The title of this top 10 sounds provocative and at first glance unexpected – 10 movie musicals for adults only.
It is generally assumed that the best musicals that have become classics of cinema, from the unforgettable ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), to the legendary ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952) and ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965), and so on up to the present day, are aimed at an audience that is not defined by age.
But, of course, it is not uncommon to see musical films made for children, not for sentimental entertainment, but to address serious issues. Sometimes musicals are made which are not even recommended for children, but for teenagers, because of violent scenes and sexual themes.
And sometimes… real pornography creeps into the arc of a musical. A perfect example is the musical ‘The Wayward Cloud’ (2005) by Tsai Ming-Liang, one of Taiwan’s most famous film directors – an erotic musical drama combining vulgar sex scenes and brilliantly choreographed musical numbers with gigantic sets, spectacular dancing, and kitsch lyrics that describe the main characters’ feelings and dreams, their fears and nightmares.
10. “DICKS: THE MUSICAL” (2023)
The plot of this original film musical was first introduced to the public as a musical comedy, first born on Broadway under the obscene title ‘Fucking Identical Twins’, based on the play by Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson. It was written by the authors and starred a pair of twins who embark on a great quest to reunite their divorced parents.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2023 and was released the following month in cinemas in the United States as ‘A24’s first musical.
The idea for this film was conceived much earlier, in the summer of 2016, but unforeseen circumstances stopped the project several times. The most recent was the merger between “Fox” and “Disney” in February 2022. ‘A24’ acquired the unfinished project from Peter Chernin’s production company and Larry Charles was appointed director.
The film’s music producer, Marius de Vries, in an interview with the influential film industry magazine ‘Variety’, said he felt it was his duty to pay attention to the detailed work on the songs and the arrangements, and called the film’s overall mission “anarchic and weak-minded”.
Knowing the overall mood of the film, the songwriters did not try to make the music sound like a parody. But they admitted that they borrowed some motifs from other musicals, e.g. in “The Sewer Song”, melodies from the famous musicals ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Flett’ Street’ (2007) and ‘Les Misérables’ (2012) are used as counterpoint.
By the way, the vocal parts of most of the musical numbers were recorded live on the set, rather than the traditional way of lip-syncing to pre-recorded images on the tracks.
Once all the songs had been arranged, it turned out that the total duration of all of them was longer than the film itself, so a number of tracks had to be sacrificed.
As predicted, the film was met with controversy as soon as it hit American screens. The influential film critic Roger Ebert, who defended the film vigorously and warned that it was an experiment in the musical genre, with provocative sexuality, the spirit of classical musicals and general lunacy, highlighted the film’s strengths as a meandering story, its extraordinary energy, its loose structure and its other positive aspects.
Another film critic was impressed by the filmmakers’ fearlessness in venturing into dangerous arcs of ambiguity in an attempt to expand on less than original plot ideas.
After all this, it is a nice conclusion that ‘Dicks: The Musical’ may become a cult classic in the near future. We’ll see! (G.J.)
9. “ANETTE” (2021)
What happens when a popular stand-up comedian and his opera-soloist wife have a daughter with a wonderful musical gift? The answer is ‘Annette’, a 2021 musical directed by Frenchman Leos Carax. Interestingly, the story and music for ‘Annette’ were written by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, members of the famous American band Sparks.
Described as a rock opera, the film tells the story of the love and life of Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver), a failed stand-up comedian, and his wife Ann Defrasnoux (played by Marion Cotillard), an opera soloist, and the life they lead after the birth of their new-born daughter Annette, who has an unearthly musical gift. In this musical drama, portrayed as a wooden marionette, Annette grows up against the backdrop of her parents’ disintegrating marriage. The situation is not helped by Ann’s accompanist (played by Simon Helberg), who feels admiration and love for the talented soloist.
While Ann, an opera soloist, enjoys a flourishing career, her husband Henry cannot, which further deteriorates the family dynamic and relationship. Annette’s life changes completely when, during a stormy night at sea, her parents decide to waltz on the deck of a boat, which proves fatal for one of them. We will leave readers to their viewing pleasure and not give away who kills who in the film, but the surreal story and the Mael brothers’ script, which has elements of fiction, make for a dream-like drama worthy of the attention of every cinema-goer.
‘Annette’ has the perfect blend of serious drama, humour and fun rock opera. The film also showcases the talent of actor Adam Driver, who tries to portray Henri’s complex personality, which often alternates between an aggressive stage bully and a caring father who loves his wife and daughter unconditionally. Adam Driver is also matched by French actress Marion Cottilard, who moved the audience with her sensual and dramatic performance as the unhappy soloist.
‘Annette’ draws the audience in from the very first minute with its dark atmosphere, complemented by music full of repetition by Sparks. According to the Mael brothers, they have been working on the script for ‘Annette’ for over a decade, and with director Leos Carax, they have been working on the musical drama for 8 years, during which time they have finally managed to bring it to the light of day. “Annette was presented at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 to positive reviews from critics and even won Leos Carax the Director of the Year Award.
8. ‘REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA’ (2008)
It has long been no surprise that almost all American film musicals are based on musical plays that have delighted audiences in the past.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman’s ‘Repo! The Genetic Opera’, based on the rock opera by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, which was first born as a musical play.
The play, which appeared on the theatre stage in 2002, and the film of the same name six years later, exploited the topical theme of organ transplantation, which, according to the authors, will not only become even more topical in 50 years’ time, but will also bring humanity to the brink of extinction.
In 2056, an epidemic of organ failure devastated the planet in an ecological catastrophe, wiping out 99% of the human population.
GeneCo, a biotech mega-corporation, is trying to save humans from extinction by offering artificial organ transplants, but at a high price. Those who want to prolong their lives buy the organs they need at a price. And if someone fails to make the required payment within three months, GeneCo sends in ruthless bailiffs known as “Repo Men”, who kill the debtor and return the organs to the company.
The horrific plot takes an unexpected turn when the CEO of GeneCo, Rotis Largas (Paul Sorvino), discovers that he himself is terminally ill. As the news spreads, Roti’s children, Luigi, Pavi and Amber, fight over who will inherit their father’s business. The trouble is that Roti himself thinks that none of them is a worthy heir, so he plans to give the property to his granddaughter, seventeen-year-old Shaila.
We know from scandalous media articles that similar stories of property divisions and the deadly hauntings that go with them are nothing short of sensational. Rather, it is an integral part of business in the lives of the rich. Similar films abound! One of the most recent is Ridley Scott’s drama ‘House of Gucci’, which we saw last year, in which we learnt that Patrizia Reggiani, the heiress of one of the most famous haute couture houses (played by Lady Gaga), had been accused of ordering her husband’s murder, had spent as much as 18 years in prison, and had been given the nickname of the Black Widow.
There are plenty of blood-curdling secrets in “Repo! The Genetic Opera”, and many of them are also shared by the lucky inheritor of a legacy, Shaila (Alexa Vega), whose life has been blighted before by a serious genetic disease.
Many songs were specially written for the film, but in the interest of time, a few had to be dropped. All the songs are in different styles, from classical compositions, rock and jazz to electronic music and punk rock. (G.J.)
7. ‘REEFER MADNESS: THE MOVIE MUSICAL’ (2005)
This comic musical from director Andy Fickman easily fits into a very broad niche of retro films. At the same time, it is also a film remake, loosely reworking the classic 1936 crime comedy ‘Tell Your Children’, also known as ‘Reefer Madness’ (translatable as ‘Narcotic Madness’).
That classic film was made in 1936 (directed by Louis J. Gasnier) and warned young people of the dangers of falling into serious drug addiction by getting hooked on small doses of “innocent” drugs. To illustrate this dangerous path, the filmmakers and their storyline show several stories of high school students in which drugs (specifically marijuana) lead to serious crimes: sexual abuse and even several versions of murder – fictitious, random and cynically plotted.
Back then, politicians in the United States made a major effort to combat the spread of marijuana. Active in this Don Quixotic struggle was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose representatives were keen to warn their fellow citizens that drugs were an evil that provoked crime and physical and mental degradation, such as psychoses and other forms of insanity. That is why the film was very topical at the time.
That this active fight has not produced tangible results is another matter. After all, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions…
The new film is also set in 1936. In a small town in central America, a mysterious lecturer brings a group of parents together for a meeting. The menacing guest informs the parents that he has come to warn them about the dangers of marijuana for their teenage children.
Meanwhile, a happy teenage couple, Jimmy Harper and Meri Lein, enjoy each other’s company, unaware of what is going on elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, serious crime is brewing in the criminal landlady known as Mae’s residence. Here, young people smoke their first “weed” and taste more “serious” drugs.
But these are not frivolous entertainments that cost nothing. There is a price to pay for every dose of drugs and the chance to experience pleasant hallucinations again and again. Slowly, Jimmy, who has turned into a real addict, starts stealing, and once decides to break into a church to steal the money collected during mass.
During this crime, Jimmy sees Christ, who calls from the dais for him to change his way of life so that he will not be condemned to eternal torment. But Jimmy ignores God’s intercession and falls deeper and deeper into sin.
The story takes a turn for the worse when Jimmy and his girlfriend Sale hit an old man in a stolen car while on a spree. The series of disasters and tragic events continues to escalate.
But the closer we get to the finale, the more the plot tries to lead us out of the tragic arcs and onto a path of hope and moral values that have remained unchanged for centuries. The final burning of the Garden of Wrath and the satanic book, as well as the historical and biblical associations, have the spirit of a time long gone, but also call us to listen to the voice of Jesus to Jimmy, “Hear me”… (G.J.)
6. ‘8 WOMEN’ (2002)
Based on a play by Robert Thomas, the plot seemed familiar at first sight: a rich patriarch is found in his bed with a dagger in his back. It is the middle of winter and deep snow surrounds his remote farmhouse. The phone line is cut and the car is damaged. There are eight characters with both the motive and the opportunity to commit murder. But then a difference emerges: all eight protagonists are women. The only man is dead.
The film stars French film stars Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Béart, each playing caricatures ranging from the schemer’s sister, to the charming wife, to the daughter of a bookworm. Full of dialogue and humour (each woman has her own song and dance), ‘8 Women’ was a sumptuously designed and beautifully shot film. Together with an intricate web of secrets and a perfect murder mystery, the film captivated audiences and critics alike, earning £26.6 million worldwide. The fact that the film was about women was an important part of its appeal and the reason why it continues to attract a loyal following a decade later. Cult recognition has inspired themed parties and ‘Facebook’ groups.
5. ‘SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET’ (2007)
The hero of this film saw the light of day in the first half of the 19th century and can rightly be considered a product of collective imagination. The demonic bearded man, Sweeney Todd, first appeared in Charles Dickens’s ‘Martin Cheslewhite’ (1844), and two years later, the character mentioned in the British literary classic, described as an ‘evil genius’, was the protagonist of Thomas Pynch’s ‘The String of Pearls’.
This macabre avenger has been the subject of numerous novels and plays since then. British theatres have been staging plays about Sweeney Tod since 1847, and cinema became interested in the story in the 1930s.
The latest version of the legendary plot is presented in the form of a classical musical.
“Sweeney Todd” follows the style of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s previous masterpiece “Corpse Bride” (2005). Only now, the necrophilic world of the original animated horror film has been replaced by the equally depressing atmosphere of a classic gothic horror novel and a style reminiscent of a dark comic book.
Many years ago, Benjamin Barker, the owner of a hairdressing salon, lived quietly in London with his lovely wife Lucy and their little daughter Joan. But when the bearded man’s wife catches his eye, the jealous Judge Terpine (Alan Rickman) is determined to have her husband convicted and sent to Australia without a trace. After 15 years in exile, Benjamin learns of his wife’s death. Then the ghost-like freak Sweeney Todd appears in London, surprising everyone with his ability to shave beards. Except that not all of the newcomer’s clients return home after this hygienic procedure. Some people disappeared after a visit to the barber’s shop, but the meat pies of Mrs Lovet in Svynis Tod’s neighbourhood became even more delicious, and the unsuspecting townspeople took a liking to these delicacies. How do they know what filling has replaced the traditional cockroaches in these cakes?
We’ve seen all kinds of musicals – happy and romantic, sad and sentimental, operatically colourful and carnivalesque. But we can forget all that now. The Oscar-winning musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Flett Street” proves that talented filmmakers have found yet another formula for a popular genre. For their film is a wildly bizarre, hysterically funny and horrifyingly creepy surrealist fairy tale, where the old-fashioned theatricality is accentuated by musical ballads, and the whole bloody guignol is enveloped in a creepy mystical atmosphere.
4. ‘THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW’ (1975)
‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, a 1975 cult classic, is still screened weekly in cinemas around the world, 45 years after its release. Since then, the film has grossed more than 170 million dollars worldwide and holds the record for the longest running film. Dedicated fans know the words to all the songs and can repeat most of the dialogue by heart. Interestingly, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was intended as a play.
And yes, indeed, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was first revived in 1973 as a musical performance in a small capacity studio above London’s Royal Court Theatre. This is rather strange in the light of the film as it now exists, but it can be noted that the action takes place as if it were adapted for a theatre stage. The choreography, the compositions and even the looks of the actors convey the atmosphere of the stage. This draws the viewer into participating with the characters on the screen. This is one of those films that you have to explain using a lot of hyphens. A horror-rock-transvestite-camp-all-sexual-musical parody.
The film is about two young lovers, Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick), who stumble upon a sinister gothic castle where the annual Transylvanian Convention (or is it more accurately Transylvanian Orgy?) is held. The castle is run by a strange doctor, Frank N. Furter, who explains that he is a transvestite from the Transsexual planet in the Transylvanian galaxy.
The Mad Doctor presents his latest creation, Rocky Horror. He is a muscular blond man with androgynous features, wearing tight golden shorts. Furter has several scientific creations that would have frightened Dr Victor Frankenstein himself, not to mention Janet and Brad. Meanwhile, the youngsters get to know the castle’s permanent residents, including the hunchbacked servant, Riff Raff, and his sister, Magent, who is his mistress. Trapped in a world of fluid sexuality, Brad and Janet begin to question not only their devotion to each other, but also to the social norms that they thought were so important before.
As we remember from the novel ‘Frankenstein’, not every monster turns out to be a success. Dr. Furter has a couple of previous patients, including Eddie, who passes through walls without using the door and looks suspiciously like his leather vest. Janet and Brad get into the party spirit, as they say in the swinger magazines. Dr. Furter says loudly in the film, “Give in to absolute pleasure. Swim in the warm waters of the sins of the flesh – erotic nightmares, no doubt, and sensual dreams to be cherished forever. Can’t you just see it? Don’t dream, so be it. ”
Dr Furter. is played by British actor Tim Curry. He is the best performer in the whole film, perhaps because he seems to be having the most fun. He is also a gifted actor, which is more than you can say for the various characters in Transylvania who are drawn to the screen for various reasons and seem to have been invited to the wrong party. That becomes irrelevant because Dr Furter. was a great host. He has a lot of make-up on his face, bright lips. He is wearing fishnet tights, fingerless gloves, black briefs and a corset. The iconic accent is a pearl necklace.
This film has nods to as many as 15 classic films such as ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘King Kong’. This adds some interesting sexual twists. The soundtrack is phenomenal, perfectly representing the days of the raunchy, reprehensible culture, adventurous sexuality and the rock’n’roll aesthetic of the 70s. From the famous “Time Warp” to Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite” or Susan Sarandon’s “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch me”. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” doesn’t leave anyone without a thrilling experience.
The only criticism is that the plot is a little bit choppy and it’s hard to understand what is going on. It is also worth remembering Frank’s legendary self-actualisation anthem: “I am a lovely transvestite – from Transsexual Transylvania”, which is currently offensive to some transgender viewers. Nevertheless, the film has become a legend. Almost the whole story is told through songs rather than dialogue, which makes sense because the film is a musical, but the words can be almost inaccurate, not matching the meanings. The music is great, it is attractive, but it also rewards fans who decide to revisit the film again. It allows them to understand all the clues, jokes, songs and various hidden details. Indeed, this film is very relevant to these times and standards.
3. ‘ROCKETMAN’ (2019)
The film’s release was undoubtedly accelerated by the phenomenal worldwide success of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The film, about the life of Freddie Mercury, the leader of the legendary rock band ‘Queen’, and the heartfelt performance of Rami Malek, an actor who looks very much like his prototype, have been hailed by millions of cinemagoers.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was directed by Bryan Singer, but before the end of filming, public knowledge of his inappropriate behaviour towards women led to the director’s removal and the completion of the film by his colleague Dexter Fletcher.
Apparently, it was decided that Dalia Ibelhauptaitė’s husband had coped well with this position, and he was entrusted to direct a film about Sir Elton John.
Freddie Mercury and Elton John’s biographies are similar from the very beginning. Both were ‘boys from nowhere’. Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar and, before he became a musician, was called Farrokh Bulsara. Elton John was called Reginald Kenneth Dwight before he became a world star.
The future superstar and pop icon grew up in a working-class family in a small town in England, so hardly anyone could have imagined that the shy, red-haired, chubby kid would one day become a sensation in the music world. The Royal Academy of Music, the spectacular concerts, the eccentric behaviour, the unconventional sexual orientation, the depression and the drugs – all this is reflected in the film in a rather detailed (and sometimes even petty) way.
However, the promise of the distributors of the film to provide a bold and open look at Elton John’s life turned out to be a rather boring and prolonged spectacle.
Even with the naked eye, it is clear that ‘Rocketman’ is based on the model of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which met financial expectations. Except that the authors will probably have forgotten the old wisdom that you can’t wade into the same river twice.
Even the financial statistics illustrate this point very vividly: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which cost USD 52 million, grossed just over USD 900 million, while ‘Rocketman’, which cost USD 40 million, earned only USD 96 million worldwide.
The least of the blame for this lies with Taron Egerton, the lead actor, who is genuinely sincere in his efforts, even though he is required to accentuate his character’s eccentricities as much as possible in almost every scene – in his mannerisms, his behaviour, his change of colourful clothes. All this soon becomes tiresome, but this colourful carnival begins to overwhelm the complex character.
Or perhaps the reason for the audience’s lack of love is simpler. Maybe it is not only Lithuanians who love the dead more. If so, Elton John’s film biography could have been rushed… (G.J.)
2. ‘THE BLUES BROTHERS’ (1980)
When John Landis, the director of light-hearted commercial comedies, made ‘The Blues Brothers’ in the 1980s, it is unlikely that he thought he was making a cult film that would not only occupy a significant place in the collection of such cinema, but also become the subject of imitation and parody for generations of cinema viewers.
‘The Blues Brothers’ is a hilariously wacky comedy about two eccentric brothers who set out to save the orphanage they were born in, which is facing bankruptcy and foreclosure.
In order to raise five thousand dollars for this worthy cause, the eccentric couple are planning to form a rock band called “The Good Old Boys”, whose repertoire consists of “country and western” style songs.
It would all be quite all right if it were not for one circumstance. Both brothers have to hide from their pursuers all the time. Jake (John Belushi), recently released from prison, is terrorised by his jilted ex-fiancée, armed to the teeth with a submachine gun, a grenade launcher and all sorts of explosives, while Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) is harassed by the entire state police force and a Nazi (!) gang leader.
That the entire production team went crazy on the set is clear beyond comment. It is rare for filmmakers to be so willing to be helped by colleagues who are usually jealous of someone else’s success. This film is a pleasant exception, as the keen eye of the viewer manages to catch a few of the celebrities who have agreed to appear on screen in miniature episodes – directors Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg, actors Carrie Fisher and John Candy, The stars of the music world are James Brown and Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Twiggy, guitar virtuoso Luther Johnson and drummer Willie Smith, the queen of soul music Aretha Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir “in corpore”, which has a special status in America.
‘The Blues Brothers’ is just as colourful in terms of genre. It’s a real mix of genres! Crime comedy is replaced by gangster parody, eccentric comedy jokes are replaced by fantasy elements, chase and racing scenes are replaced by sentimental romantic songs. And all of this is spiced up with some really inventive musical numbers.
It is surprising that such seemingly disparate elements have been used to create a very stylish and memorable spectacle, the individual pieces of which you want to repeat over and over again, quoting vivid phrases and enjoying their subtle humour.
So it’s no wonder that we want to repeat this success again. In 1998, John Landis made the sequel ‘Blues Brothers 2000’, but this time only one soloist remained from the Blues Brothers duo – Dan Aykroyd was still playing Elwood, while his partner John Belushi was long dead (his earthly journey ended in 1982 by drug overdose). G.J.
1. ‘DANCER IN THE DARK’ (2000)
‘Dancer in the Dark’ is set in 1964 in a suburb of Washington DC. Selma (Bjork), an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who works in a metal products factory, lives with her teenage son in a house on wheels rented to her by a local policeman. Selma’s eyesight is deteriorating year by year, a condition that her son is likely to inherit. So she saves money for her child’s eye surgery, while she is content with the minimal pleasures of life, the most important of which are the American musicals, whose beautiful melodies Selma hears all the time, and which she imagines she is the hero of to forget all the hardships of life for a while. Musicals are Selma’s second reality in life because “nothing bad ever happens in them”.
But real life is far from a musical. When Selma is sacked from her job, fate sends the poor woman through yet another ringer – her hard-earned savings are pocketed by a caravan owner. In an attempt to get her money back, Selma kills a policeman and becomes the perpetrator of a “crime of the first degree”. In America, the murder of an officer has long been punishable by death. Of course, a good lawyer could have found mitigating circumstances in this situation, but a trial would eat up all the money saved for her son’s eye operation. Therefore, the woman refuses to go through with this plan to save her life.
In the last scene, Selma is tied to a board and prepared for hanging. When Selma learns that her son’s eye operation has been successful, she starts to sing: “This is not the last song, there is no violin, the choir is silent, nobody is turning, this is the penultimate song, that’s all”.