Hollywood Musicals Make History

Gebhardt, Nicholas (2018) Hollywood Musicals Make History. In: Histories on Screen The Past and Present in Anglo-American Cinema and Television. Bloomsbury Academic, London, pp. 185-202. ISBN 9781474217064

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In this chapter, I explore the role of history in Hollywood musicals, from the 1920s through until the present. I intend to begin with a wide-ranging survey of the literature about the genre, highlighting a number of historiographical problems raised by musicals, and then focus in detail on how we might conceive of history in several of the most influential films, including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music. Whether we see them as artefacts, or as works of art, Hollywood musicals present unique challenges for historians. Part of the problem is that when we compare them to the western, the war film, or the biopic, the Hollywood musical seems to be the most unhistorical of film genres, playing fast and loose with the facts. The other related issue is that musicals on film are primarily celebrations of singing and dancing; there appears to be little room for the complex narratives or nuanced interpretation we associate with historical insight. What I want to suggest, however, is that Hollywood musicals are neither just entertainment nor are they outside of history. Precisely because of their status as mass-cultural events, with huge global audiences, they frequently take up—explicitly and implicitly—many of the same historical and theoretical themes that we find in modernist art forms, as well as in much political and social analysis. Some of these themes are industrialisation, urbanisation and commodity culture, race and ethnicity, individual and collective identity, nationalism and imperialism, political struggle, popular versus elite, authenticity and nostalgia, and remembering and forgetting. In order to understand how Hollywood musicals develop these themes, and why students and teachers would want to take their historical meaning seriously, my broader claim is that Hollywood musicals enable us to conceptualise the historical imagination in ways that a factual or literal account of the past is unable to do. What I mean by this is that in these films there is a deep structural, or latent, content that is generally poetic and specifically mythic in nature. They speak to and are part of our changing experiences of the past, as well as envisaging and redefining some ideal relationship to the present. My approach in this chapter therefore is that Hollywood musicals do more than just reflect our sense of the past, or distract us from the reality of historical events, but make and remake what we know that past to be about and what we think it means.

Item Type: Book Section
8 February 2018Published
Subjects: CAH20 - historical, philosophical and religious studies > CAH20-01 - history and archaeology > CAH20-01-01 - history
CAH25 - design, and creative and performing arts > CAH25-02 - performing arts > CAH25-02-02 - music
CAH25 - design, and creative and performing arts > CAH25-01 - creative arts and design > CAH25-01-04 - cinematics and photography
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Design and Media > College of English and Media
Depositing User: Nicholas Gebhardt
Date Deposited: 23 Jan 2020 08:52
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2023 16:17
URI: https://www.open-access.bcu.ac.uk/id/eprint/8764

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