Movie Genres: Musicals in 1970s and 1980s

Did the American movie musical die after the huge artistic and commercial flop of DR. DOOLITTLE in 1967?

Definitely not!

Anthology sets out to prove that movies went on singing and dancing throughout Vietnam, Watergate, Women’s Lib, stagflation, and the energy crisis. Though the mood was less hospitable to the genre’s optimism, the 1970s had no shortage of musicals, from existential critiques of showbiz to rockin’ sex comedies.

The series begins in the aftermath of the Beatles breakup, with 200 MOTELS, Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa’s experimental musical starring Ringo as Zappa.

It ends on the eve of MTV with Herbert Ross’s emotional deconstruction of pop music in the American psyche, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.

Between these cultural benchmarks, disco and punk emerge, along with more nuanced trends, like groovy ‘Me Decade’ self-help crusades (THE WIZ) and nostalgic revivals of Old Hollywood art deco (NEW YORK, NEW YORK and AT LONG LAST LOVE) and doo-wop/surf-rock bubblegum (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE).

It’s tempting to use the word ‘postmodern’, but is anything in this lineup really darker, campier, more ironic, or more self-reflexive than GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933? Such was the rich diversity of 70s “Hollywood” that half of these films were produced outside California. Some are independent, low-budget creations, others Broadway-export mega-productions. Celebrity filmmakers Scorsese, De Palma, Lumet, Altman, and Bogdanovich bring their signatures to the genre.

Bob Fosse co-writes and directs ALL THAT JAZZ, a psychotropic, semi-autobiographical extravaganza – terrain weirdly similar to 200 MOTELS.

Roger Corman casts Joey Ramone as a heartthrob bedroom balladeer in ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL.

Unorthodoxy is the norm, but even purists will vouch for the genius choreography in THE LITTLE PRINCE (Fosse’s “Snake in the Grass”) and PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Christopher Walken’s “Let’s Misbehave”).

Tony Palmer & Frank Zappa


1971, 98 minutes, 35mm. With Frank Zappa, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon.

“Scene after scene, 200 MOTELS is a synthetic, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic burlesque of representation and facsimile swirling with wailing guitar air sculptures and modern dance, lewd yet jocular humor, winks to VanDerBeek collage animation, Warholian pop-art repetition and Claes Oldenburg’s art replicas of the mundane, references to Mephisto, Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Brecht/Weill’s MAHAGONNY, and a parody of Schoenberg’s atonal PIERROT LUNAIRE, all stuck together with a gob of spit in the face of peace and love, pre-dating The Sex Pistols by six years.” – Chris Tenzis, PDX FILM


Brian De Palma


1974, 92 minutes, 35mm. With William Finley, Jessica Harper, and Paul Williams. Archival print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

“William Finley is the idealistic young composer who is robbed of his music, busted for drugs, and sent to Sing Sing, all at the instigation of Swan (creepy Paul Williams), the entrepreneur of Death Records, who has made a pact with the Devil for eternal youth. The composer escapes from prison, is maimed by a record-pressing machine, and becomes the Phantom, who haunts Swan’s new rock place, the Paradise, where the girl he loves (Jessica Harper) becomes a star. This mixture of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Faust isn’t enough for De Palma. He heaps on layers of acid-rock satire and parodies of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, PSYCHO, and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY – and the impacted plots actually function for him. The film is a one-of-a-kind entertainment, with a kinetic, breakneck wit.” –Pauline Kael, THE NEW YORKER


1974, 88 minutes, 35mm. With Gene Wilder and Bob Fosse.

A stranded aviator befriends an intergalactic tot in the desert. Directed by Donen with a screenplay and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, the film’s standout songs include shy Fox Gene Wilder’s “Closer and Closer and Closer” and Bob Fosse’s Kevorkian-themed “Snake in the Grass” (an evident template for Michael Jackson’s THRILLER-era moves). Donen’s adaptation of the 1943 novella maintains the visual style of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original illustrations and the understated poignancy of his writing. Will the same be true for the 3-D animated remake now in production by the creators of KUNG FU PANDA?


Peter Bogdanovich: AT LONG LAST LOVE

1975, 118 minutes, 35mm. With Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and Madeline Kahn. Archival print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Fresh off his highly successful features of the early 70s (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT’S UP DOC?, and PAPER MOON), Bogdanovich decided to try his hand at the Hollywood musical. Despite featuring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd, the music of Cole Porter, and sumptuous production values, it was a box office failure, not least of all because of Bogdanovich’s daring decision to record the songs live on-set, despite his stars’ lack of polished musical talent. As a result the film is rarely revived – but it’s nevertheless a fascinating experiment, one Bogdanovich continues to proclaim a personal favorite among his films. These extremely rare screenings are not to be missed!


Martin Scorsese: NEW YORK, NEW YORK

1977, 155 minutes, 35mm. With Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro.

“Scorsese’s tribute/parody/critique of the MGM musical is a razor sharp dissection of both meeting-cute romances and rags-to-riches biopics, as it charts the traumatic love affair between irresponsible but charming jazz saxophonist De Niro (dubbed by George Auld) and mainstream singer Minnelli. On an emotional level, the film is a powerhouse, offering some of the most convincingly painful rows ever shot; as a depiction of changes in American music and the entertainment world, it is accurate and evocative; and as a commentary on showbiz films, it’s a stunner, sounding echoes of Minnelli’s own mother [Judy Garland]’s movies and career.” –Geoff Andrew, TIME OUT FILM GUIDE


Sidney Lumet: THE WIZ

1978, 134 minutes, 35mm. With Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor.

With the climactic Emerald City number shot on location at the World Trade Center, featuring 400 dancers, 1,200 costumes, and a grand synthesis of disco and Busby Berkeley, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of the 1975 Broadway hit was one of the most expensive movie musicals ever produced (and a lavish flop). Dorothy (Diana Ross), the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), Tin Man (Nipsey Russell), and Lion (Ted Ross) journey through an endearingly dated dystopian vision of New York-as-Oz, where the Cyclone encircles the Chrysler Building and subway platforms come to menacing life. Screenwriter Joel Schumacher and Ross, both adherents of the Human Potential Movement, ensured that Dorothy’s yellow-brick road to enlightenment fit the New Age doctrine of self-actualization.



1979, 93 minutes, 35mm. With P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, and Joey/Johnny/Dee Dee Ramone. Archival print courtesy of The UCLAFilm & Television Archive.

As new principal Miss Togar says, “The minute there’s not ateacher in the room the entire school erupts into a shameless display of adolescent abandon!” Initially conceived by Roger Corman as DISCO HIGH SCHOOL, Alan Arkush rejiggered the project for the Ramones, who wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “I Want You Around” for the soundtrack. (Dee Dee complained that Arkush made them look “like Martians.”)

“Underneath its chipper, anything-for-a-laugh grin, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL is as subversive as teen movies get, with an ending that, for all its absurdity, is still surprisingly shocking. It’s hard to imagine a similar conclusion being shot today.” –Zack Handlen, THE ONION



1979, 123 minutes, 35mm. With Roy Scheider and Jessica Lange.

“It’s showtime!” You can almost hear Roy Scheider’s arteries hardening as he plays Joe Gideon, the autobiographical stand-in for choreographer-director Bob Fosse, who imagines his own death as a grand production number in this poison-pen love letter to show business. A steadydiet of pharmaceuticals, booze, and Alka Seltzer fuels Gideon through mass-auditions, dance studio, editing booth, and sexual assignations. Fosse’s subject here is attrition – lithe young up-and-comers glide everywhere around the decrepit Gideon, as the insistent tick-tick of the beat on the bravura “On Broadway” sounds the countdown to collapse.



1981, 108 minutes, 35mm. With Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken.

Dennis Potter’s Depression-set 1978 BBC miniseries introduced a Brechtian concept of the author’s own invention: characters break from their ostensible reality to lip-synch to period recordings. The American version, from Potter’s own script, counterbalances the concept’s cynicism with the song-and-dance razmatazz of director Ross. Steve Martin’s unhappily married traveling sheet-music salesman seduces small-town schoolteacher Bernadette Peters, who becomes the complicit co-star of his daydreams (in one stunningscene, they supplant Astaire and Rogers on a movie screen). Juxtaposing themass-market fantasies of Hollywood and Tin Pin Alley to naked human desperation, PENNIES never cheapens the medium’s emotional power. Accordion Man Vernel Bagneris’s dancing to the title song is “voluptuously masochistic” (Kael), and the strip-tease pickup of Chris Walken’s prancing pimp is a classic of cabaret irony.