It's a big year for movie musicals. The effervescent adaptation of In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway show,premiered June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max, providing ideal summer escapism. Heights was supposed to open last June, but now it gets to usher in a wave of song-and-dance spectacles that will help relieve our COVID-19 blues. Next comes Everybody's Talking About Jamie (Sept. 17), Dear Evan Hansen (Sept. 24),a modern Cinderella (September), Steven Spielberg's West Side Story (Dec. 10), Cyrano (Dec. 25),and the Miranda-directed Tick, Tick...Boom! (release date TBD). Meanwhile, the series Schmigadoon! — a parody of Brigadoon starring Cecily Strong, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kristin Chenoweth — premieres July 16 on AppleTV+.
The movie-musical canon tends to fixate on megahits like Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis (one of In the Heights director Jon M. Chu's favorites), The Sound of Music, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Grease, and Chicago. Those are great films! But there's so much more out there that's worth watching, so here is a sample of underappreciated musicals (mostly movies, plus a couple of series) that will scratch your post-Heights itch. As one character in the film says, "This is going to be an emotional roller coaster."
Too out-there to be a hit back in 1988, Earth Girls Are Easy stars Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans as doltish aliens who crash-land in the backyard of a perky Los Angeles manicurist (Geena Davis) fed up with her cheating husband (Charles Rocket). Davis' Valley girl, who helps the three weirdos become more terrestrial, can't resist Goldlum's charms, which was also true offscreen. "They were so in love – obnoxiously so. They'd be making out in front of everybody," comedian Julie Brown, who co-wrote and appeared in the movie, said in 2012. Earth Girls is full of gaudy pastels and goofy humor, making it a precursor to the genre-bending satire of Cry-Baby and Mars Attacks! [Watch on HBO Max, VOD platforms]
This dazzling 1971 pastiche hails from gifted British provocateur Ken Russell (The Devils, Tommy), who cast his friend Twiggy in a role that Julie Andrews originated on Broadway. Russell's countercultural filter both complements and subverts the 1930s movie musicals that inspired The Boy Friend's zest, accentuating a madcap saga about a jittery stage manager thrust into the spotlight when a production's star (Glenda Jackson) breaks her leg. Twiggy is magnificent in the role, her thin voice and wide eyes perfectly suited to the fish-out-of-water antics. If you're a sucker for the elaborate dream ballets of yesteryear, this one's for you. It feels like a direct predecessor to Bob Fosse's big-screen catalog, specifically Cabaret and All That Jazz. [Watch on VOD platforms]
John Turturro started writing Romance & Cigarettes on the set of 1991's Barton Fink, concocting an exuberant ensemble piece about a New York construction worker (James Gandolfini) caught between his wife (Susan Sarandon) and mistress (Kate Winslet as a delirious Cockney vamp). When Romance opened in 2007, its theatrical release was miniscule, largely because of studio-management turnover. Even now, few people have seen this odd but humorous singalong whose cast also includes Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Christopher Walken, Bobby Cannavale, and Elaine Stritch. Turturro commits to his jukebox vision — the soundtrack features "Piece of My Heart," "I Want Candy," and Tom Jones' "Delilah" — with a panache that starts giddy and ends sweet. [Watch on HBO Max, VOD platforms]
Without Phantom of the Paradise, there would be no Daft Punk. The electronic duo has cited Brian de Palma's over-the-top 1974 fantasia, which revolves around a masked composer (William Finley) subjected to the whims of a corrupt producer (Paul Williams), as the "foundation" for their work. Paradise is the ultimate movie collage, blending The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and other European classics to create a glam-rock curio. Watching the film is like stepping into a bizarre netherworld, making its rabid cult devotion well-earned. [Watch on Shudder, AMC+, VOD platforms]
Now dig this: In the wake of Outkast's early-2000s peak, Idlewild somehow came and went without much fanfare. The duo play childhood friends dodging Depression-era gangsters while flexing their rhythmic chops at a Georgia nightclub — think The Godfather by way of Busby Berkeley. The movie is at its most rousing when the proceedings turn surreal, like the talking rooster on Big Boi's flask or a number in which André 3000 duets with a roomful of cuckoo clocks. Not everything about the kinetic plot jells, but Idlewild — directed by Bryan Barber, who made the "Hey Ya!" and "Roses" videos — features a handful of inspired sequences that should have jump-started a wave of hip-hop musicals. [Watch on Cinemax Go, VOD platforms]
Garfunkel and Oates is a pretty normal show centering two 20-something friends trying to make it in showbiz, assuming it's normal to have surreal musical interludes about pretending to like sports and how unreliable "the erection of a man on antidepressants" can be. IFC only gave us one season of this whimsical treat created by and starring Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, who first introduced the titular characters at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. But at 22 minutes a pop, that makes it perfectly bingeable. Fred Savage directed all eight episodes, which chart the pair's romantic and professional foibles. [Watch on Amazon Prime, AMC+, VOD platforms]
Maybe "underrated" is the wrong word to describe The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which many cinephiles rightfully declare a masterpiece. But some American audiences might not know French director Jacques Demy's vibrant romance about two young sweethearts, so let's tick off a few of its credentials. First, there's the fact that Cherbourg's Technicolor-like palette influenced the look and feel of La La Land. Secondly, this is the movie that vaulted Catherine Deneuve's career, earning five Oscar nominations along the way. And finally, it's a bittersweet feast of a film — entirely sung-through, transforming intimacy into something operatic — that feels as fresh today as it did in 1964. [Watch on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, VOD platforms]
John Carney is one of the 21st century's movie-musical laureates, having directed Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street. The latter is easily his best, perhaps because it's loosely based on Carney's own Dublin adolescence. He cast newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as a scrappy 15-year-old who starts a punk-lite band to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). With a soundtrack that evokes The Cure and Duran Duran, this slice of '80s-set optimism capitalizes on nostalgia without drowning in it. Follow it up with 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School, a rebellious teen musical co-starring The Ramones. [Watch on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Pluto TV]
Less a straightforward musical than an uproarious sitcom about pop music, Girls5eva is the latest endeavor from producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, which explains why it has such a 30 Rock feel. Created by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writer Meredith Scardino, the show chronicles a girl group from the early 2000s as they attempt to mount a middle-aged comeback. Their songs — performed by cast members Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell, and Busy Philipps — are delightfully absurd parodies in the vein of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Please watch so Peacock will make a second season; it's what we deserve. [Watch on Peacock]
Smarter than it got credit for in 2001, Josie and the Pussycats turns the idea of subliminal advertising into candy-colored commentary about media manipulation and pop corporatization. The movie is a hoot, thanks in large part to Parker Posey and Alan Cumming as ruthless villains who plant hidden messages in the titular band's music. What on its face is a relic of the early 2000s — Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Beyoncé reportedly auditioned for Rosario Dawson's role — is actually a farce that now seems far ahead of its time. [Watch on HBO Max, VOD platforms]
This isn't the most sophisticated musical you'll find, but that's kind of the point. Adapted for ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney in 2005, Once Upon a Mattress repurposes "The Princess and the Pea" as the slightly Oedipal story of a monarch with impossibly high standards for her son's potential brides. Carol Burnett swans around like Norma Desmond meets the Queen of Hearts as styled by Bob Mackie, attempting to stave off Tracey Ullman's romance with the prince (Denis O'Hare), who lives in a kingdom where no one is allowed to marry until he does. (Fun fact: Ullman is playing the role that Burnett originated on Broadway in 1959.) Mattress is fluffy fun, boasting a supporting cast that includes Zooey Deschanel, Matthew Morrison, and a young Shailene Woodley. [Watch on Disney+, VOD platforms]