Singin’ in the Rain, DVD Extras, and the Truth about Contemporary Film Musicals

Singin’ in the Rain, DVD Extras, and the Truth about Contemporary Film Musicals

On the whole, I dislike DVD extras. Generally, I don’t care how CGI is incorporated into a picture, how the actors did or didn’t get along, or what stunts were achieved by whom. Rather, give me the film (or television series) as it stands, and let ME decide how to interpret it. Let ME determine which scenes, characters, edits, camera movements, use of props, etc. are (or are not) noteworthy.

That said, in preparation for my Facets lecture on Singin’ in the Rain (1952), I popped in my Singin’ in the Rain Blu-ray, scrolled over to the “extras” section of the Menu, and began watching Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation (2013).  This short documentary features people such as Glee’s Matthew Morrison and Harry Shum alongside R&B singer/dancer Usher, High School Musical‘s Corbin Bleu, director Baz Lurhmann, singer/choreographer Paul Abdul, screenwriters of Across the Universe, and the (noticeably all white male) choreographers for Glee, Nine (the film), High School Musical, Chicago (the film), and (500) Days of Summer.

Also interviewed in the documentary is Adam Shankman, director of the film musicals Hairspray (2007) and Rock of Ages (2012), and a few episodes of Glee. One of his remarks reminds me of why I’m not a fan of most DVD extras—and many contemporary musicals, for that matter. Specifically, while showing such numbers as “Good Morning” (from Singin’ in the Rain) and Gene Kelly’s fandango from Anchors Aweigh (1942), Shankman comments in voiceover on the film musical’s use of long takes:

“Kelly and Astaire were the real deal. There was no reason to cut [their numbers]. [...] I would much rather do long takes. But because you don’t have the length of rehearsal time where you get to perfect the kind of long takes they used to do back then, you actually need the edits to get out of the mistakes that are invariably going to be made.” 

First, Shankman’s right about two things: Kelly and Astaire were “the real deal,” and as such, there was no reason to edit their numbers. I can only imagine both classical song-and-dance men’s reaction to Richard Gere’s “tap-dancing” in Chicago, for instance; with all those close-ups of shoes and the edits, that could be anyone tapping! In fact, we know a little about how an older Kelly felt regarding the use of editing in musicals and music videos:

“MTV, with its quick-cut camera work geared to short attention spans is the modern-day spawn of old-time musical numbers. Film editors have become the choreographers today. Everything is bam!…a tight shot of a shoulder…a leg…half a pirouette…an ass. In my day, editors were simply called cutters. Now a whole musical can succeed or fail based on the editing.”

Yes, look at most musicals released after the 1970s: as my man says, the editors have essentially (and sadly) become the choreographers. But I digress.

Okay, so here’s where Shankman and I part ways. In the second half of his quote, Shankman claims he’d love to employ long takes in his film musicals, but he cannot because rehearsal time is limited and he must rely on edits for the inevitable mistakes that will be made in the numbers.

I call B.S.

The issue here isn’t that Shankman et al weren’t allotted enough time to prepare. After all, Hairspray‘s cast apparently rehearsed their numbers for two full months and Rock of Ages’s cast spent “months and months” practicing before filming began—significantly, two months is the same amount of time Kelly and co. rehearsed for Singin’ in the Rain. Rather, the reality is that Shankman along with Chicago‘s Rob Marshall, Nine‘s John DeLuca, etc. are making movie musicals without (mostly) trained singers and dancers in an industry that no longer embraces or nurtures such talent.

That, my friend, is a key reason contemporary musical numbers contain such copious edits and the camera is mostly positioned above the subject’s knee, not because the cast and crew aren’t allowed enough time to practice their “moves.” And sadly, this fact becomes all the more obvious when Shankman discusses it on a special features documentary and pairs it visually with Gene Kelly’s four-minute fandango dance (below), which unfolds in basically five edits.