The Story: Harmony (noun): 1. agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.
One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose. Corny? Maybe. But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences. Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts. We see this work in music groups all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.
This month, in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.
The past two weeks (with -Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo), we looked at how the director Howard Hawks used group sing-alongs as a dramatic to show the mending of differences to get everyone "on the same page"—ebven if it is sheet music.
It doesn't happen so often anymore. Audiences don't have the patience for it, or don't "buy" it, although Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe may perform string instruments together in Master and Commander, or it may show up, inevitably in musicals, like the Broadway adaptations or Disney.
Or Moulin Rouge!
A lot of people don't like this one (with that hysterical "hate, hate hate" kind of dislike), and it's semi-understandable: it's silly, and high-flung, operatic in tone with the lowliest of song-forms, the rock-song. It's edited much too fussily and extravagantly (with attention paid to rhythm more than continuity) and it borrows from so many plots ("La bohème," hello!) and eviscerates so many rock songs that purists of any stripe yank out hanks of hair at the glee with which Baz Luhrmann and company pay no respect in this giddy kaleidoscopic romp of a movie-musical.
Yeah..."whatever." The artists got paid...and the result sure is fun.
What I'm looking at this week is the very complicated sequence that is known as the "Elephant Love Medley," which features Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing full-bore into each other's faces bits and pieces of songs from sources diverse as The Beatles (and Paul McCartney), Phil Collins, Elton John, David Bowie, Kiss, Dolly Parton, U2, Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. It's the classic call-and-response of rock numbers where the romantic and the cynic parry back and forth, and the two only come together to sing a song unchanged and unexpurgated at Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs." I remember rolling my eyes when that one came up, but its usage is fairly brilliant because it has both the romantic and cynical arguments built into it, then the two come to a meeting of hearts and minds (with a burst of heart-shaped CGI sparkle at the down-beat) to sing together in harmony. It works, both in the foreground presentation and the background drama, and spectacularly well.
Next week: The same thing, but quieter, sweeter and simpler.