2.3 MUSIC HALL: from stage to mountain top

Just as cinema borrowed from the narrative arts to form its own unique story-telling format, it also borrowed from the musical performance arts to create a unique cinematic version of the musical. Part music hall, stage musical, opera, ballet, and filmic narrative, the film musical took the best of all on offer and allowed a new level of integration between music, song, dance, action and narrative.

Beyond belief

That film footage can be cut and edited requires/allows the use of sections where sound and visual will have been recorded at different times and places. The unreal ability of the musical to show performers dancing and singing at the same time or singing with total clarity from a distant hillside, as in the Sound of Music, or even using someone else's voice entirely created an environment for performance to go beyond the physically, spatially, and temporally possible and still be accepted.

Milli Vanilli, MC Hammer, and Duran Duran are among the many who owe their careers to music clips drawing heavily on the conventions of acceptable fiction established by the Hollywood musical. The abrupt end to the careers of Milli Vanilli's screen performers Fab and Rob is an interesting example of the incredible complexity of what has been evolved from the musical as acceptable to viewers and what has not.

Miming is a long established and acceptable screen (but not live) tradition. Robert Palmer's guitar bimbos, due presumably to their background importance compared to Palmer, are acceptable. For Julia Roberts to have had a body double for the advertisements for Pretty Woman however caused public outrage. When it was revealed that Milli Vanilli’s singers were a pair of ugly old white-ass Germans and not the lithe young black fellows miming to their voices on stage and screen, there was pandemonium, Grammy snatching, and a great deal of suitably indignant harumphing from the music industry. Hollywood musicals in which the dubious singing talents of the stars were overdubbed with professional singers' voices, on the other hand, were accepted without fuss.

Star power

If the recreation of the live event is one of the central ideas in music video, a knowledge of the extent to which that essence may be corrupted is equally important. Generally it seems to be that, as long as the star performer (for the main performance), the central object of desire, is not substituted, anything else is OK.

It seems that the only element really required for a successful live-act substitution is the physical image of the star, preferably moving but not actually necessarily performing. Lately it is interesting to see that even this final tenet is capable of some flexibility, as in recent clips by Michael Jackson, George Michael, and the Man in the Moon clip by R.E.M. where, although the singer is at times seen singing, large sections show other people miming the lines. These are admittedly special cases in that in the former instance, morphing is used to in some way relate the physical form of Jackson to his mimes. In the George Michael clip, all the miming is done by world-famous instantly recognisable super-models. In the R.E.M. clip the mime footage is set in a bar where the patrons might be presumed to be singing along to the performance naturally. There is little chance in any of these clips of the viewer mistaking the mimers for the star. In any case, the ‘star’ in the Jackson clip is the technology, the super-models are already stars, and part of REM’s attraction is their ‘alternative’, anti-star approach, so that the shift in emphasis away from the actual performer is made less distressing.