In the early 50s and 60s, Hollywood delighted in producing heartwarming musical films like "My Fair Lady" and "Oklahoma" with classy leading ladies, the best A-list actors they could find, amazing production values, and music that the entire country could get behind. They won Oscars. People bought record albums of the soundtracks, and gathered 'round the phonograph and listened as a whole family and sang along and had a wonderful, marvelous time. They even made popcorn sometimes. Whee!
Then in about 1968 or so, somebody dosed the entire city of Hollywood with a particularly hallucinogenic strain of Angel Of Death LSD and everything changed. Suddenly, Hollywood was churning out some of the most batshit crazy musical films ever made, with plots that could disturb even the most fucking debased audiences, production values that looked like community theater and frequently awesome/bad soundtracks that are the very stuff of cultishness.
I'm okay with Ye Olde Fashionede musicals -- you know, I've been in the damn things enough, and yes, I used to sit around and sing along with the Eliza Doolittle parts on the My Fair Lady soundtrack (okay -- thinking back -- how is it that I'm not gay?). But these 70s musicals? Obsessed. Completely obsessed. Here's a few of my favorites.
I have to thank my friend John Gwatney for the joy that is Toomorrow. You can trace the beginning of the Batshit Crazy 70s Musical genre to this little gem. If I describe the plot to you, you literally won't believe it, so let's (to paraphrase Patton Oswalt) recreate the pitch meeting. Writer: "So, see, there's this psychedelic rock band led by Olivia Newton-John, and they get recruited by aliens to save the universe..." Producer: "Stop. You had me at Olivia Newton-John." She'd later go on to be the defining actress of the genre, so props where props are due. Also: I'm sorry, she's hot. If you don't think so, you don't like women. The end.
THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
Phantom of the Paradise is the fucking SINE QUA NON of 70s musicals, because not only is it one of the weirdest, craziest films ever made, its also directed by Brian DePalma so its actually completely awesome -- AND it stars Paul Williams (who, as you know, I adore completely) and Jessica Harper, who's also in the best horror flick of all time, Suspiria. The soundtrack is brilliant, and the whole thing is so amazingly dark, freaky and totally inexplicably surreal you'll wonder how it ever got greenlit.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW
I'm not even gonna write about this one except to say that if the only way you've seen this is in an audience with people shouting, you are missing out. Watch it at home some time, all alone, with a bottle of red wine, and actually watch it and listen for real, 'cause honestly? The songs are magnificent.
I think its the inky black dark heart of these 70s musicals that I like the best. Only in the 70s could a concept like a funkified version of the Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson be turned into a dark, creepy, frequently scary, depressing, hallucinogenic terror of a film that I'm sure left most of the kids who watched it in a shaking, crumbling heap. This clip -- sorry, no trailer on YouTube! -- gives a nice touch of that. The terror in this scene is palpable -- and check out those matte paintings, they're marvelous.
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Conventional wisdom has this as one of the worst movies and hugest flops in cinema history. But I'm sorry, if you can't find some fucking joy in the idea of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton acting and singing the songs of the Beatles -- or shit, George Burns, Aerosmith, Steve Martin and Earth Wind and Fire doing the same -- then you have no heart. Yes -- the plot is stupid, it looks like it was shot by morons, and the special effects, such as they are, are risible. But c'mon -- its still gigantic buckets of totally weird fun. Give it another shot.
Okay, also it makes me cry when Strawberry Fields dies and Frampton sings "The End." I'll admit it.
I cannot defend this one except as a pure guilty pleasure. Let's just call a spade a spade -- Xanadu is an appallingly bad film. That said: its also a tremendously fun bad film. Despite looking like a videotaped summer stock theater ensemble, its such a total relic of the late disco era that you can watch it for pure camp. Love the costumes, the crazy pre-tron "glow" effects everywhere, the FUCKING MUSIC FROM ELO (which, seriously, is the best) and the gorgeous, gorgeous -- did I mention gorgeous? -- Olivia Newton John.
Again, one of the best, if not the best of the 70s musicals -- not only for the completely amazing music but for Ken Russell's hallucinogenic (that adjective is getting overused, but its honestly the only one that fits) visuals. If you're not familiar with the brilliant Mr. Russell this is a good starting point for his obsession with penii, crucifixes, and other totally obvious yet completely subversive visuals. Don't forget to see his underrated Gothic while you're there, though.
More Ken Russell, and even crazier and more indulgent than the already completely untoppably indulgent Tommy, with even more Daltrey emoting. Genius. Utter, terrible, wonderful genius.
More later as I think of them -- but this is a good starting point. Watch the trailers, rent the films, and move on from there. And a special note to Los Angeles denizens: Eli Roth is putting on the awesome Greats of Roth film festival, and showing prints of "The Wiz" and "The Apple," an 80s musical I've not yet seen but am completely and utterly thrilled to see later this month. Go. See. Love. Learn.