The Singing Voice in Contemporary Cinema

Equinox Publishing
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The Singing Voice in Contemporary Cinema, 2020, pp. 1-20
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While the function of spoken voice in cinema has been explored by theorists such as Chion (1999), the role of singing in cinema has received less discussion and theorization. Where examination has taken place, it has focused on par­ticular singing contexts, vocal techniques, gender concepts or vocal/repertoire types.1 This volume offers a diverse and inclusive discussion of the use of singing in cinema. Singing is a highly effective form of verbal and non-verbal2 commu­nication and can instantaneously convey narrative, context and emotion. Sing­ing therefore involves a range of expressive capabilities. Research identifies that vocal parameters (such as loudness and dynamics) expressed through singing may correlate with emotional states including sadness, tenderness, anger and joy (see Scherer et al., 2017). Expressive singing may also be revered for its commemora­tive, transcendent and/or musical capabilities, or even scorned for a lack of tech­nical prowess. Either way, singing almost invariably elicits attention, reaction and, sometimes, empathy. As such, the deliberate inclusion of singing provides a range of creative possibilities in film. Songs and their performance by singers are core elements of Western and international music cultures and have been prominent in cinema (see Dyer, 2012) since the introduction of synchsound recording and playback technolo­gies. Inducted into the American National Film Registry for its significance,3 The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) marked Hollywood's en tree into the synchronous sounding4 of voice and song.5 Described as "less [of] a talking picture than a sing­ing picture" (Taylor, 2009: 8), this adaptation of a Broadway play6 featured one of the leading entertainers of the time, Al Jolson. Containing several of Jolson's well­ known songs,7 the film provided a compilation of his then familiar and popular 1920s melodies in a "proto-jukebox" format (Goldmark, 2017: 768). While the most striking and negative aspect of the film for contemporary audiences is no doubt Jolson's performance in "black face" (wearing theatrical "blackface" make-up), The Jazz Singer signaled the naissance of cinematic singing and the screen musical, as well as Hollywood's growing reliance on celebrity capital.
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