Must-See Musicals: Review

Richard Barrios’s 2017 book Must-See Musicals, a selection from the Turner Classic Movies library, covers the history of the movie musical, providing information on essential films from the genre along the way. After a foreword from pianist and musical revivalist Michael Feinstein and an introduction from Barrios, the reader goes on a toe-tapping journey from the first modern movie musical, 1929’s The Broadway Melody, to the recent smash hit, 2016’s La La Land, with forty-eight other movies in between.

Must-See Musicals follows a similar format to the other TCM “guide” books, allotting a few pages to each of the films covered. Barrios goes through a description of the film and its influence and then includes a “What’s More” section, further highlighting the significance of the musical and thus arguing for its inclusion as an essential. In a final “Musically Speaking” bit, Barrios highlights specific songs or moments specifically related to the film’s music. At the end of the discussion of each movie, Barrios includes a “More to See” sidebar that suggests a couple of similar movie musicals that did not make the book. Offset with beautiful stills from the films and delightful behind-the-scenes photos, it is gorgeous to look at, too.

The Broadway Melody (1929), the first movie musical

Like Jeremy Arnold’s 52 Must-See Movies, I was impressed with how this book was both accessible for newcomers to classic film and this particular genre but still entertaining and stimulating for readers more familiar with these movies. In his introduction, Barrios writes that “[m]usicals are special, too, in that not everyone appreciates them, nor understands those who do” (p. 10). As a big fan of movie musicals, I never considered this, but it is an excellent point. In Must-See Musicals, Barrios writes to convince the reader of the significance of each of these movies in film and musical history. Still, it is done without a sense of condescension to those who do not like musicals. It keenly understands the movie musical’s role, one typically of escapism and not necessarily of profound social commentary (though there are certainly exceptions).

Singin' in the Rain (1952), perhaps the most essential

However, Barrios also makes a compelling argument for the importance of the movie musical, specifically in American film culture. In tracing the role and development of filmed musicals in their almost century-long existence, it becomes clear that they have some sort of magical quality that gives them an incredible staying power. Barrios alludes to this, saying that “[t]hrough it all, amid all the changes of style, technique, and attitude, they somehow persist, managing to come back in one form or another both in movie theaters and on home screens” (p. 256). That is perhaps my favorite part of this book. It is truly a celebration of the magic of movie musicals, and it makes one want to get up and dance and sing, even just reading it.

Must-See Musicals is another excellent offering from the TCM library. Rich in information and engaging in its writing, this is a wonderful trip through movie musical history. Every reader is bound to learn something and come away with a new movie musical they want to see or an old favorite they wish to revisit. At the very least, they will find themselves humming a tune from one of the delightful, timeless classics included in this book. I heartily recommend this for fans of the movie musical and even suggest it for those who are more hesitant about the genre. Barrios crafts a compelling argument for the magic and essential nature of these musical movies, and it might just convince skeptics.

From the late 1920s to now and beyond, musical films have been extraordinarily adept at communicating with their audiences and connecting them with both current tastes and timeless aspirations.
Michael Barrios, Must-See Musicals, p. 10

This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!

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