The other day my kids were watching part of a That’s Entertainment! film on TV. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they’re feature-length compilations of all the best bits (i.e. the song and dance numbers) from several decades’ worth of MGM musicals. Now you could complain that removing these sequences from the context of the originals films is sacrilege and makes for an uneven viewing experience which doesn’t respect the Aristotelian Unities. People who are chin-strokingly serious about pop music similarly complain about Greatest Hits compilations which divorce songs from their albums and thus their historical context.
On the other hand for many of these films the song and dance numbers are the only bits worth watching, and the bits in between are merely there to pad out the film to feature-length. In my film studies classes we were introduced to the idea of “The Cinema Of Attractions vs. The Cinema Of Narrative Integration”. The idea being that there are two types of film: ones which are all about the plot, and ones which are simply a collection of moments of spectacle (comedy scenes, action, musical numbers) where the plot simply serves as a structure on which to hang them. I never had a problem with this kind of film. No one complains after a trip to the circus that the individual acts were good but that they weren’t held together by a strong plot. No one goes to the opera or ballet to find out what happens in the story. I mean, I assume they don’t, since they’re all well-known stories. But I never go to the opera or ballet so I could be wrong.
Considering the paucity of musicals these days what would a modern-day That’s Entertainment! look like? A compilation of action scenes? Action and fantasy films are probably the genres with the most popular appeal comparable to musicals of 70 years ago, but these days we have Youtube supercuts instead (like these) although these tend to be shorter overall and also use tiny clips chopped up rather than presenting entire sequences. Insert here your observation about modern-day attention spans and ADHD-style editing.