#throwbackthursday: misfit musicals

Before I quit my job at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to play at being a writer, I was a regular contributor to the Eleventh Stack blog. I was able to write about pretty much any material I wanted in the Library’s catalog. It was great! On Thursdays, I’ll revisit some of my old faves. A version of this post first appeared on May 11, 2016.

Despite having the singing skills of a potato, I want nothing more than to live in the world of a musical. Imagine being somewhere like the DMV and being overcome with the need to sing about the wait. Then, the bored workers join you for the chorus. A huge dance number erupts and everyone nails the complex choreography. Then, your number is called and things return to normal. You mean to tell me I’m the only person who thinks that’d be totally awesome?  

auditorium chairs comfortable concert
Screw you guys, I’m calling to pitch to Bollywood!

Even though I absolutely love musicals, I realize they exist in a weird world. You can suspend all your disbeliefs and musicals can still get really weird sometimes (did you know there’s a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera?). These are four of the weirder ones I’ve come across (affiliate links below).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Why doesn’t Barry Gibb ever talk this up on his talk show?

After catching the ear of a big-time Hollywood record producer, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band leave behind their small hometown of Heartland, USA (seriously), quickly becoming stars while experiencing the splendor and sleaze of the music industry. There’s also a plot to destroy their hometown thrown in because bad covers of Beatles songs can only last so long.

I’m someone who holds The Beatles sacred, so I’m more critical of this movie than any other on this list. I know that Across the Universe (another musical using Beatles songs) has its detractors, but it looks like Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Story compared to whatever this is.

Watching Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees strut around with more hair on their face than I have on my entire body while “singing” Beatles songs was certainly jarring, and seeing George Burns talk-sing through a lethargic rendition of “Fixing a Hole” was cute and sad, like how seeing a turtle trudge through tar is cute, but also sad. The movie also features blasphemous covers by Alice Cooper (before he was doing commercials for Staples) and Aerosmith (before Steven Tyler looked like a jack-o-lantern left outside two weeks after Halloween). Also, Steve Martin’s in this playing a very wild and crazy guy.

But now we know where Orin Scrivello was practicing before he relocated to Skid Row

If you’re a fan of musicals, or a hardcore Beatles fan, I’d recommend checking it out just so you can say you experienced the insanity.

Streets of Fire

Look at Baby Dafoe!

This film opens with a title card informing us that what we’re about to see takes place in “another time, another place.” Billed as a “rock & roll fable,” Streets of Fire opens with the Bombers, a motorcycle gang led by Willem Dafoe, kidnapping the lead singer of Ellen Aim and the Attackers (Diane Lane). To rescue Ellen, her agent (Rick Moranis) contracts her ex-lover (Michael Pare – who?), a soldier-for-hire who happens to be passing through town. The ragtag team hijacks a doo-wop group’s bus and eventually track down Ellen. Of course, there’s a climactic showdown.

This movie inspired my journey into the world of weird musicals, and it’s objectively terrible. The acting is wooden, the dialogue is stilted, but I unapologetically love it. Everyone plays their parts so straight that it just makes it seem like a ridiculous fever dream of the Regan years, like it takes place in the alternate 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. I’m pretty sure every major scene took place under a bridge or in a tunnel. Do you want to know how much of a relic this is from the 1980s? Dafoe – in only his fourth film role – gets billed after Rick Moranis and Amy Madigan, but before Bill Paxton. Not to mention the songs sound like the lovechild of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler. The only thing that could have made this movie more awesome would have been if Dafoe sang a show-stopping ballad while riding his motorcycle. But I guess if 1984 were exposed to that the world would have imploded under the weight of this movie’s awesome terribleness.

Phantom of the Paradise

This is essentially a rock opera remake of The Phantom of the Opera, with a little Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in. A record producer (played by one-half of the duo that wrote “Rainbow Connection”) is opening a club – The Paradise – and needs groovy new tunes to accompany the opening. When he hears the music from an obscure composer, he steals it and frames the composer for drug dealing. In an attempt to avoid capture, the composer gets horribly disfigured. Later, he escapes prison and hides out in The Paradise, waiting for the perfect moment to exact his revenge. Also, The Phantom’s lover is in danger, or something.

Director Brian De Palma was inspired to make this after hearing a muzak cover of “A Day in the Life”. I guess there’s a message in the movie about how the business and corporate side of things can destroy art – not unlike in Sgt. Pepper – but Phantom of the Paradise is just so weird you might forget that there’s even a message to be had. When it was released, it flopped but has since gained a cult following. Also, the character of the Phantom may have inspired Darth Vader.

This and the following film are both from 1974, and they’re both a trip. What was happening in the early ’70s that inspired these kinds of films?

The Little Prince

Why is this trailer just still images with a voiceover?

Sadly, this is not a Prince: Origins movie, may he rest in power.

The Little Prince opens with a pilot (Richard Kiley) making an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert. As he tries to fix his plane – which seems like an impossible dream – the titular Prince appears. The Little Prince has been on Earth for a while, after a perilous and low-tech journey through the solar system. He recounts his tales to the pilot, giving special attention to his encounters with the Fox (played by Gene Wilder, who seems to be trying to out-Gene Wilder himself) and the Snake (played by Bob Fosse, who you may have never heard of, but we’ll come back to him in a minute). This movie is cute and creepy, like the movie version of a banded piglet squid. The kid playing the minute monarch is totes adorbs, but seeing adults Wilder and Fosse dance and sing around the poor kid gives the film a really weird vibe.

And speaking of weird, remember Fosse? The man who won eight Tony awards for choreography throughout his career? Maybe you’ve never heard of him, but his dance moves probably look familiar. Almost like they were hit by, they were struck by a smooth criminal. Take a look:

Nothing is original and everything is a remake of a remake.

Based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and with music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe – the songwriting team behind An American in ParisBrigadoon and My Fair Lady – I imagine this movie is what being on all the drugs in the early ’70s was like.

I had a lot of fun revisiting this post! That is, once I got past the cringe of seeing my younger words (shudder). It reminded me I always intended to do a follow up with movies like the hilarious Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and the sexually-confusing Velvet Goldmine. Maybe I’ll work on that next, right after I rewatch Streets of Fire, but I’ve got so many dreams that I don’t know where to put ’em so I’d better turn a few of ’em loose.

Is your favorite musical a bit on the weird side? Do you have a recommendation? Let me know in the comments below!

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