Movies have always been musical. The silent films were never really silent, as they had live sound accompaniment, some of it quite grandiose, with pipe organs and orchestras. So it wasn’t a stretch, once there was synchronized sound in movies, to transfer the music from the theater to the film itself. Starting with the first feature-length sound movie, Al Jolson’s racist atrocity The Jazz Singer (1927), movies and music have gone together like Fred and Ginger.
And then, in America at least, we basically stopped doing musicals, with a few glowing exceptions that prove the rule (Cabaret, Moulin Rouge!). But around the world, the movie musical has followed wildly divergent paths. Let’s explore them with these six fine examples currently streaming online.
Title: À Nous la liberté (1931)
Plot: The film opens in a French prison workshop on our heroes, the two jailbirds Louis and Emile. After a brief musical interlude to assure us that the stakes aren’t too high, the duo attempt a breakout. Emile falls behind, but Louis escapes and, over the course of a montage sequence, goes from being a lowly record store employee to the owner of a record factory, feted by high society, his past safely buried. But then Emile gets out of prison (his term apparently up) and his first order of business is to seek out Louis, whose gratitude to Emile for helping him escape may be eclipsed by his compelling need to make this unwanted reminder of his prison days disappear.
Context: In the early days of sound cinema, there were some unresolved questions, like: Do we have sound constantly throughout the movie? Or can we kill the sound when no one’s talking, and save some money? But one thing everyone seemed to agree on — and this is amply displayed in René Clair’s À Nous la liberté — is that finally we can sing! And we will do so frequently! It was through his trilogy of whimsical musicals — Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), La million (1931), and À Nous la liberté (1931) — that Clair would work out the kinks of the French movie musical and create some of the first enduring French sounds films, which proved so popular that people like Charlie Chaplin were happy to steal/borrow from them. Once you’ve seen the factory sequences in À Nous la liberté, their striking similarity to Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) is hard to ignore; for the record, when the parallels were brought to his attention, Clair professed to be flattered.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The Threepenny Opera (1931)
Plot: In an ambiguously Germanized version of London, gangster king Macheath (or Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife) runs a criminal empire, routinely outsmarting both the cops and his would-be rivals. Things change, however, when he marries Polly Peachum, whose father controls the city’s beggar racket (this is a dark comedy, by the way) and is none too pleased with his daughter’s marriage. With a showdown with Mr. Peachum unavoidable, Mack the Knife may have met his match. But if he falls, who will control London’s criminal underworld? Perhaps the enterprising Polly could fill the void.
Context: Directed by G. W. Pabst, famous for silent films like Pandora’s Box (1929), The Threepenny Opera has one of the most convoluted genealogies in cinema. Its first incarnation is Englishman John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a stage musical from 1728. In the 1920s, Elisabeth Hauptmann translated it into German, at which point it was taken up by her partner, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, and his colleague, the composer Kurt Weill, who “adapted” it into The Threepenny Opera. Most modern scholars are of the opinion that the bulk of the text was written by Hauptmann, but sexism combined with Brecht’s habit of ripping off his female collaborators kept her name off the credits and the various media it spawned, including Pabst’s film and songs like “Mack the Knife,” covered by Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, and every Sinatra wannabe at karaoke night. Oh, also, there are two version of Pabst’s film: the German version we’ll be directing you to, and a French version, which was shot parallel to the German one, because in early sound films this was how they overcame the language barrier.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Plot: In this deceptively simple story, young Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuova), a charming young auto mechanic about to be drafted and sent off to Algeria. Geneviève says she’ll wait for him (as women have been made to say since the dawn of cinema), but complications ensue when, shortly after Guy’s departure, she finds herself pregnant. Her mother, who runs the umbrella shop that gives the film its title, has a solution: marry her off to someone else, in this case a well-to-do jeweler named Roland (Marc Michel) who has offered to accept the baby as his own and can give Geneviève a far more glamorous lifestyle than Guy. This sounds like old hat, you say? It would be, were it not for the fact that every line of dialogue is sung.
Context: Yes, this is no mere musical: This is an opera, scored by Michel Legrand, candy-colored to within an inch of its life, and saturated with nostalgia for the old-school Hollywood musicals that director Jacques Demy was raised on. Now, modern-day opera is always a dubious proposition — Umbrellas’ opening dialogue, with Guy finishing up work at the auto shop, strikes one at first as unnatural — but within minutes one becomes used to it: This is just how these people talk. The film also benefits from a quality usually reserved for the "Marvel cinematic universe,” as it is set in a broader film world — dubbed by critics as the “Demy Monde” — consisting of the rain-swept Normandy coastline where Demy grew up and to which his films return time and again. Roland the jeweler was the protagonist of Demy’s black-and-white debut film Lola (1961), but now we see him in shimmering color and with musical accompaniment. If you like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, you are strongly advised to check out the other Demy classics streaming on Hulu, rendered pristine by a Janus Films restoration.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon. Title: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Plot: When Indians abroad Raj (Shahrukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) meet on a train journey across Europe, they couldn’t be more different. Raj is a happy-go-lucky twit who has just flunked out of his British university (a family tradition, his liberal father gleefully informs him), whereas Simran is sharp-witted and dutiful to her conservative father, who intends to marry her off to the son of an old friend once she returns to India. It pretty much goes without saying that Raj and Simran, after some brief bickering and a few dance numbers, fall hopelessly in love with each other. But alas, Simran is promised to another. Can Raj and his stupid friends sabotage the wedding and win over Simran’s humorless father? Or are they doomed to a life of separation? If you’re asking these questions, you’ve clearly never seen one of these movies before, which brings us to…
Context: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, or simply DDLJ to aficionados, is one of the most beloved films in the history of Bollywood. Hitting all the key points of Hindi-language cinema — peppy song and dance, mismatched lovers, and a controlling father — while spawning a legion of imitators, DDLJ ran for years (in fact, there is a theater in Mumbai where it is continuing its run 20 years later; it’s like a cinematic Dark Side of the Moon). Its success cemented star Shahrukh Khan’s status as India’s most beloved leading man (a few flops and a recent feud with India’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist government notwithstanding), threatening to surpass even the great Amitabh Bachchan, whose Sholay (1975) had previously held the record for longest running Indian film with a measly five years in theaters. Basically, if you’re only ever going to watch one Bollywood film, make it DDLJ; it is the skeleton key granting access to all the others.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Roe’s Room (1997)
Plot: In this sui generis Polish TV opera, we find a nameless young man living a drab life in an apartment under the thumb of his conformist parents. Apparently in stasis, the young man’s life begins to take a turn for the better when, through the power of music!, he initiates the magical transformation of his bedroom into an enchanted forest, with trees sprouting through the floorboards and threatening to engulf the apartment. As the seasons change, the indoor forest transforms accordingly, as does the rich music that brought it into being and sustains it.
Context: The Roe’s Room comes to us from the Polish-American master of WTF cinema, Lech Majewski. Having emigrated from late communist Poland and now dividing his time (and work) between his homeland and the US, his deeply imaginative and highly personal works have always been an acquired taste; perhaps his most famous movie is one he abandoned, 1996’s Basquiat, which he wrote and was going to direct when he handed it over to Julian Schnabel. He frequently looks to other media to inspire his films: opera in The Roe’s Room, painting in Basquiat and The Mill and the Cross (about a Breughel painting), art installation in The Glass Lips. Again, an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, a good selection of his filmography is streaming on Amazon (look, a young Viggo Mortensen in Majewski’s The Gospel According to Harry!).
Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Fandor.
Title: The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Plot: Things have not been going well for the multigenerational Katakuri family. Plagued by broken marriages and prison spells, patriarch Masao has poured everything into a last-ditch attempt to salvage their fortunes and reunify the family: a bed-and-breakfast, which they will run together in the pristine Japanese mountain country. If only their guests didn’t keep ending up dead. Yes, whether by murder or misadventure, every visitor to the Katakuris’ B&B ends up meeting a bizarre end on the first night of his stay. Which, from a PR perspective, is terrible for business. The deaths must be covered up! Who knows, perhaps hiding corpses and laying down false trails for the police will bring the family together like nothing else could. All of this is punctuated with exuberant song and dance, ranging from disco to pop standards to excursions into a distinctive weirdness that would make David Lynch proud.
Context: Director Takashi Miike— who pumps out like five films a year in every conceivable genre — has been accused of many things — misogyny, obscenity, extremely poor taste — but no one’s ever walked away from a Miike movie saying, “Well, that was dry and dull.” And if the extreme violence that has often been Miike’s forte isn’t your thing, then The Happiness of the Katakuris, adapted from Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon’s non-musical The Quiet Family (1998), will serve as a welcome departure. Okay, granted, he does kill some people, but far fewer than his usual quota. And while the musical numbers may lack the polish to be found in, say, Moulin Rouge! or… any of the other films we’ve explored in this post, they are presented with an unwavering sincerity that hearkens back to the indifference to naturalness and plausibility that characterized the golden age of the movie musical as a genre.
Where it’s streaming: Fandor.