This is a list of cool movies about musicals. Some might argue whether these are actually movie musicals themselves or not, but they're all about putting on a musical (or in one case, a musical TV show), and the songs are all diegetic (with just a couple exceptions), meaning that the act of singing is actually part of the action of the story (i.e., putting on a show), rather than just the language of storytelling.
These are all worth seeing, most of them because they're wonderful, a few because they're just so weird and interesting.
Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins' masterful film about the socio-political stew during the Depression, from which came such amazing art, with the entire story revolving around the writing and producing of Marc Blitzstein's ground-breaking 1937 "labor opera," The Cradle Will Rock. Though most of the characters and events in the film are true, Robbins' has compressed events over several years into one moment in time, to more clearly show us the connections and relationships. It's one of my favorite movies. I watch it once a year or so, and every time, I cry like a baby at the end; it's just so powerful for a musical theatre nerd like me. This movie is also the reason I decided New Line should produce The Cradle Will Rock back in 2001, and we did it like that historical first night on Broadway, with the actors performing the entire show out in the audience...
The Tall Guy may be one of my all-time favorite comedies, with Jeff Goldblum as an American actor in London, who gets the lead in a massive pop opera about the Elephant Man. With Emma Thompson as his girlfriend (and truly one of the funniest sex scenes you'll ever see), Rowan Atkinson as his unbearable asshole of a boss, and – here's the biggest surprise – some hilariously, undeniably excellent songs in the musical-within-the-film, Elephant! Why hasn't someone written the rest of this score...?
Pittsburgh is another of my favorites, and weirdly enough, also starring Jeff Goldblum (who ever thought he'd be in two movies about musicals?). In this case, it's an incredibly straight-faced, part-real-part-fictional mockumentary following Goldblum doing the role of Harold Hill in a regional summer stock production of The Music Man (just think about that for a second), and as the story progresses, he pulls his friends into the project with him, including Ed Begley Jr. and Illeana Douglas to play Mayor Shinn and his wife! But get this – though the film is substantially fictional, like the improv comedies of Christopher Guest, the production of The Music Man is real, Goldblum's audition is real, the rehearsal process is real (the Music Man folks thought it was a real documentary), and Goldblum actually did the run of the production.
The real genius of this movie is that you start out thinking this is just a goof, like Waiting for Guffman, but before you know it, you're really invested, largely because a real director is really trying to prepare Jeff Goldblum to play Harold Hill. Of course the central comic conceit of the film is that Goldblum is obviously, comically ill-suited to play Harold Hill. But throughout the film he takes the work very seriously, and you can see early on that the musical's director Richard Sabellico really understands The Music Man and classic musical theatre (he threw out a couple insights I had never thought about before). What you never see coming – minor spoiler alert here – is that Goldblum makes a great Harold Hill, nothing like any other Harold Hill you've ever seen, but still great. So ultimately the last laugh is on us. All the comedy is based on our sure knowledge that he can't do it, and then he does it, with masterful guidance from Sabellico. Fucking great movie.
Hamlet 2 was one of those movies that I kept hearing about from my friends, but it just sounded so damn dumb. Finally, after it was released on video, I got it from Netflix, watched it one night, and fell in love with it. Despite everything your instincts might tell you about a movie called Hamlet 2, the biggest surprise of the film is that by the end of it, the title no longer seems silly, and we understand the depth of emotion behind what seems like such a trivial premise. The story centers on a loser drama teacher, with some formidable emotional baggage, and his quest to save his drama department by producing his rock musical sequel to Hamlet, not incidentally with Jesus Christ making an appearance (hence the song, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus"). Twenty minutes from the end, you may still be on the fence about this quirky movie, but I promise you, once you see these kids perform Hamlet 2, you'll get it and you'll be totally won over. I first watched this because people told me it's really funny, and it really is, but it's a lot more than that, too...
Camp may have its flaws, but as with Rent, that's part of what makes it work. I'm not sure that "civilians" would enjoy this movie nearly as much as musical theatre nerds like me, but I think it's safe to say if you do musical theatre, you'll love this movie. A big part of the fun is the many musical numbers in the film, especially the original Michael Bennett choreography for "Turkey Lurkey Time," which will blow you away. If you don't find it weird that a kid would bring an 8x10 glossy of Sondheim to camp with him, this movie is for you. This is a movie that makes me feel normal.
Bamboozled is a fierce, raw, fearless satire that will make you more uncomfortable than any other movie, except perhaps a few of John Waters' earlier adventures. Spike Lee's brilliant, controversial satire 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. With an all-white writing staff and a studio audience all wearing blackface.
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? Bamboozled is very funny and undeniably entertaining, but it's also a moral horror story that leaves you with a lot of questions. About yourself. But who's being bamboozled here? The viewer? The fictional audience? The fictional actors on Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show? White people in general? Black people in general? All of us?
The First Nudie Musical is not a great movie, but it's a revealing glimpse (both intentionally and not) into the massive confusion at the heart of the Sexual Revolution in America, almost a companion piece or conceptual sequel to Rocky Horror, though not nearly as smart or culturally insightful. Still, it's all set up as a low-budget movie musical within this low budget movie musical, and the songs are supposed to be cheesy and mediocre, so that excuses a lot. And really, how can you not love a movie with lines like, "I will not do this scene until these damn dildos know their steps!" New York Daily News theatre critic Judith Crist called it "The Star Wars of nudie musicals!"
42nd Street is considered by everyone to be a classic movie musical, but there's precious little music in it, until the very end, when we go inside Busby Berkeley's psychedelic stage musical, which of course could never fit on any stage. The bulk of the movie is not a musical. Maybe people only remember the end, or the stage musical has changed our perception. But it's still a very cool movie, much less fluffy than its reputation. But if you want a really adult version of this story, read the original novel by Bradford Ropes. It's amazing.
The Boyfriend is one of the weirdest movie musicals I've ever seen. Not psychedelic weird, like Tommy or Phantom of the Paradise, but just really weird. I guess you'd expect as much from director Ken Russell. But it's also somehow wonderful. Rather than a film adaptation of The Boyfriend, which was a spoof of 1920s musicals like No, No, Nanette!, Russell made a day-in-the-life film about a second-rate theatre company putting on The Boyfriend for a sparse, apathetic audience. If you're looking for an old-school movie musical, this is not for you. This is something quirkier and more interesting than that.
The Producers (1968) is a genuine masterpiece, whether you consider it a movie musical or a movie about a musical. Everything about it, the screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, and the acing, all walk that tightrope I love so dearly, between outrageous comedy and emotional honesty. That first long scene in the office between Leo and Max is a master class in comic acting. I was lucky enough to see the stage show the day after it opened on Broadway, and I must admit Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick achieved that same manic, tightrope energy and honesty. Mel Brooks was one of the first to understand the fun and novelty of mixing the old form of old-school musical comedy) with the new postmodern irony of the 1960s. That new sensibility made it to the stage in 1982 with Little Shop of Horrors, then eventually took hold and took over the art form in the 90s. I'm not a huge fan of all Brooks' later work, but we all owe Mel a lot for laying the groundwork for what later became the neo musical comedy in the new millennium.
I love all these movies, and if you haven't seen any of them, you should give them a try. So now you have something to do on those cold winter nights ahead...
You'd think I'd run out of musical theatre related lists by now... But I haven't.
Long Live the (Movie) Musical!