The history of the movie musical comes packed to the rafters with classics. You’ve got Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music. There’s Cabaret and West Side Story and an armada of Disney films led by Mary Poppins. From The Wizard of Oz to Hedwig and Angry Inch, it’s easy to name beloved films that are powered by amazing music. But, like every other genre, the musical has seen its fair share of sour notes. 40 years ago this week, the critically reviled Xanadu hit theaters. And while people all over the world still enjoy a number of the Olivia Newton-John and ELO songs contained in the film, it stirred up enough dislike as a movie to inspire the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards. In that spirit, and with full awareness that someone out there probably loves each and every one of these, here are the Worst Movie Musicals Ever.
10. Xanadu (1980)
Perhaps the biggest problem for Xanadu’s detractors is that its disparate elements just never really hang together. Gene Kelly brings in a classic vibe, and the attempt to blend the ’40s and ’80s is commendable, but seeing Kelly frequently just reminds you how much better old Gene Kelly musicals were. The Greek mythology elements come off as more of a distraction. And frankly, there’s just way too much roller-skating. It’s also hard not to laugh when the nightclub they’ve been creating turns out to look like the set of Solid Gold. Bonus Track: dancer and actress Sandahl Bergman played one of Newtown-John’s Muse sisters two years before she made a big impression in Conan the Barbarian.
9. Cats (2019)
The Cats trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Trailers)
Here’s a caveat: time may move this up the list. Let’s face it: regular Cats is nobody’s favorite musical. Yes, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige slayed “Memory” on both sides of the Atlantic, but that’s it. The basic story is this cat does this, this cat does that, no one likes the cat that has sex until it’s time to ritually sacrifice her, and so on. (Note to self: A Midsommar musical would be awesome.) But what really sets the film apart is the complete Uncanny Valley-ness of it all. Somehow, Marvel can make a tree and a raccoon into tactile, emotionally believable characters, whereas the unholy mélange of cat and human in Cats look like cut-scenes from the PlayStation I era. It’s just inherently bad. Bonus Track: Taylor Swift only has three words of dialogue.
8. Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
It’s the fictionalized origin story of the Village People, starring the Village People! It was also the other half of a double-feature with Xanadu that inspired John J.B. Wilson to create the Golden Raspberry Awards; Can’t Stop the Music was the first winner for Worst Picture. Plot-wise, the movie is a disjointed mess as it tries to follow multiple plotlines, like a romance between Valerie Perrine and then-Bruce Jenner (Jenner’s film debut, roughly 25 years before coming out as trans and taking the name Caitlyn), the struggles of Steve Guttenberg’s songwriter, the recruitment of the six Village People, and more. The only well-known VP song in the film is “Y.M.C.A.;” it appears during a musical number set at the, of course, Y, and features full-frontal male nudity (something that generally never happens in a film not rated R). Bonus Track: The director was Nancy Walker, best known as Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, and character Rosie for 20 years of Bounty paper towel commercials.
7. Grease 2 (1982)
Producer Allan Carr was a successful producer of films like Grease, a Tony and People’s Choice Award winner, and an agent that discovered talents like Mark Hamill, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Olivia Newton-John. He also produced Can’t Stop the Music, Grease 2, and that career-killing Snow White/Rob Lowe Oscar number, so . . . win some, lose some? You can hardly blame anyone for wanting to follow the insanely successful Grease with a sequel. On the other hand, the original film had the bedrock of the stage musical to build on. And on the other, other hand, it’s just bad. The lone bright spot is Pfeiffer, who had the distinction of being one of the few elements that wasn’t savaged by critics. Bonus Track: Male lead Maxwell Caulfield went on to a different kind of musical immortality as Rex Manning in Empire Records.
6. The Pirate Movie (1982)
It’s the 1980s, so that must mean it’s time for dueling . . . Gilbert & Sullivan adaptations? One uses the original name of the stage musical, The Pirates of Penzance, and the other opts for, simply, The Pirate Movie. One has Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury, and the other stars the guy from The Blue Lagoon. One failed because of a bad business decision, and the other failed because, well, it’s The Pirate Movie. The film starts badly, by shoehorning in a “let’s start in modern day and make it a dream, sort of” premise, and goes more wrong from there. Bonus Track: 1983’s Penzance with Ronstadt was cut off at the knees because Universal tried to simultaneously release it in theatres and pay services; subsequently, many theatre chains boycotted it, destroying its box office chances.
5. Rock of Ages (2012)
Would you go into a musical thinking that Tom Cruise is going to be the best part? That’s nothing against Cruise, who has proven that he’s literally willing to hang off of a plane to entertain us. But the absence of musical work on his resume turned out to be an advantage, because nobody expected that he’d be that good as hair-metal god Stacee Jaxx. Unfortunately, nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to that. There’s not really even a chance for a transformative breakout hit, as it’s a jukebox musical filled with previously known hits with only one original song. Another strike is that Mary J. Blige doesn’t get a number of her own. Possibly the biggest letdown is that the movie trades the spirit of the stage show (which is, “hey, this brand of rock is kind of silly, but huge fun”) for treating it all like a big goof. If the filmmakers aren’t convinced, then no one else is. Bonus Track: While a number of well-known rockers appear in cameos, so does pop star Debbie Gibson, who hit #4 on Billboard’s Dance Club chart just last year with “Girls Night Out.”
4. Nine (2009)
Nine is the rare case of a movie that gets a ton of award nominations (including four Oscar nods) but ultimately no one seems happy about it. The creative pedigree is astounding. Based on Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s stage musical, which was itself inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8½, the film was written by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia freaking Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Fergie. And yet . . . blah. Maybe it’s because 19 of the original songs were excised. Maybe it’s because the story of a director’s mid-life crisis just didn’t connect with audiences. Maybe it’s not even that bad, but just seems egregious in the face of SO MUCH TALENT going nowhere. Bonus Track: Remarkably, given their status as Italian icons, Loren and Fellini never did a film together, though she did present him with his Honorary Oscar in 1993.
3. From Justin to Kelly (2005)
The Golden Raspberry Awards went in hard on this one, calling it “Worst ‘Musical’ of Our First 25 Years.” Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural 2002 season of American Idol on Fox; Justin Guarini was runner-up. They found themselves contractually obligated to do a movie for 20th Century Fox, and this utterly terrible spring break musical was the result. Sure, we understand that they called Kelly’s character “Kelly,” but her movie last name of Taylor means that she inexplicably and distractingly shares a name with Kelly Taylor of Fox’s 90210 franchise. Much of the plot is a series of contrivances to keep the two leads apart, which makes little sense. It’s really not good. Bonus Track: Clarkson has of course had 28 Hot 100 hits since, and Guarini has stealthily appeared for years as Lil Sweet in an ongoing series of Dr. Pepper commercials.
2. Shock Treatment (1981)
How do you follow the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Apparently, you can’t. It had the original director (Jim Sharman), the original writers (Sharman and Richard O’Brien), the original songwriter (O’Brien), two of the original characters (Brad and Janet, though played by different actors), and several members of the original cast as new characters. But it just doesn’t connect. While the idea of a whole town inside a studio dominated by constantly running TV programming is ahead of its time, it never totally comes off and you constantly wonder as a viewer why O’Brien and Patricia Quinn aren’t just their fantastic Riff Raff and Magenta selves again. Bonus Track: Jessica Harper, who replaced Susan Sarandon as Janet, had the female lead in another frequently panned musical, Phantom of the Paradise; however, she was also the lead in the horror classic Suspiria and appeared in its 2018 remake.
1. The Apple (1980)
Apparently 1980 wasn’t exactly the best year to try a musical. Director Menahem Golan co-owned The Cannon Group with his cousin, Yoram Globus. They made some cheesy but popular films, like Breakin’, American Ninja, and Missing in Action. They were also responsible for disasters like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the famously bad 1990 version of Captain America that never made it to American theaters. The Apple somehow tries to combine a future version of the Eurovision Song Contest (here, the 1994 Worldvision Song Festival) and a parable of the dangers of the entertainment industry with, wait for it, The Bible. You have analogues for Adam, Eve, and The Devil (Mr. Boogalow, who owns a label, of course). You have variations on temptation scenes (title song The Apple, which includes a sort of tour of Hell with dumb as anything lyrics “It’s a natural, natural, natural desire/Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire”). The climax of the film is The Rapture. Seriously, this is a real movie. Utterly crazy doesn’t even really cover it. But sadly, it’s not an eminently rewatchable kind of crazy. It’s just terrible.
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