14. Popeye (1980)
Adapting E. C. Segar’s beloved Popeye comic strip into a musical live-action cartoon was always going to be a risky endeavor for American auteur Robert Altman, and for his considerable efforts, his 1980 film Popeye has ever since been synonymous with the term “box-office bomb”, and it’s a crying shame.
For starters, the soundtrack by Harry Nilsson is a 24-karat gold affair with a winning arrangement from none other than Van Dyke Parks. To further sweeten the pot, Popeye has an eclectic and capable cast which includes Robin Williams as our eponymous sailor, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and Paul L. Smith as the villainous Bluto.
Does it all work? Well, maybe not exactly, but for all the unevenness and oddity in the film, Altman gives the viewer ample excitement, booming humor, excited strangeness, and demented charms in abundance. Popeye offers up a singular, funny, and fantastic visual and musical experience.
13. Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains (1982)
Too few people saw Lou Adler’s paean to punk rock when it was released in 1982. Worth it for the spirited debut of a seventeen year-old Diane Lane (also an early Laura Dern role), this spirited showbiz satire pays tribute to the Riot Grrl scene, and is actually a shit ton of fun. Don’t miss the mischief!
Corinne Burns (Lane) is your usual angsty teen living in a lackluster little town, working as a wage slave at a fastfood joint, until the day she sees the punk band the Looters.
Suddenly smitten by the punk music scene, Corinne and her garage band, the Stains, are invited by Billy (Ray Winstone), to join the Looters on tour as the opening act. Soon Corinne and her band are riding a swell of popularity and an MTV debut might just be in the cards, too.
12. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
American author, artist, cartoonist, and storyteller Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was reportedly outraged by the outcome of his “dream project”, what he called in his memoirs a “debaculous fiasco” that came of director Roy Rowland’s ambitious musical fantasy from 1953, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
While Seuss is credited with the story, screenplay and lyrics for the film, he did all that he could to distance himself from the project, and so awful for him was the whole experience that he never worked on feature films again, opting to make the occasional TV special thereafter, and nothing else Hollywood whatsoever. And it’s a shame, for all the compromising and cutting away that must have occurred, Dr. T glitters as a treasured cult object and a very enjoyable and enchanting work in it’s own right.
Ten-year-old Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) is forced into piano lessons from the strict and tyrant-like instructor, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Bart soon falls asleep, dreaming the remainder of the movie, which unravels within the Seussian dreamscape of Dr. Terwilliker’s castle.
Here he is held prisoner, along with 499 other little boys, all forced to play Dr. T’s terrible piano exercise on one impossibly huge, continuous keyboard. Bart’s hypnotized mother, Heloise (Mary Healy) is also a prisoner of the cruel doctor, and the only assistance Bart gets is from one August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), a plumber. Most assuredly strange, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is also an unforgettable, rambling, and richly ridiculous masterpiece.
11. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Jim Sharman’s gleeful direction, Richard O’Brien’s sensational songs, the willing and winning cast( Tim Curry steals the show as Doctor Frank N. Furter, but was Susan Sarandon ever more stunning?) make for a monumental midnight musical. The emblazoned satire in Rocky Horror doesn’t limit itself to the sci-fi genre alone, its wide orbit includes celebrity culture, Hollywood, sexual politics, the glam scene, rock operas, the counterculture, and more.
The story, which takes the backseat to the overall sensory experience, involves two naive young lovers, Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Sarandon), who, on a cold, rainy night, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, but near enough to a creepy old mansion. Insanity ensues.
No discussion of the film is possible without giving props to its rabid fanbase. Fan participation elements garner as much, maybe more, mentions than the actual film. People who’ve never seen it still know about the song and dance around the “Time Warp” as well as the transgender costumes and kitschy sci-fi aesthetics. The very definition of cult classic.
10. True Stories (1986)
An altogether out there melange of art installation, music video, character drama, droll comedy, and postmodern pastiche from the brain of David Byrne (he of avant-garde rock band Talking Heads fame), True Stories is, as the opening caption informs us: “a film about a bunch of people in Virgil, Texas”. Virgil, a fictitious town, is more a composite of archetypal Americana, a place of quirky characters with music flowing through their veins.
John Goodman, Spalding Gray, Swoosie Kurtz, and Pops Staples are amongst the eccentric characters whose paths intersect with Byrne’s, and the affectionate gaze on small-town life is one of the manifold charms that makes up True Stories.
And while it’s true that this film will have special appeal to fans of Byrne and the Talking Heads in particular, it’s an inventive, smart, and lovely to look at motion picture––it was shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, a favorite of such visionary directors as Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, and Wim Wenders.
9. The Muppet Movie (1979)
There are few films as “footloose and fancy free” as James Frawley’s musical road comedy-adventure The Muppet Movie. Not only is this inspired meta-musical loads of fun, it marked the big-screen debut of Jim Henson’s much loved puppet characters, including Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo, and the outspoken practitioner of kung fu herself, Miss Piggy.
All of the self-aware and topical humor that made audiences adore the Muppet Show––a family-oriented comedy-variety TV series that originally ran from 1976 to 1981––is evident in Frawley’s film (it helps that regular Muppet Show writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl penned the script).
As lovable as Henson’s plush heroes happen to be, The Muppet Movie still owes much of its success to the fantastic songs, which were written by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams (both Henson and Williams won a Grammy for their efforts).
With catchy numbers like “Movin’ Right Along” and “Rainbow Connection”, not to mention surprising cameos by the likes of Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Elliott Gould, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles, and many more, is it any wonder this film is affectionately considered a beloved classic?
Witty, warm, wise, and completely captivating, The Muppet Movie may just be the finest of all the Muppet films that would follow, it’s certainly the most toe-tapping, too.
8. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Endlessly subversive, unapologetically silly, and crowded with catchy, tuneful, and churlish numbers, this gleefully R-rated animated musical from Trey Parker and Matt Stone takes their late night cartoon series and offers what the title advertises; “Bigger, Longer & Uncut”.
When the third graders of South Park sneak into a screening of Asses of Fire, the new, rude, and ultra-upsetting film from the kids’ favorite Canadian TV stars Terrence (Stone) and Philip (Parker), the impressionable crew of Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman emerge excited and with a broadened vocabulary that’s now chock full of blunt zingers like the lyrics to their new favorite song, “Uncle Fucker”. The level of profanity reaches a fever pitch in South Park, upsetting parents, teachers, and polite society at large.
From there the South Park film crashes and careens in numerous directions, focussing on over a dozen musical numbers that wisely parodies Broadway style singalongs, while wisely ribbing Disney’s animated musicals. Surprisingly, this any which way approach assured that the xenophobic-spoofing call to arms ditty “Blame Canada” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Vicious and uncompromising satire is rarely as inspired and memorable in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, a film that amazes and excites at least as many as it offends and annoys. This is a ruthless comedy that takes no prisoners and certainly stands up to repeat viewings.