From Brilliant To Bizarre: The Strange World Of Movie Musicals

Dan Auty

There is something strange about all film musicals. Moments of great drama, punctuated by song and dance; it somehow makes a lot more sense on a stage, with all the accepted artificiality of the theatre. Nevertheless, it is nearly 90 years since the film largely considered to be the first musical – The Jazz Singer – hit the screen, and it is now as established a form of cinematic storytelling as any other genre. We might not be in the golden period for musicals as the 1930s and 1950s were, but popular, successful musicals are still released every year.

Chi-raq transports the classic Greek play Lysistrata to inner-city Chicago.

Of course, as with any genre, filmmakers have played with the form over the decades – experimenting, adjusting it for modern audiences, and attempting to push back the boundaries of what a “musical” really is. Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-raq is a great example of this. It’s a modern retelling of the classic Greek play Lysistrata, which transposes the drama to inner-city Chicago and tells the story of a ‘sex strike’ by a group women in an attempt to curb the rising tide of gun violence amongst their menfolk. Lee tells this story using not songs – a mix of hip hop, gospel and R’n’B – but has his cast speak in rhyming verse through the entire film.

Phantom of the Paradise is a dazzling glam rock retelling of The Phantom of the Opera.

Lee is hardly the first high profile director to tackle the musical with strange results.  While the 1970s was an unremarkable decade for the more generic, mainstream musical, a stream of more subversive examples flourished, often directed by emerging talents who would rise to even greater prominence in the years to come. The Rocky Horror Picture Show might be the cult ‘70s horror musical that everyone knows, but Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is the most audacious. A glam rock retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, it is a dazzling, dark and hilarious fable that failed both critically and commercially, but now stands as one of the most distinctive musicals of the era, with an intense lead performance and striking songs from renowned songwriter Paul Williams. 

Even more mad is Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, which bamboozled audiences in 1975. Loosely adapted from a biography of classical composer Franz Liszt, it was second musical that Russell released that year, following his Who classic Tommy. Like Tommy, Lisztomania stars Roger Daltrey, playing the composer alongside other rock’n’roll luminaries such as Ringo Starr and Rick Wakeman, who also wrote the music. Throw into the mix Thor, fellow composer Richard Wagner depicted as a zombified Hitler, murder, religious mania and considerable phallic imagery, and you have a film that only someone of Russell’s flamboyant disposition could deliver.

Moments of great drama, punctuated by song and dance; it somehow makes a lot more sense on a stage, with all the accepted artificiality of the theatre.

While any film is ultimately a director’s vision, the songs are just as important to any musical. The likes of Russell and De Palma used established songwriters to concoct their films’ tunes, but there are examples of emerging composers getting their first breaks in the realms of the oddball musical. Long before he was one of Hollywood’s most famous composers, Danny Elfman was the frontman for ‘80s new wave combo Oingo Boingo. Elfman and his band provided the songs – and appeared in – his brother Richard’s wonderfully strange, raunchy 1980 black-and-white musical fantasy Forbidden Zone. Elfman also plays Satan as a Cab Calloway-style crooner in the movie and the songs include such classics as ‘Bim Bam Boom’, ‘Journey Through the Intestines’ and ‘Squeezit and the Chickens.’

Another future talent – or rather, pair of talents – who kickstarted their careers with a truly bizarre movie musical are South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Cannibal: The Musical was their 1993 debut, and it tells the story of real-life cannibal killer Alfred Packer, an early 20th century prospector who killed and ate his unlucky companions one harsh winter. Parker and Stone’s film contrasts the grim subject matter with some jolly, uplifting showtunes, including a hilarious pastiche of ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’, from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!

One of Danny Elfman's first roles as a movie composer was for his brother Richard’s wonderfully strange musical.

But for all the unusual musical avenues of the above, they all retain some level cinematic merit, something which cannot be said of Toomorrow or The Apple. Toomorrow is little seen and remembered even less; this 1970 disaster was developed by Bond producer Harry Saltzman and Monkees impresario Don Kirshner, and starred Olivia Newton-John as the leader of a teenage pop group who get abducted by aliens. This unfortunate musical mess played cinemas for just one week before it was withdrawn, and Kirshner subsequently declared that it would never seen the light of day in his lifetime. It finally hit DVD in 2012, one year after his death.

Finally, 1980’s The Apple has a reputation as one of the worst films ever made, which is the sort of label that pretty much guarantees a dedicated cult following. A glittery sci-fi extravaganza packed with a ridiculous disco anthems, this futuristic yarn about youthful rebellion and the evils of the music industry at times feels like it was made by a madman – or at the very least, someone who never actually seen a musical before. All together now: “Like the bleary eyed baboon to an organ grinder’s tune, mankind screamies for whatever kind of dreamies we might treat them to…” Chart-topping stuff.

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