Adam Shankman's recent film adaptation of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages has been getting mixed reviews, with some claiming that it's vapid and pointless, and others arguing that its silliness is appealing and fun. Many critics have praised Tom Cruise's performance as hair-metal rocker Stacee Jaxx, and Cruise reportedly sings all his own songs, as do the rest of the cast, which includes Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Malin Åkerman, Bryan Cranston, Alec Baldwin, and Mary J. Blige. Frankly, musicals have always been a little silly; after all, people in them routinely break into song, and very few people in real life ever do that. Anyway, that's the time-honored argument of people who don't like musicals. But there are certain musical films that somehow make it okay for everyone to love them. Here's a quick list of these “sneaky musicals” that slide in under the radar:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Rocky Horror is perhaps the classic example of the cult musical. It wasn't designed to appeal to a wide audience, but its themes struck a chord with marginalized people everywhere and made it the longest-running theatrical release in history. The film takes mainstream society's view of LGBT people as freaks and pushes it way over the top, casting them as literal aliens bent on world domination in an absurd B-movie plot. Brilliantly infectious songs and a fabulous central performance by Tim Curry will win over anyone who's ever felt like a misfit.
The Blues Brothers (1980) – A strange beast indeed, The Blues Brothers were a “serious” band that evolved out of a sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live). John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were truly dedicated to their music, but they hid this dedication under a layer of parody, playing offbeat caricatures of bluesmen named Jake and Elwood Blues. John Landis' film is a cracked road movie that takes very little seriously, but the stellar performances by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker elevate it to a higher plane.
Labyrinth (1986) – If we listed every great kids' film that features characters singing songs, we'd be here all day, but there's something special about Labyrinth, and that special something is David Bowie. Dancing in tight pants with magic hair and muppets, Bowie successfully melded everything that was great about glam rock with this fantasy tale of adolescent empowerment directed by Jim Henson and written by Monty Python's Terry Jones. To see the original sketches and read the half-mocking vignettes that inspired the screenplay, check out The Goblin Companion by Jones and artist Brian Froud.
Velvet Goldmine (1998) – Speaking of glam rock, Todd Haynes' paean to the genre is an hallucinogenic trip through the '70s and '80s that also features a killer soundtrack. In this case, it's not Bowie himself writing the songs, it's a number of very talented musicians channelling his spirit; the soundtrack includes contributions from members of Radiohead, Suede, Roxy Music, The Stooges, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Pulp, Shudder to Think, Grant Lee Buffalo, Placebo, and Teenage Fanclub. It's a case of music so good that it needed its own movie.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) – What surprised everyone about the big-screen version of the foul-mouthed TV show was just how well-crafted it was in the classic musical tradition. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone went all out, working with composer Marc Shaiman to write beautiful filthy operas for their characters to sing. One suspects that the Academy nominated “Blame Canada” because they couldn't nominate “Uncle F*cker.”
Moulin Rouge! (2001) – Baz Luhrmann's epic love story is probably closest in style to Rock of Ages in that it uses rearranged versions of previously released pop songs for its score. This style is known as a “jukebox musical.” The songs in Moulin Rouge! are certainly fun and interesting, but more than anything it's the visual energy and wild, frenetic action that make it uniquely worth watching.
The Saddest Music in the World (2003) – More a twisted fever-dream than anything that could exist in reality, Guy Maddin's bizarre collage of music and scratchy imagery tells the story of a beer tycoon – Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), a woman with beer-filled glass legs – who holds a competition to find the saddest possible music. As strange as it may sound, the actual experience is infinitely weirder.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – This one's a straight-up musical written by straight-up musical writers Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler; but the subject matter is so dark, and so perfectly suited to Tim Burton's aesthetic, that it's sure to win fans who wouldn't normally go near one. The cast is wonderful, the songs are infectious, and the story is hauntingly tragic. If you're going to give musicals a shot, this version of this musical is a masterpiece.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) – This quirky tale of an aspiring supervillain trying to impress the girl of his dreams gets points for sheer heartwarming sincerity. Joss Whedon, who actually wrote an entirely separate musical for the DVD commentary track, is a true devotee of musical theater, doing his part to keep the art form relevant. Show it to someone who doesn't like musicals and dare them to hate it.
Check out Buzzine's Top 10 Alternative Musicals on our Amazon Listmania!