Hey, kids, let's deconstruct a musical!
Well, actually, let's deconstruct two musicals: "Moulin Rouge," and "A Knight's Tale."
But, you are saying, "A Knight's Tale" isn't a musical, it's a teen-toned "Rocky" about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks getting his shot in the tony world of tournament jousting circa 1400, give or take a century.
It is. But it's also a movie whose best and only trick is based upon its use of music, which happens to be exactly "Moulin Rouge's" best (but not only) trick as well: Both combine story materials set definitively in the past with music set definitively in the present. The result is a paradox of postmodernism, a kind of topsy-turvy sticking together of elements without much thought to logic or probability.
In the movie musical, the arrival of postmodernism could easily be missed, because no form is more artificial than this one. It is by its very nature anti-realistic--unless in your office or breakfast nook, trained singers and dancers are apt to burst into spontaneous but brilliantly choreographed numbers (if that's so, then you have more problems than I can help you with).
But audiences have odd tolerances for things, or sometimes lack of tolerance: It is said that in South America during the '30s, musical sequences had to be cut out of imported American films, because audiences there simply couldn't accept the conceit. They thought it was ridiculous. What they didn't know, but you and I do, is that you can't break the rules of a musical because there aren't any. There are only traditions.
In fact, both "A Knight's Tale" and "Moulin Rouge" seem to be onto something new: They represent at least the fourth development in the movie musical as it has bumbled and stumbled, gamboled and rambled its way through the years, almost dying in the '80s and '90s, until this moment in time, which is one of those boomlets like the one the war movie is undergoing.
So what we are looking at here isn't a history of the musical, but a history of the concept of the musical. How the form spoke to the audience, how the form changed, how the audience hustled to keep up with it, adjusted, how it changed again, and the process began anew until we arrived at May 4, 2001, the first public glimpse of the moment in "A Knight's Tale" that will determine whether you can get with it or must get out of it.
That's during the first jousting contest, when we are in the old-movie past, full of mud and horses and pennants and pasty-faced women in tight bodices, and knights are thundering this way and that, calling up old-story memories of Howard Pyle's majestic illustrations and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's mock-classical music passages from "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
Then, suddenly, the music comes up and it's not Korngold at all: It's Queen, Freddie Mercury's Queen, '70s Queen, and it's blasting out "We Will Rock You"--and what's more the medieval people in the film hear the music and begin rocking and jiving and squiggling to it. Then they start the Wave. What place is this? Where are we now?
It's only recently that the makers of musicals have felt so free. In fact, the first generation of musicals--on screens shortly after Al Jolson promised "You ain't seen nothing yet" in the first sound film, "The Jazz Singer" (1927)--were exactly the opposite. They were stolid, clumsy, inextricably linked to the musical theater, the world of Broadway.
Their fundamental concept--the backstage musical--was literal, almost naturalistic. The dancing and singing that broke out were not spontaneous; rather, they were encountered in the only place in the world where they would be natural. Most film musicals before the liberating arrival of "Oklahoma!" on Broadway in 1943 were set on Broadway or were about Broadway, or were at least about show people. Many hardly bothered with a story at all, like "Broadway Melody of 1936": all singing, all dancing, all stupid.
The fabulous "Wizard of Oz" (1939) might be seen as a transitional movie, which began to pull the form away from the theater stage to the more magical realm of pure film. The filmmakers (director Victor Fleming but more likely producer Mervyn LeRoy) had an understanding of the different subliminal meanings of cinematography: a gritty black-and-white for the real world, giving way to a candy-colored, brilliantly fake sound-stage world that was self-consciously an illusion. It was stage-like in its indoor quality, if not technically on a proscenium stage. So you might have thought it drew a distinction between real world--black and white--and musical world: color sound stage. But it didn't.