Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

This is my first review for the 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter
by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199973842
Hardcover - 288 pages
May 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your local indie bookstore)


 “[Musicals] can be substantial... everyone’s scorn.”

Musicals. You gotta love ‘em. Or you gotta hate ‘em. When it comes to how people think about musicals, most people's feelings are on one extreme or the other. Some of us relish how musicals carry us away and entertain us with song and dance. Others scratch their heads at the notion of people randomly bursting into song. If those skeptics do watch these musicals, they tend to fast-forward through the song and dance numbers. Why do musicals illicit such strong feelings from audiences? And why does the genre have such a complicated past?

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios is a revealing look at the movie musical genre. It explores how musicals have been received by audiences and how they’ve struggled to grow and succeed as a movie genre. Richard Barrios is a leading expert on musicals and I very much enjoyed reading his previous book A Song in the Dark. Barrios is opinionated and frank in the way only someone who truly understands a particular subject can be. While A Song in the Dark was about the early history of movie musicals, Dangerous Rhythm explores the history of the genre as a whole. The musicals discussed in this book run the gamut from popular to obscure, from old to new, from live action to animation and from respectable to fluff. Revelations come left and right and the book serves as an eye-opening look at a troubled genre that has become such an integral part of film history.

The introduction alone is full of interesting and enlightening observations. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the book and I was sad when it was over and had to move on to the themed chapters. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the introduction:

“...they manage to embody American optimism, American enterprise, American taste and exuberance and vulgarity.”

“The movie musical had been an American institution... and from 1972 onward it would die many deaths.”

“The truth is that in an age of media saturation and virtual realities and immediate gratification, musicals do not always fit in well.”

“Part of the problem is that musicals are seen as a collaborative endeavor, one that does not permit an individual artist to leave a signature.”

Each chapter focuses on a different topic. These include origins, money, hits, misses, animation, personalities, choreography, songs, race, sexuality and television. The chapters have great titles, and part of the fun of starting a new chapter was figuring out what it will be about by deciphering the fun title. Sometimes it was very obvious and a few times it was trickier. Barrios reveals a lot about the movie musical genre. The inherent problems of musicals are many. There are natural constraints of the form and there are problems imposed on them by the public. Good ideas were “recycled and regurgitated” (page 20) and experimentation came mostly at the beginning. I really loved the following observation Barrios makes, which I think reveals a lot about why the genre has had such a complicated reception: “falseness and honesty: what is a musical if not a phony way to tell the truth?” And then there is this major point, which many people talk about but never gets really discussed at length: “the ... reason that many audiences and a number of filmmakers won’t go near musicals: the perception that they are based on the notion of people bursting into song.” To be truly entertained by a movie we have to watch something that is both different and familiar. It’s a tricky balance and if something seems to phony it can be off-putting to part of the audience whereas others will embrace it for what it is.

The book is well-structured with its themed chapters. However, the book can be a bit manic in the way it travels through time, going breezily back and forth between different eras. In order to exemplify his various points about the genre as a whole, Barrios juggles many different movies in his different discussions. It jumps around a lot which can be a little confusing however it gives the author the freedom to really explore the topic at hand. You have to be familiar with musicals, especially early ones, to be able to fully grasp the subject matter. I don’t think someone with very little knowledge about musicals will be able to appreciate this book.

There are footnotes throughout the chapters which serve as additional information to complement the text. They’re not necessary to read but serve more like bonus trivia. There are some photos in the book but I don’t feel like they were needed and didn’t reveal anything important on their own. But they are nice to have nonetheless.

Dangerous Rhythm is a valuable book because of its numerous enlightening observations about musicals. If you are interested in musicals or want a better understanding of film history as a whole, then this book is essential reading. And I have to say, of all of the classic film related books I've been reading in the past few years, this has one of the best cover designs. It's stunning!

Thank you to Oxford University Press and Larissa of Claire McKinney PR for sending me a copy of the book to review! Stay tuned as I’ll be posting an interview with author Richard Barrios on the blog soon.


  1. I submit that the tropes of the traditional musical are no weirder than the tropes in other genres that we also accept as givens: superheroes (brightly colored tights, incredible powers and abilities, secret identities), horror (haunted houses, supernatural transformations, life - or unlife - after death), sci-fi (sophisticated gadgets, extraterrestrial life, time travel). Why people can accept those more easily than musicals remains a mystery to me.

  2. Yes! I was looking forward to reading your thoughts on this book because I've had it on my Amazon wishlist for a few weeks now. I'm eager to buy it and crack it open! Thanks for the recommendation xx

  3. A Song in the Dark is one of my favorite movie books so I'll have to read this new one from Barrios. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  4. Very interesting. Keep up the good work!


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