May 23–July 3, 2024

Who Will Sing Folk Songs?”: The Film Musical in Nine Variations

Music does not merely accompany a film, it often co-structures it.”

Michel Chion, Music in Cinema

In 1998, Canadian film scholar Bart Testa declared cinematic genre studies, for all intents and purposes, dead. With no fully worked-out theory of genre, the subject could only hope to track historical causality—”a smattering of influences.” At the centre of Testa’s crosshairs was the Iowa-based Rick Altman, who largely made his name with an opus titled The American Film Musical, an attempt to cover the whole gamut of an influential and easily differentiated type of film—albeit under that key qualifier of national productions. Despite Altman’s best efforts, even this survey of over a hundred films failed to find a rigorous starting point: a precise and workable definition of what a film musical is. Must a musical feature dancing? Singing? Intense emotion? Romance? A particular disposition to time, sound, and image? Exceptions to these norms abound, and proliferate the further one gets from the Hollywood studio model.

Altman’s most notable contribution was his proposal that there are three strands of the genre: the fairytale musical, the show musical, and the folk musical, which give us romance, reflexivity, and a retrospective position—this last piece emphasized the most by Altman. But because the scope of his project was limited to Hollywood in its heyday, if the film musical was a genre, it was a genre with an end date and an insular sense of history—though one that continues, along with Broadway, to predominate in North American perception of the genre’s norms and limits.

“‘Who Will Sing Folk Songs?’: The Film Musical in Nine Variations” begins with Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, a transformative example of the possibilities of music in film. The eight other films in the series follow its lead in some manner, as a work merging past and future while provocatively playing with our attention to sound’s interaction with image. Where academic research requires an investment in a sweep of cinematic evidence, film programming often deals with singular works, if not masterpieces. Each of the selections in this series comes out of this thinking: the musical film—however adopted, rethought, or referenced, and whether in the sense of a fantasy, backstage, or folk musical—presents a filmmaker with options. Those options, when combined with the personal choices of an artist, can expand the possibilities of the genre” in unanticipated ways.

This series, which takes its title from a line in Med Hondo’s newly restored West Indies, is a showcase of works where filmmakers have not only dealt with the extreme possibilities of foregrounded music, but taken seriously film’s capacity to connect with traditions that, in some cases, predate cinema itself. Before any national cinema codified its popular musicals, before any recording industry had stars, there were still songs—for work, battle, funerals, marriages, lullabies, and games. Chronologically by year of release, the first six films in this series, from Red Psalm to Dancer in the Dark, work within what might be considered a more recognizable musical framework. The three most recent works—All About Lily Chou-Chou, The Disciple, and A Magical Substance Flows into Me—displace certain elements of the musical, yet, seen alongside these other uniquely expressive works, are involved with many of the same concerns.

Each of the films in this series has been selected as a special presentation. The Hole and Dancer in the Dark will screen from 35mm prints, while West Indies, Red Psalm, Golden Eighties, Une chambre en ville, and All About Lily Chou-Chou are sourced from digital restorations. A Magical Substance Flows into Me and The Disciple will play in a Vancouver cinema for the first time.


Special thanks to Brian Belovarac (Janus Films), Céline Brouwez (Akerman Foundation), and Steven K. Hill (UCLA Film & Television Archive) for their assistance in mounting this series.

Upcoming Screenings

  • Une Chambre Un Ville 3
  • Une chambre en ville
  • aka A Room in Town
  • France1982
  • Jacques Demy
  • 93 DCP
  • PG
  • The Film Musical in Nine Variations
  • Magical Substance Flows Into Me 1
  • A Magical Substance Flows into Me
  • Palestine/Germany/United Kingdom2016
  • Jumana Manna
  • 66 DCP
  • NR
  • The Film Musical in Nine Variations
  • All About Lily Chou Chou 5
  • All About Lily Chou-Chou
  • リリイ・シュシュのすべて
  • Japan2001
  • Iwai Shunji
  • 146 DCP
  • NR
  • The Film Musical in Nine Variations
  • Red Psalm 2
  • Red Psalm
  • Még kér a nép
  • Hungary1971
  • Miklós Jancsó
  • 84 DCP
  • NR
  • The Film Musical in Nine Variations
  • Golden Eighties 10
  • Golden Eighties
  • Belgium/France/Switzerland1986
  • Chantal Akerman
  • 96 DCP
  • PG
  • The Film Musical in Nine Variations

List of Programmed Films

Date Film Title Director(s) Year Country
2024-May The Hole Tsai Ming-liang 1998 Taiwan . . .
2024-May Une chambre en ville Jacques Demy 1982 France
2024-May A Magical Substance Flows into Me Jumana Manna 2016 Palestine . . .
2024-May West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty Med Hondo 1979 Algeria . . .
2024-Jun The Disciple Chaitanya Tamhane 2020 India
2024-Jun Dancer in the Dark Lars Von Trier 2000 Denmark . . .
2024-Jun All About Lily Chou-Chou Iwai Shunji 2001 Japan
2024-Jun Red Psalm Miklós Jancsó 1971 Hungary
2024-Jun Golden Eighties Chantal Akerman 1986 Belgium . . .