River City Trips

A review of 1962's psychedelic masterpiece The Music Man

As with any musical you have to believe that people will sing and dance for no reason, but 1962's The Music Man isn't just an exercise in disbelief, it's a psychedelic masterpiece.

The lead character, Harold Hill (not his real name), is a scammer of immense talent. Within hours of his arrival in River City, Iowa, he's able to work every respectable adult into a froth over a pool-table, and the next day he leads the entire town in a mass hallucination.

That Hill's buddy Marcellus — who now lives in River City — doesn't seem to have any problem with Hill grifting his adopted home is a reflection of what ultimately seems to be the main theme here: there are no real consequences for morally-objectionable behavior as long as people like you.

Marion, Hill's love interest, is never anything more than a mark to Hill until the final few minutes of the movie. His interests are to use her and move on. That she is a tough nut that eventually cracks is what convinces him he loves her, I guess. Hill's interest in Marion is the one thing about him that is not totally convincing.

Marion tells herself she knows better — and she does — but at least Hill is exciting. Before he came to town, the most eligible bachelor in town was her eight year-old brother.

When she finally succumbs to his advances, it's rather sudden, and certainly seems as though she's been drugged. It may have been just a run-of-the-mill swoon, but with all the strange behavior surrounding Hill, mind-altering substances and mind-controlling techniques begin to make a lot more sense.

There is constant reference to something called the "Think System," which Marion's mother claims to have used on Marion in order to get her to agree to Hill's propositioning. The specific dynamics of the "Think System" are never fully explained, but it should be noted that cocaine was commonly available in 1912.

The school board-turned-barbershop quartet provide some of the better musical moments in the film, and usually to the benefit of Hill, who uses the commotion to make multiple escapes. The quartet are clearly the victims of hypnotism, but no matter: they can sing. Usually on command. Hill's command.

It's amazing that a story can work so well with a lead character with so few redeeming qualities. Right up until the very end the plan is still to get out of town before anyone catches on. His staying seems to be as much about his fatigue from the grifter's life as it is a connection to Marion or anyone else.

A close viewing reveals Hill isn't even sure he's staying until he can hear his train leaving. He decides to accept his fate only when he realizes he's lost a step and can't hang anymore.

And, it never is clear if Hill has any intention of telling the woman he supposedly loves what his real name is, though I would say probably not. These new River City Trips are just an extension of his final grift.

Which must keep on going for a while. Eventually, River City accepts that what Hill has given them is more important than what he has basically stolen from them, though no one contemplates that what he has given them might be a massive dose of LSD-25 through their water supply.

The movie ends with yet another mass hallucination — or possibly part hallucination, part piercing of space-time — in which the future River City Boy's Band has grown to roughly ten times the size of the town itself.

So maybe the whole thing is just a dream. Harold Hill's dream — or whoever he really is — about living the life of the traveling swindler, going from town to town, hooking up with hot librarians, ruining the name of the hard-working salesman, making just enough of a living to move on to the next one...

In other words, Harold Hill's Dream of America.