You could chalk up every move, either mental decision or physical locomotion, the characters make in these three movies to out of whack hormones. It is said that “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast”1. For the short attention spans of young adults, prescribe music and dance. For moviegoers of all ages, too, for that matter. Bored? There’s a musical number for that. In a noteworthy scene in Bande à part, Godard follows an innovative aural experiment with an influential line-dancing number his leads dubbed the Madison. Both of these elements invigorate an otherwise pretty standard tale of juvenile delinquency. The Madison scene also serves to redirect its chaos-making characters’ nervous energy for a bit, as does a breakneck race through the Louvre to beat a world record. These jack rabbits need constant diversions. Godard, a pioneer cinephile, is known for films in which the Hollywood musical is translated into cinéma vérité.2
West Side Story, a global phenomenon released three years before, looms large as a likely touchstone, which also follows young, easily enraged characters falling in love, creating chaos, and facing untimely death. As well, Jacques Demy’s repeated appropriations of Hollywood musical tropes, embodied in full by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, also from 1964. These meditations on wild youth through song and dance are shortcuts to dynamic screen energy. Also concerned with lustful young adults, Prince’s frisky Sign o’ the Times, a concert film of non-stop, athletic choreography, is seemingly highly influenced by West Side Story, too. One might note a similar freedom in the use of a stagey urban artificiality to enhance emotional associations, washing sets in pure color, playing with forced perspective, adding jazzy interludes, and relying on a distinct, if opposite, point of view on the cultural barriers between love and race relations. Evident in Bande à part, Sign o’ the Times *and* Grease is how Robbins and Wise transitioned in to and out of moments of magical realism with camera tricks and quick cuts, and all three movies engage in West Side Story‘s implication of sexual repression.
Grease both parodies and mimics the constant agitation, quick mood swings, short attention spans, and rapid sexual development of out-of-control teenage hormones from its romantic seaside start to aroused finish at a fair. The film skims whole plot points to get to the goods, and finally sexualizes the very last innocent character in the climactic number. And Prince, well, needless to say his whole world-view might be characterized by one song, “D.M.S.R.”, which goes “All I want to do is dance, Play music, sex, romance, And try my best to never get bored”. Sign o’ the Times hints at story but all it really wants to do is have sex with you through the screen. Bolstered by wild edits of teeming, spastic crowd scenes, exaggerated movement and facial expression, both later films achieve a sustained state of unhinged intensity that the more classically languid West Side Story does not.
More: The Philosophical Beauty of the Movie Musical, Revolution & Car Crashes: 5 Things Learned About Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Weekend’ with a lot on Band of Outsiders, Opening One’s Eye to Godard. Notes: 1. Bill Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1697; 2. Film Studies: Sit Down, Child, and I’ll Tell You All About Jean-Luc Godard