My Favorite Movie Musicals

Yesterday, I reviewed the atrocity that is Cats, a film that falls apart because of a mix of a muddled story and, most importantly, an over-reliance on computer-generated effects. I thought sharing my favorite musicals could be some fun. These are definitely all not your classic Broadway productions but things that skew more towards my particular tastes.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971, directed by Norman Jewison)

Fiddler starts with the main character Tevye breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, a fairly common trope in stage musicals but not one seen in cinematic adaptation too often. He explains he has a wife from an arranged marriage and three daughters who are all coming of age and soon to be married. While Fiddler is steeped in Jewish culture, it tells a universal story about growing old, watching your children move on into their adult lives, grieving losses, and grieving with your children. Fiddler is thematically focused around the ideas of how community and tradition help keep us anchored when the world around us becomes chaotic. Jewison gives a masterclass in how to take a stage musical and give it a cinematic look and feel, transforming it into a new experience.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974, directed by Brian De Palma)

Brian De Palma is more widely known for pictures like Mission: Impossible or Carrie, but this cult gem from early in his career deserves a revisitation. The title is a bit misleading because while it does take elements from The Phantom of the Opera, it’s equally as inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust. Winslow Leach is an aspiring singer-songwriter who gets duped by the malicious record producer Swan (Paul Williams). Leach has all his works stolen, is beaten and disfigured, then tossed into prison. While Swan goes about with the unveiling of his music venue The Paradise, Leach escapes and becomes obsessed with Swan’s main muse Phoenix. This musical is a mix of comedy and horror, with songs aping the styles of famous artists of the time (Beach Boys, Bowie, KISS, etc.). There are few movies like Phantom of the Paradise, which makes it a must-view for musical lovers.

Nashville (1976, directed by Robert Altman)

The screenplay for Nashville came from the observations of writer Joan Tewkesbury who director Robert Altman sent to the city for research. Her notes about the strange, larger than life characters came from who she met and what she in Nashville circa 1973. The music featured is, no surprise, country music with a host of talented actors playing singers. The cast includes Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, Jeff Goldblum, Karen Black, and more. The story is a meandering one, which is to be expected for Robert Altman. It’s all about little moments with his ensemble cast, having their individual narratives weave in and out of one another’s. At the time, the country music industry did not like the picture. Altman chose not to feature any well-known or popular tunes and let his actors compose their own songs to match their characters. It’s also pretty apparent who some of the characters are pastiches of, the most prominent being a Loretta Lynn analog. As with all Altman’s movies, this is not going to please everyone, but the people who like it will adore it.

Popeye (1980, directed by Robert Altman)

Yes, it’s another Altman movie. This one was not met with acclaim by audiences and critics because they knew Popeye as a cartoon series. Altman chose to go back to the original source material of the character in E.C. Segar’s original comic strip. Even then, it’s not a faithful adaptation of that. Altman goes his own way and makes an incredibly idiosyncratic musical about Popeye’s (Robin Williams) origins, meeting Olive Oyl (Shelly DuVall), and beginning his feud with the bombastic Bluto. The songs were written by the iconic Harry Nilsson, and one, He Needs Me, was used by Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love. Popeye is not the kind of adaptation we’d see of this character in the 21st century, which would likely be heavily computer-generated and full of contemporary pop culture references. Altman’s Popeye is a timeless picture, something kids will probably not enjoy but is something for people who enjoy Altman’s style of movies, like me!

Shock Treatment (1981, directed by Jim Sharman)

Many of you have probably seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but fewer people are aware there was a sequel, Shock Treatment. The film picks back up with Brad and Janet from the first film who are married and settled into dull suburban life. Their home of Denton has been taken over by the fast-food magnate Farley Flavors and encased entirely inside a television studio. The lines between the television stars and the citizens are blurred. It becomes increasingly evident that Brad and Janet are the targets of Farley’s machinations as they compete on a Newlywed Game-alike. As the film progresses, they get trapped on a soap opera and find that the brother-sister duo who runs the local mental hospital is involved. The music has hints of Rocky Horror as Richard O’Brien also wrote this movie. I like the new wave pop sounds of the songs a bit more than Rocky Horror. There are some catchy songs here, earworms that will firmly plant themselves.

True Stories (1986, directed by David Byrne)

I think David Byrne is a genius. His work with The Talking Heads and his solo follow-ups are some of the part art-punk/new wave music ever. It makes sense that his directorial debut would follow in the same vein with music in that style and a critical eye pointed at white middle American consumption culture. True Stories is a series of vignettes set in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, where the townsfolk are preparing for the “Celebration of Specialness” to mark Texas’s 150th anniversary. A local computer manufacturer, Varicorp, is a significant player in the story and links many of the characters together. The music is very much in the style of The Talking Heads, which makes me a fan of this picture.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986, directed by Frank Oz)

I remember renting this at the local video store in the late 1980s and being completely enamored. I was already becoming a fan of Steve Martin, so his small but memorable part was the piece that stuck with me for years after. The whole musical is a fantastic adaptation of the stage show, itself an adaptation of the Roger Corman B-Movie. Rick Moranis stars as Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy florist in love with his co-worker Audrey. His life is transformed when he acquires a strange venus flytrap-like plant he names Audrey II. Things get out of control when the plant becomes hungry for human blood. Frank Oz is one of my favorite directors from the 1980s, always able to walk that line of dark comedy that keeps in enjoyable but explores bleaker aspects of life. Little Shop definitely holds up and worth a first look or revisit.

Dancer in the Dark (2000, directed by Lars von Trier)

My wife never cries at movies but told me she sobbed like a baby when she watched Dancer in the Dark for the first time. I admit that I have wept while watching this picture. Lars von Trier is not someone you would associate with musicals, so of course, this is not like many other musicals. Bjork plays Selma, a Czech immigrant living in the United States and working in a factory. Selma is losing her eyesight and is saving up to pay for her son to receive an operation that will keep that from ever happening to him. Selma’s one indulgence is going to the movies with a friend who describes the musicals they watch while Selma imagines herself in a world where she can burst into song. This is a genuinely heartbreaking movie that doesn’t end in the way Selma’s musicals finish, which is very intentional. It’s a beautiful movie and one that will linger with you for a long time after the screen fades to black.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, directed by John Cameron Mitchell)

I saw this in the theater with three friends, and we had so much fun. I’ve revisited it over the years, and it stands up as my favorite of John Cameron Mitchell’s work (though I need to revisit Rabbit Hole one of these days). Hedwig is a transwoman from East Germany who finds herself in middling Kansas town after partnering up with an American soldier. Her operation is botched, leading to the titular “angry inch.” Hedwig eventually meets Tommy, a musically talented boy who Hedwig wants to share her creativity with. The songs here are spectacular, with a wide variety of energy levels and styles. John Cameron Mitchell plays Hedwig and has such powerful charisma and screen presence. He hasn’t had many more on-screen roles since his debut feature, but I think he’d be perfectly capable of it.

Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006, directed by Liam Lynch)

This was another theater view for me while I was living in Bellingham, Washington. I was walking distance from a cineplex that used to be near Western Washington University. If you read my School of Rock review, you know that Jack Black was one of those constant pop culture presences in my college-aged youth and after. The Pick of Destiny was the culmination of a few years’ work by Black and his musical partner Kyle Gass, based on one of their songs. The movie is a typical stupid stoner picture; the jokes aren’t very high brow, but if you are in the right mood. The music, as you would expect, is in the vein of 1980s heavy metal, which is Black’s forte. The movie is an attempt to create a false origin for the duo and sends them on a journey that as the D meeting with sasquatch and eventually having a showdown with the Devil himself.

Sweeney Todd (2007, directed by Tim Burton)

Tim Burton seemed like the only person who could ever bring this musical to the screen. I am not a huge fan of Burton’s more recent work, but he is perfectly matched for this story. Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) has returned to London after being falsely convicted for the murder of his wife. Setting himself up as a barber, he goes about a killing spree, getting revenge on those who wrong them. Barker joins with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who runs the pub under his store where she butchers his victims and serves them to the public as meat pies. Yes, this is a brutal and violent movie, one of Burton’s darkest. But it is a beautiful opera-like musical that is darkly tragic and powerful.

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