Hollywood’s Black Musicals: A Tale of Obscurity, Innovation, and…The Wiz

Musicals Never Died, They Only Evolved

After the millennium arrived, it became increasingly fashionable to pronounce musicals a dead genre. And yet they would still pop up. In 2001 there was the über failure of Glitter, starring Mariah Carey, a movie that tried to recycle the kind of plot that had once worked. In 2005, John Turturro directed an unusual example, Romance + Cigarettes, a highly personal effort about the marital crisis of a blue-collar couple (James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon). A great cast (including Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, and Christopher Walken) do everything karaoke-style; it’s a crazy mess that needs to be seen and given a place on the list of original efforts.

In 2008 High School Musical 3: Senior Year appeared in movie houses, a musical that decided that if High School Musical and High School Musical 2 could succeed on TV’s Disney Channel, why couldn’t a third one work in movie theaters? It reteamed director Kenny Ortega (the original director and choreographer) with the popular original stars Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale. It was full of basketball, college decisions, breakups and hookups, but most of all, it was full of the same energetic and exuberant dancing and singing that had made the TV shows a success.

Most people dubbed it (and its predecessors) “Archie and Veronica,” but the truth is that these musicals were fun, and superbly executed. In High School Musical 2, when the teenagers burst out through the doors of the school to leave for summer vacation, singing and dancing with an unbridled energy (and a very high level of talent), it puts the opening number of La La Land to shame. And does anyone remember Step Up (2006), Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), Step Up 3D (2010), and Step Up Revolution (2012)? No? Well, they were all musicals, with dance numbers that combined everything from hip-hop to ballet to tango to an imitation Fred and Ginger on a Manhattan block.

Cher’s star power drove Burlesque in 2010, casting her with Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, and Peter Gallagher and proving the old “star vehicle” concept could still work. Pitch Perfect appeared in 2012 with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson—a story about an a capella singing group—and would generate such popularity that it inspired Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) and Pitch Perfect 3 (2017). The “innovations” that these movies provided were mostly through different types of music, such as gospel: in 2012, a minor and generally overlooked movie called Joyful Noise nevertheless did solid business, largely due to gospel and its stars, Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah.

It seemed strange to think that a movie like Joyful Noise could even be made: a trite story pitting Parton (a wise-old-philosopher type with big money, big wig, big ideas, and of course, big boobs) against an angry rival (Latifah). The two women fight over who will run the church choir, what type of music the choir should sing, and end up in a public brawl. The thing that makes Joyful Noise is, of course, the music (with two songs newly penned by Parton). The movie is a musical, and it knows enough how to be one, but the critical establishment ignored the low-budget story about a Georgia church choir. 

All these releases, however distinguished or undistinguished, prove that the musical wasn’t really dead. It wasn’t chic, perhaps, but it wasn’t dead. What it didn’t have was critical endorsement, the stamp of approval, the “We never had this before” or “Now it’s serious” cachet that would make it okay for all of us to go see it—and not only go, but claim we liked it. The musical needed to be told it was smart by somebody. 

There was one other innovation after the 1970s. Changes in the culture brought changes onscreen. After the civil rights movement made serious headway, movies starring African American musical performers became more prevalent, and access to that incredible musical talent pool was, at least to a degree, unlocked for the general moviegoer. The all-black musical had, in fact, existed since the transition to sound: Hallelujah and Hearts in Dixie were both successful in 1929. In the 1940s there were Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, New Orleans, and Disney’s Song of the South, as well as Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, and St. Louis Blues (a biopic about W. C. Handy starring Nat “King” Cole and Eartha Kitt) in the 1950s.

Most of the enormously talented African American musical performers of the studio-system years were relegated to specialty numbers, such as Lena Horne in Words and Music or Till the Clouds Roll By, or the Nicholas Brothers in Orchestra Wives, Sun Valley Serenade, and The Pirate. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson had his roles in Shirley Temple films, and musical performers such as Fats Waller, Dooley Wilson, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington appeared from time to time. 

The vibrant Ethel Waters, whose voice flowed lazily out of her like a velvet river, was never given the opportunities she should have had in movies. There was a warmth in her performance personality that, combined with her bright smile, made her a true audience winner. As the star of Cabin in the Sky, she is at her radiant best singing “Taking a Chance on Love” while Eddie “Rochester” Anderson plays a guitar and John W. Bubbles looks on. She lays it out easy, as if the lyrics are a personal observation just noticed on the spot.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, were showstoppers no matter what musical extravaganza they were dropped into for a dancing “bit.”

Waters began by singing jazz and blues in clubs and appearing on Broadway in revues such as the 1930 Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds, finally opening in As Thousands Cheer in 1933 as the first African American performer to get equal billing with white performers. (She was also the first African American to have her own national radio show.) Although she starred in Cabin in the Sky, she was usually seen only in a solo number (Stage Door Canteen, 1943), given a supporting role (as Jeanette MacDonald’s companion in Cairo, 1942), or showcased for her dramatic ability (The Member of the Wedding, 1952, and Pinky, 1949, for which she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress). In the end, her remarkable, but erratic career in movies left her remembered more as an actress than as a musical performer. 

When I think of all the great African American performers who are casually inserted into movies, I realize how much entertainment was lost to audiences over the years. Just consider the moment in Nicholas Ray’s beautifully tragic film about young lovers, They Live by Night, released in 1949. As newlyweds on the run, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell visit a nightclub, and the fabulous Marie Bryant, a singer/dancer who toured with Duke Ellington, moves around the club singing “Your Red Wagon.” A Cotton Club star, Bryant had a great voice and a wonderful way with a song. She’s only in this one scene in the movie, but her glamorous attire combined with her warning lyrics (“Just keep draggin’ your red wagon”) are meant to be typical nightclub entertainment, but also a song sounding the ring of doom for the lovers.

Bryant permeates the atmosphere, claims the club space, delivers vocal purity, and more than anything else that’s happening defines the noir ambience of a world in which the young lovers have no chance. Couldn’t she have done an encore? Couldn’t she have had more to do in other movies? And Marie Bryant is only one example. What, for instance, if the world had been a place where Josephine Baker could have become a big name in Hollywood? After leaving America and becoming a nightclub star in France, Baker made two good musicals there: Zou-Zou (1934) and Princess Tam Tam (1935).

The former starred her with the famous “Spencer Tracy of France,” Jean Gabin, and it had a backstage plot about a Creole laundress who unexpectedly “goes on” in a 42nd Street plot ploy and becomes a great star. Baker is awesome in feathers, swinging on a swing, and she’s equally spectacular as an African girl who’s transformed into an Indian princess in Tam Tam. Baker became famous in 1931 for her signature song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” and for her erotic “Danse Sauvage” in which she wore nothing but a skirt decorated with some aroused-looking bananas. What a loss to film history! 

In the 1933 black circuit film Slow Poke, starring Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry), the fabulous young Bunny Briggs is featured. He’s one of the world’s tap-dancing legends, and watching him makes a viewer realize again what was lost. Briggs went on to tour with big bands such as the Dorsey Brothers, Charlie Barnet, and Count Basie, getting a chance to create his own unique style of bebop tapping. Later known as “the Duke’s dancer” because of his appearance with Ellington at the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival, he remained a top-level tapper for decades, finally getting a notable appearance in the 1989 movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, were showstoppers no matter what musical extravaganza they were dropped into for a dancing “bit.” They danced from head to toe, using their whole bodies, and gracefully involving the waving of their delicate hands into their routines. They could jump high into the air, come down onto the floor in splits, and pull themselves back up to full height without using a hand for help. And they could jump, split, jump, split, jump, split, over and over again without any “ouch!” in it. They were classy, at ease with each other and the audience, and seemingly happy, just happy, to be dancing. They were the best! 

The three Berry Brothers—all amazing dancers—had body control that allowed them to literally do a number in slow motion without camera assistance. They could hold, but with no wobbles and no tricks. They were three blood brothers who worked with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, engaging in a legendary “dance fight” with the Nicholas Brothers in 1938. (There seems to have been no declared winner, but what would anyone give to have been there for that?) The Berry Brothers appeared in a few movies, the two best-known being Lady Be Good (1941) and Panama Hat-tie (1942).

In their Lady Be Good number, they sing “You’ll Never Know” and demonstrate their unique style, a form of tap dancing, although they didn’t wear taps on their shoes. They were acrobats, incorporating somersaults, cartwheels, spins, and splits into their routines, and using canes they tossed back and forth in the air. In top hats and tails, they combined the cakewalk and the prancing strut in a “freeze and melt” dance in which they twirl, stop dead—hold—and then suddenly go at high speed again. In one jaw-dropping routine they performed onstage, they would jump from an elevated balcony directly into full splits. The early death at age 38 (of heart failure) of one of the members of this “flash tap” acrobatic team has kept them from the fame they deserve. 

There were so many great African American singers and dancers whom movie audiences saw nothing of in musicals, or saw very little of: Waters, Sarah Vaughan, Hamtree Harrington. Even Lena Horne, who was the first African American signed to a long-term contract with a major studio (MGM), wasn’t given enough to do. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson could dance, and his moonwalk was fabulous. Just to look at Dorothy Dandridge’s musical strut in her small part in the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” number in Sun Valley Serenade is to feel the loss of her musical talent. Fats Waller could have made me believe anything from Don Corleone to Hamlet to Mr. Micawber; he was a great misbehavin’ personality. 

The Wiz set back musicals, set back all-black films—and set back the studio that made it (Universal) financially.

Three musicals of the poststudio era show how the traditional forms of the musical were slowly transformed to star African American talent: The Wiz (1978) and Dreamgirls (2006) are Broadway shows adapted for the movies; and Idlewild (2006) is an original movie musical. The Wiz came first. It was based on a 1975 hit with Motown-inflected songs by Charlie Smalls, direction by Geoffrey Holder, hot-dancing choreography by George Faison. The movie, however, was a resounding failure. 

In fact, The Wiz is a musical tragedy. It was shot at the Astoria Studios in Queens and on various New York locations, and it had talent to burn. But its characters get lost in spectacle, and most of the talent is wasted. It was an example of excess and financial waste—it was one of the most expensive musicals ever made—and both critics and audiences rejected it. 

Tony Walton designed sets that ate up the dancers, leaving them lost in long shot or overshadowed by the sets surrounding them. Sidney Lumet was a New York director, but the New York of gritty realism, not the abandoned amusement park New York of fantasy. Actors, too, were lost in over-costuming, and the luminously beautiful (and supertalented) Diana Ross had her glamour tamped down to accommodate the revised Dorothy, a 24-year-old Harlem schoolteacher (a rewrite to help explain the 34-year-old Ross playing her, even though in real life Ross could have passed for 20 and had the energy of a 16-year-old).

The Wiz was an example of how confused people who made musicals often were at this point. The Wiz assumes that photographing a Broadway show as an even bigger spectacle would be all that was needed, and that shifting from realism into fantasy called for no explanations, no coherence, and no common sense. A movie that can kill a successful stage musical as well as a beloved children’s book as well as memories of a hit movie (the original Wizard of Oz) is a real death bomb.

The Wiz set back musicals, set back all-black films—and set back the studio that made it (Universal) financially. It had all the talent in the world: Diana Ross, a superstar; Michael Jackson, a legend in the making; two real talents from the Broadway show, Ted Ross as Lion and Mabel King as Evilline, the Wicked Witch; the comic Nipsey Russell; and the iconic Richard Pryor. As if all that weren’t enough, there was Lena Horne—truly in a class by herself. 

Think of the talent wasted in The Wiz. Diana Ross is not only a stunning beauty and style setter, but also an amazing singer and a deep, feeling actress with natural ability. Her appearance in the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues was outstanding, both in acting and singing. She should have had a decades-long career playing all sorts of roles, only some of which needed to be musical. Lena Horne was at least given a dramatic finale in The Wiz, but it’s only a moment.

When Glinda the Good Witch comes down from her star, Horne is radiant in sparkling blue, with dozens of stars on her gown and headpiece. She looks younger than anyone else in the entire movie, even though she’s 61 at the time. She sings “Believe in Yourself ” as if she means it, and gives it something it never had before—sass and sex appeal and genuine conviction. She’s one of the most beautiful women ever, a real Glinda and a real musical power. She should have had more. 

Michael Jackson could be one of the greatest movie losses of all. In The Wiz, as Scarecrow, he’s covered with costume and makeup and can hardly be found inside the trappings, but when he dances, even in long shot, any eye can see he’s something extraordinary. Watching him when he can be identified as himself, in his music videos, especially Thriller, his unique style marks him out as being in the tradition of Astaire, Kelly, and others who didn’t just dance but made it a form of personal expression.

Jackson spins as fast as any dancer has ever spun, and his precise steps, his sharp and separate delineation of each foot movement, are still able to flow together to look as if he’s a well-oiled machine. He’s a human robot, making the mechanical smooth and meaningful, a truly modern dancer. He may have redefined the term, if only for updating the moonwalk of old minstrel shows into a flashy, slap-down-the-floor statement that says, “I’m not your usual moonwalker.”

Lumet called Jackson “the purest talent I’ve ever seen.” There’s a poignant moment at the end of The Wiz, almost lost among the junk, in which Scarecrow/Jackson says sadly, thoughtfully, “Fame . . . fortune . . . success . . . all there is that’s real is friendship.” Jackson’s career, despite all the videos and TV and concert appearances, was still largely lost to the history of narrative musicals in which he could have been so memorable. 

Dreamgirls appeared on Broadway in 1981, to great critical and commercial success, but it was 2006 before it was finally made into a movie. No one, apparently, felt it was a safe bet for a mass audience, even though Motown-style music had long since swept America. Direction of the movie was taken over by Bill Condon, whose prior success writing the movie version of Chicago (2002) gave backers confidence in the possibilities of the story, loosely based on the Supremes.

What comes out of Idlewild is what the musical needed in 2006: an unpretentious letting go of the fear to just try things.

The original show (directed by Michael Bennett) moved an audience from watching the performances as an audience to being inside the story as the participants experienced it. Switching points of view is a cinematic tradition, and Condon attempted to turn the play into cinema by embracing the technique, but with results that audiences didn’t fully understand. Dreamgirls has pace, energy, and an ambitious integration of plot and music, but what it really puts onscreen is a blazing lineup of talent: the beautiful and musically dominant Beyoncé, the excellent singer/actress Jennifer Hudson, and two leading men, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy, who both did their own singing and who were dynamite. 

One of the craziest, most innovative musicals made since the millennium is Idlewild, written and directed by music-video veteran Bryan Barber. It starred André 3000 and Big Boi of OutKast, along with Terrence Howard, Ving Rhames, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, Malinda Williams, Paula Patton, Patti LaBelle, and Paula Jai Parker. As a viewer of hundreds of musicals, I would say about Idlewild: Attention Should Be Paid. It’s provocative, inventive, and full of cinematic ideas and imagination. Musical lovers should see this movie, because it is a movie. It’s also a bit of a mess, but at least a viewer is rewarded for patience by an outlandish abandonment of the sort that scares many moviegoers and drives them out of the theater and back to their TV sets. Idlewild is what the genre needs more of, although many viewers labeled it a “long music video.” 

Idlewild is set in 1935 Idlewild, Georgia, and it tells a story of two young men, Percival (André 3000) and Rooster (Big Boi), who were childhood friends but grow up to make different choices in life. That puts the film in familiar gangster genre territory—the world of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), for instance—but the script becomes a problem, and not because it mixes genres. Musical numbers and gangster movies are old friends, from the story of Ruth Etting (Love Me or Leave Me); Priscilla Lane ’s numbers in The Roaring Twenties, with James Cagney; the spoof with children shooting cream pies at each other, Bugsy Malone (1976); or Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), with Cyd Charisse as a nightclub performer being threatened with acid in her face.

The problem is that Idlewild ’s script doesn’t wed them successfully, and the movie ends up in a divided universe: two different movies, two different genres, and more than two styles of music. In the 

latter category, the wedding is well achieved. The hip-hop of the leading duo is mixed with blues, jazz, and soul, and it becomes a blend that excites and energizes. For a movie lover, there’s a fearless use of cinematic tricks: singing cuckoo clocks, a talking rooster on a flask, animated notes dancing across a musical page, and time modulations that are beautifully edited.

There’s an astonishing modernized “Stormy Weather”–type finale with white pianos, and great dancing (choreographed by Hinton Battle) that is an eclectic mix of swing dancing, jitterbugging, tapping, and modern style. A common complaint about Idlewild is that it juxtaposes beautiful 1930s clothes, sets, and ambience with modern music. Why not? Another common complaint is that its gangster movie is too brutal and violent to go with musical performance. The movie defines itself as a modern musical-performance world, perhaps going back in time to own a 1930s mainstream Hollywood genre movie, since African American performers hadn’t been allowed to make many of them at the time.

The numbers take place onstage, with music always in the plot background and turning up in odd places, such as a cuckoo clock. What comes out of Idlewild is what the musical needed in 2006: an unpretentious letting go of the fear to just try things. Play with the form. Mix it up a little or even a lot. With its wonderful music, exuberant dancing, and crazy use of cinema, Idlewild fearlessly made one of the most interesting movies of the millennium, even though it doesn’t work. It dared to break rules but knew it was breaking them. 

As I have said, musicals didn’t really die: audiences still wanted them and filmmakers still wanted to make them. The musical hung around, and it hangs around. Solutions to its challenges were found by creative forces decade after decade, but the need to find actors/performers/stars and creative directors to execute those solutions seemed to grow over time. The bottom line is: if you’re going to make a musical, shouldn’t the people in it be able to sing and dance?

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Excerpted from The Movie Musical! by Jeanine Basinger. Copyright © 2019 by Jeanine Basinger Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Jeanine Basinger
Jeanine Basinger
Jeanine Basinger is the founder of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University and the curator of the cinema archives there. She has written eleven other books on film, including I Do and I Don’t; The Star Machine; A Woman’s View; Silent Stars, winner of the William K. Everson Film History Award; Anthony Mann; The World War II Combat Film; and American Cinema: One Hundred Years of Filmmaking, the companion book for a ten-part PBS series. She lives in Middletown, CT, Madison, WI, and Brookings, SD.





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