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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.

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This Just In
Police Recover Nearly 100 Artifacts Stolen From John Lennon’s Estate
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Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

A collection of artifacts stolen from John Lennon’s estate, including diaries, glasses, and handwritten music, has been recovered by German police, the Associated Press reports. After arresting the first suspect, law enforcement is now working to apprehend a second person of interest in the case.

The nearly 100 items went missing from the New York home of the late Beatles star’s widow Yoko Ono in 2006. Years later, German police were tipped off to their whereabouts when a bankruptcy administrator came across the haul in the storage facility of a Berlin auction house. The three leather-bound diaries that were recovered are dated 1975, 1979, and 1980. One entry refers to Lennon’s famous nude photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, and another was written the morning of December 8, 1980, hours before he was shot and killed. In addition to the journals, police retrieved two pairs of his iconic glasses, a 1965 recording of a Beatles concert, a 1952 school book, contract documents for the copyright of the song “I’m the Greatest”, handwritten scores for "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over”, and a cigarette case.

German authorities flew to New York to have Ono verify the items' authenticity. "She was very emotional and we noticed clearly how much these things mean to her,” prosecutor Susann Wettley told AP. When the objects will be returned to Ono is still unclear.

The first suspect, a 58-year-old German businessman from Turkey, was arrested Monday, November 21, following a raid of his house and vehicles. The second suspect is one of Ono's former chauffeurs who has a past conviction related to the theft. Police officers are hoping to extradite him from his current home in Turkey before moving forward with the case.

[h/t AP]

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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