Musicals used to be one of Hollywood’s staples, but they’ve fallen out of fashion lately: relegated to Disney animated features and the occasional prestige project like Les Miserables. Their surprising status on the sidelines may help explain why for every bubbly enthusiast for the latest Broadway blockbuster, there’s another equally passionate film fan who responds with “ick, dancing!”
The prevalence of musical hate is undeniable, but it does the genre a huge disservice. Moreover, skeptics don’t need to choke down some syrupy Rogers and Hammerstein production in order to find entries that they enjoy. Like every genre, the musical embraces a wide range of subjects, tones and storylines. It can be subversive, dark, iconoclastic and even frightening. In fact, a lot of people who profess to hate musicals may actually love more than a few: regarding them as “not real” musicals or musicals in name only. We’ve collected ten of them, though there are plenty more. Through their tone, approach or content, they march to a different beat… and even the most resolute genre hater probably has one or two on his or her shelf. We’re presenting them in alphabetical order and have peppered a few honorable mentions among them: films that match our choices close enough to merit mention.
The Blues Brothers
Our first pick may actually be the most “traditional” musical on our list: assembled as studio product, and featuring a bevvy of well-known actors and musicians telling a redemption story as old as movies themselves. The corporate mentality behind it all was never far below the surface, crafting a pair of Saturday Night Live characters into a full-blown movie for the first in what proved to be a nauseating number of times. Even so, there’s a reason it’s become a classic. It takes the same irreverence and absurdity that director John Landis honed on Animal House, but beneath its smart-aleck tone lies a surprisingly upbeat story. Add that to some of the coolest musicians on the planet – Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles, just for starters – and the formula becomes magic. They top it all off with a car chase for the ages, ensuring that even if you don’t like Cab Calloway belting out “Minnie the Moocher” (and therefore may be some kind of alien pod person), you’re bound to find something that appeals.
This entry makes the list on novelty value alone. Director Alan Parker takes a traditional gangster film and reimagines it in a world populated solely by children. It carries the aspects of make-believe – Tommy-guns that shoot creampuffs, for instance – intended to remind us what playing cops and robbers really felt as a kid, as well as taking a broad swipe at crime movie clichés. To top it all off, it comes with a bevvy of brilliant songs from Paul Williams and a showstopping performance from a very young Jodie Foster. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it, and any fan of oddball cinema should do whatever they can to score a copy. (They’re tough to find in the U.S., though Great Britain has plenty.)
(If gangster musicals are your thing, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy makes a good follow-up, complete with Madonna rocking the doors off of some brilliant Stephen Sondheim numbers. Fans of weird cinema and/or Paul Williams should also check out Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.)
“The Nazi musical,” as star Liza Minelli puckishly put it, focuses far more on decadence and political turmoil than it does singing and dancing (an exceptional feat when that dancing comes courtesy of Bob Fosse). Perhaps most importantly from the average musical hater’s point of view, none of the numbers shatter onscreen credibility. They all take place on the stage of the sinister Kit-Kat Club or otherwise “in-world.” The fact that they cover the rise of the Nazis and the seemingly paralysis of anyone to do anything about it brings an additional cold dash of reality, making the film a historical cautionary tale as much as a musical.
Jim Henson always believed that puppets were for more than just children, as evinced by The Dark Crystal… and Labyrinth which takes a surprisingly adult view of fairy tales and growing up. An ostensible journey through a magical land becomes tinged with blossoming sexuality, as well as the sad realization that you lose as much as you gain when you grow up. As the slightly infernal tour guide to this journey, we couldn’t ask for more from David Bowie, but it’s really the fifteen-year-old Jennifer Connelly who steals the show: holding her own not only against Bowie and his fantastic songs, but an army of Muppets too.
(Henson is no stranger to musicals, of course. Pick your Muppet movie; any of them would make a great addition to this list.)
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
The Pythons always had an affection for musical numbers, which fit right in to their unique non-sequitur absurdity. Thanks to Eric Idle’s knack for composition, they managed to slip a song or two into all of their feature films. But The Meaning of Life upped the ante, with elaborate songs covering heaven, hell, our place in the cosmos, and how awfully nice it is to have a penis (among other topics). They were outrageous at the time, and still pack a wallop even in this jaded era. More importantly, they usually turned a simple and rather flimsy joke (“heaven’s kind of tacky, isn’t it?”) into something worth singing about in the shower from time to time.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
We couldn’t go far without acknowledging Henry Selick’s holiday classic, its iconoclasm undiminished despite twenty years of corporate shilldom. The Nightmare Before Christmas gets to have its cake and eat it to in the holiday department: plenty of Christmas cheer for the squares, with a spike of Bah Humbug thrown in for the holiday Grinches. (The moment where the little boy shows his parents what “Santa” gets me giggling every time.) And thanks to Danny Elfman’s appropriately Gothic songs, it finally found some Christmas carols that outsiders wanted to sing. (Lesson of this list: if you want a cool musical, get a rock star to write your songs.)
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
What would Brian Boitano do? Trey Parker and Matt Stone knew the answer, and just had to share it with the rest of us. Parker’s love for Broadway shows is well-documented (he has his own Tony Award to prove it), and in the heady early days of the South Park phenomenon had the wherewithal to deliver one of his own to the big screen. Like several other films on this list, it revels in upsetting the status quo: sticking it in and breaking it off in any convenient political target it can find. The act has become quite familiar – though they’re still scoring bulls-eyes almost 20 years later – but the enthusiasm with which they tackle this particular project speaks volumes about why they’ve been around so long.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
AKA The One The Theater Kids Love. Rocky Horror got its start in small theater, the kind where you could really cut loose and do anything you wanted. Richard O’Brien did: developing an outlandish homage to B-horror pictures that came to define the midnight movie scene. Tim Curry made his career as the perversely sexual Dr. Frank N. Furter, and the film’s transgressive plot spoke deeply to outsiders of all varieties. Even humming one of the film’s many songs still feels like an act of subversion, something its creators presumably intended all along.
(Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors makes a fine – and somewhat more chaste – second helping of Rocky’s camp delights.)
Stephen Sondheim, the man behind Into the Woods, made his name on upending our preconceived notions about musicals. With Tim Burton, he found an ideal director to bring his tale of a semi-legendary serial killer to the big screen. Burton had to fight for the R rating the film eventually got, but the story demands such a gruesome touch, and Burton’s famous love for outsiders finds the right vibe in Johnny Depp’s unhinged barber. Depp also has the pleasure of killing off any co-stars who threaten to steal the show – including Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, among others. Like Nightmare, its horror elements attract a crowd not much inclined towards the singing and dancing. But while Selick’s film stays family friendly at all times, Todd follows its bloody instincts down to their hellish heart.
Rock operas always seemed immune from the stuffy, fuddy-duddy reputation that follows other musicals like dogs. In the case of Tommy, they took that sensibility to its ultimate extreme, as director Ken Russell turns The Who’s tale of pinball and redemption into a full-bore LSD trip. Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed proved utterly fearless in their willingness to take the material wherever Russell wanted to go, while Roger Daltry kept the band’s DNA intact even as the set pieces got weirder and weirder. I’m still not convinced it’s great, but you definitely won’t forget it: which is all any rock god could ask for.
(Aficionados can replace this with Pink Floyd: The Wall, while those who want something a little more grounded should try John Cameron Mitchell’s extraordinary Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)