A week or so ago, I wrote a blog post about ten really cool, lesser known musicals that I wanted to make people aware of. I got some really nice feedback from folks (and only a little backlash), so I thought I'd put together another list, this time ten cool movie musicals you should see (if you haven't already)...
For the sake of this list, I'll assume you've seen really famous movie musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, Hairspray, Chicago, Cabaret, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut... And we're not talking here about the classic movie musicals that almost everyone knows, like The Sound of Music, Singin' in the Rain, or The Music Man. (If you haven't seen all those, watch them at some point.) For the purposes of this blog post, I'm just focusing on movie musicals that are off the beaten path a bit...
Here are ten...
Absolute Beginners (1986) may just be my favorite movie ever. It's an amazing, one-of-a-kind, rock fable that explores "the birth of the teenager" in England in the late 1950s. It centers on the every-teen Colin, a photographer who sells out his art to hold on to his easily distractible, material girl, Suzette, a fledgling fashion designer. It's about the commercialization of rock and roll, it's about race, it's about class, it's about the struggle between an artist and his art, and the struggle between art and commerce. I think what makes it work -- aside from great music, an incredible production design, and incredible camera work -- is that director Julien Temple really found a style in which a movie musical can thrive, only slightly naturalistic, more heightened, more like a serious version of the Bat Boy school of acting -- "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity." And like a lot of rock theatre, these characters are more essence than complex people. This is an adult fable. But it's a fable about complicated things -- the failure of our public institutions to adapt to a changing world, and the growing pains of our continual evolution toward a more fair and more just society. As you can tell, I love this movie. It's totally original, it's gorgeous to look at, the songs are excellent, and it's about a very turbulent, interesting time in our history -- just as interesting in the UK as it was here.
Colma (2006) is yet another movie like nothing else I've ever seen. The backstory to this quirky, smart little film is the town of Colma itself, just south of San Francisco. Because land is so scarce in San Francisco, all their cemeteries are in Colma, so the dead outnumber the living. And all this serves as a big background metaphor for these three emo rock singing high school kids who are trying to figure who they are and where they're headed. And though that description may not sound all that interesting, the writing is so fresh, the emo rock score is so good, and the camera work and editing are so much fun -- some moments feel like a really good indie music video -- that it makes for a compelling, emotionally engaging, adult movie. The 29-year-old H. P. Mendoza wrote the music, co-wrote the screenplay, and plays one of the three leads, all three of whom are perfect. Mendoza also made another film musical, Fruit Fly, which is every bit as cool. As excited as I am right now about the future of the musical theatre, Colma and Fruit Fly make me excited for the future of the movie musical too.
Spike Lee's brilliant and controversial Bamboozled (2000) is one of his very best films. It adapts the story of The Producers to modern day television. Our (anti-) hero is a comfortably assimilated black TV executive (Damon Wayans) named Pierre Delacroix. His boss (Michael Rapaport), a white guy who sees himself as "blacker" than Delacroix, demands new, innovative, cutting edge, more "urban" programming. So Delacroix (like Max Bialystock before him) puts together the most intentionally offensive black show he can imagine -- a new generation minstrel show -- to teach his boss a lesson. And of course, it becomes a monster hit. This film works a lot like Chicago and Cabaret -- by the end of the story, we realize we're complicit in this horror. We've been enjoying this incredibly entertaining minstrel show (starring Savion Glover!), laughing at the jokes, being wowed by the tap dancing, and suddenly we're slapped back to the reality that even in the 21st century, we can still accept a minstrel show as entertainment. In fact, we just did. We accepted blackface. Is it because we know Spike Lee wrote and directed it? Does that give us permission to enjoy it somehow? It's a movie that leaves you with a lot of questions. About yourself.
I consider Bamboozled a musical even though the music is pretty much limited to the TV show sequences. But I think it says a lot about American popular entertainment and a lot about the power of music (and therefore, musical theatre) to manipulate. The music works much the same way it works in any Kander and Ebb musical. It's an amazing piece of film making and dead-on social commentary. And while we're here, I should mention that Spike has also made two other excellent musicals, School Daze and Mo' Better Blues, and he also filmed the brilliant stage musical Passing Strange.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974) used to fall under the Guilty Pleasures category. But since directing Rocky Horror, and studying it and writing about it, I gained a lot of respect for Rocky, and by extension for other films like it, Shock Treatment and Phantom of the Paradise. I often recommend Phantom of the Paradise to people, and they ask me what it's about, and I open my mouth and nothing coherent comes out. (I know, I know, so what's new?) It's just really weird. Lately, I've started describing it as a cross between Rocky Horror and Phantom of the Opera (the novel, not the icky pop opera), maybe with a touch of The Abominable Dr. Phibes thrown in. The Paradise score by Paul Williams is sort of fun trashy pop, not the greatest songs you'll ever hear, but all so perfect for this film. And it stars the amazing but odd Jessica Harper, who did quite a few really cool weirdo movies in the early 80s. It's kitschy and campy and glitzy and glammy and so much fun!
I almost also included on this list The Apple, sort of a cross between Rocky Horror and Phantom of the Paradise -- fun movie but just not enough room here for them all... Although by mentioning that, I've actually now included it, haven't I..?
All That Jazz (1979) is Bob Fosse's masterpiece of artistic autobiography, fully equal to Fellini's 8 1/2, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. For those of us who've read every book ever published about the musical theatre, almost everything that happens in this transparently autobiographical film has an obvious parallel to Fosse's real life, even to the extreme point of Fosse's girlfriend Ann Reinking essentially playing herself. But like the Fellini, Sondheim, and Woody Allen pieces, All That Jazz is about the struggle between art and life, when both demand a hundred percent. And because it's Fosse, it's also wildly entertaining, smart and sexy, dark as pitch, and gorgeous to look at. I think All That Jazz is even better than Fosse's Cabaret.
Mack the Knife (1989) is really The Threepenny Opera, in a new version that purists might not like but I really love. Raul Julia repeats his performance as MacHeath, from the 1976 Lincoln Center production (which is my favorite Threepenny cast album), and his supporting cast includes Richard Harris (as Peachum), Roger Daltry (as the street singer), Julie Waters (as Mrs. Peachum), and Clive Revill (Money Matthew). It seems to me that this is the perfect Brechtian movie musical. When the music starts, the actors just turn to the camera and start singing, something you almost never see on film. And you can just tell how much fun they're all having chewing the scenery and singing and dancing through this uber-dark musical. They've cut some of the score, but it's really rowdy and gritty and funny and nasty, and in the opinion of this Brecht fan, I think Bert would love this movie. In a way, it's very subversive film making -- MGM crossed with Brecht and Weill... Unfortunately, this film has never been released on DVD; but it is available on VHS (and not copy-protected, so you can burn it onto DVD).
Cradle Will Rock (1999) is Tim Robbins' smart, colorful exploration of Marc Blitzstein's amazing 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, one of my all-time favorite shows, and the one with the coolest history of any Broadway musical -- it's the only musical ever to be shut down by the U.S. federal government for its subversive content. Robbins' film isn't an adaptation of the show (though Orson Welles, its original director, did write a screenplay), but an exploration of its political and historical context, in a way using it to represent a whole lot of different political and social movements happening in the 30s. Robbins has collected together several true stories with similar thematic threads to weave in and around the story of the creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Interestingly, the events in the movie didn't really happen all at the same time; Robbins collapsed them together to make more obvious their connections, and it really works. Like Bamboozled, this isn't a movie with a lot of music, but we see a fair amount of recreated performance footage at the end (though the material is slightly altered from the actual show), and this historic stage musical is at the center of the whole movie. It's one of my favorites. In fact, this film convinced me to produce Cradle with New Line, recreating that historic first night. The energy at the end of the movie is intoxicating, and that's really what it was like for us in performance every night.
I was really torn whether to include on this list Pennies from Heaven (1981) or Dancer in the Dark (2000). Both are such cool films (both total freaking downers too). But I think Pennies from Heaven is the more interesting movie. It's essentially a very stylistic 1930s melodrama about a romantic triangle between a man (Steve Martin), his wife (Jessica Harper), and his mistress (Bernadette Peters), amidst the squalor and struggle of the Depression. But periodically throughout the film, the oppressively realistic sets open up into huge MGM fantasy soundstages and this dark, dreary, depressing story becomes escapist fluff for just a moment, with the actors lip-synching to period recordings. These aren't really their voices, the movie reminds us. They're not really happy, even though they're dancing. She's still single and pregnant. What's fascinating about the movie is that the shadow of that depressing real world hangs over every cheery, flashy musical number, giving it all an ironic edge, almost an indictment of escapism and its failure to grapple with real life. Another thoroughly Brechtian film but also a really well made movie musical.
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) is like Rocky Horror meets Re-Animator meets Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, if you can imagine that. It was first a stage show, now a cult movie musical, written by Darren Simth and Terrance Zdunich, and directed on stage and screen by Darren Lynn Bousman. The story takes place in a dystopian future (aren't they all?) where organ transplants become fashionable and they can be financed! But when you fall behind on your payments, they repossess your organ. This movie is so much fun and has a great cast including Anthony Head, Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brightman, and doing surprisingly well, Paris Hilton. The score (58 songs!) is solid rock and roll, but don't listen too closely to the lyrics -- it'll just ruin it for you. Just go for the ride and you'll have a blast.
Show Boat (1936) is on this list because I think Show Boat is misunderstood. I saw so many boring productions of this show when I was a kid and I hated it. Then in 1986 I saw Show Boat at the Muny in a really smart, exciting production, and I realized it's not the show that sucked; it was the directors! But part of the blame lies with that awful, over-wrought, clumsily rewritten and dumbed-down (ask me how I really feel!) 1951 MGM film version -- I hate it. But since that was released, everybody thinks that's what Show Boat is. Well, it's not. This 1936 film version, adapted for the screen by Oscar Hammerstein himself, with a couple new songs and some of the original cast, is as close as we'll ever get to seeing the original production in 1927. And I really love this version -- it's rowdier, funnier, sexier, much higher energy. It's still very old-fashioned, don't get me wrong, but it's a very cool glimpse back into history to see what people actually saw that first night in 1927. And that's pretty cool. If you love musical theatre and hate -- or haven't seen -- Show Boat, give this one a try. It's finally available on DVD for the first time.
And as I did on my other list, I'll break my own rule again and add one more. It's Todd Haynes' brilliant 45-minute indie film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988). Like a couple of my other choices here, it's not a full-out musical but music moves its story forward. It tells the story of pop legend Karen Carpenter's battle with anorexia and the exploding cultural influence of the Carpenters and their music in the 1970s -- and all told using Barbie dolls. Yes, you read that right, Barbie dolls. And you'd be amazed at how quickly you accept this bizarre narrative device and how easily you get sucked into this very sad story that says so much about our culture. Because there's so much music in it, I'm going to declare it a musical for the purposes of this list. But interestingly, the film is also illegal because Haynes didn't get permission to use the Carpenters' songs (like they would've said yes...). So the film has only existed all these years in bootleg copies. A lot of them. But thanks to technology, you can now watch the entire film online, or you can download it or buy it from Illegal-Art.org.
So there you have it. Ten... shit... eleven really cool movies that are either musicals are pseudo-musicals, some of which you've probably heard of or seen before, hopefully a few you haven't. There's nothing I love more than sharing musicals so consider this my Christmas present to you. If you're lucky, you'll have a little time off, so watch some musicals! Merry Christmas, everybody!
Long Live the Musical!
P.S. Despite the quote in the blog title, I thought about including Rob Marshall's amazing and unfairly maligned Nine, which I really, really love, but there just wasn't room on the list... It's still worth a watch though...
P.P.S. Several months after publishing this post, I wrote another post listing the ten coolest books on musical theatre, as a sort of companion to this list, if you wanna check it out... And then there's also my list of Top Ten Political Musicals...