Audiences are having the time of their lives as Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again soared into cinemas last week, as sparkly as an Abba-lini sipped on a sun lounger. Unlike the largely panned original film, Here We Go Again has been received as the fabulously corny mood-lifter that it is.
Much of the criticism of the first film was (understandably) focused on the clumsy way the narrative is shaped with industrial strength tools to accommodate Abba’s greatest hits. The sequel feels far more self aware, not so much winking at the camera as jumping up and down and waving its arms at it when Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia) is finally referred to by his first name which just so happens to be the title of Abba’s second biggest single. As Mark Kermode wrote in his wonderfully effusive Observer review: “the real pleasure comes from the sublime agony of hearing your favourite Abba tunes crowbarred into the narrative in increasingly preposterous ways.”
Jukebox musicals, in which a story is written based on pre-existing songs often by the same band or singer, are frequently dismissed as cynical attempts to capitalise on popular music. While there have been plenty of hits on stage and on screen (Moulin Rouge!, Jersey Boys, Beautiful: the Carole King Musical) there have been plenty of misses (Desperately Seeking Susan, Viva Forever, the Rock of Ages film adaptation). But while influential film critic Andrew Sarris dubbed A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”, one film in particular sets a precedent for the critical embrace of the jukebox movie musical: the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain which constructed a narrative around the songbook of Nacio Herb Brown (music) and Arthur Freed (lyrics).
Co-directed and co-choreographed by Stanley Donen and star Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain is a brilliant satire of Hollywood’s most dramatic upheaval: the arrival of sound. Silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) and his conniving leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) might be finished now that audiences are desperate for ‘talking pictures’ and Lina’s voice doesn’t match her beauty. But with the help of best friend and pianist Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) writing songs and young singer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) dubbing Lina’s terrible voice Don might just be able to remake a silent flop as a musical spectacular.
At first glance, Singin’ in the Rain is a traditional “putting on a show” musical in the style of legendary director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose films include 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and the Gold Diggers series. Musical numbers in these films made in the 1930s are diegetic, meaning they are part of the fictional production the characters are performing in and don’t relate to the events of the story. But in Singin’ in the Rain the songs escape the confines of the stage and portray the emotions of its characters. Is there a more definitive example of emotion expressed in song and dance than Gene Kelly in one of the most famous scenes in cinema? The camera dances around him too, every move orchestrated not just to showcase Kelly’s athleticism and grace but also to emphasise the childlike joy of splashing in puddles.
You Were Meant For Me is particularly self-referential in that Don leads Kathy onto an empty soundstage and with the help of lights, a painted backdrop, a smoke machine and a fan, transforms it into a beautiful garden on a summer’s evening. The artifice of Hollywood romance is highlighted but we are invited to revel in its magic. Don quite literally constructs the setting of the musical sequence to reflect his love for Kathy.
This integration of singing, dancing and narrative began on Broadway in the 1940s and prompted the elevation of the dance director to choreographer. Song and dance weren’t just visual spectacles anymore; they were becoming integral elements of storytelling. Gene Kelly, a tap dancer who later studied ballet, had the realisation after his first significant stage role that any kind of character could be expressed through dramatised dance. Subsequently, as co-director, co-choreographer and star of Singin’ in the Rain Kelly ensured that the story was constructed to simultaneously display the spectacle of dance while reflecting the emotion of the Freed-Brown songs that had already appeared in earlier musicals but were disconnected from their narratives.
Although Kelly and Donen were determined to integrate drama and musical numbers there is one particularly spectacular sequence in Singin’ in the Rain which can barely be justified as part of the narrative: Broadway Melody. “Dream ballet” sequences which had little relevance to the plot but portrayed the dreamer’s psychoanalytic state had become popular on Broadway, most notably in the stage production of Oklahoma!. After he starred in and choreographed the box office hit An American in Paris (prompted by the success of The Red Shoes) Kelly was keen to once again bring ballet to the big screen. Two Freed-Brown songs, Broadway Melody and Broadway Rhythm, framed Singin’ in the Rain‘s sequence and a new instrumental orchestral piece became the Broadway Ballet. Just as Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again has to commit to forcing Fernando into the plot, so Cosmo delivers a knowing, amusingly contrived storyline for their fictional musical The Dancing Cavalier which just about justifies the Broadway Melody segment, even though the musical sequence barely resembles this story. Here we see a return to musical as (almost) pure spectacle, as Cher and Andy Garcia dance together against a backdrop of fireworks at sunset while Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance together against a painted purple sunset with the long train of her white dress fluttering and floating in the wind. Both are joyful digressions from the plot.
Although successful and well-received at the time, it wasn’t really until the 1980s that Singin’ in the Rain was cemented as a critically acclaimed and audience adored classic. While its position has dropped over the years it has been in the Sight and Sound list of 50 Greatest Films of All Time since 1982 and was ranked twentieth in the most recent poll of critics, film programmers and academics in 2012. Of course, the versions of the Freed-Brown songs performed in Singin’ in the Rain such as Good Morning, You Are My Lucky Star and the title song have become vastly more well known than the original performances in earlier films. Perhaps the fact that the film is not recognised as a jukebox musical attempting to weave a plot around unrelated songs has contributed to its high regard. It’s difficult to imagine Mamma Mia and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again one day enjoying the same reverence but the sequel’s relative critical acclaim does perhaps demonstrate a reappraisal of “guilty pleasure” entertainment like musicals. Though not a jukebox musical, The Greatest Showman was of course savaged by the critics but is now the fifth-highest grossing live-action musical of all time while La La Land was acclaimed partly due to its references to classic popular musicals like Singin’ in the Rain. It’s also significant that musicals along with romantic comedies are genres disparaged as “women’s entertainment.”
A biography of Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn features Kelly witnessing crowds of soggy Londoners waiting for the procession at the Queen’s coronation bursting into a rendition of Singin’ in the Rain. He described it as “the biggest thrill of my life…a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” In his Observer review of Here We Go Again Mark Kermode wrote that his perceptions of quality had been completely upended by both Mamma Mia instalments and that he found himself “convulsing with tears” at the sequel’s heart wrenching climax.
Here we see similarly emotional responses to what might be considered lowbrow, feel good jukebox musical films more than fifty years apart. “I loved it to pieces”, said Kermode of Here We Go Again, “I can’t wait to go again!”. The enduring appeal and acclaim of Singin’ in the Rain suggests that there might continue to be space in the “canon” for glossy, blissfully uplifting entertainment. The joy of Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain has been re-experienced decade after decade and perhaps the cast of Mamma Mia dancing and jiving will be too.