In what’s expected to a very good year for movie musicals, it’s important to glance back and remember the not so good, for the sake of contrast. As an aficionado of enjoyable stinkers, here are my Top 10 Worst Movie Musicals of all time. Believe me, they’re nothing to sing and dance about.
“Lost Horizon” (1973) This musical adaptation of the James Hilton classic is fine until the plane crash spews a bunch of Oscar-nominated types into time-stopping Shangri-La. That fabled destination ends up looking like a Marriott Courtyard in Toledo, Ohio, complete with fake foliage and dour spiritual processions in loincloths! And the stars look wildly uncomfortable as they try to wend their way around unwieldly Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs that are hardly up to the caliber of their 1960s hits. (“The world is a circle that has no beginning and nobody knows where it really ends. Everything depends …”) The library-stairs duet between Sally Kellerman and Olivia Hussey has to be seen to be disbelieved, and in the cast, John Gielgud is particularly cringeworthy as a pompously serene emissary named Chang. The entire Asian population of the world should have sued. No, the entire population, period.
“Rosalie” (1937) I didn’t like the eternally bland duo of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, but pairing Eddy with the toothy Eleanor Powell made even less sense, especially in this eye-poppingly lavish spectacle that schizophrenically veers between astounding visuals and stupefying content. Critics generally agreed that the shoddy plot becomes victimized by the large sets. The audience was crushed as well.
“The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) What was a lush and thrilling experience onstage became a surprisingly lifeless film, with poor Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum failing to create sparks that would make us care what lurked behind the mask. And in its murky tones and lack of circumstance, the movie didn’t even look good! One longed for a giant chandelier to crash down and end it all. Let’s hope the same team doesn’t reunite to spay “Cats.”
“A Chorus Line” (1985) One of the greatest musicals ever written, “A Chorus Line” was bound to fail as a movie because it’s eminently theatrical in its subject matter and execution. But it didn’t have to be this bad! The show is about an array of show biz hopefuls pouring out their souls in an attempt to land a place in a Broadway chorus line, but here, the best song was scuttled, the roles were unevenly cast, and you didn’t care who got the parts as long as you got the 8:15 train out of there. Whoever thought “Let’s get Sir Richard Attenborough to direct! A ‘Gandhi’ feel would be great” deserves a part in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Rent” (2005) Confession: I’ve only seen parts of this film — on TV, yet — but it was enough to make me agree with the consensus that one of the most powerful musicals ever conceived had been flattened and drained of inspiration. Seeing East Village types with AIDS singing and dancing on a screen somehow took the “boheme” out of “la vie” and made me hope they never turn “The Normal Heart” into a movie musical.
“Xanadu” (1980) I wavered about putting this one in, because it does provide camp enjoyment (as do “At Long Last Love,” “Can’t Stop The Music” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” all of which I nobly left out. Besides, I didn’t want to be too obvious.) The finale alone — a swirling disco medley that keeps growing like a fungus — has provided many joyous moments for warped friends and I. But the rest of it is painful, with its lame tale of a Greek muse (Olivia Newton-John) springing to life to help a roller rink get built. (Is that all it takes to summon a Greek goddess? Imagine if someone needed to open a whole chain-store franchise! Zeus would probably come running.) Bringing legendary Gene Kelly into this mess seemed downright cruel. He never hurt anybody! It wasn’t until a 2007 Broadway spoof made wicked fun of the inanity of the whole thing that “Xanadu” became a hit.
“Glitter” (2001) I have fond feelings about this movie because the screening I saw it at came not long after 9/11, and at that moment, New Yorkers needed a catharsis to help them try and crawl out from the horror. Who knew it would take another horror to made things OK again for 104 minutes? The soggy tale of a singer and her DJ boyfriend was devoid of drama or good songs, but it had laughs —like when Mariah Carey spills out of her limo in a sequined gown to visit her backwoods mama. Amazingly, she survived it and landed roles in “Precious” and “The Butler,” but it was no thanks to this weak “A Star Is (Still)Born” retread.
“The Wiz” (1978) Sidney Lumet (“Twelve Angry Men,” “Network”) was a bizarre choice to direct this version of “The Wizard of Oz,” though it happened to be an urban update, with grit, sass and one-liners (based on the Broadway hit). The problem is, while New York City is certainly magical, it’s not quite up there with Oz and having 34-year-old Diana Ross play Dorothy was one of the weirdest casting gaffes since George Hamilton tried to be Moss Hart in “Act One.” Crying and shaking throughout, Diana seemed like a developmentally challenged adult who’d never left the house and who probably shouldn’t have. But Michael Jackson is good as the Scarecrow.
“Annie Get Your Gun” (1950) I adore Betty Hutton, but she just wasn’t right for the tough-lady role of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, immortalized onstage by Ethel Merman. Judy Garland was all set to do the film, but she was at her messiest, so they brought in Betty, who felt put on by the attitude of everyone on the set, all icing her out for basically not being Judy. It may have served Betty right, since she was allegedly mean to people on movie sets herself. In any case, you can’t get a man with a gun — or a hit “Annie …” with Betty Hutton.
“Burlesque” (2010) When it came out, I thought, “Eh. Not good, not bad. Just eh.” But a re-viewing confirmed my darkest suspicions that this pile of clichés is pretty execrable. Poor Cher has to act all noble and wise, while Christina Aguilera exudes friskiness as the ex Iowa waitress attracted by the glare of Los Angeles. Add love story, a villainess, screechy numbers and the threat of the club closing, and you’ve got every musical ever made put together — but worse.