Musicals are inherently strange. People burst into passionate song and break into choreographed numbers like it's just something people do. To make an especially strange musical is to accomplish quite a feat. Here are 10 movies that set themselves apart from conventional musicals via head-scratching concepts, bizarro casting, outlandish music or, occasionally, overlooked brilliance. Some give us something we've never seen, and some give us something we never wanted to see. Some give us both at the same time. Good or bad, each of these strange movies of the modern age deserves a sideways glance, if nothing else.
'Phantom of the Paradise' (1974)
Brian De Palma directed this broad Faustian rock musical about a songwriter (William Finley), the victim of an unfortunate record-pressing accident, who sells his soul so that smoky-voiced beauty, Jessica Harper, will perform his songs. Paul Williams, who wrote the movie's songs -- a mixed bag of varying quality -- was an unlikely choice to play the "sexy" record-mogul villain Swan. (Watching young women fawn all over the diminutive 'Smoky and the Bandit' franchise regular is disorienting.) Swan has designs on stealing both the music and the girl for the grand opening of his flamboyantly ornate concert hall the Paradise. 'Phantom' has a strong cult following, though it was largely ignored when first released, and certainly not the first movie you think of when some says De Palma. 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' which was released the following year, seems to owe a lot to 'Phantom''s visuals and some of its performances. In particular, obnoxious glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham) looks plucked right from Tim Curry's makeup trailer. Truth be known, 'Phantom' is a far better movie than 'Rocky Horror,' but lacks the type of energetic soundtrack that helped push the latter toward King (or is that Queen?) of Cult Movies status.
'Rock & Rule' (pictured above) is one of the great animated movies of the '80s even though many haven't even heard of it. The Canadian production had a brief run in U.S. theaters before falling into VHS obscurity by going out of print after a brief release. Patient fans were eventually rewarded with a special-edition DVD release, but an official soundtrack has never been made available -- a true pop-culture crime. Deborah Harry, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick and Iggy Pop all lend their talents to the decidedly grown-up production. The characters are all post-apocalyptic human/dog/cat evolutionary mash-ups. The heroes, Angel and Omar, lead a rock band torn apart when Mok, the greatest musician/performer/producer of his time, kidnaps Angel. Her golden pipes are a necessary ingredient in Mok's plan to manifest an inter-dimensional demon and rule the world -- or something. Reed and Harry provide Mok and Angel with their respective singing voices. Both have crazy-good theme songs that make an airtight case for a soundtrack.
Singer/songwriter/actor Paul Williams (again!) was once the musical movie go-to guy. Writing songs for frogs and pigs (in 1979's 'The Muppet Movie') would seem challenging enough, but three years earlier there was 'Bugsy Malone' -- a '30s-era mob movie musical with an all-child cast that lip-syncs to adult vocals instead of singing. A pre-Chachie Scott Baio plays Malone, and Jodie Foster is the pubescent torch-singing bad girl Tallula. The songs' adult vocals sound completely disconnected from the young actors supposedly singing them (imagine Betty Boop's voice emanating from Foster's intense little face), which is somehow funny and nightmarish all at once. Alan Parker would go on to direct adults with greater success ('Fame,' 'Evita'), but his efforts here are valiant, and despite their delivery, Williams' songs are appropriately fun.
'Can't Stop the Music' (1980)
This is strictly a curiosity, so we won't try to sell it as anything more. But consider: Steve Guttenberg, Valerie Perrine and Bruce Jenner starring in a musical that's sorta based on the rise of gay disco kings the Village People. I might also mention that it was directed by Nancy Walker, who was 58 at the time and best known to the world as Rosie, the Bounty paper towel lady and Mrs. Morgenstern on TV's 'Rhoda.' It's her only feature director credit. Just try and look away.
'Pennies From Heaven' (1981)
Fans of 'The Jerk' were more than a little disappointed when they went to see Steve Martin in 'Pennies From Heaven,' which was marketed as a straight-up laugh riot. More accurately, 'Pennies' is a Depression-era musical based on Dennis Potter's critically lauded BBC miniseries. Instead of featuring original songs, the cast (including Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken) perform to recordings of popular music from the '30s. Martin plays a sheet-music salesman who escapes from his miserable existence into elaborate musical daydreams. The excessively upbeat songs are used to contrast the characters' dismal real world. While it can be a rather dreary slog for those seeking conventional comedy, the dark humor inherent in the musical numbers are mandatory viewing. This goes double for the scene in which Walken, showcasing his tap-dancing talents, plays a manipulative pimp attempting to seduce Peters' naive schoolmarm.
Richard O'Brien still hasn't made good on his promise of a genuine sequel to 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' (yet) but there is this pseudo-sequel that chronicles the continuing adventures of Brad and Janet (Cliff De Young and Jessica Harper replacing Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon from 'Rocky Horror') in 'Denton, U.S.A.' -- a city/television station/reality show that serves as the story's singular location. The ups and downs of their troubled marriage inexplicably play out in the form of soap operas and game shows. The performances are strong, but the concept never gels. O'Brien, the creator of the original 'Rocky Horror' stage musical and co-star of its 1975 movie adaptation (as Riff-Raff) returns with a handful of other primary 'Rocky Horror' alum, none of whom appear as the characters they played previously. Tim Curry's absence is certainly felt as is the manic energy of its predecessor. But the music is outstanding and, in that regard, almost on par with 'Rocky Horror.' Though it's developed it's own fringe cult in the past two decades, we wish the great songs were packaged in a more articulate narrative framework than what the film provides.
'Rock 'n' Roll High School' (1979)
The strangest thing about 'Rock 'n' Roll High School' may be that it exists in some parallel universe where the Ramones are the biggest, most popular rock sensation in the world and perform songs written by high-school girls. It's a parallel universe worth visiting. The well-established, undeniably influential punk band provide most of the songs for this atypical Roger Corman-produced musical. P.J. Soles plays Riff Randal ("rock and roller"), a high-school hottie and Ramones super-fan who goes to war with Vince Lombardi High School's new music- and fun-hating principal, Miss Togar (cult regular Mary Waronov). The jokes are hit and miss, but they fly at you fast enough that it doesn't matter. The movie was originally conceived of as 'Disco High School,' before the Ramones signed on (which is probably the cinematic close call of that decade). Clint Howard's performance as innovative teen capitalist Eaglebauer is worth the price of admission.
For starters, 'Head' makes no damn sense. Or at least I didn't think so when I saw it. Wikipedia has a plot summary that does its best, so consult it if you must. The fundamental premise presents us with the Monkees -- a band in conflict -- confronting the paradox of a manufactured TV-character image vs. their real lives as a real band doing real-band things, like playing instruments, cutting albums and touring. Whether you "get it" or not, 'Head' is actually pretty good. We can only guess the right refreshments might enhance the viewing experience; it's as psychedelic (sometimes even more so) than a lot of the acid exploitation movies tripping out of the late '60s. Jack Nicholson played a prominent role in the production of several of those movies, which makes it less surprising that he's the co-writer of 'Head.' Nicholson, the band and director, Bob Rafelson, spent a weekend in a California resort spewing story ideas into a tape recorder. You'll notice 'Head' has a slippery stream-of-conscious narrative. That's why. Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa, Teri Garr and Toni Basil (who provided some choreography) all appear. Sharp eyes will catch Dennis Hopper in a non-speaking cameo (because he was in all of those drug movies too). If you're looking for the Monkees' greatest hits, look elsewhere. The songs in 'Head' were new and represented an interesting new direction for a band that was often dismissed as a novelty and, sadly, about to fizzle out.
It's not his best work, but John Waters impresses with his first musical. Johnny Depp shows signs of what's to come in his first feature starring role as the tortured heart-of-gold greaser who falls for the school's good girl (Amy Locane) -- your typical star-crossed romance, which ignites a war between Baltimore's preppies and hoods. Some of the songs were written by the Cramps, who cut demos of several songs (dust off your magnifying Google glass, Wikipedia Brown), but for some reason they don't show up on the soundtrack. Sadder still, someone wasn't confident enough to let Depp do his own singing, so he Marty McFlies his way through some great tunes, fine-tuned to sound authentically '50s rockabilly. Cast members include Iggy Pop, Patty Hurst, Tracie Lords and Ricki Lake (as a pregnant teen who gives birth in the backseat during a hot-rod race). Of Waters' early "mainstream" movies, 'Cry-Baby' is almost as fun as 'Hairspray,' a non-musical with great music, which would eventually be developed as a successful Broadway musical, which in turn was adapted as a movie musical. The people who pulled that off tried the same trick with 'Cry-Baby' and failed miserably with a Broadway show that closed after 68 performances.
'Srgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band' (1978)
If you do end up seeing this, don't tell that one rabid Beatles-fan friend everyone seems to have. You'll be met with a rant, a black eye or, at the very least, stunned silence. Producer Robert Stigwood was a king of excess. (Spend lots of money and always go BIG!) Pairing what had already become a classic album with one of the biggest bands in the world, the Bee Gees, still riding the tails of their 'Saturday Night Fever' success. Brilliant! But the timing was slightly off; disco was on its way out. This is not the first musical to fall victim to that pop purgatory where the '70s meets the '80s. Still, it's a big production with big production values and as many fascinating as face-palm moments. Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and Aerosmith starring in a forced narrative extracted from a Beatles album? Oh, and did I mention Steve Martin singing 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'? Sometimes cynical movie studio money grabs produce interesting results.