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Notebook Primer: 80s Musicals

Movie musicals reigned supreme in the 1980s.
Cristina Cacioppo
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Golden Eighties
From a broad angle view, it seems as though all movies made in the 1980s could be classified as either action or musical. The neon glitz of the decade easily melds with the flamboyance of musicals, and it was a time when budgets soared, so lavish song-and-dance set pieces fit in nicely with the decadence. But 80s musicals also changed things up in the genre—sometimes focusing more on choreography, other times the songs. The burgeoning cult status of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) also had producers scrambling for the ineffable weirdness that captured the imagination of an audience so intensely that they wanted to spend every weekend watching and mimicking what so delighted them on screen This resulted in odd choices that inevitably flopped, and took decades to gain a devoted following, if they ever did.
Right out of the gate, 1980 saw a panoply of tunefully-inclined movies that would help define the years to come, as well as some that failed to connect at the time. Released in May of 1980 with a cast of young unknowns, Fame became a runaway hit. It strays from the classic musical style in that its characters are not breaking out into song as a way of advancing the plot, but more because singing and dancing are an integral part of life at the performing arts school where the film is set. Another hit for 1980 was the first (and unequivocally the best) Saturday Night Live sketch to be made into a feature, The Blues Brothers. The film finds its titular characters crossing paths with James Brown (as a reverend), Aretha Franklin (as a waitress) and Ray Charles (as an instrument store owner) who all perform numbers before we get to the very built up orphanage-saving concert of the Blues Brothers themselves. 
Other 1980s releases weren’t as successful, though they have found some life since. Considered a misfire by critics, Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) is now a treasure to those who prize Harry Nilsson’s version of sea shanties or couldn’t imagine anyone but Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Xanadu (1980) paid homage to musicals-past by including Gene Kelly (in his last feature film) who, even a little worse for wear, is a charming presence. Olivia Newton-John does a majority of the onscreen singing, with Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra filling in offscreen. It became one of several musicals with a soundtrack that outperformed the film itself, and though considered a flop at the time (the movie is said to have inspired the dubious Razzie Awards, which call out the “worst” films of a year), it eventually became beloved enough to be adapted into a stage musical. Another Razzie recipient that year was Can’t Stop the Music. In a trailer it announces itself as “the musical extravaganza that launches the 80s,” but it missed its moment as disco was swiftly heading for the trash heap. But the Village People pseudo-biopic is an entertaining curiosity bursting with fit mustachioed men in half shirts and elaborate dance numbers. Also aiming so high it becomes interplanetary is The Apple (1980), directed by Menachem Globus just as he and Yoram Globus were taking over the Cannon Films. Like disco songs with lyrics in English written by Italians, The Apple has an uncanny quality—it clearly wants to be Rocky Horror, but its tongue is nowhere near its cheek, so it’s hyper-production is almost charmingly earnest.
Having a total awareness of being other-worldly, Forbidden Zone (1980) was the creation of Richard Elfman with music by brother Danny (who five years later would get into the Tim Burton business with his score to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure [1985]). A lunatic art project with hand-designed sets, frenetic animation and wild costumes, Forbidden Zone was timely for its New Wave aesthetic—something that became more prominent in later musicals of the 80s.
Also released in 1980, Breaking Glass is another early New Wave tinged music film, resembling what was to come later with female-led fictional punk bands including Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1982), and Starstruck (1982). The three have similar story arcs—counterculture girls whose personas are co-opted by the media so that they become cartoon versions of themselves, losing credibility and labeled “sell-outs.” Each movie is a must-see, all powered by inimitable performances with the lead actresses all doing their own vocals. The London-set Breaking Glass features Hazel O’Connor with songs that hit the charts in the UK. In Fabulous Stains, Diane Lane and Laura Dern were both teenagers, playing punk wannabes who can barely play instruments but whose attitude is enough to rile a crowd. Just two years later Diane Lane would star in Streets of Fire (1984) as Ellen Aim with a look that seems a continuation of her Fabulous Stains character, though the attitude is different. Starstruck was director Gillian Armstrong’s second narrative feature, and is the most classically musical of the three, with songs performed not just on stage, but throughout the Sydney-set locations. Led by Jo Kennedy, who is a delightfully vibrant presence with her scorched-red hair, one of the best scenes finds her dancing on the counter of her family’s cafe where she works, with all the regular-folk customers dancing along. Also worth mentioning, though it isn’t quite a musical, is Times Square (1982), in which rich-girl Pammy (Trini Alvarado) and street-kid Nicky (Robin Johnson, so electric) take New York City by storm as the “Sleez Sisters,” which is not so much a band as a movement. Nicky has rock star aspirations, and the swagger to back it up, and adopts the stage persona Aggie Dune, performing her song “Damn Dog” on top of a Times Square marquee.
Krush Groove
Continuing the New Wave fun is Get Crazy (1983) from director Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School [1979]) about a New Year’s Eve concert with spoofs of real-life rock stars (including Malcolm McDowell as Mick Jagger-like Reggie Wanker) but nonetheless energizing performances. Standing out is the fake girl band Nada, led by the acrobatic Lori Eastside ( a sometimes-choreographer whose credits include Cry-Baby [1990] and Krush Groove [1985]), and a rabid Lee Ving (of the hardcore punk band Fear).
Many films in the 1980s went the direction of keeping song performances on stage rather than integrating them into the plot and action of the narrative. Typically they were biopics, sometimes of actual songwriters (Coal Miner’s Daughter [1980]), other times of real-life performers playing loose versions of themselves (Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose [1980], Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer [1980], Prince in Purple Rain [1984]) or maybe completely fabricated rock stars (Eddie and the Cruisers [1983] and This is Spinal Tap [1984]). Krush Groove does this ambitiously, representing the early days of Def Jam Recordings by having artists, including Run-DMC and Beastie Boys, playing themselves, but also by featuring label co-founders Rick Rubin (as himself) and Russell Simmons (in a cameo, not as himself). While thin on plot, the movie is notable for these performers, along with Sheila E., Kurtis Blow, and more, all in their prime. Purple Rain is of course the most iconic example of this, capturing Prince at the height of his powers, with a killer album to match. It spurred him on to a more ambitious project, this time also as director, for Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Although tied to what would became a platinum album (Parade), it didn’t connect with his fans, perhaps because his character was a step away from his persona, and the plot tried to mimic classic Hollywood romantic tragedies. However, the movie is worth watching, because Prince is always worth watching, and there are incredible comedic moments and dazzling cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (who had just started working with Martin Scorsese, shooting After Hours the year before).
The decade was a time for vanity projects, which are often compelling even when they don’t quite work. Barbra Streisand, who had the power to do anything she wanted, made the bold choice to adapt the stage play Yentl (1983) into a musical for her directorial debut. It took her over a decade but she got it made. Considering its un-sexy subject of a girl in 1904 posing as a boy in order to be able to learn the Talmud, the film was actually fairly successful. Following the success of Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola, the king of overdoing it, bankrupted his production company while making One from the Heart (1981), a lavish spectacle with songs by Tom Waits. Though disparaged at its release, One from the Heart has since been celebrated for its stunning look and gorgeous sets.
Less vanity projects and more weirdo art pieces, songwriters Neil Young and David Byrne made their feature directorial debuts in the 1980s. Made with 3 million dollars out of his own pocket, Neil Young’s Human Highway (1982) seems more like an excuse for Young to work with Devo, who perform most of the musical numbers in the movie, than to show off his own music, which largely shows up in the background over a radio. Having directed some Talking Heads music videos, David Byrne was inspired by human interest stories of regular Americans in the news, thus True Stories (1986) was born. He wrote the songs for the characters, and although Talking Heads recorded the songs with his vocals for a separate album, he has his actors sing the tracks used in the film, or else has them lipsync, done most endearingly with “Wild Wild Life” as a contest at a club with an array of oddball characters.
Christiane F.
While there was no specific passion project for David Bowie during the decade, 1980s cinema did get its fill of him, though not always with song. Most iconic is his role as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), for which he wrote five songs and performed in the film, prancing around in tight leotard pants with impish puppets. He also makes an appearance (though less than the advertising promises) in the largely disappointing Absolute Beginners (1986). And in the Berlin-set, based-on-a-true-story Christiane F. (1981) he appears as himself on stage at a club performing songs mostly from his Station to Station album, a distant coveted idol for the titular struggling teen.
Another German film takes pop star idolization to disturbing ends. In Der Fan (1982), a young woman obsesses over “R” (played by Bodo Steiger of Rheingold—more New Wave!), stalking him and playing his songs over and over. It’s a slow build to a horrific climax. A horror movie with musical elements that reverses the typical stalker/stalkee roles is Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987), in which a group of teen girls are the prey of a killer rock star with supernatural powers and a drill-tipped guitar as a murder weapon. The song-and-dance number performed by Atanas Ilitch is hilarious (the movie is more of a satire of slashers), with taunting rockabilly gyrations emphasizing the sex panic the killer is meant to induce in the girls.
Beat Street
In many 1980s movies, dance itself was on display, with a soundtrack compilation of pre-existing songs. One clever version of this was Pennies from Heaven (1981), which has its cast lip-syncing and dancing to songs of the 1920s and 1930s. More common were narratives built around dance, whether it was competition (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun [1985], Hairspray [1988]), rebellion (Footloose [1984], Dirty Dancing [1987]) or career aspirations (Flashdance [1983]). Others aimed to capitalize on trends at the time, such as the Breakin’ (1984) movies. Beat Street (1984) stands above the trend followers, giving its characters more personality, staging incredible looking dance parties and breakdancing battles in subway stations. It also includes performances by early hip hop artists such as Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh, plus some standout women including Brenda K. Starr and Us Girls.
The musical comedies of the 1980s provide the most satisfying full-on song-and-dance numbers, a perfect way to further the laughs. This is taken to the extreme in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), where songs like “Every Sperm is Sacred” and “Accountancy Shanty” add to the absurdity. Earth Girls are Easy (1988) sprang from a song by comedian Julie Brown, and expanded into a movie it is a pure delight, with Brown leading most of the musical numbers (Jeff Goldblum may not sing and dance, but his reptilian hotness will put music in you.) Although she provided the title song for 9 to 5 (1980), it is The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) that gave us the first bonafide Dolly Parton musical. Paired with Burt Reynolds and a surprisingly light on his toes Charles Durning, it’s a truly blissful piece of cinema. Blending horror with comedy, Little Shop of Horrors (1986) still impresses with its bloodthirsty plant Audrey II, an elaborate puppet that looks better than any CGI could, with vocals provided by Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs.
Grease 2
Two musical comedies aimed to ride the coattails of previous successes. Shock Treatment (1981) has little connection to The Rocky Horror Picture Show beyond the characters of Brad and Janet, but it hoped to win over the same audience with its offbeat humor. It didn’t land at the time but it has since found a small following. Grease 2 (1982) was directed by Grease (1978) choreographer Patricia Birch, and although it flopped at the time, it has a devoted following, and has aged better than the first with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Stephanie Zinone now considered a feminist icon. The musical numbers also stand out with an impressive “Let’s Bowl” overtaking a bowling alley and “Reproduction” as Tab Hunter attempts to teach a class of horny high school kids about the birds and the bees.
Another brand of funny comes with movies in which the songs themselves are the jokes. This is Spinal Tap (1984) effectively sent up rock bands, and lead actors Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean wrote most of the songs along with director Rob Reiner, including titles such as “Sex Farm” and “Hell Hole.” For Ishtar (1987), director Elaine May collaborated with acclaimed songwriter Paul Williams to come up with the purposefully bad songs of Rogers and Clarke, with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as the lovable losers earnestly trying to find their big hit.
Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee has recently announced he’ll be directing a “dancin’, all singin’ musical” about the invention of Viagra. While many may not necessarily associate him with the genre, he is no stranger to it. He has said that the intro credits for Do the Right Thing (1989), in which Rosie Perez dances to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, were inspired by Bye Bye Birdie’s (1963) Ann-Margret opener. School Daze (1988) is just a few notes and steps away from being pure musical, with “Straight and Nappy” standing out as one of the best musical numbers in any 1980s movie, with its  step show in which the college fraternities perform and all-time jam “Da Butt” with band EU performing at the school dance.
One director stepped far outside of expectations to create one of the best and most of-the-decade musicals. Coming into the decade, Chantal Akerman was best known for her feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) which is 200 minutes of watching a woman’s life slowly unravel. So when she set out to make a musical, she struggled to find financing as no one associated her with the genre. First presenting a documentary to show she could stage song and dance numbers with Les années 80 (1983), she finally raised enough money for the glorious Golden Eighties (1986). Set in a stifling mall and popping with pastel clothes, its lovelorn characters sing of their dreams, sometimes backed up by a chorus of hairdressers. Akerman wrote the lyrics to the songs, and although there is a surface buoyancy, it is all tinged with melancholy.
The 1980s were an embarrassment of riches for musicals, breathing new life into the genre, full of iconic characters and soundtracks that we continue to revel in. What other time could give us something as outré as Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone dueting (Rhinestone, 1984) or Pee-Wee Herman singing “Surfin’ Bird” (Back to the Beach, 1987), or sci-fi musicals such as Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)?


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