10 Delightfully Subversive Movie Musicals

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Today, the Criterion Collection issues a sparkling new DVD/Blu-ray special edition of All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s mini-masterpiece. Based on its reputation (and, in a great part, thanks to the subsequent film version of Fosse’s Chicago, whose opening number provides the title), the casual viewer might presume it to be a standard, formulaic musical — when, in fact, it is anything but. After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at All That Jazz, and a few other musicals that buck the genre’s long-held traditions.

All That Jazz

Fosse’s 1979 film has less in common with his stage musicals than his gritty, non-musical 1974 biopic Lenny — or, for that matter, Fellini’s 8 ½, with which it shares a spirit of naked autobiography. Fosse’s protagonist, Joe Gideon (played masterfully by Roy Scheider) is a world-famous stage choreographer-director/filmmaker whose attempts to juggle his work commitments, romantic entanglements, and prescription drugs lead him to death’s door — just like Fosse, who even engaged real-life lovers like Jessica Lange and Ann Reinking to appear in the film (in Reinking’s case, basically playing herself). It’s a raw, honest portrait of a difficult man, its fast-paced, hyperactive, caffeinated editing matching the character’s go-go intensity. The repeating sequence of morning close-ups seem to have particularly inspired the early films of Darren Aronofsky, and the fact that All That Jazz warrants legitimate comparison to Requiem for a Dream should give you some idea of how far off the grid this one goes.

The First Nudie Musical

Points for truth in advertising: this 1976 comedy is, in fact, a Singin’ in the Rain-style film-within-a-film about the inception and production of an all-nude musical, featuring such immortal production numbers as “Orgasm,” “Dancing Dildos,” and “Perversion.” In fact, only the first half of the title is inaccurate: most agree that the real “first” nudie musical was 1963’s nudist colony movie Goldilocks and the Three Bares (from future Blood Feast director Herschell Gordon Lewis).

Blonde Ambition

The First Nudie Musical concerned a studio reduced to making porn movies, but still fell firmly on the side of the R rating. For the real thing, you have to seek out Jon and Lem Amero’s 1980 porno musical epic, advertised with the one-of-a-kind tagline, “If you liked Deep Throat AND Singin’ in the Rain, you’re gonna love Blonde Ambition!” The story of two Wyoming sisters working their way up the NYC show biz ladder, Blonde Ambition is jam-packed with bizarre but entertaining musical numbers, leading The Big Book of Porn author Seth Grahame-Smith to dub it “one of the only ‘fast-forward-proof’ pornos ever made.”

Cannibal! The Musical

Before South Park, Team America, and The Book of Mormon — all of them, in one way or another, loving parodies of the tropes of the American musical theater — Trey Parker and Matt Stone teamed up for this low-budget yet wildly ambitious student film. Parker (who wrote, directed, co-produced, co-scored, and co-starred) based his musical loosely on the true story of Alferd Packer, a prospector who reportedly killed and ate his traveling companions when they ran out of provisions. That’s not exactly typical musical comedy fodder, but thanks to their signature dark humor and such toe-tapping numbers as “When I Was On Top of You” and “Hang the Bastard,” Cannibal! became a cult favorite and was later adapted into a stage production.

Pennies from Heaven

Pauline Kael, who was no pushover, dubbed Herbert Ross’ 1981 film “the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen.” The premise (ported over from Dennis Potter’s BBC miniseries) was to invert the escapism of Depression-era musicals; they offered audiences the chance to forget their troubles by singing and dancing along with the tuxedo-and-gown, white-telephone set, while Pennies gives us a crushingly sad story, occasionally interrupted by recordings of the period, as stars Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken (in a show-stopping turn) mime and tap along wholeheartedly. Yet, as Kael notes, “Despite its use of Brechtian devices, Pennies from Heaven doesn’t allow you to distance yourself. You’re thrust into the characters’ emotional extremes; you’re right in front of the light that’s shining in their eyes.”

Popeye

Mixed reviews and disappointing box office upon its initial release in 1980 would make this, forevermore, the movie that “sank” Robert Altman for a good decade. But in retrospect, it seems bizarre that anyone expected Robert Altman to make a conventional comic-strip movie or musical, any more than he’d have made a conventional Western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or detective movie (The Long Goodbye). He’d experimented earlier with using music as a storytelling tool, in his masterpiece Nashville; here, Altman takes the offbeat songs of Harry Nilsson and refuses to make them showstoppers. They become part of the picture’s oddball tapestry, tossed in sideways, like his signature overlapping dialogue. Reviews at the time insisted the songs were forgettable throwaways, but shaggy dog numbers like “He Needs Me,” “He’s Large,” and Popeye’s rallying cry of “I Yam What I Yam” have a way of getting into your head and under your skin.

New York, New York

Martin Scorsese’s notorious 1977 flop was, perhaps, too wild an experiment: an attempt to mate the big production values of the traditional backlot musical with the freedom of “New Hollywood” and the improvisational techniques of Cassavetes. As the years have passed, only the former notion has stuck; people remember the big production numbers (and the title song, of course), while forgetting how bold and daring Scorsese’s picture is — particularly in its depiction of a creative couple with real problems, on the road to a decidedly un-Hollywood ending.

Head

Since the Monkees were (for all intents and purposes) fabricated to create a weekly television version of the Beatles’ hit movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, it would stand to reason that their feature film debut would run along the same lines. So audiences weren’t sure what the hell to make of the band’s 1968 movie, penned by an unknown screenwriter named Jack Nicholson; it was a bizarre, surreal, episodic attempt to immerse the group into the experimental filmmaking techniques and social unrest of the period. It played as a conscious attempt to burn the group to the ground, and pretty much did just that — it’d take years for Head to take its proper place as a cult item and genuine curiosity.

Stage Fright

The newest movie on our list, and it’s not hard to guess why — you just don’t get a lot of horror musical comedies these days, and director Jerome Stable doesn’t scrimp on any of those scores. It’s gory as hell, while also wickedly funny and full of witty, catchy songs; he ends up with a winking, self-aware cross between Phantom of the Paradise and Camp, with a healthy splash of Friday the 13th thrown in for good measure.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

One of the most welcome faces in Stage Fright is that of Meat Loaf, whose presence is a bit of a nod to that picture’s other spiritual predecessor: the longest-playing theatrical release in cinematic history, and the true king (or queen, as might be more appropriate) of the midnight movie. But it’s all become so commonplace, so watered-down and Glee-ified, that it’s easy to forget just how transgressive it was, back in 1975, to make a full-scale musical about sex, murder, cannibalism, and a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Initially a box-office disappointment, its participatory midnight screenings would make it into a full-scale worldwide phenomenon; adjusted for inflation, it is one of the ten highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time. And thanks to DVD, you don’t even have to brave the midnight movie crowd — but what’s the fun in that?