to the film track, with the advent of the 'talkies', did music begin to play a role as anything more than a minor accompaniment. In some cases it even began to overshadow the visuals.

The very first commercial talkie, 'The Jazz Singer' with Al Jolson, used music extensively. The early sound tracks had very poor reproduction and voices tended to come out squeaky and unpleasant. To avoid too much in the way of dialogue on the sound tracks, films put in plenty of music. Audiences were in any case used to film in which dialogue, because it had to appear as text, was kept to a minimum, and in which music was generally more normal.

The recordability of the soundtrack meant that it was now possible to have the latest in popular music played by entire orchestras of talented (if still grossly underpaid) musicians accompanying the film track. In these much improved technical circumstances, music was able to play a much more attractive and important role in film.

Boom time

In the thirties the enormous growth of the record and entertainment industry, feeding off the misery of the depression, created a new level of interest in popular music. Responding to this trend, the movie industry found that by slapping short films on top of the latest jazz hits it could sell movies in as large a quantity and as cheaply and profitably as the record industry was selling records.

The films were still films but it was largely the music the audience was going to see. The jazz clips were heavily performance orientated and gave audiences a chance to see their favourite musicians in concert, a chance most would never have had otherwise. The enormous popularity of recorded music and its dissemination via radio had created a situation in which music fans could go their whole lives without ever knowing what their musical idols looked like. The early music films acted as a visual substitute for the live experience, addressing exactly this problem of separation that recorded music had created. Music films were, unsurprisingly, very popular.

Bye bye blackbird

When the quality of voice reproduction became more acceptable in the late thirties and the music boom began to level off with the removal of prohibition and the reduction in unemployment, music films dropped out of vogue. Films concentrated almost exclusively on strongly narrative epics that relied heavily once more on the visuals and the dialogue to carry the story. Music returned to its role as accompanist.

Music films largely disappeared within the film industry after the thirties, even the music industry seemed to have largely forgotten for a while. Perhaps it was because they were designed to sell the movies and not the songs, that they failed to pick up on them as an effective marketing tool. Not until the rock’n’roll boom of the fifties and the appearance of television did anything like music films begin to reappear but even then only sporadically.

When music video did reappear, it relied heavily on the principle of recreating a live performance, that had been established by the early films. As an addition to or substitute for actual touring it provided the link with visual performance that fans wanted even when they were in far away countries or isolated towns. This aspect played a vital role in the success of music video as a genre and of the rock’n’roll industry as a whole in places such as New Zealand and Australia that would otherwise have been too far away to influence and convince.

The loose structure of the early films (and their animated counterparts) also had a major influence on the modern music clip by demonstrating how music could be used to carry the narrative of a film, while the visuals indulged themselves in pure entertainment or salesmanship.

  1. [^1]Roy Armes book "On Video" deals with the history and development of video as being critically different from that of cinema at many points, and the ways in which these differences require a different set of critical approaches to the medium than those applicable to the study of film.