Singing Psychedelia: Drug Soaked Musicals of the '70s & '80s
Musicals have made a bit of a comeback as far as high profile films in the past few years. From attempts to bring the tension of live singing to the screen like 2012's Les Misérables to the spectacular misfire that was The Greatest Showman (2018), there looks to be a revival of the strange magic that it takes to fully embrace the movie musical. The thing is, musicals never really went away; they just fell under the radar for a bit.
What we’re seeing nowadays is actually a throwback to the more classic style of the '50s and '60s, which were certainly more La La Land than Hedwig and The Angry Inch. It’s great to have musicals back in any form (said the theater kid), but what would really be amazing would be a return to form of the fantastical, most likely drug-induced extravaganza of movie musicals from the seventies and eighties where the songs are poppy, the plots questionable, and the colors motherfucking neon.
Undoubtedly, dear reader, you’ve heard of Xanadu (1980), with Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. It’s one of those movies that is well-known but unseen in its entirety more often than not. If we want to talk neon, this is the film to see. Calling it neon doesn’t even scratch the surface of this weird, corny, but also truly captivating ride. Olivia Newton-John plays Kira, a muse from Mount Olympus who’s sent to earth to help in the creation of a nightclub called Xanadu. She does this by inspiring the struggling artist Sonny (Michael Beck, who you may know from The Warriors and little else) to quit his corporate art job enlarging album art (uh, sure…) and team up with a real estate mogul Danny Mcguire (Gene Kelly). What it lacks in a complex and compelling narrative, it more than makes up for in catchy tunes and unbelievably choreographed dance numbers.
Xanadu is what happens when someone follows an illogical idea to its ultimately logical conclusion: musicals are unrealistic, and are usually just vehicles for good songs so let’s go as unrealistic as possible and make every number eye-popping pageantry. The themes throughout it are pretty universal; such as artistic endeavors versus security, divine inspiration, and that old chestnut of following your heart. There’s also something about love and straight people being all like, “oh my gosh, we’ve known each other for a month and we still totally want to bone a lot so we must be soulmates," which is a bit bland and predictable. That doesn’t matter though because the rest of it is so wacky, you’ll forget that all that crap even happens in-between the roller skating dance numbers.
Xanadu seems to straddle two decades perfectly and hits right at a moment when the change between the '70s and '80s style began to shift. Its color scheme would set the tone for much of the eighties day-glo fashion, while its music by ELO is distinctly '70s. People are fast to dismiss this movie as junk, and odds are that I won’t change their mind on that. Regardless, even if it’s junk, it’s lovingly made junk. Everyone involved is there to dazzle; nobody looks like they’re phoning it in or just there for the paycheck. In one scene, Olivia Newton-John holds her own in a slick dance with Gene Kelly who looks so genuinely happy that it’s hard not to fall in love with it all. Not to mention him. A mid-movie number, aptly titled “Dancin',” where two distinct styles, 1940’s big band and a classic 80's rock band sound, battle then intermingle and become one, is worth the price of admission alone. It’s something that makes you appreciate how fantastic humans can be when we really put our hearts and souls into a project. At the screening I went to at the Alamo Drafthouse, this number was followed by thunderous applause that took a very long time to quiet down. It’s literally breathtaking. Yes, literally. Blinking and breathing didn’t return to normal until a solid minute afterwards.
If stories about love and artistic freedom peak your interest, but you’re not sure if you can stomach the saccharine-sweet cheese of 1980’s Olivia Newton-John, then the next movie might be a perfect fit. The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is a reimagining of The Phantom of the Opera directed by Brian DePalma with music by Paul Williams and narrated by none other than Mr. Rod Serling. While Xanadu had catchy, toe-tapping songs, Phantom’s soundtrack runs the gambit from pop to brooding to soulful with heavy doses of goth metal for good measure. A rock opera to end all rock operas, it even came out before Ken Russell's Tommy (1975).
This storyline is a bit more involved: Swan, a music producer with a Faustian air about him played by Paul Williams, offers a record deal to composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) to buy his songs for a pop band to perform. Winslow, being an artist with integrity, declines the offer only to find out that Swan gets what Swan wants. After being framed by Swan for dealing drugs, Winslow receives a life sentence in Sing Sing, where a bunch of things happen to make him into what we recognize as the "phantom,” including having his teeth removed, his face disfigured, and his vocal chords destroyed. Swan and Winslow encounter each other again after Winslow escapes prison and disguises himself in a mask and cape that look like what Lon Chaney would have worn had he been given the chance to lose his mind on acid. Swan gives Winslow an opportunity to do his music his way, although he has to sign a contract in blood and does all the recording in an insanely claustrophobic studio where he’s been rigged up with an electronic voice box. Winslow writes a whole score for a show that’s going to open at The Paradise, Swan’s new club, with his muse Phoenix (Jessica Harper) in mind. But naturally, Swan betrays him, hires goth glam rock front man Beef (Gerrit Graham), and relegates Phoenix to the ensemble. Winslow then goes full Phantom and runs amok during the premiere, which ends in the literal unmasking and death of himself as well Swan.
Phantom of the Paradise was not well-received when it was first released, and that is genuinely confusing. It’s certainly out there but it’s immaculately made with all of DePalma’s signature style and music that haunts your dreams. Jessica Harper’s performance and voice is the highlight of the movie, as she puts her wide-eyed charm to good use. Her song “Special To Me” can be appreciated separate from any context of the movie. The character is rooted in the ingenue/muse paradigm of Christine Daae, but Harper injects a drive and motivation into the character that rings true for a 70’s woman. There are also so many funny moments, like anytime Beef is onscreen and spitting lines like, “hey man, I know the difference between drug real and real real," plus the absolutely wild visuals. How so many people dismissed this in its initial run is beyond me, but time has given Phantom its deserved audience. What was once mocked now has a solid cult following as the themes of selling out, struggling to make a life in an artistic endeavor, and being manipulated by a corrupt system are more timely than ever.
The final film pulls away from the brightly colored insanity a bit but holds its own in surrealness. All That Jazz (1979), by and about Bob Fosse, is a movie that loves and critiques everything in the theater world. It follows Fosse-cypher Joe Gideon (played by Roy Scheider, never sexier) as he choreographs his upcoming musical, edits a film, and tries not to die. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen that shows realistic consequences to destructive behavior like amphetamine use and smoking, even if those consequences are portrayed in dreamlike musical numbers.
Much like the real person, the Fosse of All That Jazz is erratic and ingenious but also crippled by problems of his own making. This is not a cleaned-up, whitewashed view of the man’s life, and credit has to be given to Fosse for knowing what a pain in the ass he must have been to deal with either professionally or personally. The majority of the people around him are female, and there are lots of scenes involving them being rationally angry and tired of his crap. In fact, Fosse gets more of a pass from his male doctors, whose job it is to remind him that he’s killing himself slowly, than he does from some of the women in his life. The audience feels for anyone having to put up with him yet can’t help but be stunned at what he creates.
The final scene where Fosse waits for the heart attack that will kill him and confesses what a terrible person he was is sickly funny and quite glamorous. For those of us drawn to the world of theater and performing (warts and all), it encapsulates everything that field has to offer. Being told that what you are doing will kill you but continuing to do it because life is only worth it if you’re doing what you love is perfectly understandable, even if to do what you love, you need these things that will kill you. We can understand struggling to surpass your own achievements and then driving yourself crazy by never being as good as you think you can be, no matter what other people are telling you. The very last shot of the film is Gideon’s body being zipped up into a body bag. For some, it reads as tragic. For those of us who know the addiction to performance, it reads an inevitable.
While the popularity of musicals may ebb and flow over time, they never really go away. The safer ones get more attention and awards (although All That Jazz was nominated for and won several), but the real magic is in the weirdness. Weird musicals carry the concept all the way through to the end: none of this is real, all of this is staged, let’s go balls deep with it. People who dislike musicals like to make claims about how unrealistic they are while they stand in line for yet another superhero movie, but nobody who likes musicals is dying for realism. The point of musicals is to tell stories in a way that could never be replicated in real life so if that’s what we’re here for, why not take that idea as far as possible? Why not just surrender to mind blowing visuals, beautiful songs, and sheer lunacy? Weird musicals lean into this idea and will gladly take you along with them. But only if you let them.