Here We Go Again: Our Favorite Jukebox Musicals
With the return of ABBA to multiplexes everywhere, it's a cause for celebration! The Jukebox Musical has been a tried and true musical format for years and we here at TFS consider ourselves big fans of the genre. Taking classic songs that audience's love and placing them in the context of a beloved genre is a surefire equation for a crowd-leasing success. So without further ado, here are four of our favorites.
Moulin Rouge! (2001 d. Baz Luhrmann)
A musical set in 1900 that uses anachronistic songs to tell the story seems like a desperate attempt to get “MTV generation” interested in musicals again. But Moulin Rouge! transcends its gimmicky song list through a chaotic, thrilling visual palette and an earnestly romantic and quaintly old-fashioned story. Starring an Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, the film tells the story of a star courtesan who falls in love with a poor writer, and how they can be together when she has been “promised” to a wealthy Duke (Richard Roxburgh). The film blends magical realism and exuberance to create a one of a kind musical. The songs used run the risk of being too on the nose, but the film finds more obscure ones to balance it out.
Baz Luhrmann directs the film knowingly, highlighting its over-the-top exuberance and delightful oddness. It’s not an easy film to watch if you’re not in tune with it. The quick cuts, off-kitler performances, and cacophonous soundtrack are challenging. I can imagine some viewers finding the film tedious or over indulgent. But to let Moulin Rouge! wash over you is to experience a sensational film. My own memory of Moulin Rouge! is Indians getting excited that Luhrmann used a Hindi song (“Chamma chamma” from the film China Gate) in the show-within-the-movie "Spectacular! Spectacular!". The influence of Bollywood on Baz Luhrmann (both here and with The Great Gatsby) is obvious, so it was really amazing to see him play tribute.
- Manish Mathur
Across the Universe (2007 d. Julie Taymor)
Director Julie Taymor’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning Frida embraced her background in musical theater. Across the Universe, at its best, is just a series of musical set pieces thrown together in an overall thin narrative. That shouldn’t take away from just how visually exciting the film turns out to be. Taymor packs 33 compositions from The Beatles’ catalogue into this story set in the 1960s, starring Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess. If you’re already a fan of The Beatles, you’ll be more on board with the visual motifs at play in each musical sequence—a group of soldiers preparing to go to Vietnam carry the Statue of Liberty while singing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. But this won’t win any new fans, especially with how some classics are interpreted—Bono shows up to cover “I Am the Walrus” and if that already has your eyes rolling, then this isn’t for you.
Across the Universe embraces the free love schmaltziness of The Beatles’ later records. It’s a love story for crying out loud. It may not be the best jukebox musical, but it’s a damn enjoyable display of The Beatles’ work—its final message, of course, boils down to “All You Need Is Love” and it remains a beautiful sentiment that Across the Universe in its own psychedelic way reminds us of.
- Marcelo Pico
Jersey Boys (2014 d. Clint Eastwood)
For years it's been my family's Easter tradition to head to NYC and see a Broadway musical. A while back my mother had decided on Jersey Boys for our holiday entertainment and I was pretty excited. I didn't know much about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons outside of a few songs I'd heard on the local oldies station but apparently the show was phenomenal. Spoiler: It was! Seeing the original cast belt out these classic songs against the backdrop of the NJ mob was a great experience. I still remember buying their Greatest Hits album during the intermission and putting it on during our trip home.
Shortly after, the Hollywood adaptation was announced with Clint Eastwood in the director's chair. Worry obviously set in as he's not the first filmmaker to come to mind when it comes to a song and dance show. Those worries subsided when it was announced that the actors who portrayed Valli and The Four Seasons would be reprising their roles for the film, usually a good sign. When the picture was released it was greeted by a collective shrug by all but the Eastwood faithful, criticized for a dull color pallette and not enough musical panache, it quickly faded from memory for most.
Audiences with an eye for Eastwood's style however fell in love with it, myself included. Here we have a faithful reproduction of the stage show with enough cinematic flair to flesh out the characters and backstory. Throw in an understated late-career turn by Christopher Walken and it's a hit, for a few people at least. Fans of mob movies will find a lot to love in Eastwood's film and musical fans get some terrific vocals from the leads. It's a definite highpoint from the latter part of The Man With No Name's directorial output.
- Matt Curione
Rock of Ages (2012 d. Adam Shankman)
Every person I’ve met who dislikes musicals ends up having the same problem with them, “Why are they singing?”. This question is easily answered: “it’s their way of showing emotion”. Jukebox musicals face a slightly different, and more complicated, question: “Why are the characters singing these particular songs?” For Rock of Ages the answer is simple: these characters love 80’s rock music and it wants to remind you that you also love 80’s rock music.
Rock comes from the heart. It’s about fighting through the hard times to get to the good times. There are a few bad times in this movie, especially when you see some of the morality of the rockstars. Stacey Jaxx - who Tom Cruise plays as a mix of Axl Rose, Bret Michaels and Keith Richards - gropes anything and everything that comes way. Thirty years removed from the time of the film, this isn’t exactly easy to watch. The film tries to make up for this by introducing gay characters, which would be welcome if those characters weren’t played for laughs by Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin.
Rock of Ages isn’t high art, but it’s fun, breezy, catchy, rewatchable, and easy to sing along to. The same could be said of it’s inspiration. To paraphrase Twisted Sister: “If you ask me why I like it, there’s only one thing I can say to you: I wanna rock”
- Mark Watlington
So those are some of our favorite Jukebox Musicals, so what are yours? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!