Musicals in Film: A Guide to the Genre. By Thomas S. Hischak. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2017. 449 p. Acid free $89 (ISBN: 978-1-4408-4422-5). E-book available (ISBN: 978-1-4408-4423-2), call for pricing.

“You ain’t heard nothing yet!” (43) exclaimed Al Jolson before belting out “Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye” in The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film considered to be the first movie musical. Over the next century, the movie musical has continued to enthrall audiences with new performance and production styles. The long list of movies in which characters sing is matched only by the lavish number of books that have been published about the topic, the majority of which were written for Hollywood musical buffs. These books typically include movie stills, plot synopses, score credits, and fascinating anecdotes. Clive Hirschhorn’s 1981 comprehensive chronicle, The Hollywood Musical (Crown, 1981), is a successful example of this formula.

Prolific film scholar Thomas S. Hischak updates the history of the movie musical to 2015 in Musicals in Film: A Guide to the Genre, a decade by decade survey, in which he traces the development of musical films against a backdrop of historical and cultural events. Hischak shares quick insights about films he judges indicative of the times, and offers three page-long entries for films that were most pivotal. Each film entry ends with “see also” references to entries about related films and people, as well as short suggestions for further reading.

As a film genre, the movie musical originated with characters who sang and danced, on and off the stage. The concept of the musical film has diversified dramatically over the decades, and Hischak has made several revelatory inclusions. An opening chapter, “Movie Musical Genres,” defines sixteen genres, including “Rockumentaries” and “Animated Musicals.” This is Spinal Tap and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster are examples provided of rockumentaries. Frozen is among the many Disney films treated as examples of animated musicals. Perhaps because of the limitation of this being a single-volume guide, the discussion of movie musical subgenres is less developed than would have been desired. Many distinct genres of musical film were collapsed under broad genres; for instance, Bollywood is classified under “Foreign Musical.”

Critical scholarship of movie musicals has emerged in the twenty-first century, in which formalistic and theoretical approaches have been applied. Two examples would be Susan Smith’s study of race and gender in The Musical: Race, Gender and Performance (Wallflower, 2005) and Desiree J. Garcia’s investigation of the representation of the immigrant experience in The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream (Rutgers University Press, 2014). Despite its limitations, Musicals in Film: A Guide to the Genre provides an accessible introduction to the movie musical as popular culture, and should spark readers’ interest in further study. It is recommended for all libraries supporting the study of popular culture, theater, and film.—Valerie Mittenberg, Collection Development Librarian, Sojourner Truth Library, State University of New York at New Paltz


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