How many songs does a movie have to have to be a musical?
Before going any further with that question, we need to make a distinction between expressionistic musicals like My Fair Lady (1964) or Grease (1978) and backstage musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or New York, New York (1977). In the former, it is sometimes said, somewhat derisively, that people are just walking down the street and then break out into song, accompanied by a disembodied orchestra. In the latter, the singing and dancing occurs during rehearsals or on stage during a performance. In other words, it is realistic, something you might actually see and hear in real life. Actually, Busby Berkeley musicals are not realistic in the sense that the numbers could never be performed on a real stage, but they are more realistic than expressionistic musicals.
Dark City is certainly not an expressionistic musical. But does it qualify as a backstage musical? Early in the movie, we see Fran (Lizabeth Scott) singing a song in a nightclub. I thought to myself, her singing sounds fine to me, but I suspect a lot of people would say that she cannot sing, although I understand that the singing was dubbed anyway. But then, I further reflected, I don’t have a good ear, so who am I to judge?
After she finishes her song, Danny (Charlton Heston), her boyfriend, tells her he liked her song, to which she replies, “Aren’t we a pair? I can’t sing and you don’t have a good ear.” That took me back a little.
Anyway, I mused that even though the movie had a song in it, it was not a musical, because one song does not a musical make. But then she sang another song, and another, and another, until she sang five in all. Still, the movie did not seem to me to be a musical, and it would not have been, even if they had managed to squeeze one more number into it. Moreover, just to get an objective assessment, I checked Internet Movie Database and Netflix, and neither of them classified it as a musical, but only as a crime drama or film noir.
In reflecting on why this was so, I thought back on that earlier comment by her that she could not sing, followed later by another remark to the effect that singing in a nightclub was just a way of making a living, something she would gladly give up if Danny would marry her. And that must be the key. In the typical backstage musical, the main performers are ambitious, just waiting for their chance to take the spotlight and become a star. Or, as in a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, where Rooney gets the idea of putting on a show to save whatever it is that needs saving in that movie, the success of the show is what matters. In other words, in a backstage musical, it is not a question of how much singing and dancing there is, but whether the plot centers around the performers qua performers, their individual success or the success of the show as a whole.
In Dark City, on the other hand, the plot centers around people that are not performing musical numbers. Rather, Danny is a bookie who has been put out of business by too many raids and is looking for a bankroll so he can move to another town. He and his pals get a sucker into a poker game and take him for all his money. The sucker is devastated and commits suicide. Now the police are investigating the situation and the sucker’s brother is out to kill everyone that was in the game. As a result, the songs Fran sings are just fillers, which actually have the effect of slowing the movie down.
As a crime drama, the movie is mediocre, but as an illustration of the fact that a backstage musical must be more than just a bunch of musical numbers, this movie is instructive.