“We are the other people
We are the other people
We are the other people
You’re the other people too!
Found a way to get to you”
– “Mother People”, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
With the end of this pandemic finally within sight, life is starting to pick up and it’s looking safe for the Frida to open its doors again! COVID safety guidelines will still be in place, but I’m sure many will just be happy to watch movies in a darkened theater with other people once again. Though we’re having our official “soft” opening this week with screenings of Dazed and Confused, I like to think that the return of monthly The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings (and with them KAOS, the Frida’s resident shadow cast) has been a fitting sign that things are getting better for our theater. Playing the second Friday of every month at our Tustin Mess Hall drive-ins since January, the madcap musical takes young lovers Brad and Janet on a wild ride through the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a singing, crossdressing mad scientist who introduces the straight-laced couple to the pleasures of the flesh. Largely ignored by critics and audiences upon its initial release in 1975, the movie has since become a cult classic thanks to its devoted fanbase, who keep it alive with late-night, audience participation-friendly screenings across the country, if not the world.
Featuring LGBT characters and themes at time when homosexuality and other non-heteronormative activity was suppressed and even criminalized, the appeal of Rocky Horror has always been in large part due to its resonance with those who were perceived and treated as misfits or outcasts. Even as progress has marched on and society has become more accepting of LGBT people, the film still speaks to those who feel like they struggle with fitting in or relating to others. This is part of a long, storied tradition in musicals—that most polarizing of film genres—of taking stories and topics that viewers might be uninterested or even hostile towards and getting them to nod along as the cast sings and dances about those very things. It’s not particular to alternative productions like Rocky Horror: beloved classics that generation after generation have grown up on like The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof directly tackle such weighty issues as racial/religious prejudice and defying authority.
However, we’re not going to talk about any musicals that your grandma might have the soundtrack to today! We’re going to take a look at ones that elevate bombast over subtlety, style over reality, and the unusual over the mundane in their quest to subvert the audience’s expectations and worldview. So tell Rodgers and Hammerstein to take a hike, tell Julie Andrews that you love her, and let your freak flag fly as we embark on a tour of misfit musicals!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Originally staged as a theatrical production written and produced by Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show is a rocking and bopping love letter to Gothic horror and science fiction, particularly the films of Hammer Horror (which I previously discussed in another post.) Indeed, Oakley Court, the country house used as the exterior of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s castle, was similarly used in a number of Hammer productions like The Reptile and The Brides of Dracula. Another less-commonly noted connection is the fact that Frank’s monster, Rocky Horror, has the appearance of a healthy, even attractive man, a twist on the Frankenstein legend already used to dramatic effect in Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein. Though the Hammer references may not be as apparent to viewers raised on newer generations of horror, Rocky Horror remains an outrageously entertaining viewing experience (and even more so when viewed with a talented shadow cast like KAOS.)
As diehard Rocky fans will be sure to tell you, every cast member here is a star in their own right. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, of course, are pitch perfect as Brad and Janet, fully embodying the stereotypical qualities of this seemingly all-American couple before unraveling them as the movie goes on and things get weird. Similarly, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and “Little” Nell Campbell are all delightfully diverting as Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia, the servants and groupies of Frank-N-Furter. Yet if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.
Just as intoxicating as the cast are the songs, all of which were written by O’Brien, to say nothing of impossibly catchy. The obvious classics like “Sweet Transvestite” and “Time Warp” are fan favorites with good reason, what with their funky guitar riffs and unforgettable choruses. “Science Fiction/Double Feature”, the opening number, is a melodiously mellow paean to classic sci-fi films like King Kong and The Day The Earth Stood Still sung by O’Brien in a rather alluring falsetto. However, the tracks that tend to get overlooked are excellent in their own ways. Rocky’s song, “The Sword of Damocles”, is a short but lively ditty that evokes the sound of surf rock with its tremulous vocals and backing harmonies. Without a doubt though, the one everyone sleeps the hardest on is “Super Heroes”. Playing after the departure of the Transylvanians and cut from the original American release, it’s a dark piece describing Brad and Janet’s loss of innocence backed by dirge-like piano and a mournful guitar. To make things even grimmer, it’s played completely straight, meaning this previously funny, freewheeling movie wants us take this depressing moment entirely at face value.
“…if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.”
With increased acceptance of LGBT people and expression in the past couple decades, it’s easy to forget just how transgressive Rocky Horror was when it came out. While Frank’s crossdressing and bisexual inclinations are hardly shocking to viewers’ today, his willingness to deceive people into having sex with him, verbally abuse others, and engage in cannibalism might snap them back to reality and make them realize that, for all how sad his death is supposed to be in the context of the film, Frank-N-Furter is a pretty horrible person. It’s an aspect of the story that complicates the carefree, “do what thou wilt” message that many seem to take away from the movie, and it’s undermined even further when you take “Super Heroes” into account. Explaining that, after all the hedonistic pleasure they got to indulge in, Brad and Janet are now “lost in time, lost in space… and meaning”, the song indicates that the two lost much more than they gained from their experience.
Nothing less than a cultural institution at this point, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still lives up to its reputation as both the original midnight movie and an unashamed celebration of LGBT identity.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001)
It could be argued that John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch shares quite a bit in common with Rocky Horror. Adapted from an earlier musical by Mitchell and Stephen Trask in the way that Rocky was based on a stage show, both also feature rock music and explore issues of LGBT identity. But while Rocky Horror largely revels in its own decadence, Hedwig has a more melancholy tone, and understandably so. A survivor of a botched sex change operation that she only consented to out of desperation to escape from communist East Germany, Hedwig struggles to make it big as a rock singer and confront an ex who stole her music, all while trying to come to terms with her identity in a society that views her as neither man nor woman, East nor West. Truthfully, it’s a premise that does have the makings of a great farce, but there’s little that’s farcical about it thanks to Mitchell’s surprisingly sincere direction.
The heart and soul of this heartful, soul-stirring movie is Hedwig herself, played with astounding authenticity by Mitchell himself. Playing our heroine as catty and confident on the stage and in the bandroom but vulnerable and confused in her monologues to the audience, Mitchell is able to navigate the different layers of Hedwig’s identity and show the intense feelings of hurt that lie beneath them. He does affect an accent for the role but it’s done fairly well, indicating the character’s East German origins without reaching Mel Brooks levels of ridiculousness. As such, there’s little room for the rest of the cast to truly shine, though they all do turn in respectable performances. Actress Mariam Shor gets the most mileage out of the supporting players in a gender-bending performance as Hedwig’s husband and bandmate Yitzhak, but Cube’s Maurice Dean Wint also pops up here as Sgt. Luther Robinson, the duplicitous American soldier who sweeps Hedwig off her feet and then drops her like a hot potato.
Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like “Tear Me Down” and “Angry Inch” having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio. That being said, the movie has an equal amount of slower, softer songs, injecting healthy doses of both sorrow and tenderness to the soundtrack. Among these sorrowful, tender tunes is “The Origin of Love”, a tear-jerking performance from Hedwig about her desire to find her “other half”. Drawing from a speech by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, the song blends mythology-inspired lyrics with angst-ridden vocals to not only convey the immense sense of loss that Hedwig feels but make viewers feel it as well.
“Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like ‘Tear Me Down’ and ‘Angry Inch’ having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio.”
In contrast to the Angry Inch’s punk orientation, a colorful, almost-glam rock aesthetic pervades the film. Hedwig, for starters, is partial to flamboyant outfits and accessories like shiny tops, tremendous wigs, and a star-embroidered cape that reads “Yankee Go Home With Me”. The bars and restaurants she and her bandmates play in are often drenched in fluorescent, neon-hued lighting that covers the spectrum from pink and red to green and blue. But the most potent visual element of the film has to be the animated portions done by Emily Hubley for “The Origin of Love”. Relaying the song’s tragic story in simplistic, hand-drawn animation, Hubley’s work leaves us with a curiously cryptic message: the words “deny me and be doomed”, tagged on the Berlin Wall by a young man as a disembodied eye watches him. A striking image, it’s haunting in its ambiguity but also penetrating through the sheer power of those five words.
Ruminating on questions of identity and self-fulfillment, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a powerfully poignant exploration of the human condition balanced by the beauty of its songs and brief moments of levity.
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Strange by the already-generous standards of alternative musicals, Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible might strike even viewers used to the antics of Rocky Horror and Hedwig as weird. An Australian musical from the 80’s, the movie is also a parody of comic books and superhero films to boot, presumably in response to the popularity of the Christopher Reeve Superman series around that time. Yet one can only wonder what all exactly the thought process was behind this production since it also throws in an origin story involving aliens, references to McCarthyism, and, as if to directly acknowledge influence from Rocky Horror, a brief instance of cross-dressing. This connection is strengthened by the fact that Richard O’Brien contributed a couple songs to the soundtrack, while one of the film’s screenwriters, Steven E. de Souza, would go on to direct Street Fighter, another film awash in action-packed camp. But as jumbled as the movie’s different elements and ideas are, there’s a half-knowing, half-earnest charm that holds the whole thing together.
Befitting its deconstructive approach to superhero lore, the movie casts its main star decidedly against type. Previously portraying Catch-22’s Yossarian (another high-flying captain who finds himself way in over his head) and later going on to play the grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way. Facing him is a most worthy adversary in the form of Mr. Midnight, a diabolical would-be genocidaire—who may or may not be the Devil himself—played to the hammy hilt by Hammer Horror fixture Christopher Lee, with Western movie regular Michael Pate also getting in some memorable moments as the American President.
A satire of American exceptionalism as much as it is one of comic books, it’s only appropriate that the film’s soundtrack lifts and borrows from various genres of American music. Naturally, rock is well represented with numbers like “Evil Midnight” and the peppy “Captain Invincible”, but other styles like country and gospel are also gently parodied with songs like the captain’s “Amazing How They’re Alike” and the President’s “We Need A Hero”. Arkin—again, he of the nasal Brooklyn accent—comports himself surprisingly well during the singing portions of the movie, even turning in a particularly powerful performance with the soothing crooning of the all too short “Into The Blue”. Stealing the show, however, is Lee (in his only live-action singing role after The Wicker Man) with Mr. Midnight’s showstopper, “Name Your Poison”. Written, of course, by Richard O’Brien and depicting Midnight’s temptation of Captain Invincible with his one and only weakness of alcohol, it’s a rocking good tune made all the more devious and debonair by Lee’s lush baritone.
“…Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way.”
With a measly budget of $7 million (Australian dollars, at that), the movie relies on its surreal humor and offbeat sensibility to overcome its confusing moments and wanting special effects. The limitations of the latter are plentifully on display during the captain’s flight scenes, with him “soaring” in place as a green screen rolls stock footage of New York, Sydney, or the sky behind him. Where the cinematography does land though, is the aerial footage actually shot for the film, particularly several of the establishing shots of the aforementioned cities. However, the most effective use of such footage has to be the opening credits, which sweep across the Australian wilderness as an inebriated Captain Invincible staggers around a mountaintop and sings bits of Leonard Bernstein’s “New York, New York”. From our lofty point of view, the captain appears to be a small, pitiful man, making his eventual return to the sky and herodom all the more grand.
While perhaps a bit scatterbrained in its narrative and a little too ambitious for a project of this scope and budget, The Return of Captain Invincible is nevertheless a superb superhero musical and, as of this post, still the best one out there!
Based on the life of the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, you’d probably expect Lisztomania to be fairly dry. Yet in the hands of director Ken Russell (whose avant-garde oeuvre I also covered in a previous post), it’s about as far from dry as you can get. Released the same year as Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s album Tommy, Lisztomania is a spiritual sequel of sorts to that movie that manages to go even farther in its attempts to provoke a reaction from the audience. Creatively interpreting the facts of its protagonist’s life and career, the film takes tidbits of documented history and stretches them to wild, often anachronistic extremes. Liszt’s popularity as a concert pianist, for example, serves as a pretext for the movie to portray him as a literal pop star, pounding the piano as throngs of screaming girls—who probably wish that he was pounding something else—try to storm the stage (it helps that he’s played by Roger Daltrey, a real-life rock star as well as the star of Tommy.) Believe it or not, this is the least weird thing about the movie, and it only gets weirder from here on out!
One might argue that it’s a stretch to call what the cast is doing here “acting” since a lot of it is really them simply reacting to whatever onscreen absurdity Russell has devised, but truth be told there are some entertaining—if not intensely moving—performances here. Daltrey is in top form as Liszt, bringing a waggish appeal and a convincing level of musicianship to the womanizing pianist (it also helps that he kind of looks like the historical Liszt.) As likable as Daltrey’s Liszt is though, it’s his nemesis, Paul Nicholas’ Richard Wagner, who holds the audience’s attention in every scene he’s in. Reimagining the German opera composer as a foppish mad Nazi vampire scientist (yep, you read that right) bent on paving the way for the “Superman”—and he doesn’t mean Clark Kent—with his music, Nicholas plays Wagner completely over the top, making him a comically evil figure instead of a disturbing one.
There’s also some surprisingly familiar faces among the supporting cast too. Nell Campbell, Rocky Horror’s very own Columbia, appears in a bit role as “Mr.” Janina, an amorous woman who travels all the way from Ukraine disguised as a nun and beds Liszt at gunpoint. We see Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who also doubles as the film’s composer and would later work with Russell again on Crimes of Passion, as a robotic version of the Norse god Thor brought to stilted, stein-chugging life—yes, really—by Wagner’s music. However, the most noteworthy cameo has to be everybody’s favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr, as the Pope, bursting into Liszt’s chambers with movie star-encrusted regalia and cowboy boots before dispatching the hapless Hungarian to exorcise Wagner. It already sounds like a lot to take in, but it’s nothing compared to what else the movie has in store for unsuspecting viewers!
With Wakeman arranging a number of Liszt and Wagner compositions to fit the movie’s rock opera sensibilities, the result is a predictably kitschy score that probably hasn’t aged very well but certainly captures the silliness of the 70’s. That means we get to hear garish, synth-heavy renditions of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and the immortal Ride of the Valkyries along with several more conventional arrangements of other pieces. While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful “Funerailles” and the longing, euphoric “Orpheus Song”, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion. Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical if the villain didn’t get a noteworthy number of their own, and Wagner definitely does with “Excelsior Song”, a brooding, bass-heavy song whose lulling vocals seduce but whose lyrics, describing a “messiah” who will one day drive “the beast” from Germany, chill.
“While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful ‘Funerailles’ and the longing, euphoric ‘Orpheus Song’, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion.”
Stimulating as the music is, what will likely stick most with viewers is the ludicrous imagery that Russell so lovingly conjures. Being the good Catholic that he is, Russell incorporates a healthy dose of religious iconography like crucifixes and portraits of saints that might play well to the family values crowd, but as he so often does, the Devils director subverts it with shocking displays of un-family-friendly material. Between topless women, fascist symbolism, and penises—if there’s one thing this movie loves more than boobs, swastikas, and classical music, it’s penises—there’s something that’s guaranteed to offend absolutely everyone here. It’s difficult to go into detail here, but one particular scene, depicting an erotic dream of Liszt’s that will, shall we say, leave any men watching with sudden, severe feelings of inadequacy, deserves special mention. Viewer discretion is most definitely advised, but those who can stomach the deliberate inanity and offensiveness are in for a gratuitously good time.
A profoundly absurd movie by any metric, Lisztomania avoids the blandness of way too many biopics by taking a potentially-dull subject, interpreting it in the most outlandish, most extravagant way possible, and inviting viewers to laugh their asses off at it.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
No list of offbeat musicals would be complete without Little Shop of Horrors, a timeless story about love, urban squalor, and singing, man-eating plants. Directed by Frank Oz (who, in addition to being a sorely-underrated filmmaker, was also the puppeteer behind Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, and several other Muppets), the film is an adaptation on the off-Broadway play of the same name, which in turn was based on a now relatively-obscure B-movie by—who else?—Roger Corman. As such, the movie is a humorous homage to the low-budget sci-fi titles churned out by Corman and American International Pictures during the 50’s and 60’s in the way that Rocky Horror was one to Hammer and Gothic horror. There may be no crossdressing mad scientists here, but there’s more than enough quirky characters and flair to make it a cult classic musical in its own right.
Essentially revolving around a cast of stereotypes, the actors here are nevertheless able to breathe a refreshing amount of life into what, in lesser hands, could just as easily have been cardboard cut-outs. Rick “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” Moranis is impeccably nerdy as our klutzy, botanically-inclined protagonist Seymour Krelborn, Ellen Greene (in a reprise of her role from the original off-Broadway show) is amusingly ditzy as the lisping, sweet-hearted Audrey, and Steve Martin struts and scowls as the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding sadist Orin Scrivello (DDS). The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars.
The early 60’s influence (a nod to the era of the original Corman film) extends to the soundtrack, which incorporates elements of the various rock and R&B subgenres so characteristic of the period. The opening number is sung in the style of Phil Spector-style girl groups by the appropriately-named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, “Dentist!” is a twisted send-up of teenage rebel songs, and “Da Doo” is straight-up doo wop. Additionally, there are not one but two showstopping numbers here. The first is “Skid Row (Downtown)”, a downbeat but infectious ensemble performance that captures the drudgery of the characters’ lives and their hopes for something more. The second is “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, an irresistible, guitar-driven tune sung by Audrey II and penned by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (yes, that Alan Menken) specifically for the film. Where else are you going to see a giant, carnivorous plant sing about how much of a badass she is while trying to shoot Rick Moranis?
“The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars. “
Speaking of that giant, carnivorous plant, it’s incredible how convincing the various puppets they use to render it are! With detailed textures and, in lieu of eyes, an unbelievably expressive range of lip and head movements, it’s a practical effects feat that’s made all the more impressive by the fact that the crew had to film all of Audrey II’s scenes in slow motion to make her motions more realistic. This forced Moranis and Greene to slowly lip sync their lines whenever they interacted with the plant so that they would appear to be speaking normally after the resulting footage was sped up, with audiences none the wiser. And yet, Oz and company somehow manage to top this with the infamous original ending where Audrey II eats Seymour and goes on to take over the world. Featuring marvelous model work by Richard Conway (who previously worked on Flash Gordon and Brazil) and well-crafted composite shots of the plants rampaging and people running for their lives, it’s a brilliant tribute to giant monster movies as well as a reminder that, sometimes, it’s more fun when the bad guy wins.
A love story? A critique of unchecked consumerism? An ode to old school horror and sci-fi? Little Shop of Horrors is all three, wearing each of these hats and looking bloody great in all of them.