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The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand: Episode 1 of 3 (BBC Four Saturday 2 December 2023)

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The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand

The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand: Episode 1 of 3 airs Saturday 2 December 2023 on BBC Four.

What is this episode about

Neil Brand, a musician and presenter, claims in this first of three parts that the movie musical was the most influential genre of film from the beginning of the sound era. Starting with 1929’s Broadway Melody, the first film musical, Brand examines the profound and enduring influence of musicals and, using his signature piano analysis, guides us through several of the most significant numbers from this early golden age.

After Broadway Melody’s historic triumph, which included one of the first-ever Academy Awards, studios were eager to capitalise on the potential of musical films. However, this did not necessarily lead to success, as Brand reveals. He demonstrates how King of Jazz, the first big-budget, all-color musical, which was released in the 1930s, was a commercial failure. By analysing King Vidor’s Hallelujah, the first musical to focus on African Americans, he explains how the show’s dearth of black jazz musicians was a problem. He investigates the extent to which the 1920s American Deep South was reflected in Hallelujah with the assistance of a gospel choir from New York’s Mother AME Zion Church.

Continuing on this vein, Brand explains how the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States was the real impetus behind two of the most groundbreaking and iconic musicals of the first golden age of cinema—1933’s Gold Diggers and MGM’s 42nd Street. Films like these were incredibly conscious of social issues, and Neil proves that the songs were both musically and lyrically powerful.

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Unexpectedly, the show moves its attention to the Soviet Union, where a hidden history of musical films is unearthed. Soviet ideology was promoted in a series of film musicals commissioned by Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s. The Jolly Fellows, a slapstick comedy from 1934, was followed two years later by Circus, a remarkable musical film that stands out among Russia’s cinematic canon. As Stalin initiated his ‘great purge’ to stifle any critics of his communist programme, the extraordinary propaganda film Circus—which followed an American woman in exile who gave birth to a child of mixed racial heritage—promoted the Soviet Union as a nation welcoming of all races.

In Hollywood, a new generation of musical film stars were bringing the genre into the stratosphere, most notably the sensational duet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. One of Astaire’s most breathtaking numbers, No Strings, is performed by principal dancer Steven McRae during Brand’s visit to the Royal Ballet in London. Additionally, Neil teaches us how to play Cheek to Cheek, the signature song of Top Hat.

Lastly, we delve into how the late 1930s saw the revival of the film musical with the incorporation of fairy tales and fantastical elements. The three-year risk that was Walt Disney’s Snow White paid off handsomely, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Then, just two weeks before WWII broke out, MGM released the unforgettable The Wizard of Oz.

Episode 1 of 3

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When can we see the episode

The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand: Episode 1 of 3 airs Saturday 2 December 2023 at 10:45pm on BBC Four

Featured Image Credit: BBC Four


Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.

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