‘Dangerous Rhythm – Why Movie Musicals Matter’ by Richard Barrios


I never thought I would be captivated by a non-fiction quirky compendium and detailed history of movie musicals.  Yet I read ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ like a novel, from cover to cover.  In this book Richard Barrios displays a subtle witty perceptivity that makes complex and entertaining distinctions between various musicals in the directing, choreography, acting, and singing.

 “How and why have musicals been so extreme, touching greatness and then failing so massively?  Why do some musicals made over eight decades ago still enchant while others made more recently were stale before they opened?  Why do musicals remain prone to sudden bouts of cluelessness, even repellence…and yet continue to be important and special to so many people?

 Like the people who love or hate them, musicals are balanced unsteadily between the sublime and the inane.”

It is the personal observations of Barrios that make ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ such fun to read. Barrios delights in the good (Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret, The Wizard of Oz, Love Me Tonight, etc.) and bemoans the bad (A Chorus Line, Hello Dolly!, South Pacific, etc.).

   “Even without the managerial ineptitude that hobbled everything, there was at the core of it an unbridled fraudulence far beyond the untruths that musicals are prone to tell.  ‘Paint Your Wagon’ was a big fat phony, a product of the old dying studios pretending to be a cutting-edge indie, spending millions in an effort to look cheap and current, trying desperately to corral and flatter an ‘Easy Rider’ audience that would never show up under any circumstances.”

 Of course movie musicals today are hanging by a thin thread.  The last great one was ‘Chicago’ in 2002, although ‘Once’ from 2006 is very good.  I personally think that ‘Once’ might show a way forward for the musical, just a small scale story and a few characters and some music.  Another musical by ‘Once’ director John Carney, ‘Begin Again’ with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, was released recently.

‘Dangerous Rhythm’ is a book where the footnotes are as amusing as the regular text.

 “Arlen knew as well as anyone how film operates.  In 1935, when he and Harburg wrote the gorgeous ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ for ‘Metropolitan’, a lovely rendition by Lawrence Tibbett wound up in the discard pile.  Thirteen years later Judy Garland sang it in ‘In the Good Old Summertime’, and again it was deleted, allegedly for being too sad for a lightish film.  Garland, bless her, knew better: it remained her favorite song, and Arlen’s too.”

 That ‘bless her’ alone is worth the price of this book.  As the above quote shows Barrios has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, yet all this knowledge rests easy on him.

698I probably would not have found this book at all, except I really like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and  Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) and Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  They have brought a little joy into my humdrum life just as Richard Barrios has.  Just about every sentence in ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ is instructive and amusing.  It is a great fun read. I can only conclude that Richard Barrios should have been a fiction writer.




2 responses to this post.

  1. Singin’ in the Rain is my favourite film. It’s a masterpiece, pretty much perfect.

    I grew up watching musicals with my grandmother. They are hugely variable. I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks South Pacific is weak, I thought it was supposed to be a classic and I was a minority in not liking it.

    It does sound a very good book. Not at all dry, which is vital really.


    • Hi Max,
      Since you are interested in movie musicals and probably would be interested in Richard Barrios’ views and opinions, I’m pretty sure you would like this book. He is very opinionated, but his opinions are based on a lot of knowledge of the entire movie musical situation.
      I didn’t discover ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ until about a dozen years ago, but now I own a copy and watch it every couple of years.


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