in Movies

2014 Is the Year of the Independent Musical Film

Leaving behind 2014, the most mentioned musicals of the year are sure to be Into the Woods and the reinvented Annie. But besides these blockbusters, there were a small cluster of independent musicals released in 2014, all of which were quietly wonderful.

While a good score is essential to nearly any film; elevating the highs to new levels and adding poignancy to the lows, musicals take this idea one step further. In most films, music is an effect. But in musicals, the soundtrack becomes a character, actors often bursting into unannounced song and dance to express their feelings through music, rather than dialogue. To succeed, musical films need to be unashamed of what they’re saying and singing, but with a trend in recent years towards self-reference (you can hear Cameron Diaz asking the audience in Annie if she’s really being sung at, and how strange it is that she is) blockbusters musical films seem to be loosing their footing a little.

Independent musical films, on the other hand, keep gaining and gaining strength. If you’re one of those people that can’t stand watching characters burst into song on the street without explanation, then an independent musical will make more sense to you. They use the tools and momentum of any good musical, but these films are grounded in realism. The characters are usually musicians, and so when they do perform, it’s because they’re doing just that: a performance. Whether it be a practice in their room, or a show at a club, the independent musical always provides a reason for its rhymes. And in 2014, there were three independent musicals that stood out.

All three of these films — Begin Again, Frank and God Help The Girl — owe a predecessor, John Carney’s 2006 film Once, for any and all of their success. Once, a film that the AV Club described as “a film for people who only think they hate musicals,” introduced the idea of a realist musical film to audiences. Following two struggling musicians, the low-budget Irish film shows us the pair- known to us as the girl and the guy- trying to escape their lives and other commitments through music and the connection that it forges between them. The pair find each other in a desperately lifeless environment, and it’s because of this situation that the music between them means so much more. Once‘s music isn’t cheap or hollow, but instead almost painfully meaningful. Once started a small movement, and in 2014 audiences got the chance to reap the rewards of what it initiated.

Begin Again is Carney’s second musical outing, and it’s a little more upbeat and star-studded than the first. Despite its bigger, American budget though, the realism of Once isn’t left behind as Kiera Knightly plays a heartbroken singer, Greta, whose music catches the attention of down and out record executive, Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Together, the two make an album recorded around New York City, recruiting music students to help them complete Greta’s songs, most of which document her heartbreak over the actions of her cheating boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. There’s no money to be spent in studios, just the drive and passion that fuel the pair towards their goal. Something that might just earn the film a nod for a best song nomination in the upcoming Oscars with the track “Lost Stars,” sung by both Knightly and Levine at different moments in the film.

God Help The Girl is another musical created by a big name in the industry. Grown out of a side project by Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian fame, God Help The Girl was an all-girl group created by Murdoch that sang about uniquely young-adult female experiences. From these EPs, a feature length film — staring Emily Browning, Hannah Murray and Olly Alexander from the band Years & Years — was born. The film is dreamy and youthful, with Browning’s Eve preferring to spend her time inside of music and lyrics rather than the real world, where she faces issues of her own mental health and an eating disorder. As a coming of age film, God Help The Girl isn’t particularly special, with its plot a little wobbly and only vaguely defined. But as a musical, it’s astounding. The songs are zany and fresh; charmingly specific as all Belle & Sebastian songs are, and the aesthetic of the film makes it feel like it’s set in a 1960s version of Glasgow, rather than 2014. Like all of the characters featured in this list, music is an escape for Eve, and is a world that she would clearly much rather live in. Out of the three films, though, God Help The Girl demonstrates this yearning the most clearly. Something that is then a detriment to the scenes that aren’t based in song, but, also, is the film’s greatest selling point.

Frank is perhaps less of a musical and more of a dark comedy. But that’s not to say that there isn’t music, and that the film’s heart isn’t entrenched in music, because it is. Inspired by Chris Sievey’s comedic musical character Frank Sidebottom, the standout feature of this film appears to be, at first glance, the huge, paper mache head that Michael Fassbender dons for nearly the entirety of the film. Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) gets drawn into the band as a keyboard player turned financer, attempting to achieve stardom and musical success through the band- even though he clearly lacks the talent to do so. Frank- the film itself and its lead character- both don big heads that are masking the ugly truth that lies beneath them. Frank is a story of mental illness, one that digs a little deeper and darker than the dreamy God Help The Girl, its music being an unexpected joy that counters the pain and distress that Frank and his bandmates feel. It’s ridiculously funny and strange, and like all of the films on this list, poignant, too. Gleeson shines as the straight man turned conniving manager (the social media use in this film is some of the best I’ve seen), and Maggie Gyllenhaal rounds out the cast as a cynical theremin player that, despite her hostility, is intensely protective of Frank.

The greatest thing about these films is that you don’t have to like musicals to enjoy any of them, just music itself. These independent musicals have, this year, rewritten the rules.