The Only Good Musical is About Actual Musicians

Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”

What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.

Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.

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A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.

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Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.

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The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.

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It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.

What musicals about musicians would you add?

9 Comments on “The Only Good Musical is About Actual Musicians”

  1. I love Eddie and the Cruisers. Haven’t seen any of the others, but I hadn’t realized that Grace of my Heart was based on Carole King. Very cool.

    I like old fashioned musicals that didn’t pretend to be something other than they were–mostly excuses for singing and dancing ūüôā

  2. What, no Hedwig?!? Eeek! etc.

    I’m not sure what you clarify because I’m tired and am on my way into work but there’s a couple of great seventies films called That’ll Be the Day and Stardust, both starring then teen heartthrob David Essex in the lead role, and also featuring Ringo Starr and Keith Moon in acting roles, and Dave Edmunds with Nick Lowe as back-up musicians. It’s class stuff and I wonder are they even available in the US? They should be. Mine’s a UK double pack of both movies and comes very recommended.

    I also like Once if that applies, and I’d like to throw in for Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains because even if it’s not a musical per se it’s campy and hilarious and features member of the Sex Pistols in acting roles!

    There’s a great Ian Dury biopic too but it’s also not a musical sorry, plot hijack, and that’s called Sex & Drugs & Rock n’ Roll, and stars Andy Serkis AKA Gollum as Dury and is fantastic.

    I got others but they ain’t musicals, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch sure is. Shame on you ha ha.


    1. I’ve just found a great clip on You Tube of a montage from That’ll be the Day, a clip that also features UK sixties singer Adam Faith (not his real name) as band manager alongside David Essex (not his real name) from the first movie and it’s vibey, beautifully shot, and so full of life. Enjoy.

      David Essex looking handsome and moody and at his peak here, and playing a Burns guitar too, my favourites. Also notice Keith Moon (his real name) in the clip too. I really hope you can find either That’ll Be the Day or Stardust over here.

      They’re both wonderful.

      Cheers, mate.


  3. I would agree and say that Eddie and the Cruisers is my favorite as well. These certainly brings back fond memories. I haven’t thought about Phantom of the Paradise in years!

  4. I love “Phantom of the Paradise”. Saw it when it originally came out “only in theaters”, as they say now. Oddly, I haven’t seen any of your other picks–except for portions of “Eddie and the Cruisers”–so I can’t comment on them.

    However, I totally agree with your point about being taken out of the moment in shows when characters suddenly break into song. For me, the conceit that the song “moves the story along” just never quite jells. In fact, it has the opposite effect: it brings the story to a standstill. I’m usually glad when the songs are over so the show can continue! And I’ve been a theatre actor and director for most of my life! But I would much rather see a straight play than a musical. I was just having this conversation with a friend the other day.

  5. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, and I was even in drama/theater for one year with a lot of fellow students being big fans of musicals.

    I did really like “rock of ages” but I think it may have been due to it having music I really like in it (journey for example) and also having some good comedy in it as well.

    I do like cannibal the musical, I haven’t seen the whole thing but my best friend’s ex girlfriend was obsessed with it and watched it over and over.

    When I was a kid I never liked how in all disney movies they would seem to randomly burst into song (this never happens in real life unless your at least a little insane).

    But now I do like some of the classic disney songs though. I also like family guy too a lot but that may be due to the comedy.

  6. Okay, these are all a bit fresher than what I was thinking of, but I always felt the same way about the Irving Berlin film WHITE CHRISTMAS. It just makes sense for the cast to break out into song, even when it’s not part of the show they’re putting on, because the assumption is that they’d know all the same standards, or be able to ad lib music if enough context were provided.

    I love me some musicals where it doesn’t make sense except because it’s the format in which the story is being told, but it’s always fun to watch the ones where the music fits into reality rather than conforming the story into the medium.

  7. I’m not a fan of traditional musicals, but I do love rock star movies like Eddie and The Cruisers. My tip top favorite rocker movie is Hard Core Logo. It chronicles a band’s meltdown while on a last gasp tour. I don’t hear about that one very often, but the actors are really good in it.

    1. Thanks for the tip on that one, Cora. I hadn’t heard of it, but I added it to my Netflix queue. And Tony Dagnall, alas, “That’ll Be the Day” is out of print in the US.

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