The Musical as Event. Modes of Address in Contemporary Film Musicals

Master's Thesis, 2014

96 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Film Musical and the Study of Film Audiences: A Theoretical Background
2.1. The Fluctuating Popularity of the Film Musical
2.2. From Spectators to Audiences

3. The Use of Pre-Existing Material
3.1. The Jukebox Musical
3.2. Showcasing the Songbooks of Mega Bands in Across the Universe and Mamma Mia!
3.3. Spotting the Song: The Anachronistic Use of Music in Moulin Rouge!

4. The Conscious Extravagance of Camp
4.1. The Camp Sensibility
4.2. Camp’s Spectacle and Tragedy in Moulin Rouge!
4.3. The Camp Journey towards Self-Affirmation in Hairspray

5. Nostalgic Remembrances and Reinventions of the Past
5.1. Nostalgia as a Form of Narrative in Film Musicals
5.2. “Grow Back Down Again!:” Personal and Collective Remembering in Mamma Mia!
5.3. Rewriting History in Hairspray

6. The Focus on Female Validation and Empowerment
6.1. Developments in Women’s Films
6.2. Revisiting ABBA’s Songs: The Power of Friendship and Independence in Mamma Mia!
6.3. Role Reversals and Power Shifts in Across the Universe

7. Conclusion

8. Works Cited

1. Introduction

At the beginning of the year 2010, movie critic Bob Mondello triumphantly declared “It's going to be another musical decade,” noting the way the previous ten years have prompted a movie musical “resurgence” paving the road for a bright music-filled future. Indeed, cinema audiences around the world can be found singing and dancing to big screen musicals. In the last fifteen years, the emergence of a number of very successful film musicals has been keeping audiences tapping their feet and clapping along to flowing tunes. Big blockbuster hits like Mamma Mia! (2008), grossing a remarkable $609,841,637 worldwide (Box Office Mojo), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Hairspray (2006), or Les Misérables (2012) seem to have reawakened a somewhat faded genre of “Golden” times. Whether one estimates that the musical genre is truly experiencing a full “renaissance” (“Oscars® to Feature Tribute”), or rather only the highs of the “movie musical’s natural life cycle” (Wootton), one could definitely agree on the fact that these recent films have surpassed the status of a niche genre and developed an appeal for the masses. Supplemented by a great marketing machinery offering eager audiences karaoke screenings and soundtrack albums, these films engage audiences in a contagious fun-filled way. On top of that, they begin to transcend the musical’s reputation of including a merely weak and “mindless” plot subordinated to the music that predates the genre (A.O. Scott, “Does Your Mother Know”). The very recent adaptation of the Broadway success Les Misérables based on the dark novel by Victor Hugo as well as the “Tribute to Movie Musicals of the Last Decade” at the 2013 Academy Awards signify the musical as a much more respected genre (“Oscars® to Feature Tribute”).

When looking at the history of musicals over the course of time, this does not always seem to be the case. In spite of the fact that the film musical was an audience favorite during its “Golden Age” era (1927 until the mid-1950s) and celebrating great successes such as 42nd Street (1933) or Singin’ in the Rain (1952), it seems to have deteriorated in quality and reputation at the end of the 20th century. Reduced to the genres of romance, slap stick comedy, or children’s fairytales, musicals were often regarded as cheesy and exaggerated. This particular reputation would stick with the genre for a considerably long time. In 2002, film musical scholar Steven Cohan declared: “according to contemporary audience tastes and industry economics, the Hollywood musical as it once flourished is now impossible to take seriously except as an artifact of nostalgia” (2). Until recently, film musicals were seen as unsuccessful in their attempt to lure masses of audiences, especially younger viewers, into movie theaters. Teen films that successfully built song and dance into the narrative, like Save the Last Dance (2001), whose thereby more realistic plot seems to be more willingly accepted by young adults, are seen as an exception (2). Since recent movie musicals apparently have hit a rather different, more successful, nerve with audiences, the question then is why the forgotten genre now sees a sudden uplift in box office numbers and audiences’ favor. Which elements of recent movie musicals exactly keep audiences glued to the screen and skipping out of the movie theater with tunes stuck in their heads afterwards? And once these elements have been identified, how do they work in tapping into audiences’ emotions, pulling them into their song-filled world and prompting them to participate?

In order to find the reasons that contemporary musicals successfully engage audiences, this thesis will be influenced by the methodology and research of reception study scholar Janet Staiger. As a relatively young discipline, reception study “attempts to illuminate the cultural meanings of films in specific times and social circumstances to specific viewers,” thereby allowing for the study of both film and viewers to interactively create meaning (Staiger, Perverse Spectators 162). The film itself is not assigned a single intended meaning but can instead be interpreted in “different, non-exclusionary ways” (Kemper). Those varying understandings of the film are accounted for by the study of historical documents reflecting audience members’ individual interpretations.

In the field of reception study, Staiger’s 1992 Interpreting Film: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema and her consecutive work Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (2000) have been declared “groundbreaking” in reconsidering the way actual audiences make sense of films. With her historical materialist approach taking into account all “traces” of audiences interacting with filmic material, she sets out to find an understanding of why certain films prove to be so successful with audiences at certain times (Kemper). According to Staiger, the construction of meaning of a certain film is seen as an “event” that does not only encompass the actual time spent at the cinema but also the expectations preceding and the interpretations and continuations that follow watching a movie. For her, the term “event” also signifies that an encounter with a filmic text produces “a set of interpretations or effective experiences produced by individuals” (Staiger, Perverse Spectators 163). Thus, she investigates the “modes of address and exhibition,” “establishes the identities and interpretative strategies and tactics brought by spectators to the cinema” and acknowledges cultural groups such as fans who “produce their own conventionalized modes of reception” (23; emphasis in original). It is the purpose of this thesis, then, to take up the approach of looking at the “contact zone” (Kemper) between films and audiences in order to investigate filmic addresses fostering audience engagement. In doing so, an assortment of recent film musicals that have achieved considerable box office success including Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, Hairspray, and Mamma Mia! will be analyzed with regard to particular addresses picked up by audiences, thereby creating the “event” of movie-going. The central question investigated here then asks: Which elements of a particular film are focused on by critical reports and how do these elements shape the movie-going experience, participation, and engagement of viewers? Thus, this study of the interplay between the films’ address and the audiences’ receptions does not set out to dissect the meaning of a movie per se, nor does it attempt to cover the entirety of interpretative strategies audience members could apply. It rather takes up Staiger’s approach in a way that attempts to explain how movies succeed in meaning certain things to certain audiences by isolating exemplary film addresses and their effects on audiences. Due to the limitations of this thesis, rendering an all-encompassing survey of any kind of fan writing, message board comment, or reviews impossible, the “traces” of reception proposed by Staiger will constitute critical film reviews published in renowned newspapers. These will be taken as clues for defining distinctive elements that have resonated the most with these particular viewers and that will be analyzed in selected scenes from contemporary movie musicals.

The first chapter will provide the theoretical background for the reception study approach adopted in this thesis. After a short overview of the film musical’s history, including its fluctuating popularity, an introduction to the study of film audiences is given. This part will include the distinction between the fields of spectatorship and reception study as well as a presentation of reception study scholar Janet Staiger and film musical scholar Stacy Ellen Wolf. The next chapter will revolve around the first mode of address, the use of pre-existing material. This will be exemplified by the analysis of selected scenes from the jukebox musicals Across the Universe and Mamma Mia! which feature the songbooks of The Beatles and ABBA as well as by the discussion of excerpts from Moulin Rouge! which is relevant due to its compilation score of anachronistic music. Chapter 4 will deal with the highly ironic and comedic address of deliberate camp. A short discussion of the camp discourse including its early definition by Susan Sontag and its change into a mass appeal noted by Bruce LaBruce will be followed by a detailed analysis of its function in Moulin Rouge! and Hairspray. Having been identified as a further strong address to audiences, the aspect of nostalgia is focused on in Chapter 5. Here, distinctions are being made between nostalgia on the plot and audience level. Furthermore, the ideological nature of the narrated nostalgia is put special emphasis on. The use and function of nostalgia is exemplified by selected scenes of Mamma Mia! and Hairspray. The last mode of address to be discussed in this thesis is that of a considerable focus on women’s validation and empowerment. A short overview of the development of women’s films reveals a recent practice of championing strong and independent female characters as well as a transformation of overlooked chick flicks to high-grossing “women’s blockbusters” (York 4). A look at selected scenes from Mamma Mia! and Across the Universe will examine elements of this new type of women’s film exemplified by a strong focus on the topics of friendship and validation as well as an empowerment of women’s voices resulting from a re-gendering of familiar song material.

2. The Film Musical and the Study of Film Audiences: A Theoretical Background

In the following chapter, an overview of the popularity of film musicals will be succeeded by a discussion of audience studies. Here, a distinction will be made between spectatorship studies and reception studies. A closer look at the historical materialist approach by Janet Staiger as well as on Stacy Ellen Wolf’s arguments concerning musical audiences and participatory engagement will lay the groundwork for the close analysis of selected film scenes.

2.1. The Fluctuating Popularity of the Film Musical

In order to qualify as a film musical, the film in question is expected to display a considerable amount of song and/ or dance numbers performed by its main characters, oftentimes in plots of romance, comedy, and joyful tones. While the so-called backstage musicals can display a realistic setting for singing and dancing characters by centering around the setting up of some sort of musical performance, the musical’s trade-mark characteristic of breaking into song is usually situated in an “imaginary space” including a dream-like state or unrealistic place serving as a supposedly impromptu stage in other types of musicals (Grant 1). Singing and dancing, then, becomes the ultimate means for characters to voice their feelings in a way that constantly reminds audiences of the entirely cinematic, “unreal” nature of film. Adding to the fact that the musical score of any kind of film always sets out to engage audiences in an emotional and participatory way, and even more so in musicals due to the music’s omnipresence, the lacking realism of this genre encourages viewers to embrace the absurdity and fun of it and start dreaming away. As Jane Feuer puts it, “musicals not only gave the most intense […] pleasure to their audience but also supplied a justification for that pleasure. Musicals not only showed you singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing, about the nature and importance of that experience” (x; emphasis in original).

In the history of film musicals, its epitome of success, the so-called “Golden Age,” was reached during the 1930s and kept up until the 1950s, and is inevitably connected to the rise and fall of the Hollywood Studio System headed by the “big five” industry giants Warner Bros., MGM, RKO, Fox, and Paramount. By means of vertically integrating the “production, distribution and exhibition” of films, these major studios were able to achieve considerable control over the film market until a 1984 Supreme Court ruling ended their practices (Cohan 5). These studios turned the musical into a major genre full of spectacle and grandeur. With popular stars like Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly leading the musicals that quickly turned into “mass-produced, mass-consumed” films, audiences were pulled in and enchanted by the genre’s wholesome entertaining nature (Cohan 1). During this time, the genre was “enormously popular,” dominating big studios’ annual profits and serving as vehicles for presenting major stars and “tentpole product[s],” as well as showing off technological innovations (Cohan 3). As described by the hit musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952) in a self-reflexive, yet tongue-in-cheek fashion, the “bang” of introducing film musicals was directly related to the advent of the Vitaphone technology, allowing a sound disc to be played in synchronization with the images on screen, and Al Jolson’s famous voice in the revolutionary first sound film The Jazz Singer (1927) (Cohan 3). In reality, the conversion from silent to sound film was much slower as presented by the film for the need of a static camera had to be overcome, a second sound technology, the sound-on-disc process, was developed, and audiences in the late 1920s had to make do with the so-called “part-talkies” which were oftentimes box office failures. Nevertheless, the musical genre did progress into one of the most successful genres succeeding Warners’ production of 42nd Street in 1933 (Cohan 4-5).

It did not take long for the big production studios such as Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros. to develop their very own formulas for success, creating a multitude of musicals similar in formal elements, “recycling” their plot materials, which in early times often included the subject of entertainment, as well as leading stars (often teamed up in well-received combinations such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and retaining a “consistent style of photography, editing, costuming, set designing and technicians going from one musical to the next” (Cohan 9). It is important to note that the musical during the studio era was “a highly regulated generic format” (11). While innovation in terms of creating a new kind of spectacle, a never-seen-before dance act, or revolutionary musical score overshadowing a weak plot was asked for, the musical still remained an industrial product, “its value assured by its standardization” (11).

Nevertheless, the Hollywood musical “died rapidly” after the end of the studio-era in the mid-1950s (Feuer xi). According to John Mueller, the reasons for the decline of the genre were manifold: “Revenues were declining, costs were rising, the studio system was falling apart, competition with television was growing, popular music was moving into the age of rock and roll” leaving only “extravagant transmutations of Broadway musicals, perfunctory song-and-dance vehicles for Elvis Presley” (qtd. in Dunne 4). Although these Broadway adaptations such as West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) or Cabaret (1972) proved to be very successful, the sheer breadth and quantity of musicals produced in the Golden Age was not to be retained. Musical scholar Jane Feuer also notes a change in the appreciation of film musicals after the end of the studio system: “What seemed to die out in the mid-1950s was the energy at the heart of the great MGM musicals, an energy based on faith in the power of singing and dancing connected with an almost religious belief in Hollywood itself as the great inheritor of the spirit of musical entertainment” (87).

As it became more and more quiet in the musical genre, Michael Dunne sees a small uplift in popularity with upcoming features focusing on popular rock and pop music and dancing. According to Dunne, by the time Grease (1978) was released, film critics felt that “the Hollywood film musical had actually disappeared” (7). While Jane Feuer embraces this new type of dance musicals aimed at an adolescent audience and congratulating Flashdance (1983) and Dirty Dancing (1987) for being able to follow up on the trend (xi), Rick Altman’s extensive study The American Film Musical paints a less enthusiastic picture. He writes:

From the films of Elvis Presley and the teeny-bopper beach blanket shows […] to the rock concert documentaries of the seventies and the current tendency towards single-star concert-oriented films where the number of minutes on stage outweigh the rather flimsy plot, the musical has slowly destroyed itself by losing its balance between narrative and music, indeed by abandoning the classic syntax whereby narrative is not just an excuse for music, but stands in a particular, structured relationship to that music. (120-1)

In other words, Altman regards the post-Golden Age film musicals as weakly plotted platforms for displaying celebrities and superficial fun. At the time of his study’s release, in 1987, he predicted the “death” of the musical, as he lamented the musical’s deterioration to films lacking prior artistic and narrative standards and losing “whatever function the genre once had” (121). Obviously dissatisfied with this development, he dismissively lists the kinds of musical at the time as “children’s musicals (usually cartoons), adolescent musicals (usually dance-fad or concert-oriented) and old folks musicals (nostalgia compilations or throwbacks)” (121).

A 1982 New York Magazine article offers a different estimation of the film musical’s status at the time. Contrary to Altman, William Wolf declares: “The next time a major song-and-dance film bombs and you read yet again that, alas, the movie musical is dead, don’t believe them” (74). In his article, Wolf discusses the existence of both the aforementioned “more traditional, big budget musicals that attempt to capitalize on Broadway hits” occurring “periodically” and more challenging ones including social and political commentary such as musicals by Bob Fosse (73). While the famed creator of Cabaret (1972) and All that Jazz (1979) at the time saw opportunities for the latter to resonate with audiences as “[m]usicals can bring out the strongest emotions quickest,” he nevertheless agrees with scholars when stating musicals to never again being able to “go back to the M.G.M. days” (Fosse qtd. in W. Wolf, 73). Another important aspect treated by Wolf is the high financial risk of producing film musicals, especially more “sophisticated” ones, as he sees them as harder to market (73).

It is exactly this economic side to musical production, posing high financial risks to studios, which caused only few movie musicals to be released at the end of the 20th century. James Buhler notes that “musicals take a lot of resources—a huge amount of rehearsal, a lot of preproduction costs,” not to mention the difficulty in finding actors suited for singing and dancing (qtd. in Ebiri). Yet the following decade would bring forth musicals different from the still popular children’s fairytales such as Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1981), The Little Mermaid (1989), etc. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) proved to be a big success, grossing $179,213,434 at the box office, and the film musical’s popularity slowly gained speed (Box Office Mojo). More well-received films such as Chicago (2002), Hairspray (2007), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) allowed critics and producers to regain faith in the genre. It was Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 hit musical Mamma Mia! that finally sealed the musical as an audience favorite again. By grossing a total amount of $609,841,637 (foreign markets accounted for 76.4%), Mamma Mia! made it to an astonishing number 5 on the list of the 2008 worldwide grosses (Box Office Mojo). Hence, it has earned itself the title blockbuster, a marketing term used to promote a movie and shape audience’s expectations and excitement by promising “action, stars, and special effects” in order to generate large economic profits (Corrigan and White 47).

In her essay “From Chick Flicks to Millennial Blockbusters: Spinning Female-Driven Narratives into Franchises,” Ashley Elaine York proposes that Mamma Mia! belongs to “a new breed of women’s giants [or] women’s blockbusters as a new conglomerate trend (4). Extending the term blockbuster distinctly to female-driven narratives, she lists the following criteria as crucial for a box office hit: first of all, the film’s plot is “high concept” referring to a “wide-reaching appeal” achieved by using material that audiences are familiar with, including popular actors or well-known music (8-9). Furthermore, this type of film features “the theme of validation,” including the portrayal of women attempting and succeeding in following their dreams, which in turn encourages audiences to identify with the characters (15). As a third criterion, York takes note of the economic nature of the term blockbuster by acknowledging the needed potential for franchising the film by means of special edition DVDs, internet campaigns, the release of a soundtrack accompanying the film, etc. (16).

The 2012 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, grossing a worldwide $441,809,770, can be seen as the most recent film to follow up on the musical’s newfound popularity which definitely classifies as a blockbuster (Box Office Mojo). While it does not present an exclusively female narrative defined by the theme of validation, Ashley Elaine York’s movie giant criteria of a wide-reaching appeal and franchise potential without doubt holds in this often adapted, cherished, and star-packed film musical. Although Les Misérables producer Eric Fellner defines one of the greatest challenges as “trying to find performers who were brilliant actors, great singers, and hopefully, great movie stars,” he also acknowledges that it was not easy to acquire the needed capital for producing the film of this size and complexity: “We had to get enough money to give it enough scale to make it work” (qtd. in Elibri). It is noteworthy, then, that with the huge success of Les Misérables, an attempt at what in 1982 William Wolf would have called a “sophisticated” musical, has succeeded (73).

2.2. From Spectators to Audiences

In the course of the last four decades, a remarkable variety of notions regarding spectatorship and film audiences have emerged. They can, however, be grouped into two theories that are foregrounded and applied by scholars: spectatorship studies on the one hand, reception theory or study of cinema audiences on the other. Since they are derived from distinct disciplinary approaches, it is useful to maintain a conceptual distinction between the terms spectator as implied by the text or film and the actual member of the audience.

The subdiscipline of classical film theory of spectatorship which emerged at the beginning of the 1970s was influenced by a great diversity of discourses: semiotics, structuralism and Marxism, poststructuralism and psychoanalysis (Corrigan and White 486-91). Yet at the core of these very theoretical approaches, scholars generally see spectators as a hypothetical entity constructed by and inherent in the filmic text, assuming that all spectators react to a film in the same way. Thus, film theory deals with a receptive and “idealized viewer” the film is meant to speak to (Kuhn and Westwell 26). Since the spectator is seen as being solely subjected to the material presented to him, he is regarded as passive, leading to the definition of classical film philosophies as “text-activated position[s]” (Staiger, Interpreting Films 51). A central part of these studies lies in the “relationship between cinema and ideology” that spectators are supposedly unconsciously subjected to (Aaron 24). Thus, they are inevitably caught up “in the pleasure of visual mastery over the film’s world through identification” with the apparently all-seeing camera (Kuhn and Westwell 313).

One of the earliest and most noted advocates of such a position is the French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser. In 1971, he stirred the classical film theory world with his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” He explains that the state order is upheld by “Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA)” enforcing rules “by violence” such as the government and the police on the one hand, and “Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA),” which also include the arts and therefore cinema, and which promote a certain dominant ideology on the other hand. According to Althusser, the ISAs construct certain beliefs preceding the individual: “Where only a single subject is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his beliefs […] is defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject” (Althusser qtd. in Ferretter 87). In other words, it is not the individuals who create ideological institutions with their beliefs, but the ISAs are constructed in such a way as to generate beliefs for the individuals in order to preserve the dominant state order. Feeding the existing fear of an “ideologically suspect” nature of film-viewing and cinema as a possible “major instrument of social change,” the question of how cinema was able to operate ideologically became a political issue as well (Stokes, “Audiences” 39). With regard to the study of films, many researchers took Althusser’s theory as a basis for investigating “filmic texts and the way in which those texts constructed spectators” (Stokes and Maltby 2). Here, the meaning of the film, then, was wholly created in the text, which in turn determined the viewer’s response. Starting off with this very general apparatus theory, many scholars like Christian Metz, David Bordwell and feminist writers such as Laura Mulvey or Annette Kuhn offered extensions to the study of subjectivity and construction of a spectator, yet remained on the text-based side.

Christian Metz is one of the famed writers who, based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories of semiotics as well as on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic ideas, further explored how spectators are constructed by a film by investigating subjectivity, pleasure, and identification with the filmic material. Metz found the film’s function to be an “almost hallucinating experience” for spectators, installing pleasure by granting voyeurism (Corrigan and White 491). He also stated that people interpret films in a certain way “because they already have learned cultural codes to understand what is presented to them” (Staiger, Media 63). Although Metz does explore this culturally shaped way of interpretation as well as the subjectivity of the spectator by likening the cinematic experience to Lacan’s notion of a child recognizing itself in the mirror for the first time, the “primary identification,” thus noticing the spectator’s ability to identify with the on-screen figure, the actual viewer and the audience made of a variety of individuals is still neglected in his work (Aaron 12).

In addition to film theorists’ work published in the English journal Screen, English and American scholars joined in the French debates on spectatorship sometimes referred to as screen theory. Among them was Laura Mulvey, who, with her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” brought attention to the aspect of gendered spectatorship and foreshadowed an eventual reconsideration of abstract theories of spectatorship. Like her fellow feminist writers Annette Kuhn and Miriam Hansen, she “expressed regret that no serious attempt had been made to link textually constructed female spectators with ‘real’ viewers” (Stokes and Maltby 5). With her much cited declaration “woman as image, man as bearer of the look,” she describes a “world ordered by imbalance” and defined by the pleasure in looking being “split between active/male and passive/female” (Mulvey 19). Claiming the spectator, his “gaze,” and the pleasure of watching films to be exclusively male and the institution of cinema to be “patriarchal,” Mulvey assumes the narrative gaze of the film to aspire to men and thus leading to “identification” for men on the one hand while desiring and objectifying women on the other (Aaron 25). Whereas men were presented as driving the narrative, women were acting only as romantic distractions. While Michelle Aaron notes that Mulvey has “still generalized the spectator’s response” and thus stays true to the text-based nature of spectatorship studies (24), Mulvey has proven to be revolutionary with regard to raising awareness to gender issues in spectatorship and taken the first step in considering actual viewers.

Roughly at the same time, the discipline of literary studies also began to voice an interest in actual readers making meaning. The so-called reader-response critics such as Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss proposed that meaning was not to be found “in the text, put there by an agency of authorship, but originates in the event of reading [as] reading is not the discovery of meaning but the creation of it” (Staiger, Interpreting Films 22). Moving away from assigning an imminent implication to the text, scholars focused on ways readers found meaning through their individual interpretative readings, making way for a reader-based sort of study.

In terms of film, the interest in actual audiences was finally put forward by the discipline of British Cultural Studies and was shaped by social scientific theories as well as linguistic and cultural studies.1 Also influenced by Althusser’s theory of ideologically shaped texts, among others, British Cultural scholars took into account “the ways in which readers and audiences actively created meanings from the interaction in specific contexts between cultural products and their own social and cultural identities” and paved the way for what today is termed reception studies (Stokes and Maltby 7). In other words, audiences were now regarded as being capable of actively responding to the ideology presented to them, being granted a very conscious film viewing experience. With his essay “Encoding/Decoding” in 1980, Stuart Hall challenged the prevalent notions of meaning being “fixed and determined by the sender,” that is, the film, with the audience member as “passive recipient” (Procter 59). While the production of a certain message (the encoding) is shaped by pre-determined discourses, the decoding by the viewer is needed in order for the “message form” to “have an ‘effect’” (Hall qtd. in Procter 64). According to Hall, the decodings were of three kinds: the “dominant-hegemonic position,” which accepts the ideology presented, the “negotiated position,” “accepting or rejecting features of the prevailing ideology in order to shape the text to the reader’s own needs,” and the “oppositional position,” firmly rejecting the ideology at hand (Stokes and Maltby 7).

While this method proposed by Hall certainly focused on the audience response, both Janet Staiger and James Procter take note of the fact that it sets out to segment audiences by class, ethnicity, and gender in “Marxist/class terms,” thereby not yet regarding isolated viewers but “ideological positions concerning particular social groups” (Staiger, Interpreting Films 87; Procter 70). Hall himself is quoted as admitting his theory to be “hypothetical” and “in need to be historically tested and refined” (Procter 70). Following his example of the so- called “ethnographic reception studies,” referring to groups of viewers responding to the medium, the field of studying actual audiences was expanded by scholars like Tony Bennett who, in his study on the historical reception of James Bond, assigned audiences the quality of having a “pre-existing horizon of interpretations” that shape the viewing experience (Bennett qtd. in Staiger, Media 82). Hall’s model steadily became more popular in the second half of the 1990s and was applied by scholars such as Thomas Austin and especially feminist writers like Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey (Stokes and Maltby 7).

Out of the popular research in audiences, however hypothetical or to some extent generalized as it might be, emerged a discipline that looks beyond the study of an ideal spectator or fixed groups: reception studies. No longer solely focusing on the intrinsic meaning of filmic material, the text-based construction of spectatorship and the assumption of a hypothetical and homogenous mass of spectators, reception studies take into account the variety of actual cinemagoers as well as their reactions and contributions to the viewing experience. While not entirely dismissing the concept of a certain type of viewer addressed by the text, the focus lies on the “interaction” of the viewer with the film, his or her “interpretive strategies brought to bear on reading films, and on how the latter are shaped” (Kuhn and Westwell 346). To put it differently, reception studies pose the question of “[w]hat kinds of meanings does a text have? For whom? In what circumstances?” (Staiger, Media 2). As reception studies deal with both present day and historical film reception, objects of study include film reviews, advertisements, or pressbooks “meant to shape the expectations” of filmgoers, as well as testimonies in the form of interviews or questionnaires (Kuhn and Westwell 246). In recent studies of fandom, fan fiction or star studies, emphasis has also been put on the ways audiences continue to make meaning of films well after they have finished watching a film.

In her works Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema and Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception, Janet Staiger proposes an extension to reader-response criticism or ethnographic reception theory. Claiming that current research still represents readers “ahistorically,” she proposes a “contextual and materialist approach” to the study of historical spectators and therefore makes a valuable contribution to understanding the meanings of films (Staiger, Interpreting Films xi). Her approach is based on the following principles: First and foremost, Staiger rejects the notion of a fixed imminent meaning of a film and instead proposes the activation of meaning through the audiences’ interaction with it (Staiger, Interpreting Films xi). Secondly, she believes audiences assign meaning to a film by bringing identities (“consciously or unconsciously constructed”) and interpretative strategies with them (Kemper). Lastly, Staiger proposes that audiences are made up of individuals who can even have a multitude of socially constructed identities that, together with particular historical circumstances, “produce groups of responses […] linked to broader dynamics of class, race and ethnicity, generation, gender, and sexuality identities” (Perverse Spectators 2).

For Staiger, the act of the audience members responding towards a film becomes an “event;” it is an ever changing process long succeeding the duration of screen time (Staiger, Perverse Spectators 23). Her object of analysis, then, is “not simply a film,” but a skillful combination of the way viewers are confronted with the film and “the set of interpretations or affective experiences produced from this event within a social situation” (Kemper). Her procedure then includes looking at formal elements of the film that encourage certain interpretations on the one hand, while collecting and analyzing all sorts of available documents on audiences’ experiences on the other. The latter include critical reviews, advertisements, and fan writings. Thus, she goes far beyond a simple look at statistics and audience demographics whose categories of age groups and gender contain such a diversity of identities and interpretative strategies and cannot be seen as helpful in defining how those groups find meaning in a given film (Dvoskin 370). As a result, her analysis is not set out to explain the meaning of a film per se, but rather “seeks to discover why and how films are said to mean certain things for audiences” (Kemper).

As a way to proceed, Staiger illustrates three steps in analyzing audiences interacting with films. Firstly, she proposes to look at the “modes of address” of a film. Here, she draws on and further develops previous studies by Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Timothy Corrigan who propose a binary opposition between two addresses of films occurring in different periods of time, the “cinema of attractions” and the “cinema of narrative” (Perverse Spectators 17). Whereas the latter requests the viewer to identify with the camera in a “self-contained narrative” devoid of the need for “exterior allusions to create […] meaning,” the cinema of attractions “confronts and shocks the spectator,” asking him and her to bring their cultural and historical knowledge to the film in order to make sense of it (17). Staiger forcefully rejects the “rigid historical periods” of modes of address but rather proposes the existence of “several modes” at the same time, asking audiences to “apply a certain set of schemata” for understanding the film (21; Kemper).

As a second object of study, Staiger proposes the “modes of exhibition.” Looking at the development of film screening from the early silent films accompanied by a live orchestra and encouraging talking during the film to drive-ins developing as social environments to big multiplex cinemas with muted audiences, she argues for the conditions of movie-going as having an influence on the film’s reception by audiences (Perverse Spectators 18-20). Although the movies considered in this thesis are all very recent, thus rendering a historical study of different screening techniques unnecessary, the modes of exhibition in movie theaters today can also display various modes of exhibitions such as karaoke versions, double features, etc.

Her third aspect of study then revolves around the “modes of reception,” looking at the interpretative strategies viewers bring with them and their construction by historical circumstances (21). While the British Cultural Studies approach, with its distinction between “preferred,” “negotiated,” and “oppositional” readings might be seen as a valuable starting point in analyzing audiences’ meaning making, Staiger proposes a more specific analysis of sense-making strategies. She looks at the ways particular groups of viewers react to and use films, and includes the roles of “the spectator’s race, gender, and cultural identification” in her analysis (Kemper). Considerations could then include whether viewers are watching favorite stars, how “oppositional” gazes might be encouraged, whether costumes “provide clues to a lesbian or gay subtext,” etc. (24). According to Staiger, her approach has been heavily influenced by David Bordwell’s “normative reception” theory including the assumption that viewers are first and foremost interested in “cognitive acts − especially the act of solving a problem” presented by the plot, understanding the chain of events in order to figure out the story. Other possible activities such as the “conceptual categories of […] characters” or “emotional experiences” only receive secondary attention (Perverse Spectators 3; 33) She goes beyond Bordwell’s approach by questioning this fixed sequence of viewers’ priorities and focusing on the “perverse” spectator (2). As it is employed by Staiger, the term perverse spectator refers to viewers deviating from the dominant address of the film, using films in their own way and thus not necessarily focusing on the narrative structure in the first place. While she likens this process of a “perverse” reception to the negotiated viewing proposed by British Cultural Studies, a “willful turning away from the norm,” she also includes in this term the “inability to do otherwise” in an unintentional way (Perverse Spectators 2). In short, she simply defines this kind of spectator as not doing “what is expected” (37). Instances of perverse reading are here exemplified in the cases of the critics’ focus on the spectacle of violence in The Big Sleep (1946) rather than on the confusing plot, a gay audience’s neglect of the plot of A Star Is Born (1954) in favor of constructing the production of the film involving Judy Garland as well as camp readings of classical Hollywood films that “ignore causality but read for spectacle” (37). Michelle Dvoskin also takes note of taking up “viewing practices that may not match our identity category” and stress “queering” which is defined by applying queer readings to materials not officially containing any queer context (370).

Yet another important fact Staiger takes note of is that while focusing on audience behavior during the film is part of the study, one must not neglect the ongoing reception after film-viewing, referring to the faulty assumption that the reception of a film ends with the cinema screen fading to black. Instead, she proposes that scholarship on film reception should include the “continual making and remaking of interpretations and emotional significances through the lives of individuals” (Perverse Spectators 55). This is why she sees the inclusion of “postmovie talk,” fan contributions, etc. as absolutely essential in analyzing “ideological, cultural, and personal effects of film viewing” (52). Activities she lists as to be observed during the event of watching include “meta-talking” with a co-viewer, “expressing affective and emotional states” such as crying or laughing, repeating lines memorized from repeat viewings, or walking out altogether. Of course these reactions are again seen as dependent on “contextual factors” such as the mode of exhibition, the genre of the text, or the “social dynamics” of the viewing group such as a couple on a date, a group of women, etc. (52-3). Succeeding the film viewing, audiences might engage in “extracinematic practices,” among them talking to one another or joining a fan community, attempting to imitate a character’s or star’s actions, producing narratives by recontextualizing the story, and so on (53).

However useful Janet Staiger’s approach to film reception based on audience data might be, she is able to still see some limitations to her historical materialist approach. First of all, researchers must be aware of the fact that they, too, are subjective in that they are as “susceptible to the subjective contexts of interpretation” as the individual audience members being studied (Interpreting Films 79). Therefore, a certain humble and self-critical stance should be taken. Secondly, researchers have to be attentive to the reconstructed nature of personal memory: A verbalized account of a filmic experience by a viewer can never fully recreate the original experience since it is influenced by the “language, schemata, or representations of the subject that mediate perception, comprehension, and interpretation” (Staiger, Interpreting Films 80). Consequently, accounts of audiences’ experience should not simply be taken at face value but questioned critically. The same goes for the availability of research material, as Staiger accuses archives, libraries, and publishing houses of a notable bias in foregrounding particular material (80). In surveying her work, Thomas Kemper also finds her set of resources – including journalistic responses to films, reviews, or gossip- columns to be “limited.” As a consequence, those sources may be taken as “clues to the general understanding of films” but with a certain critical distance (Kemper).

While Staiger’s subjects of study revolve around all kinds of film genres, it is useful for this musical-centered thesis to include some facts particularly about film musical audiences. In her work A Problem like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, Stacy Ellen Wolf focuses on female audiences and admits that appealing to a wide range of audiences and being open to many different interpretations are qualities not exclusively inherent in the genre of the film musical. Nevertheless, she argues that the film musical is special in that it “continues to be one of the few arenas of performance where women are not only allowed but are required to take up space, to dance, and to ‘Sing out, Louise!’ [referring to the musical Gypsy (1962)]” (238). Wolf puts special emphasis on the active nature of musical audiences including the tapping of the feet and learning bits of songs or choreographies by terming the act of watching musicals “performative spectatorship.” She explains:

The musical offers not only the sensory experience of music and dance, voice and body, but also often a physicalized memory of the performance. What we take from musicals is seldom the moral or the theme, but rather the line from the song or the choreographed moment. What we take from the musical is embodied. (33)

Here, she clearly implies a somewhat subordinated plot or narrative in film musicals as audiences are expected to focus on the music when remembering a particular screening. By describing the “embodied” reception, she claims the audiences’ interaction with the musical to exceed a short confrontation with the material presented to them but is rather a very intense experience. Not only does the music fuel the desire to sing and dance along during the film, but the songs stuck in audiences’ heads preserve the film’s tone long after the film credits have rolled across the screen. Supported by the film’s soundtrack, film musicals powerfully engage audiences who in turn might be especially apt to interact in a fan community.

One of the most well-known films encouraging a highly active form of audience participation is The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). While it has been reported to have been unsuccessful before it was shown in midnight screenings in 1976, it quickly evolved into an audience favorite and “live performance event,” including audience members participating “by responding, vocally and physically, to the movie, as well as performing along with the film […], often in costume” (Dvoskin 368). Hence, these screenings also became a social event as it was experienced within a fan community.

A particular mode of audience engagement Stacy Ellen Wolf emphasizes is identification, since she sees it as a “central” aspect in the reception of film musicals. In more detail, she infers that “a spectator’s identifications are flexible and can shift across identity positions, even within the social situation of a single performance” (25). The openly stated emotions of the characters voiced through songs in film musicals are seen as a “democratic, open-ended invitation to audiences […] not simply to sing along, but even more to imagine themselves in any of the roles of the often dramatic, expressive characters who populate musicals” (Wolff 133). Choosing a similar approach to Janet Staiger, Stacy Ellen Wolf finds audience’s “interpretive habits and cultural competencies [to] fundamentally delimit, determine, and enable [their] interpretation of a performance” (25). Those cultural competences are said to be developed in “everyday life” and can include “identity positions of gender, race, class, and sexuality, as well as other kinds of knowledge” (25). In order to investigate the appeal of contemporary film musicals to audiences, it thus seems sensible to take up their mutual approach of interpretations based on cultural competencies, or, as Staiger puts it, “groups of responses” linked to broader dynamics (Perverse Spectators 2) while at the same time staying aware of the fact that the musical genre is especially adept at encouraging audience participation and emotional involvement.

3. The Use of Pre-Existing Material

When looking at the history of the film musicals, scholars quickly find the majority of them to be dependent on some sort of pre-existing material, especially so in the last fifteen years. Many of them still are big budget adaptations of successful Broadway Shows such as Les Misérables (2012) or Hairspray, a 1988 John Waters movie adapted as a Broadway musical, which was again brought to screen as a remake by Adam Shankman in 2007. In this case, both the plot and the musical score have been taken up by screenwriters, although they might be altered to some degree. Another type of musical, the so-called jukebox musical, does contain a newly created plot, yet its characters sing and dance to familiar tunes, thereby stimulating recognition in audiences. While the process of transporting a musical from stage to screen would surely prove to be rewarding, the study of the latter kind of movie musical is privileged in this thesis as it promises to give interesting insights regarding the interaction of audiences with the presented material. In order to do so, the first part will give a short overview of the jukebox musical genre and will then be followed by an analysis of selected scenes from the jukebox musicals Mamma Mia! (2008) and Across the Universe (2007) whose plots are woven around the pop and rock songs of the extremely popular bands ABBA and The Beatles. Although Mamma Mia! was originally written as a Broadway musical and has become the world’s most successful one since its launch in 1999 (Taylor 161), very few changes were made during the screen adaptation and the emphasis lies on the way ABBA’s music was utilized to map out a plotline. The third subchapter will then deal with the particular use of an existing compilation in an anachronistic way in Moulin Rouge! (2001). For all three of these films, the use of pre-existing source material proves to be an important part of their address to the audience.

3.1. The Jukebox Musical

The practice of using pre-existing songs by a popular artist or group and creating a unifying, “often frivolous,” plot only became quite common in musical film around 2001 and caused such films to be labelled “jukebox” or “catalog musicals” (Sternfeld and Wollmann 121). Although similar to the often produced biopics of the 1930s and 40s, which showcased the alleged life and song collection of show business personalities like George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue (1945) (Cohan 11), an existing set of songs is here used for driving forward a fictional storyline. Broadway examples of jukebox musicals include We Will Rock You and Good Vibrations, which compile songs by Queen and The Beach Boys, respectively. In recent years, audiences have also been treated to screen versions of jukebox musicals with the likes of Moulin Rouge! (2001), Rock of Ages (2012), and also with the hit TV show Glee (2009-present). This type of musical is often accused of eschewing a “developed or complex narrative in favor of a simple plot or biography as the excuse to visit favorite songs,” so that one can safely identify the music as accounting for the main attraction posed to audiences (Taylor 150-1). Just like Janet Staiger, one would have to reject David Bordwell’s theory of “normative reception” theory when looking at a jukebox musical since his assumption of viewers who are first and foremost interested in “cognitive acts−especially the act of solving a problem” presented by the plot cannot be confirmed (Perverse Spectator 3). A clear orientation on profit maximization is also associated with this kind of musical as its commercial success is assumed on the basis of using familiar material (Sanjek 259). In this respect, it is often set up as a blockbuster whose characteristics, according to York, include a huge marketing potential through the use of popular actors, or in the jukebox musical’s case, solo singers or bands (8-9).

Since a great focus of past musical scholarship has been put on the practice of integrating music into the plot, jukebox musicals have not always been taken seriously and are in some cases denigrated as less worthy of studying as they are said to lack a coherent integration of song within the plot (Taylor 151). In fact, Millie Taylor explains the existence of an “open acknowledgement that the songs function differently in a jukebox musical than in an ‘integrated’ musical, in that rather than simply amplifying and expanding on their context, they leap from it and make connections with other parts of the audience’s lived experience” (162). The jukebox musical’s focus, then, is not primarily the integration but the triggering of emotion and recognition in audiences. Since this is achieved through reference to existing music, it is useful to look at the event of entertainment and the interaction with the audiences these films create.

The most obvious consequence of using the pre-existing score is an audience knowledgeable of the songs, a knowledge Millie Taylor assumes to be “linked to a wider intertextual field [offering] a different type of dissonance from its context” than in musicals with a new score (149). This leads to the argument that in contrast to experiencing a musical score for the first time, audiences interact differently with a jukebox score: they might be occupied with attempting to recognize the songs and if they do, derive pleasure from it. If they know the songs very well prior to the film as in the case of longtime fans of the original artists, they may feel passionate about how the music has been adapted, in some cases even critical of how faithfully the original song was interpreted. Due to the familiarity of the music and a setting oftentimes positioned in the past, jukebox musicals also allow for personal associations of the individual audience members, which can create feelings of a sense of community and nostalgia, an aspect to be further analyzed in Chapter 4. Taylor argues that this kind of musical and its “intertextual citation” engages the audience in “series of games that allow it to pay homage to, and renegotiate, the past,” thus creating a “hyperconsciousness” that leads it to become deeply engrossed with the film (160). In this respect, the jukebox musical is a prime example for addressing an audience that has a “pre-existing horizon of interpretations,” thus matching Janet Staiger’s theory of viewers bringing interpretative strategies with them (Bennett qtd. in Staiger, Media 82). As a further criterion of the jukebox musical, “the cross-generational pull” mentioned by Tamsen Wolff is noteworthy (133). As the musical genre is known for being passed down through generations and the musical score’s familiarity is catered to by previous studio albums and interpretations, jukebox musicals are assumed to appeal to a variety of generations of audiences.

3.2. Showcasing the Songbooks of Mega Bands in Across the Universe and Mamma Mia!

The strategies of jukebox musicals to use an existing music score as well as the reception of this practice will be investigated by looking at Across the Universe and Mamma Mia!. In accordance to Janet Staiger’s reception study approach, critical reviews of the film will be taken as clues about which aspects of the films have been focused on in audiences’ reception. In contrast to many of their fellow jukebox musical plots being driven by popular songs from different sources such as Rock of Ages (2012), using songs originally performed by Guns N’ Roses, Foreigner, etc., the two cases highlighted here are dedicated to the oeuvre of a single mega band each. Across the Universe includes a total of thirty-three songs of one of the world’s most well-known bands, The Beatles, whereas Mamma Mia! features the upbeat tunes of the Swedish pop group ABBA. Especially the latter was supposedly keen on securing as many knowledgeable viewers as possible: with the exception of only five songs, all songs in the film were taken from ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, thereby assuring that any of the songs can definitely be recognized by audiences, acting as door opener into the world of ABBA (Edenhofer 143).

It is not surprising, then, that the musical score, and in more detail, the way in which this score has been interpreted and used by the filmmakers, is one of the aspects debated most by critics. While Roger Ebert sees Across the Universe as employing the Beatles’ songs in a “joyous” way, underlining their “astonishing quality” (“Across the Universe”), Owen Gleiberman harshly calls director Julie Taymor’s interpretations “sludgy marzipan renditions” (“Across the Universe”). With regard to Mamma Mia!, movie critic Ebert laments the film to be a mere “clothesline on which to hang the songs” (“Mamma Mia!”). Nevertheless, he does concede that the film has been made “for the people who will love it, of which there will be a multitude.”

What these very different reactions confirm is the jukebox musical’s criterion of familiarity with the music material, and, in the case of these well-known bands, a certain fondness and opinion on how these songs have to be interpreted. In both cases, the use of these famous bands as a mode of address can definitely be seen as a hook for audiences familiar with the score. Given the huge popularity and long duration of the ABBA and The Beatles success, it can be taken for granted that at least some percentage of the audience is made up of fans and that the majority is knowledgeable of at least some songs. Thus, those viewers might be intrigued about the way the songs are transported to the big screen or might even be dubious. Since they do “walk into the theater humming the songs” (Ebert, “Across the Universe;” emphasis in original), audiences might have a preformed set of expectations that can seemingly lead to very strong reactions to the film in both ways. As the critics’ remarks show, they are either highly praising the use of the songs as their appreciation for it has been reflected in the movie, or they are very disappointed, almost angry. The latter is exemplified by the review of Brian Eggart in which he presents himself as a devout The Beatles fan feeling anger “should sacred territory ever be tread on.” Again, a “pre-existing horizon of expectations” in audiences is given and so are the identities they bring to the film (Bennett qtd. in Staiger, Media 82). In this case, the identity of admitting to be a fan will shape the way an audience member will make sense of the film.

In accordance with this, Stacy Ellen Wolf concedes that audiences are confronted by new versions of the songs which “are always ghosted by the original voice,” confirming that the audiences’ interpretative strategies of the film are not exclusively shaped while watching and also not derived solely from the filmic material as well (42). George Rodosthenous agrees when acknowledging that audiences do not “hear and see the new versions with fresh ears and eyes, but instead will have an active role in interpreting them as they are reused and reexamined in a new narrative.” He further explains that the knowledge of the original versions may “blind” audiences from seeing and appreciating the music in a new context (43), hence explaining the dissatisfaction in some of the films’ reviews. In this case, reception scholars’ work such as Staiger’s is again confirmed in that the reading of the film is dependent on expectations and personal preferences of individuals as they form “groups of responses” defined by factors such as class, gender, generation and, in this case, popular culture (Perverse Spectators 2). The strong reactions towards the way of adapting the songs thus also acts as proof for a rejection of a spectatorship study in the sense of a film being the sole bearer of meaning. On the contrary, it becomes clear that it is the audiences bringing their knowledge of the music to the film, which is shaping their interpretation and creating meaning.

Since both Across the Universe and Mamma Mia! are classified as sure cases of the jukebox musical, a major focus on a prominent musical score overriding a somewhat secondary, perhaps weak, plot is expected. It is this balance of music and narrative that is debated by critics. Looking at a variety of movie reviews for both films, one finds them to be concerned with the adaptation of the music to the greatest extent, reaffirming the importance of the music to override that of the plot. Those critics curious about how the existing The Beatles music was woven around a plotline in Across the Universe do disapprove of a weak storytelling lacking “anything resembling a compelling narrative” (Berardinelli). Nevertheless, some of them find a certain richness in the plot as it turns around many corners of historical events and cultural references in a story of love, friendship, war, and revolution. Set in the 1960s, the narrative follows Jude, a young shipyard worker, from Liverpool to Princeton. On a quest to find his father, a former soldier, he disappointedly finds him not to be the expected professor but a mere janitor. He quickly becomes friends with Max on campus, joins him at the family Thanksgiving dinner and meets his sister, Lucy. In the spur of the moment, Jude and Max, now having dropped out of college, decide to move to New York and into the apartment of Sadie, a Janis Joplin-type singer. Other characters like the lesbian Prudence, the Jimi Hendrix style JoJo and finally, Lucy, join them. While the first part of the movie is filled with the sweet love story of Jude and Lucy, forceful performances by Sadie, JoJo and band, and wild and psychedelic drug-infused days of freedom, its tone gets significantly darker when Max is drafted for the Vietnam War and Lucy gets more and more involved in revolution activities, distancing herself from Jude. Lacking a permit of residence in the US, Jude, disillusioned and washed up, has to leave for Liverpool. Struggling with his former life, he finds the determination to fight for Lucy and returns to New York where he is reunited with his lover and friends.

Contrary to an expected shallow plot, Across the Universe showcases a certain complexity in terms of its political and social themes of the 1960s. Barry Keith Grant estimates it to be a sincere attempt at providing “a cultural overview of the 1960s” through the lens of The Beatles’ music (153-4). Although New York Times critic Stephen Holden infers that “[m]ost of the historical events are lightly fictionalized in a movie that maintains only the fuzziest of timelines,” he also admits the film to achieve the sentiment of the era of the great Beatles success. In the film, then, the musical score is portrayed as being deeply embedded in the 1960s. The decision of creating a plot set in the actual time in history the Beatles were popular in is interesting for two reasons. First of all, it might make sense in that the songs, naturally, are influenced by current topics at the time: love, war, revolution, and drug use, so it appears only logical to use the songs in these contexts. In addition, it fosters audiences’ recognition of and identification with the songs as they already associate the Beatles with this era. Those members of the audience who experienced the 1960s, maybe even as fans, might feel a sense of nostalgia when watching this film which channels their individual memories of the time.

Yet at the same time, setting the plot in the Beatles era, predictably, might be seen as constraining the songs to this specific time frame. Consequently, one could argue that, at first glance, the address to a wide audience is limited to some degree as is the “cross-generational pull” (Sternfeld and Wollmann 133). Whereas the music itself surely rings with audiences of all generations, the knowledge regarding the setting of the plot might be amiss with younger viewers. Andrew Ford takes note of the fact that “the rather precise imagery in the Beatles’ songs makes them difficult to fit into a new narrative” (142). Being in line with many commentators of the film, he observes the decision of the filmmakers to name the characters after the most famous Beatles songs (as in (“Hey) Jude”, (“Sexy) Sadie”, (“Dear) Prudence”) and sees it as an extremely close tie of the plot to the music, not being able to “break free” (142). Besides the naming of the characters, the film includes a great deal of very obvious and some harder to find references to the Beatles and therefore direct addresses to audiences and especially fans. Whereas many viewers will recognize Jude’s answer to where Prudence suddenly came from, “She Came in through the Bathroom Window,” also a famous The Beatles song title, it requires more knowledge of the band to detect the strawberry, Sadie’s record label, as a reference to the Beatles’ Apple Records, or the film’s rooftop finale as an homage to the last public Beatles performance. Cameo appearances of renowned artists Bono and Joe Cocker as well as comedian Eddie Izzard can be spotted by the audience. At this point, one has to be aware of the fact that exactly these kinds of references involve audiences in that they challenge their knowledge and bring pleasure if they are understood, rewarding viewers in that they identify them as insiders. One can confirm that audiences shaped by a particular cultural, social, and historical knowledge, thus bringing certain identities described by Staiger, are consciously aimed at by the filmic address. Nevertheless, in Across the Universe, some references seem to be overdone. Grant asserts some references to be too “facile,” in some instances “in such forced and shallow ways that they seem to trivialize them.” He further warns that they “threaten to turn the film into merely a game of spotting the references” (154).


1 For a very well-chronicled account of major theories of media reception and effects, see Janet Staiger, Media, 17-94.

Excerpt out of 96 pages


The Musical as Event. Modes of Address in Contemporary Film Musicals
University of Göttingen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Musical, Film Musical, Film, American Studies, Nordamerikastudien, Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, Moulin Rouge, Across the Universe, Spectatorship Studies, Janet Staiger
Quote paper
Amelie Meyer (Author), 2014, The Musical as Event. Modes of Address in Contemporary Film Musicals, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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