After a few of years since the last major effort (the ill-fated “Nine“), the live-action movie musical is back again, with two starry efforts due this year about as far away from each other as you can get. This Christmas will see the terribly serious-looking “Les Miserables” hit theaters, with a star-studded cast including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. But first is “Rock of Ages,” which arrives in theaters tomorrow, with another A-list ensemble including Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Musicals have given serious career boosts to stars like Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Nicole Kidman and Eddie Murphy in recent years, but if you pick the wrong project, or are more self-confident about your pipes than you should be, it’s also the best way to embarass yourself completely. In honor of Alec Baldwin‘s tone-deaf belting in “Rock of Ages,” we’ve collected five of our favorite big-name performances in movie musicals that the stars would likely rather sweep under the carpet and delete from the resume. Check them out below, and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.
Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!” (2008)
For all of the many flaws of “Mamma Mia!” (principally that it’s been directed by someone who appears to have never seen a movie before), it’s hard to argue that the cast aren’t throwing their all into it. Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper are a little dull, but their elders — Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, and Christine Baranski — seem to be having a whale of a time. And if they’re not exactly going to be finalists on “The Voice,” they’re at least performing on the level of a relatively competent karaoke competitor. Then Pierce Brosnan arrives. Brosnan can be a hugely entertaining actor (see: “The Matador,” “The Thomas Crown Affair“), but he seems hopelessly adrift here. And then we discover why: while he doesn’t have all that many musical numbers, compared to his cast members, he’s got a couple of big ones, including an “S.O.S.” duet with Streep, and his voice can best be described as a cross between Joe Cocker, a deaf Chewbacca, and an oil tanker trying to warn smaller boats out of its path. It’s both the worst, and kind of the best, thing in the movie, and something that will permanently scar your eardrums.
Nathan Lane & Matthew Broderick in “The Producers” (2005)
When Mel Brooks‘ classic 1968 comedy about the making of a Broadway disaster itself became a stage show, it was a colossal success, breaking box-office records, and earning a remarkable twelve Tony nominations, with stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick both nominated, and Lane winning. So what the hell happened when it came to the screen? While fitfully funny (thanks to some spirited performance from Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman), it was mostly a tone-deaf translation of the stage show with no feel for movie musicals, and that was never truer than in the performances of Lane and Broderick. It’s almost inexplicable the degree to which both stars (who’ve done plenty of fine film work over the years) completely failed to adjust what they were doing to fit the screen. The actors still feel like they’re trying to hit the back row of a 1,500-seat theater, rather than a camera eight feet away, and the results are almost grotesquely over the top, even by the standards of the genre — you feel like you’re being beaten up by a pair of mugging musical theater grads, rather than much-lauded stage veterans. And of course, they’re not just battling the ghosts of their own theater performances, but also the pitch-perfect ones by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Brooks’ film, the comparisons becoming more brutal when on screen. It’s frankly beyond belief that no one, not least director Susan Stroman, didn’t think to take a little time between takes to suggest they tone it down a bit.
Gerard Butler in “Phantom of the Opera” (2004)
As pretty much every comments section piece on every piece we’ve ever written on Gerard Butler attests, the Scottish actor has a fervent female fan base who’ll ride to his defense at even the faintest breath of criticism directed towards him. But even they must surely feel that his title role in Joel Schumacher‘s disastrous take on Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s Broadway smash was far from his finest hour. It should be an instantly iconic role, one that’s made stars of everyone from Lon Chaney to Michael Crawford, and yet Butler couldn’t be more anonymous — clearly struggling under the mask, he’s lacking entirely in charisma, in allure and in mystery, he’s just… there. All in all, it feels he’d be better fitted to one of the more out-there daytime soap operas than a film like this, and he can’t even sink to the levels of camp that Schumacher clearly wants the film to go to. And he just looks duller next to co-star Emmy Rossum, who’s actually pretty great in the film — it’s surprising she didn’t become bigger star as a result. And while Butler can handle the songs a little better than some of the people on this list, he still flounders a little to reach the high notes. Fortunately, no such struggles were needed when he led “300” and finally became a star.
Everyone in “Lost Horizon” (1973)
The film that pretty much served as the final nail in the coffin of the era of the mega-budget roadshow musical, “Lost Horizon” was a cataclysmic financial failure (nicknamed “Lost Investment” by some), and if a worse movie musical has been made, we certainly haven’t seen it. An adaptation of James Hilton‘s utopian novel, although closer to a remake of Frank Capra‘s 1937 film, it’s probably best described as a gonzo, hippyish musical version of “Lost,” about a group of archetypes who survive a plane crash and are accepted into the “perfect society” of Shangri-La in the Himalayas. The script by Larry Kramer is tonally all over the place (the writer would later deride it), Charles Jarrot‘s direction is entirely anonymous, and the songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (who were on the verge of severing their creative relationship and spend the next several years suing each other) are both ill-fitting and forgettable. And while the film has an impressive all-star cast, including Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, Sally Kellerman, John Gielgud, George Kennedy, Bobby Van, Michael York and Olivia Hussey, every one of them is fatally miscast and quite often can’t handle the tunes either. To pick one out would be unfair, especially given that we imagine they were all keen to forget the whole affair, but pretty much everyone is floundering like they were in an actual plane crash.
Clint Eastwood in “Paint Your Wagon” (1969)
In the words of one Bart Simpson, “Prepare yourself for the bloody mayhem and unholy carnage of Joshua Logan‘s ‘Paint Your Wagon.’ ” Bart, sadly, was misinformed, but “unholy” isn’t a bad description for a project that, frankly, is stunning it ever got made. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a Lerner and Loewe musical, written by Paddy Chayefsky, with a three-hour running time, revolving around a love triangle that’s more “Jules et Jim” than you might imagine. And those three actors? “A Bout De Souffle” star Jean Seberg, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. And not one of them can sing. Marvin is at least giving it full blast as a typically drunken layabout, and got a hit single out of it with ‘Wand’rin Star” (although it may not have made up for turning down “The Wild Bunch” to make this, or for having a voice like Nick Nolte trying to open a creaky gate). But Eastwood? Eastwood is thin and wispy in the vocal numbers, like a D-list Bobby Darin, not what you’d expect from the Man With No Name, and never for a second looks anything less than totally uncomfortable on screen, clearly deeply regretting his decision. Unsurprisingly, he never went back to the genre.