A few rotten politicians taking advantage of the system. An intense close-up on a fat-covered heart. Amy Adams. What else could writer/director Adam McKay use to tell the story of former Vice President Dick Cheney? How about a musical number?
The song and dance sequence from Vice has finally been released onto the internet (courtesy of /Film) and will be featured on the DVD and Blu-ray releases. The scene is a conversation between fresh-from-Wisconsin Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), explaining the ins and outs of Capitol Hill. Any breaks in their dialogue are filled with singing by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, whose previous work includes the Broadway musical Hamilton.
The sequence adds to the idea of modern politics being a theatrical production of sabotage and fake politeness. Everyone in the scene who is not singled out as a potential target during Rumsfeld’s lesson to young Cheney is transformed from a random bystander to a strategically placed dancer. Complete with a few saxophone players, this is a well-made musical number that complements the film.
However, the message from the scene could have been conveyed through other means rather than in song. For instance, the dialogue between the two characters clearly states what tricks Cheney can do as a politician in order to get what he wants. The lyrics only echo the ideas that Rumsfeld teaches rather than adding something new to the scene. Since the musical number would add no new information, all the dancing feels like a distraction from Rumsfeld’s lesson.
The challenge with having a musical number in a film that isn’t a musical is making it feel like it fits in with the style of the film. Vice is a satirical drama and most of its humor derives from its dry, serious tone. By introducing a musical number, especially one so fantastical and interruptive as this, the seriousness is lost so the scene doesn’t match the rest of the film. The only comparable moment is the Shakespearean dialogue exchange between Dick and Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), but even that isn’t as outrageous as a fourth-wall-breaking musical number.
When Variety asked McKay about the deleted musical number, he said, “It’s breathtaking. It’s incredible. And it just didn’t work.” Maybe if the scene was more essential to the story being told, he could have kept it in. He made the right call to cut it, but at least the scene made it onto the bonus features, so it’s not lost forever.
While it didn’t work for Vice, having a random musical number in a film isn’t impossible. Take the ’90s rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You. The moment Patrick (Heath Ledger) starts strutting across the bleachers singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is exactly the overdramatic gesture needed for winning over Kat (Julia Stiles). Because Patrick is supposed to be the classic bad boy, singing along with a marching band is the type of act that would be the most humiliating for him and therefore the most rewarding for Kat. The musical number is necessary for starting the romance between Patrick and Kat, along with matching the melodramatic tone of the film.
Or there’s the musical bit from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Nearing the end of his skip day, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) joins a parade and starts singing and dancing on top of a float. The musical number makes the final hours of his day only more dramatic and extravagant that it seems impossible for Ferris to avoid getting noticed by his parents. So when he prevails, it is all the more surprising. This moment had to be something so loud and obvious otherwise the point would have been lost. Thus, having a musical number with Ferris singing in the parade that’s blocking traffic is a necessary event for the plot.
Both of these examples have the musical numbers integrated into the characters’ stories, unlike the one from Vice, which makes it easier for the scenes to feel cohesive with the rest of their films. The use of song and dance isn’t limited to the film’s reality, but the scene must have a purpose for using it. Otherwise, it becomes a movie with a musical commercial break rather than one coherent story.