Not every documentary has to be about a hard-hitting subject in order to be compelling. Sometimes, a topic with low stakes can be a welcome change of pace. In fact, some of the best documentaries are about extremely niche interests, and films like those only work if they have an infectiously enthusiastic person (or people) serving as our gateway into a weird and wonderful world.
In “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” this person is the former head writer for “Late Show with David Letterman,” Steve Young. At one point, Young was tasked with finding unusual vinyl records for the show, and accidentally stumbled into the hidden world of the “industrial musical.” Basically, when big corporations like Ford, Hoover, or Kraft had their annual conventions, they would often commission original musicals that promoted their brand’s values, offered advice to salesmen, and featured storylines involving the company’s products. Young becomes obsessive about finding recordings of these musicals, as well as tracking down their writers and performers.
It’s a window into the post-war consumerist boom that lasted from the 1950s through the 1980s. If you’re interested in mid-20th century Americana, as I am, you will love this documentary. “If the musical is the American art form, then the industrial musical is the hyper-American art form.” It illuminates an American corporate world that no longer exists, when workers served for life, and would make a great double-bill with “American Factory.”