Classic Cult: Musicals

Musicals as a genre within film have been approached somewhat apprehensively in recent years and yet they formed an integral part of the formation of modern cinema. The transition that occurred in the 1930s from the silent films, popularised by luminaries including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to a new form of entertainment made possible through the arrival of sound marked the beginning of the musical feature.

However, beyond the success of the early musicals that were made between the 1930s and 1960s (and a handful released each year in the following decades) it has remained a relatively unappreciated genre. Away from smash hits such as Singing in the RainThe Sound of Music, and the animated films of Walt Disney, there have been a surprising number of cult musicals which cannot be overlooked when considering this distinct genre.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the ultimate cult musical. With much of its success generated from midnight screenings featuring hundreds of dedicated followers clad in transsexual attire, it has gone on to harbour some of the most bizarre instances of audience participation. Projectiles of toast, toilet paper, water and rice alongside answering back to the screen and mass reproductions of the “Time Warp” make this not just a cult film, but a cult experience.

Numerous famous musicians have featured in cult musicals that have developed a devoted fan base often years after their initial flop. The Wiz is an urban retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring an all African-American cast set in a fantasy version of New York City. With Diana Ross as Dorothy, reconfigured as a Harlem school teacher, and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, It illustrates a combination of soulful song and dance numbers written towards the end of the blaxploitation movement.

Few cult fans will be unaware of Labyrinth, a fantasy film directed by Jim Henson, starring David Bowie as the beleaguering Goblin King, Jareth. Its combination of puppetry, human performances and Bowie crotch shots – which have sparked pages of critical analysis – mean it remains one of the best cult musicals ever made. Rock opera Tommy, based upon the album of the same name is a musical by British band The Who. Starring Who lead singer Roger Daltrey as a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard, and featuring terrific cameo performances from the likes of Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner. It is a surrealist production that features one of the most innovative soundtracks of the genre.

In recent years, cult musicals have received less acclaim, generally staying predominately under the radar. However, Lars Von Trier’s Palme d’Or winning Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer Björk has redefined the musical genre by introducing an extreme emotional aspect to what is generally frivolous escapism. It is clear from examples like this that it is anything but a dying genre. Still retaining merit in what is often a prejudiced art form, musicals are constantly reassessing the necessary requirements for entertainment.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 4th 2011.

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