Analysis: The Musical Climax

I love musicals, but I love musical climaxes even more.  No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter!  I’ve always enjoyed movies that have either the climax of the story, or at least a major plot point, revolve around a musical number, particularly when it is unexpected.  I don’t mean in musicals, but in movies that otherwise have no musical numbers and are not about music.  In other words, not movies like Crazy Heart, Ray, or A Prairie Home Companion, all of which are in some way about music.

I also don’t mean scenes set to music, either as a montage or to set the mood for the scene, like in Rocky, The Breakfast Club or Cruel Intentions.  I’m not even talking about musical climaxes that are the obvious result of the plot, like in Dirty Dancing, Sister Act, or Little Miss Sunshine.  What I’m talking about are moments when characters in otherwise non-musical movies have some sort of musical performance/dance number/song that resolves their issues, expresses their feelings, or advances the plot in a way that’s unique compared to the rest of the film, and is often unexpected or completely surprising.  Here are some examples of what I mean:

Back to the Future

This one is well known to everyone, of course.  It’s also the climax to Marty’s (Michael J. Fox) character arc, one of the three main plots.  Just moments before he resolved his parents’ story, and immediately after this is the climax to the time travel plot, but this moment of musical bliss is all about the growth of Marty’s character.  He starts the film as a hopeful musician, only to be shot down in his hopes to play at the school band.  He fears he’s turning into his father, so afraid of rejection that he chooses to just give up and never act.  But by this point in the film, he’s found a new confidence, inspired in part by seeing his parents in a new light and realizing that there is more to them than he would have guessed.  Watching his father knock out Biff and get the girl on his own merits energizes Marty to sing “Johnny B. Goode” as an expression of his self confidence, a declaration of understanding to his parents and a way for them to relate to him even if only subconsciously.  And if he happens to inspire Chuck Berry in the process, all the better.

(500) Days of Summer

This one is more of an actual “musical climax,” and is almost everyone’s favorite moment from the film.  It takes place after Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sleeps with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) for the first time, and is a literal interpretation of the feelings that go along with that moment.  It’s both sweet and hilarious, and marks an important point in the relationship and a turning point in the plot.  Of course, the movie is told out of order, so it’s followed immediately by a bad time in the relationship, but the juxtaposition makes the number that much better.

The Artist

The very final scene in the film, this tap dance both resolves the conflict of the story and expresses the emotions of the characters perfectly.  It’s a rebirth for silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who has found a way to reinvent himself in the era of movies with sound.  (I wish the video had his one line of dialogue at the end, which explains everything.)  The dance is a celebration of life, especially important after Valentin’s suicide near-attempt, and an expression of the new partnership between him and Peppy (Berenice Bejo).


This scene, one of my all time favorites, is not exactly a climax, but it is a turning point in the story, where the bond between Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) and Babe is finally cemented.  It’s the moment when Babe realizes that he has a place in the world, and a purpose, and that he’s loved.  Without this moment, there would be no, “That’ll do, pig,” at the end.  It’s one of James Cromwell’s finest moments on film, all the more impressive in that it’s played opposite an animatronic pig.

Lost in Translation

For a while, Lost in Translation was my favorite movie.  It spoke to me in a time when I really needed it and helped me through.  This scene comes in the middle of the film, at a turning point in the relationship between Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), when they realize how much each of them means to the other.  The fact that this realization comes in the middle of karaoke, with a shared look of understanding and connection, makes it all the sweeter given the song that he’s singing.

To Sir, with Love

Sometimes music is the only way to fully express what you feel.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I wish the video was better for this one.  Eddie (Bob Hoskins) has spent the entire movie with an antagonistic view towards Toons.  He and his brother were detectives together in Toontown, loving how much it made them laugh, until Eddie’s brother was killed by a Toon.  Ever since, he’s been unable and unwilling to smile or laugh, until this moment.  It’s by far the most ridiculous movie moment on this list, but it also says a lot about his character, and how he’s coming to terms with his feelings.  Full credit goes to Bob Hoskins for completely selling his role in the film and this scene in particular; the gritty realism he brings really helps ground the otherwise zany film.  Just to note, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit were both directed by Robert Zemeckis.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This one may be cheating a bit, since O Brother, Where Art Thou? is full of music.  However, I would argue that it’s not about music, nor is the final performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow” what the film has been building to.  O Brother also interrupts the musical climax with the resolution of one of its plots.  This performance fits into the film’s parallel to Homer’s Odyssey, symbolizing Odysseus’ arrow through the axe rings, a feat which only he can do and which wins him back Penelope.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I saved the best for last.  This scene is in my top five movie scenes of all time.  By now, the story of the production is fairly well known and has become legendary on its own.  John Hughes snuck Matthew Broderick on a float in the annual Von Steuben Day parade in Chicago, and filmed live much of what we see, including genuine reaction shots from the crowd.  The guy dancing on the scaffolding?  That’s a genuine reaction to the music.  It’s the sort of thing that can be faked with a lot of effort, but will never come off as genuine in the way that this scene does.

What’s more interesting is that while this scene is both the perfect embodiment of the movie and the character, it’s pretty much the opposite of the first scene on my list from Back to the Future.  Ferris Bueller does not grow or change at all during the film.  He’s the protagonist, but he exists to drive the plot and to entertain but has none of the defining character moments expected from the lead role in a story.  All of the growth is left to Cameron, who has major issues to deal with, and Ferris is simply the catalyst for Cameron’s growth.  In many ways, Ferris is to Cameron as Jack Sparrow is to Will Turner.  Ferris is a “monster from the id,” and is finally able in this moment to set Cameron free for the first time.  It’s the moment where Ferris is able to successfully rebel against Cameron’s assertion that he’s seen “nothing good” during his day off.  It is unexpected and wild and everything that a great musical climax should be.

What do you think?  Do you have a favorite musical scene in a non-musical film?  “Tequila” in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, perhaps?  Is there anything huge that I missed?  Or would you rather everyone just keep their songs and dances out of movies where they don’t belong?

3 thoughts on “Analysis: The Musical Climax

  1. Pingback: Friday Favorites: Favorite Character – Babe | Love Pirate's Ship's Log

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  3. Pingback: 5 Things I Love about Moana | The Love Pirate

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