Friday, May 30, 2014

Music in the Shadows

Author:  Sheri Chinen Biesen
Genre:  Performing Arts/Film/Criticism

Five Stars

Smoke. Shadows. Moody strains of jazz. Welcome to the world of "noir musical" films, where tormented antiheroes and hard-boiled musicians battle obsession and struggle with their music and ill-fated love triangles. Sultry divas dance and sing the blues in shrouded nightclubs. Romantic intrigue clashes with backstage careers.

In her pioneering study, Music in the Shadows, film noir expert Sheri Chinen Biesen explores musical films that use film noir style and bluesy strains of jazz to inhabit a disturbing underworld and reveal the dark side of fame and the American Dream. While noir musical films like A Star Is Born include musical performances, their bleak tone and expressionistic aesthetic more closely resemble the visual style of film noir. Their narratives unfold behind a stark noir lens: distorted, erratic angles and imbalanced hand-held shots allow the audience to experience a tortured, disillusioned perspective.
While many musicals glamorize the quest for the spotlight in Hollywood's star factory, brooding noir musical films such as Blues in the Night, Gilda, The Red Shoes, West Side Story, and Round Midnight stretch the boundaries of film noir and the musical as film genres collide. Deep shadows, dim lighting, and visual composition evoke moodiness, cynicism, pessimism, and subjective psychological points of view.

As in her earlier study of film noir, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir, Biesen draws on extensive primary research in studio archives to situate her examination within a historical, industrial, and cultural context.


Since I am a huge classic film - especially noir - lover; I couldn't wait to read this book.  Ms. Biesen has written an outstanding book on the use of music in film noir, and the impact it makes.  Drawing upon such films as Gilda, Young Man with a Horn, Blues in the Night, Double Indemnity, and even The Major and the Minor - a film which uses the song "A Woman's a Two Face" sung by a cadet to Ginger Rogers (masquerading as a teenager, believe it or not) - she has written a comprehensive and extensive work that is well-written and fascinating to read.

Anyone who is interested in film noir would find this indispensable as a reference - after all, who can forget Dooley Wilson in Casablanca crooning 'As Time Goes By?'  She covers both well-known and not so well-known films - Christmas Holiday being one of my favorites - Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin in a dark noir film, both playing against character  (I suggest you try to find a copy; it will definitely be worth your while) - and offers a description of the Musician's Strike of 1942, which has long since passed into history, yet spawned some of the greater singers of the century (Frank Sinatra among them).

A highly recommended book for both film fans and music lovers alike; after all, who can go wrong with a book that has the sultry Rita Hayworth as Gilda on the cover?

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