I’m not sure that there is as enjoyable a film genre as the musical, and it’s one that is often derided more than any other, except maybe for horror films. Even when a joyful and technically dazzling pastiche picture like La La Land appears there’s an almost instant backlash from cynical types determined not to enjoy a picture that celebrates the Hollywood tradition, reflecting genre conventions and epitomising the very concept of “light entertainment”.
The following list, not at all meant to be definitive, instead makes for a wonderful starting point for experiencing some of the weirdest, oddest, and most enjoyable musical comedies around. They’re listed in an order of personal preference for the author but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fluid and malleable.
Many of these films herein wear their cult status like a badge of honor, and I suggest that many of the movies mentioned here are best viewed in a midnight setting, at the meeting place of nostalgia and the unshakably strange.
20. Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
This pitch-black musical comedy from a pre-South Park Trey Parker is loosely based on the real-life prospector Alferd Packer––who confessed to cannibalism during the winter of 1874 while stranded in the Colorado mountains. Parker, who directed, wrote, produced, and co-scored (with Rich Sanders) takes the morbid, satirical, often mean-spirited approach––Cannibal! The Musical is a Troma production, after all––and, while crass and crude, is frequently sharp, chaffing and ingenious in its poking and prodding at society’s hypocrisy.
Once you move past the “Eww factor”, Cannibal! has some funny and hilariously upbeat songs, most notably “Shpadoinkle”, which slyly upends and mocks the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, namely “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”.
On the subject of unconventional Troma Entertainment musicals, also well worth a watch is Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006).
19. Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
This affectionate homage to romantic comic operas of yore with a modern twist is a passion project from writer/director John Turturro and the results are weird and welcome if you’re into madhouse musicals. The impressive ensemble cast includes Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, James Gandolfini, Eddie Izzard, Susan Sarandon, Amy Sedaris, Kate Winslet, and Christopher Walken.
The plot is playfully convoluted and more than a little cray cray; something about a New York ironworker named Nick Murder (Gandolfini), his wife Kitty Kane (Sarandon), their three grown daughters, the romantic complications of all and a fiery redhead named Tula (Winslet).
This is the film that Roger Ebert raved “is the real thing, a film that breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic liberty.”
18. Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Working from a Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) screenplay, director Herbert Ross (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) delivers an odd, artful, shambolic, and exuberant 1930s-set musical. Steve Martin plays it straight as Arthur Parker, a Depression-era sheet-music salesman with some serious relationship issues. His wife Joan (Jessica Harper) has lost interest in their marriage and his recent acquaintance, Eileen (Bernadette Peters) seems more his style.
Ross’ film is heavily stylized, most of the musical numbers involve the game cast lip-synching to popular tunes from the 20s and 30s (such as the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers hits “”Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, the Ethel Merman staple “”Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and the titular hit from 1936, “Pennies from Heaven”).
“Pennies from Heaven is the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen,” raved Pauline Kael, adding: “It’s a stylized mythology of the Depression which uses the popular songs of the period as expressions of people’s deepest longings––for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time… there was never a second when I wasn’t fascinated by what was happening on the screen.”
While Pennies from Heaven was a box-office bomb back in 1981, the passing years have been kind to this singularly strange film, now considered a cult classic and something of a misunderstood movie miracle.
17. Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
Sadly, the cinematic debut of LA-based comedy rock duo Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) wasn’t the hit that fans hoped it would be. Still, considering the quality of the songs and the caliber of cameos in the film––including Ronnie James Dio, Meat Loaf, John C. Reilly, Ben Stiller, and David Grohl as Satan––it looks like Pick of Destiny was destined for capricious cult status all along.
Directed, and co-written by Liam Lynch, Pick of Destiny takes place in the 1990s and details the fictional origins of Tenacious D, and their dangerous quest to find a guitar pick belonging to Satan that will allow them to become rock ‘n’ roll legends.
If salty stoner humour, deliberately low-brow diversions, and head-bangin’ interludes sounds like your bag, don’t miss this laugh out loud light entertainment.
16. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
“Feed me, Seymour!”
Joyously exploiting camp taste for trashy horror and sci-fi, Little Shop of Horrors is adapted from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s successful off-Broadway musical comedy (based on the 1960 Roger Corman film), directed with wit and pluck to spare by Frank Oz.
Set in the early 1960s, Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) is a nerdy but good-natured florist who, one day during a solar eclipse discovers a vicious, unusual plant that he names Audrey II––after his dreamy co-worker, Audrey (Ellen Greene). It turns out that Audrey II––brought brilliantly to life by a team of animatronic puppeteers and the vocal talents of Levi Stubbs––is a Venus flytrap-like plant from outer space, who has a thirst for human blood.
The doo-wop tunes, nostalgic libretto and lyrics, and inspired musical cameos from the likes of James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray, all add up to comic and melodic gold.
Casually charming, and these days something of a pop culture touchstone, Little Shop of Horrors is a cult film with teeth, and a soundtrack that’s aged exceptionally well.
15. Miami Connection (1987)
Synth rock band Dragon Sound (Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch, William Ergle) have their hands full with cocaine dealing ninjas (on motorcycles no less) on the mean streets of Orlando (and not Miami, as the title might suggest). The acting is awful, the dialogue unintentionally hilarious, and the action scenes… um… awesome? Miami Connection is so ugly to look at that it’s amazing.
With songs like “Friends Forever” and “Against the Ninja” you have to seriously ask yourself: “Why haven’t I seen this movie twelve times by now?” Sure, The Stranger’s David Schmader said “Miami Connection is so bad it makes Tommy Wiseau’s The Room look like Wild Strawberries” but is that such a bad thing? Movies this bad are seldom also this freaking fantastic. To miss Miami Connection would be like missing opening presents on Christmas morning, and nobody wants to miss that.