Is the rock opera on the verge of a comeback? The trailer just dropped for Annette, a romantic fantasy (I think?) starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver and coming to Prime Video this month, and it’s giving us the excuse to revisit some of our favourite movie musicals.
Look, we like all types of musicals around here, so don’t be looking for any shade in the suggestion that not all movie musicals are made the same, and that some go further (much further) than others to defy the expectations we have of the genre. Some bend our ideas of what a musical can be until they nearly snap, while others are playing entirely by their own rules.
None of these movies is just weird for the sake of weird. While these might not all be to every taste, they’re each worthwhile watches in their own rights. Some of them are among the very best movie musicals of their eras, or even in film history. Others are fascinating experiments that aim for the sun. (American films are a bit over-represented here, but that has as much to do with availability as anything else.)
Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017)
Religious faith is hardly a topic foreign to the movie musical genre, but we tend to think of the very elaborate productions circa the 1960s and 70s; namely, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. This story, instead, is almost entirely stripped down: Non-professional actors take key roles, and the setting is almost entirely limited to barren landscapes.
Director Bruno Dumont’s career is full of weird, often perplexing choices (if you think this movie is strange, check out his 2016 Slack Bay) that somehow, in moments, seem mystifyingly inspired. I think that’s the lens through which we’re meant to interpret this film’s interpretation of a head-banging Joan of Arc: Her life might well have seemed as strange and baffling to herself and those around her as the movie frequently is to us. A 2019 sequel caught up with a slightly older Joan, but skipped the music entirely and was, perhaps not incidentally, much less well-received.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Based on the 1998 stage musical from the movie’s star and director, John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig was groundbreaking when it was released in 2001, and, although it’s slightly disappointing that it still feels ahead of its time, that’s hardly the film’s fault. Mitchell plays the genderqueer Hedwig Robinson, an East German boy who reinvents herself in America as a stunning and glamorous rock diva with the help of music inspired by the androgynous, David Bowie-esque rock of the ’70s — and it really does rock. Aside from the movie’s virtues (of which there are plenty), there’s no better soundtrack anywhere on this list.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Brian De Palma made a musical? Predating the director’s true breakthrough with Carrie, Phantom also beat both Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the big screen by a year, and so was playing in a field with very few rules. It feels in many ways like a comic book come to life, and the movie’s off-kilter rhythms tend to leave you without any sense of what’s coming next. That can be jarring, but it’s hard to beat the talent involved with this oddity: De Palma hired 70s superstar Paul Williams to compose the music and to star, and even managed to corral Rod Serling to do some (what else?) voiceover work.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to build up the emotional fortitude to watch Björk’s film debut (as directed by Lars von Trier, no less). Eschewing the traditionally bright and lavish production values of musicals in favour of Von Trier’s notoriously stripped-down aesthetic, the film manages to be beautiful nonetheless. In its updating of old-Hollywood melodrama, it’s also an incredibly moving (which is also to say: emotionally draining) experience. Björk and Von Trier are two of the most idiosyncratic artists in their respective fields, so this one’s not going to be suited to every taste, but it’s an unforgettable experience.
(Equally memorable is the much-commented-upon swan dress that Björk wore to the Oscars to perform the movie’s nominated song.)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Thanks goodness for the intensive restoration that Umbrellas underwent in the 90s: the original film stock and prints had faded drastically — unimaginable for a classic that makes such incredible use of colour. The (very) bittersweet love story starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo almost qualifies as an opera in that the dialogue is entirely sung, backed by a full score from Michael Legrand. It’s for that reason that the film stands apart, lacking as it does any recognisable individual songs, instead working as a full experience.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
One of the French New Wave’s leading lights, Agnès Varda’s trademark style involves generating a feeling of documentary-like realism in her films — an approach that doesn’t seem to square with the conventions of the movie musical. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, manages to square that circle, though, by building the many musical moments into the story of two friends…one of who (naturally) sings. It begins with an attempt on the part of a young woman to find the money for an abortion, and follows her and her friend from school down different paths and through decades in the women’s movement, with Varda incorporating much of her own experiences of life and activism into the story.
Varda, incidentally, was responsible for restoring her (then) late husband’s film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. So, in that sense, she’s got two films on the list.
The Apple (1980)
Susan Sontag described camp as something like failed seriousness, and, if that’s the case, then this qualifies as a camp classic par excellence. It’s directed by Menahem Golan, producer/director behind 80s classics like Masters of the Universe, Delta Force, Over the Top, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. This isn’t a great movie, is my point. The music is only sporadically catchy and is sometimes barely listenable, while the plot (about Adam and Eve analogues making a faustian bargain to win a global song contest) makes almost no sense. There’s no sense, though, that anyone involved realised that this wouldn’t be a new Jesus Christ Superstar, or at least a Rocky Horror, and that makes it a fascinating (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) watch.
The Lure (2015)
Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska updates Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” but definitely not with Disney in mind. In fact, it leans into the more horrific elements of the original. In neon-lit 1980s Warsaw, two mermaids join the human world and hang out at a nightclub where their siren songs make them unexpectedly hot commodities..before one of them falls for a human, endangering their relationship. With a synth-field soundtrack, wild musical numbers, and a few murders (a mermaid’s gotta eat, after all), it’s a colourful and wildly inventive fish tale.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
Giving the zombie genre a bit of what Shaun of the Dead gave it…but at Christmas. And with high-schoolers and musical numbers. It’s an awful lot of fun, and surprisingly smart and sex-positive in places, as well as having everything you’d want in gory-but-not-excessively-so zombie movie. It might sound like faint praise to say that it’s the best zombie musical movie out there, given the narrow field, but it wins that race in a landslide.
Tommy began life as a rock concept album, and in that very narrow milieu, the premise is perfectly reasonable: The life of the titular “deaf, dumb, and blind” kid (with such a supple wrist!), as inspired by Pete Townshend’s experiences with yoga guru Meher Baba. It was, after all, the 60s, and that’s just the kind of thing you did. Once built out into a proper story and translated to the screen, though, it’s impossible not to contend with the essential weirdness of the story of an unlikely pinball wizard who becomes a spiritual leader. Whatever its successes or failures as a film, it’s a pop art triumph, with an impressive cast including appearances from not just The Who, but from Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner, and Jack Nicholson.
Popeye has seemed primed for a critical and commercial reevaluation for quite some time now, so it’s not clear if the movie’s time will ever come. Still, it’s easy to see why it didn’t go over well initially: the maverick sensibilities of Robert Altman don’t sound in any way suited to the material, and, while it’s never clear that they are, there’s still a bit of magic in the alchemy. Popeye never really settles on a tone, but there are moments of solid slapstick and some real charm once it gets going. Plus, Robin Williams is a very good Popeye, and Shelley Duvall is flawless (as usual) as Olive Oyl.
Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987)
I’m not sure who this movie was intended for: It’s a musical (naturally) based on a famous (well, as these things go) snooker rivalry. But with vampires in a minimalist hellscape. If you’re not entirely sure what snooker is, don’t worry…you will by the end of the film that builds to a rousing climax reminding us that, “Heaven’s covered in green baize!” Although oddly compelling, it’s perhaps not a thoroughly thrilling entertainment — but it’s so brilliantly un-commercial that the movie gets points just for existing.
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
Repo! lives or dies on the question of the extent to which you can manufacture a cult classic. A dystopian goth rock opera about a future world of thoroughly monetized organ transplants, none of the songs is particularly catchy and the campiness feels very deliberate. Still, whatever the filmmakers intentions, it has indeed developed a following, in many ways filling a modern Rocky Horror niche. If nothing else, there’s no other entertainment of any variety in which you can watch Paris Hilton, Sarah Brightman, and Joan Jett share a screen.
Dil Se.. (1998)
Hindi and Tamil-language cinema excels at the art of the offbeat musical, although the rhythms can be a little jarring to the uninitiated — particularly when the subject is serious. Dil Se.. is a particularly beloved and accomplished example of that, but it’s also an impressive hybrid, blending elements of neorealism with thematic musical numbers. Centered around an insurgency in Assam, the movie was a global hit on its release, doing tremendous business in Japan and the UK, and having a fair bit of success in the U.S., as well.
The Wayward Cloud (2005)
On one level, and at least for a while, it’s easy to see Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s musical as little more than an (extreme) oddity — in the midst of a severe water shortage, watermelons are somehow wildly abundant, and people are frequently seen gorging on the fruit. They’re also used as sexual objects, including by porn filmmaker and actor, Hsiao-kang. He begins a relationship with an old friend, Shiang-chyi, who only gradually learns of his profession. Before the end, what was once cute becomes horrifyingly dystopian. It’s a fascinating and surreal film, but don’t go into it entirely blind: There’s a particularly shocking moment of sexual assault in the film that, though viewed through the lens of a horrified onlooker, is tough to watch.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Rocky Horror would be the ultimate cult movie musical were it not for its overwhelming popularity — even some of the squarest kids you know have dragged it out at a midnight showing. Cult movies, also, don’t typically produce stars on the calibre of Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick. But now I’m quibbling: Even if its underground cred has been diminished by sheer popularity, it’s still an incredibly daring and shamelessly queer movie experience with an aesthetic that flawlessly blends kitsch and punk into something joyously sex-positive. If narrow-minded viewers don’t always notice the middle finger that the movie directs squarely at them…well, it’s just that much funnier.
It’s based on the 1973 stage musical by Richard O’Brien.