Just as there is no such thing as a bad anti-war film, there is no such thing as a truly bad musical. The impulse itself is noble and raises any enterprise up 11 notches.
The people making a musical film may not be of the caliber of Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson, but hell—they not only had a song in their hearts, they imagined entire worlds where people burst into song. What kind of mean-spirited douche wouldn’t give extra credit just for that?
Not me. I love me some “bad” musicals. I love to see that what people think goes with sounds. Or vice versa.
Enjoying these films is about readjusting criteria, realizing that po-faced seriousness and Big Drama are all tricks anyone can learn—which is why TV writing staffs are always full. But the music-based thing that happens in The Happiness of the Katakuris—what is that? You can’t learn it.
Ahem. In the following appraisals, I joke here and I kind of dis there, but I’m always in appreciative awe. I strongly believe that if Georges Méliès were alive and had a song in his heart, one of his films would be on this list.
Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
Steve Guttenberg's a totally straight boy who only wants to not have sex with his ex-super model roomie (Valerie Perrine) so he can put together a singing group (the Village People), so he can make disco records.
That Hollywood impresario Allan Carr thought straight America would buy that story, as well as scenes where men showing no interest in women danced with other men while singing about "The Milk Shake"—well, you gotta admire chutzpah.
As for the film, which clearly used up all the spandex, lurex, and Barbarella style “futuristic” plastic baubles that clubs of the period favored, quick dismissal is inappropriate. First, the songs are mostly catchy as hell, and positioned at the Hollywood and Vine where catchy and ludicrous French kiss.
Take a minute: 15 years from now, what do you think people are going to think about those skinny leg jeans and that impractical beard you maintain? And Fun, Jack White, and Skrillex? Yeah, sobering, isn’t it?
Flash Gordon (1980)
How much multi-track-mojo did the post “Bohemian Rhapsody” Queen own by the time Dino De Laurentiis decided on an un-upgraded version of the ‘30s Flash Gordon serial films?
So much that even when the film came out, people were contextualizing it within the band’s oeuvre.
Meanwhile, the only sound that outwits Queen’s magnificent Flash sountracksonic pomp is Max Von Sydow’s cackle as Emperor Ming the Merciless, who’s super evil and out to destroy the Earth unless football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam Jones) and journalist Dale (Melody Anderson) can stop them.
Flash doesn’t seem like a musical but it works like one. Through a color palette set to “Art Nouveau sunset,” we suffer through the enjoyably hambone story so we can get to the good parts: the bad green screen, matte, and model effects accompanied by those walls of overdubbed and orchestrated Brian May guitars and the many times overdubbed May, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor master choir melodically proclaiming "AH!," "OH!," and, of course, “FLASH!”
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
As a “jukebox musical film,” Sgt Pepper’s never had to do anything but throw together as many stars as corporate music’s golden age could and trust the great unwashed would come. Or so said the cocaine frying the makers’ brains.
Which is the only way to explain The Bee Gees and a mute Peter Frampton as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band looking for magic instruments. Which led to musical numbers by Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Godzilla (kidding, but would you be surprised?).
What’s really on producer Robert Stigwood’s mind is Saturday Night Fever and how to duplicate its mad success. That the answer was a flat, five-camera TV comedy-style style spearheaded by a stogie-smoking George Burns in full Borscht Belt fettle . . . well, when people speak of America’s lost innocence, it’s the addlepated, guileless, ‘ludes-cancelling-out-blow, wanna-put-on-a-show-ness of Sgt. Pepper I think of.
The Apple (1980)
In the Eighties, Menahem Golan produced meat ‘n potatoes actioners starring Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, and Bronson like he was falling off a log. But before that, he sewed some insane oats with The Apple.
Before losing its mind entirely, colorfully, amazingly, The Apple tells us of Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), two freakishly wholesome folk singers from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (!) competing in the1994 Worldvision Song Festival.
Alas! They are beaten by Mr. Boogalo (Vladek Sheybal) who then seduces them into the music industry’s lifestyle of elaborate, badly choreographed dance numbers because Boogalo is also . . . Satan! He is also so powerful that he compels all of America to wear Mr. Boogalo triangular stickers and engage in compulsory fitness workouts.
The Apple just gets more insane, including—I think—God and His videogame sound effects, because there is no ceiling on crazy here just a time limit on how long a movie can be and still get distributed.
Rock n' Roll Nightmare (1987)
God made the ‘80s so Jon Mikl Thor could becomes a bodybuilder, learn how to rock, and star as Triton, singer of a glam metal band that decamps to a skeezy house in Canada with some babes to work on their new record. But they’re soon infested by demons until Thor smashes. Everything you’re imagining this film will include—uproariously Poison-ous power ballads, over-permed hair, dubious latex demons—is here in abundance.
But the Direct-to-Video ethos hits a new apotheosis when a shirtless Triton battles some tiny flip-floppy eye demons and then, to the beat of hilariously literal hair metal (“We Accept the Challenge”) takes on the main demon, an immobile mannequin Jon Mikal has to be careful not to break.
Thor looks like a big male bodybuilder metalhead, but he’s a little boy and he wants to play with monsters. And so he does. It’s freaking adorable.
Spice World (1997)
So now that it’s long over, we can all exhale and admit that, man, did the UK blow in the 90s or what? I mean, okay, Napalm Death, Carcass, and Bolt Thrower, but Oasis? Blur? That poor man’s Muse, Radiohead?
Thank God for Spice Girls. I recall, vividly, that Spice Girls, the film, was what the recent Katy Perry film was trying to be—candy-colored ultra pop—but without Perry’s creepy porn-for-children lyrics and visuals.
Spice Girls personified goofball egalitarianism: all dancing terribly, all singing mediocrely, all embracing a power that was about not taking anything seriously, at a time when the UK boy kings of self importance—your Thom Yorkes and Richard Ashcrofts—could do nothing else.
Spice Girls was a poor girl’s A Hard Days Night, a bunch of skits and non-stop silliness. When I saw the model Spice Girls bus go over the model London Bridge, I nearly injured myself laughing, I do not know why. I love when that happens.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
I once interviewed Takashi Miike, the famed hyper-prolific Japanese creator of often disturbing films like Visitor Q and Gozu (both films featuring men crawling out of women’s vaginas).
Through an interpreter, I asked what was, like, up with that.
He chuckled, spoke, and the interpreter said, “Miike say he has trouble understanding women and through his films tries to maybe understand them better.”
The Happiness of the Katakuris lives in some completely mad limbo between his so-so Yakuza movies and exquisitely controlled art films like Box.
It’s a deeply spiritual, family-oriented zombie musical dealing with a failing guesthouse, a suicide, more death, some Claymation, a romantic daughter, her sweet parents and then everyone is SINGING, in a color scheme amped up to look like The Sound of Music.
Does Miike understand women better? Can’t say. But I’d swear he kind of loves them.
Across the Universe (2007)
Across the Universe is so epically dreadful in conception and hilariously, absurdly, offensively and, yeah, beautifully absurd in execution that it manages to overwhelm even director Julie Taymor’s Mount Kilimanjaro of self-regard.
There's no story, just people with Beatle song names like Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who go to Beatles song places to do Beatles song things, like a Vietnam unit carrying the Statue of Liberty while singing “She's So Heavy'' (seriously), or Bono singing "I am the Walrus," which I'd suspected for years.
There’s tons of whack-a-doodle imagery—five naughty nurse Salma Hayeks?—but surprise MVP Evan Rachel Wood is so devoted, and her tremulous alto is so sweet it even calms down her director, suggesting what would happen if she had even a microgram of aesthetic self-control. Download: “If I Fell.” See?
REPO! The Genetic Opera (2008)
REPO! is a movie that I’m sure pretty much aimed for a certain degree of “bad” but not so “bad,” it couldn’t be treasured. In short, an intended cult film.
So! Does this dystopian story of a company that supplies organ transplants and the “repo men” who rip them out if you default—does it work as intentional comedy, or camp or what?
Actually, the marketing sells the film itself short.
With Broadway star Sarah Brightman fantastic as a blind opera singer, Buffy’s Anthony Head delightfully evil, and Paris Hilton as a plastic surgery addict (!), as well as an impressive Hellraiser-as-cityscape look, I’d say that, in terms of sheer sensation assault, REPO! is a success.
The actual songs by Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith also use a metal/industrial style to create something that actually works as opera. So partial bad news to director Darren Lynn Bousman: your bad film is simultaneously kind of good—and that’s REPO’s odd, sanguine charm.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
After about 40 minutes of Garrett Hedlund in a cathode-blue-lined black body suit on his video-cycle, zipping around a mainly-black videogame ‘verse, I totally spaced.
Even with occasional splotches of exploding color, and Jeff Bridges digitally shorn of 30 years of age (weird), it was like watching gloomy rave visuals. Even with Olivia Wilde in a fetish bob and body glove, I spaced out. Really—how long can you look at colored lights ping-ponging around a screen?
The answer came: The same way one would listen to Daft Punk’s fantastic score, suggestive of Vangelis’ Blade Runner work mixed with downtempo electronica.
As ambient music, or rather, ambient video. If only there were a way to put Tron on an eternal-loop, you could totally play it during cocktail parties, or after you’d smoked a few, or whatever. In short, as a movie, not so great. But as a digital lava lamp, I’d totally invest in Tron: Legacy.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.