six more modern musicals for you to sink your jazz hands into

Despite its record haul of Oscar nominations, 'La La Land' has divided audiences and critics. Here’s our guide to the other alt-musicals we’ve fallen in love with.

by Oliver Lunn
07 February 2017, 1:30pm

No movie genre is more divisive than the musical. Just the mention of the word — musical — will instantly make faces scrunch up like they've tasted out of date milk. To these people, it's an obsolete genre that twee-loving nostalgists resurrect every now and then for no good reason. You know, like with La La Land right now. But with that film's epic haul at the Golden Globes and its 14 Oscar nominations, are things looking up for the modern musical? Could the LA-set love story — with its nods to the musicals of yesteryear — even twist the arms of naysayers? Seems unlikely. At best, its popularity might usher the newly converted in the direction of other modern musicals; to see that they're not all charmless, nostalgia-fueled fluff to thumb your nose at. Guilty pleasure or not, here are some that categorically do not suck.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
Before Damien Chazelle's zippy drumming drama Whiplash wowed audiences, he made a little-seen monochrome musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It was shot on grainy 16mm and looks — for a musical at least — insanely lo-fi, like an MGM musical filtered through a gritty mumblecore lens. It's a story of lost love between a Boston jazz trumpeter and an introverted grad student. They break up in the opening minutes of the film. The trumpeter starts seeing a new girl. The old girl moves away and starts a new life. The guy starts to think he made a mistake and looks up his ex, but… uh-oh… has she moved on? Watching it now, you can see how this paved the way for the director's latest Oscar contender, with its song and dance numbers and tap battle scene. It's way more low-key, though, owing as much to Godard's A Bout De Souffle as it does Singin' in the Rain. It was made for a paltry $60,000. La La Land was made for $30 million, to give you some perspective.

Slightly more slick, like a high-end music video, is Spike Lee's fiercely political Chicago-set musical Chi-Raq. But it's still a long way from Baz Luhrmann. Based on the Classical Greek play Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from their husbands for fighting in the Peloponnesian War, Lee transposes the action to the crime-ridded south side of Chicago, where feisty females refuse to have sex with their trigger-happy men, essentially blackmailing them. Now you get the tagline: NO PEACE, NO PIECE. It's hardly a gritty musical, though, with its splashes of cartoonish purples and oranges representing different gangs and groups, like a modern day West Side Story. Then there's the dialogue that rolls out like a free-flowing rap. Who needs the chirpy choruses of Gene Kelly when you have Samuel L. Jackson serving up street poetry straight down the lens? "Stop the murder madness or there will be no more pole."

If John Waters had directed Grease it might have turned out something like this. Set in 50s Baltimore, Cry-Baby follows the rivalry between the "drapes" (leather jacket-sporting greasers) and the "squares" (buttoned-up prepsters), with Johnny Depp playing the leader of the former, "Cry-Baby" Walker. When the teen rebel falls for a square the whole town naturally upends. It's Danny Zuko and Sandra Dee all over again, but filtered through the tawdry mind of Waters, meaning this is a knowingly trashy and camp teen musical. Consider: a close-up of Depp's face, a solitary tear trickling down his cheek; the narrator's line: "He's been hurt. He's been mistreated. He's been misunderstood. He's Cry-Baby Walker." It's ultimately Depp's emo rockabilly, with his slick back hair and chiseled jawline, who steals the show with songs like "High School Hellcats" and "Teardrops are Falling." Oh, and did I mention Iggy Pop plays Cry-Baby's redneck uncle and smooches his grandma for what seems like an eternity? You wouldn't see that in Grease.

School Daze
Partly based on Spike Lee's days as an undergrad at Atlanta's Morehouse College, School Daze is a zany campus comedy about fraternities and sororities locking horns at a historically black college during homecoming weekend. And yes, there are songs. Lee pokes fun at the pledging process, himself starring as one of the hopeful "Gammites" during a grueling initiation process. He's a virgin and is told he must get laid to gain entry to the frat. That's on top of being chained up like a dog, blindfolded, and forced to grab a soggy banana in a toilet bowl. The best musical moment? When two sororities face off in a beauty parlor and talk — sing — all things hair. It's like "Beauty School Dropout," if "Beauty School Dropout" were 100 times more sassy. 

Dancer in the Dark
This might well be the darkest, most fucked up musical of all time. Which comes as no surprise when you google the director. It's Lars von Trier. Yep, the guy who directed Antichrist. In Dancer he casts Björk as a factory worker who saves up for an operation that will prevent her young son from the same degenerative eye condition she has. Then of course things go wrong — very wrong — when she's fired from her job and returns home to find her tin of savings completely empty. It's a harrowing watch, like a bleak social realist film with musical numbers. Those songs enter whenever Björk daydreams, when she craves escape from her hardscrabble life. It shouldn't really work, that odd blend of gritty realism and musical whimsy, but the end result is haunting and eerie in a way only a filmmaker like Von Trier could pull off. 

8 Women
When François Ozon decided to make a film only with women, this stylish black comedy — with an epic ensemble including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, and Emmanuelle Béart — took shape. Eight women are trapped in a wealthy estate during a storm at Christmas. They discover the family patriarch dead, murdered, and each woman becomes a suspect. I know, I know. It sounds like someone filmed a Clue game. But really it's a throwback to the camp 50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, with warm splashes of color poured on the eccentric family of women and their employees. Ozon winks down the lens with knowing irony, embracing all things kitsch, all things musical. It's like Dial M for Murder meets Cabaret.

Read: The anime movies that perfectly captured coming-of-age.


Text Oliver Lunn

john waters
cry baby
La La Land
school daze
Dancer in the Dark
8 women
guy and madeline on a park bench