Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Five Most Ludicrous Musical Numbers in Movie History

I recently watched Saturday Night Fever (1977) again and despite the 1970s fashions (or perhaps because of them...), it remains an endlessly entertaining film. In some other quantum reality, perhaps, we're all still emulating Tony Manero: wearing white jackets with lapels down to our shoulders and pants three sizes too tight.

But in this reality, something happened that stamped out forever the glitzy night-time world observed so brilliantly in John Badham's disco classic.

Well, not something...five somethings. They are (in no particular order): Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Apple (1980), Can't Stop The Music (1980), Xanadu (1980), and the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive (1983).

Et tu, Travolta?

Simply stated, these films -- all of 1978 -1983 vintage -- remain the most bizarre, garish and lurid movie musicals ever made. It's not just that these films are run-of-the-mill bad, it's that they each elevate badness to a fine art in unique, staggering ways. Believe me, if you haven't seen it, you can't even begin to conceive of The Apple.

And I might as well admit it: I'm unhealthily taken with these cult movies. They whisper to me of a time and place -- nay a world -- of extreme possibilities. Could you imagine the bad luck of seeing Sgt. Pepper in 1978? Then returning -- wounded and vulnerable -- to the theater in 1980, only to reckon with Can't Stop The Music? Then, after years of recovery, catching Staying Alive on the big screen? It's...madness.

Now, I wouldn't recommend you watch all of these films (well, actually, okay, I would...), but for your viewing pleasure, I have compiled the most ludicrous musical numbers from each production for your viewing pleasure today.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

1. "Get Back"

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) stars the Bee Gees. Here, the group sings entirely from the catalogue of the Beatles, an homage turned fromage. The film concerns the evil Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), who plots to steal the magical coronet, drums and other musical instruments of the original Sgt. Pepper, the revered former leader of Heartland U.S.A. The Bee-Gees -- as the Lonely Hearts Club Band --- must retrieve the instruments, and also contend with such personalities as Father Sun (Alice Cooper) and Future Villain (Aerosmith).

In our first selection, Peter Frampton's heroic character, Billy Shears, attempts suicide after the alleged demise of his girlfriend, Strawberry Fields, only to get resurrected by Sgt. Pepper (Billy Preston). Sgt. Pepper then sings "Get Back!" while jazz-ercising and firing lasers out of his fingers.

#2."The Apple"

Set in the distant year of 1994, The Apple is the Golan-Globus epic of Moosejaw denizens and babes-in-the-woods, Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour), who star in the futuristic equivalent of American Idol called The World Vision Song Contest. After their performance, these innocents are seduced by Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybel), a music/Hollywood agent and Lucifer himself. In the following song, "The Apple," Bibi makes a Faustian deal for fame. If nothing else, this hellish musical number forecasts the production design of "Satan's Alley." The lyrics from "The Apple" suggest "you'll be hypnotized. You'll be victimized." Consider that truth in advertising.

# 3. "Do the Milk Shake."

This number is from the fictionalized Village People bio-pic Can't Stop The Music, starring Steve Gutenberg and Bruce Jenner. The film was directed by Nancy Walker, who was famous for paper towel commercials. Otherwise, I don't really think I should comment on this one. Just ask yourself: knowing what you know about The Village People, what is this musical number really about?

#4. "Xanadu"

All kidding aside, Xanadu (1980) starring Olivia Newton John is really one of my personal guilty pleasures (and it's the only movie on this list I actually saw theatrically.) So I humbly ask you to "open your eyes and hear the magic!" as the movie's marketers suggested; mixing their metaphors with confusing razzle-dazzle. The number I selected from Xanadu is the triumphant denouement, showcasing the opening of a new roller-skating rink/night club. I dare say that this is the only musical number in history featuring Gene Kelly on roller skates, women in spandex, and split screens. And you know what? I love every goddamn minute of it.

#5 "Satan's Alley"

The Apple was just a warm up. Here's a (thin) John Travolta in the closing musical number from Staying Alive. It was supposed to represent a Broadway stage show entitled "Satan's Alley," but just try to imagine the logistics of presenting this number on stage (and without cuts?) It's like a three-ring disco circus. David Denby wrote one my favorite movie reviews ever regarding this film.

He wrote: "This is no ordinary terrible movie; it's a vision of the end. Not the end of the world, which will probably be much quieter than Staying Alive, but the end of movies...As you watch it, the idea of what a movie is - an idea that has lasted more than half-a-century - crumbles before your eyes." (New York Magazine, August 1, 1983, page 54).


  1. Muir, this post is like the pickled ginger that refreshes the tastebuds between maki rolls. Great stuff!

    Billy Preston is the funkiest Deus Ex Machina ever.

  2. This kind of post is why they made the Internet! Gracias a million times over, my friend.

  3. Hey Guys,

    This is the kind of infectious I'm glad to spread around, as Christopher Guest once put it...


  4. Truly wonderful and terrifying stuff, Sir John Kenneth Muir.

    But you really should have warned us about that guy's posing pouch in The Apple clip. Truly scarey.

    It nearly put me off my breakfast ...

    All the best

    HP, Christchurch, NZ

    ps Frankie Howerd, Aerosmith, Billy Preston and the Bee Gees in the same film? What a strange and wonderful planet this is ...

    pps mum ... I have suddenly been afflicted with a major lactose intolerancy ... what will I put on my cornflakes in the morning now??

  5. This was hilarious!

    I admit it - I'm a HUGE Sgt. Peppers fan. HUGE. I have the movie on vhs, DVD & the soundtrack. I grew up on that movie and just adore it endlessly. However, I do realize I am in the minority. I mean even the people who were in the movie dislike it! Still, I can't help it.

    I'm also all about Can't Stop the Music. It's utterly horrible, but what an awesome time capsule. I mean, even the movie missed its own era. It came out as disco was on its last legs. I think I read somewhere that it bombed in every country it played in except Australia who apparently want to keep the beat going!

    Also, how can you say no to Bruce Jenner in cut-off shorts?

    Great post John!

  6. Hey Amanda by Night:

    As much as intelletually I realize that these production numbers (and the films) are awful...I wouldn't change them a bit. (Well, maybe The Apple...).

    I have no idea why, but I garner an inordinate amount of pleasure out of Xanadu and Can't Stop The Music. Yes, I admit it.

    So don't you feel bad about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band. :)

    And, heck, it could have been worse. We could have both admitted a secret love for Staying Alive!! (And then we'd have to reckon with David Denby!)