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Music in the Shadows

, 224 pages

21 halftones

February 2014



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Music in the Shadows

Noir Musical Films

Smoke. Shadows. Moody strains of jazz. Welcome to the world of "noir musical" films, where tormented antiheroes and hard-boiled musicians battle obsession and struggle with their music and ill-fated love triangles. Sultry divas dance and sing the blues in shrouded nightclubs. Romantic intrigue clashes with backstage careers.

In her pioneering study, Music in the Shadows, film noir expert Sheri Chinen Biesen explores musical films that use film noir style and bluesy strains of jazz to inhabit a disturbing underworld and reveal the dark side of fame and the American Dream. While noir musical films like A Star Is Born include musical performances, their bleak tone and expressionistic aesthetic more closely resemble the visual style of film noir. Their narratives unfold behind a stark noir lens: distorted, erratic angles and imbalanced hand-held shots allow the audience to experience a tortured, disillusioned perspective.

While many musicals glamorize the quest for the spotlight in Hollywood's star factory, brooding noir musical films such as Blues in the Night, Gilda, The Red Shoes, West Side Story, and Round Midnight stretch the boundaries of film noir and the musical as film genres collide. Deep shadows, dim lighting, and visual composition evoke moodiness, cynicism, pessimism, and subjective psychological points of view.

As in her earlier study of film noir, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir, Biesen draws on extensive primary research in studio archives to situate her examination within a historical, industrial, and cultural context.

Sheri Chinen Biesen is an associate professor of radio, television, and film studies at Rowan University and author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"With Music in the Shadows, Biesen continues her trailblazing scholarship in film noir. Having delineated noir's World War II origins in Blackout, Biesen focuses on noir's impact on a specific genre, the musical. Biesen offers an arresting and innovative exploration of studio documents, publicity, and the films themselves, spanning wartime through the 1950s, demonstrating the cycle's continuing resonances. A book for every noir and musical enthusiast who wants to expand their understanding of these forms—and for all who want to know more of the American musical tradition and its cultural evolution."

"Continuing the groundbreaking work on film noir in her first book, Blackout, which uncovered the origins of noir in World War II, Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Music in the Shadows traces another unlikely, understudied connection—between film noir and the Hollywood musical. Blending archival research, textual analysis, industrial and cultural history, Biesen builds a fascinating and quite convincing case for a genre hybrid, the noir musical, that took root in the 1940s but has continued to evolve ever since—from post-classical masterworks like The Red Shoes and West Side Story to New Hollywood gems like All That Jazz and Moulin Rouge. In the process, she challenges and fundamentally changes our understanding of both film noir and the film musical."

"[Biesen's] writing is silky and engaging and will enthrall fans of musicals and film noir..."

"Music in the Shadows is an interesting and provocative approach to post-genre film criticism that underscores the interconnectedness of diverse media, and provides both a challenging perspective on the musical genre and a testimonial to the ongoing legacy of noir sensibility."

"The book nicely balances in-depth historical research and previous film noir scholarship with fresh ideas and a writing style that is both evocative and concise. The author doesn't force the films into the model of her theory; instead the films guide the theory, a quality often lacking in film writing. Music in the Shadows ultimately succeeds on two levels, both in providing an entertaining and enlightening read, as well as an impetus to watch previously unseen films and rewatch familiar classics with a new perspective."

"Biesen's relevant study provides new insight and proves a welcome addition to film noir studies."

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