6 Memorable Movie Musical Moments That Were Recorded Live

Much ado is being made about the fact that the movie musical version of Les Miserables, out December 25, did not use pre-recorded vocals. Instead, the actors sang live to a piano track played through earpieces; the full orchestra was added in post-production.

Though director Tom Hooper and the cast will claim this is “groundbreaking,” that’s not exactly true. According to Slate, “Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set ‘whenever possible’ as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay Divorcee.”

Hollywood’s pre-recording began with a 1929 musical called The Broadway Melody, says John Kenrick, author of Musical Theatre: A History and the creator of Musicals101.com. “When MGM was doing its film of The Broadway Melody, they had what became a hit song, ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll,’” he says. “When they filmed it, they were not happy with the look of it, but they didn’t want to blow a fortune doing it over. MGM’s sound supervisor, Douglas Shearer, said 'Look, you can save a bundle if you just refilm the number and use the existing soundtrack. There's no reason it can't be done.'”

After that, Hollywood realized it could pre-record its musicals in a sound studio, which gave them high quality music and vocals, top quality pictures, and saved tons of money—and they haven’t looked back since. But advances in technology have allowed the cast of Les Mis to sing live on set, take after take. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Kenrick says. “Most of the performers in this film have a background in live musical theater, and they can bring that immediate quality to the screen without having to worry about lip syncing. They’re actually performing for a change.”

In honor of Les Mis, here are a few other movie musicals with memorable numbers recorded live.

1. Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, 1927

The first full-length “talkie” film also prominently featured musical numbers performed by Al Jolson, who performed in blackface. “The Jazz Singer was done live on set, because that’s simply what made the most sense,” Kenrick says. All of the early [movie musicals] were done live on the set with the orchestra there, just off camera in most cases. And in one or two cases, like The Jazz Singer, the orchestra was on camera because it was convenient.”

2. The Cast of The Love Parade, 1929

The numbers in this 1929 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were “were filmed and recorded live on the set,” Kenrick says. “But that was also the year that Broadway Melody came out. That’s when pre-recording began to take over.”

3. The Cast of Love Me Tonight, 1932

Even though pre-recording was becoming the norm, there were still movie musicals recorded live on set, including Love Me Tonight—also starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier—which recorded a full orchestra and vocals simultaneously while filming.

4. Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964

As phoneticist Henry Higgins in both the stage and movie versions of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison was required to sing patter songs—a type of number which is more spoken (and usually quickly, at that) than sung. For the movie, “[Harrison] said ‘The patter songs are just too intricate,’ so while everyone else’s numbers are pre-recorded, every song he does in My Fair Lady was recorded on set,” Kenrick says. “While that was more expensive, it worked. His performance is dynamic, it’s fresh, there’s vitality to it. He won the Academy Award, and he had also won the Tony for that part.” Harrison also sang live in 1967’s Dr. Dolittle.

5. Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, 1968

All of Barbra Streisand’s numbers in Funny Girl—in which Streisand played the legendary Fanny Brice—are pre-recorded, save for the beginning of the film’s final number (mid-way through the song, the pre-recording takes over). “Streisand made her reputation as a nightclub and stage performer,” Kenrick says. “Funny Girl was her film debut, and people had always wanted her to sing Fanny Brice’s most famous song, ‘My Man.’ At the beginning of the number, she’s breaking down in tears—it would have been almost physically impossible to lip sync that. How do you lip sync to a breakdown? So it made sense for her to do the number live to capture the Streisand performance style.”

6. Julie Andrews, Star!, 1968

It would have been impossible to record what is arguably Julie Andrews’ most famous number, “The Sound of Music,” live on set. Not so for at least part of the closing number of Star!, "The Saga of Jenny." Andrews sings while giving an acrobatic performance, starting at 2:28 in the video above. Impressive.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
music
Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About
iStock
iStock

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app
Freegal

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to freegalmusic.com and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
An Anthology Series Based on Dolly Parton's Songs Is Coming to Netflix
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Though she may be best known for her music career, Dolly Parton is a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to starring in more than a few contemporary classics, from 9 to 5 to Steel Magnolias, she's also been partly responsible for some of your favorite TV series. As part owner of Sandollar Entertainment, a film and television production company, she's been a silent figure behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the queen of country music is preparing to return to the small screen once again—this time on Netflix.

The beloved singer is partnering with Warner Bros. Television to produce an anthology series for Netflix, Engadget reports. Set to debut in 2019, each of the eight episodes will have a theme based on a song by Parton, who will serve as executive producer and singer-songwriter in addition to appearing in the series.

"As a songwriter, I have always enjoyed telling stories through my music," Parton said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be bringing some of my favorite songs to life with Netflix. We hope our show will inspire and entertain families and folks of all generations, and I want to thank the good folks at Netflix and Warner Bros. TV for their incredible support."

The list of songs hasn’t yet been released, but I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and The Bargain Store are among Parton’s greatest hits.

Parton previously worked with Warner Bros. to produce the made-for-television movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015) and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2016). She has also nearly finished the music for the upcoming film Dumplin'—based on a novel by Julie Murphy and starring Jennifer Aniston—and the soundtrack will be released via Dolly Records and Sony Music Nashville, according to Parton’s website.

[h/t Engadget]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios