So, have you seen the trailer for Pitch Perfect yet? It's about a college a capella group made up of colorfully diverse members who must get their act together in time for a big competition! How exciting! How inspring! How...like just about every other performing arts film out there.
Whether it's about singing, dancing, theater, marching band, or what have you, movies focusing on the arts rank only below romantic comedies and Adam Sandler films for sheer formula. You would think that, being one of the few genres the people making them have some form of personal experience in, there would be a broader range of experiences, characters, and stories to draw from, rather than resorting to the same collection of plot points. Yet, inevitably, there they are. It's like the Hollywood version of the Stations of the Cross.
It's time to shake things up. Let's start by striking the following cliches from the the performing arts film set list:
1.) The “Unlikely” Talent
He's the star quarterback and big man on campus—but when he showers after practice, he belts out tunes in a voice to rival Jeremy Jordan! She's a shy, bookish wallflower—but take her glasses off and pull her hair out of that bun, and she'll set the dance floor ablaze! Who'd have thunk it? Well, anybody who doesn't think of people as two-dimensional cookie cutter shapes.
Such is the entertainment industry's commitment to well-worn stereotypes that it expects us to be genuinely surprised when it momentarily deviates from them. (This is the driving force behind Susan Boyle's entire career.) Look, Hollywood, you know better. You have Vin Disel playing Dungeons and Dragons in his off-hours and Wolverine singing Jean Valjean. Talent doesn't adhere to any set profile—you know it, we know it, so don't expect to be congratulated when your leading lady isn't a drama queen and the leading man isn't the other kind of drama queen, okay?
2.) The Disapproving Parent
Maybe dad wants them to crack down on the studying rather than wasting time on “frivolous” pursuits. Maybe mom couldn't cut it as a singer, and doesn't want her baby to deal with the same heartbreak. Maybe writers feel Mama Rose cornered the market on aggressively supportive parents and are looking in the other direction for inspiration. Whatever the reason, nearly every starry-eyed protagonist is guaranteed to have some sort of parent or other authority figure whose sole purpose is to fold their arms and frown angrily as their child stays out late for rehearsal, goes dancing with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks and generally “follows their heart” or some broad concept like that. It's maudlin attempt to add domestic drama into the proceedings that almost invariably ends up feeling contrived.
Besides, we all know how it will end. The kid goes ahead and performs (usually after some defiant “this is who I am and if you don't like it tough” speech to the parent), and right in the middle of their big moment who should walk in at the back of the auditorium? Dear old Mom/Dad, who is so dazzled by their child's talent that they relent and give a silent nod of approval as the audience applauds. (About the only movie that doesn't end the scenario this way is Dead Poet's Society, which probably figured it had enough contrivances to be getting on with as is.)
3.) The Radical New Program
Every time a movie focuses on a struggling ensemble going into a competition as a major underdog—and who ever makes movies about seasoned professionals who are favorites to win?--the key to success ultimately hinges on one idea: “Hey, what are we doing performing this old fuddy-duddy stuff? We need to have a fresh, up-to-date program that The Kids These Days will find hip and relevant!” Shock and horror! The old guard blusters and mutters about the unorthodoxy of it all, but inevitably the bold new direction is a hit with the judges, who are apparently giving scores based on the music's copyright date.
This is a frustrating false dichotomy. Why are the choices always limited to “boring old stuff” and “cool new stuff”? Why does there even have to be a choice—shouldn't versatility be praised and encouraged? For that matter, who says the old stuff is automatically boring, anyway? I'd like to see a competition where a choir does some mediocre Hal Leonard arrangement of a top-40 hit, only to be blown away by another group doing an expert rendition of the Verdi Dies Irae.
4.) The Two-Girl Rivalry
Whether its within the ranks or between competitors, large ensembles or solo performers, 90% of the time the main conflict comes down to the two principal female characters locking horns. Sometimes the two have a “worthy rivals” thing going on, in which case they make peace by the end, but more often Hollywood helps us out by making one girl absolutely evil so we'll know who to root for. The evil girl spends the entire movie being catty, unprincipled, and theoretically less talented than the nice-girl heroine. In teen-centric films she'll almost invariably be rich, so she can flaunt her designer clothes and shallow evilness while being catty and unprincipled. (Ever notice how the people who spend the most time talking about how rich people are evil and terrible compared to the worthy middle and lower classes are always the ones who have more money than they know what to do with?) Worry not, fair viewers, for sure as the sun rises she will be humiliated in the third act, and will be left in the wings stomping her foot and pouting as the nice-girl heroine gets her moment of triumph.
I don't know why movies keep pitting women against each other. Maybe the writers hope it will eventually lead to cat-fighting, which of course leads to lady sexytimes, which is the ultimate goal of every male of the species. Or maybe it makes it easier for them to throw the male lead into the mix and get a love triangle going. Speaking of which...
5.) The Awkwardly Inserted Romance
The musical version of Aida insists “every story is a love story,” at it's a motto that movies have taken to heart. No movie is complete without a budding romance between two of the lead characters, not even performance films. It might be the little rich girl hooking up with the talented boy from the wrong side of the tracks, or the aspiring actor who has to decide whether to follow the limelight or the lady of his dreams. What it will almost never be is done well.
No matter who the protagonists are, romances in performance films always seem to come with soppy music, ridiculous complications, and “romantic” dialogue that makes the stuff from Attack of the Clones sound like Shakespeare's 116th sonnet. It's cheesy, it's insulting, and it always stops the story dead. Why do we care whether or not these two kids (who are probably too young to be thinking about lifetime commitments anyway) get together or not? Just shut up and sing.