When a movie musical works, it can be graceful and ebullient, its energy contagious. And when a movie musical doesn't work, it can look like a chaotic, atonal human traffic jam.
By most accounts, the new big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights is an exuberant cinematic translation of a Broadway hit, and it will no doubt satiate fans of that rarest of entertainments, the Hollywood musical. The movie, which arrives streaming on HBO Max and playing in theaters this weekend, inspired us to look back at the musical film genre as a whole, and to round up some lesser known ones that you can stream at home.
Our picks range from surreal to sweet, from classic to contemporary, from punk to pop to everything in between.
The Apple (1980)
The year: 1980. The disco craze was on the wane and every studio was desperate to recreate the success of 1978's Grease, and that climate produced such secretly enjoyable, big-budget boondoggles as Xanadu (Olivia Newton-John roller skates to E.L.O. hits) and Can't Stop the Music (the Village People do the Y.M.C.A. alongside Steve Guttenberg). But the wackiest of that year's musical lot is The Apple, conceived (probably in a fever dream) by shlock maven Menahem Golan and set in the distant future of 1994 (which still looks an awful lot like 1980). The film takes the story of Adam and Eve, transplants it into the world of record executives and fame-hungry artists, and dresses it up in glitter and spandex. It's a hoot and deserves more cult cred than it already has. Streaming on Tubi
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
I'd bet that more people have jokingly used "Electric Boogaloo" as a fake sequel subtitle than have actually seen its namesake, a breakdancing film that was quickly slapped together and released mere months after its predecessor. But Breakin' 2 is, dare I say, a more polished, colorful and ambitious version of its predecessor (which is pretty good, too). This time around, a greedy land developer wants to demolish an urban community center, and so our poppin' and lockin' heroes have to put on a show and raise some money to save it. In between predictable plot beats are some truly fun musical numbers, including a neighborhood-wide dance-off and a scene of Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers moonwalking on the ceiling a la Fred Astaire. Streaming on Tubi
Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
The last time Trey Parker and Matt Stone applied a splashy musical framework to morally questionable material, it was called The Book of Mormon and it took Broadway by storm. But they were already experimenting with that formula way back in their college days, when they shot a silly, violent and, yes, morally questionable student film called Cannibal! The Musical in the woods around the University of Colorado. Parker and Stone were inspired by the regional folklore surrounding a real historical figure named Alferd Packer, a 19th-century gold prospector whose party became snowbound in the mountains and eventually resorted to cannibalism. The movie itself is shoddily made, no doubt, but it'll have you singing "it's a shpadoinkle day" forever and ever. Free on YouTube
As the '60s came to a close, the Monkees had grown weary of their status as a manufactured sitcom pop group, and were desperate to break free from teen idol purgatory and become a real band. So they reportedly smoked a bunch of weed with director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), and then Nicholson took a bunch of LSD and compiled all their wild ideas into a stream-of-consciousness satire that's best enjoyed while imbibing your own substance of choice. The movie is a whole lot of blissed-out fun, and the soundtrack is also pretty great, with highlights like the Carole King and Gerry Goffin-penned theme tune "Porpoise Song" and Mike Nesmith's Jefferson Airplane-esque rave-up "Circle Sky." Hopefully we'll hear some selections when the surviving Monkees play Spokane on Sept. 10. Free on YouTube
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Like The Apple, Brian De Palma's delightfully deranged Phantom of the Paradise skewers the fad-obsessed music industry of the disco era, but it's an infinitely superior experiment. William Finley stars as an ambitious songwriter who signs his soul over to a devilish record impresario (Paul Williams, also the composer of the film's awesome soundtrack), and who soon transforms into a deformed, masked specter that haunts the rafters of an old theater. So it's a bit of Faust, a bit of Phantom of the Opera, and a whole lot of Brian De Palma, complete with split-screen sequences, an eye-catching color palette and several nods to Hitchcock. The movie flopped in theaters — except, oddly enough, in Winnipeg, where it was a smash — but has since developed a cult following, and the Phantom's silver, beaked helmet even inspired Daft Punk's costumes. Digital rental
Sing Street (2016)
The 2007 musical Once was a surprise arthouse hit, snagging an Oscar for its song "Falling Slowly" and inspiring a Tony-winning Broadway show. It's even more of a surprise, then, that director John Carney's two music-filled follow-up films — 2013's Begin Again and 2016's Sing Street — didn't get nearly as much attention, though they're both worth seeking out. It's that latter title that's the true hidden gem of Carney's career, a scrappy working-class comedy about a group of teenage musicians in Dublin, one of whom dreams of writing a Duran Duran-approved hit single and impressing the slightly older girl who lives across the street. The movie features a glittery new wave pastiche called "Drive It Like You Stole It," which belongs in the pantheon of great fake pop songs in movies. Streaming on Amazon Prime
One of the progenitors of Sing Street is this unheralded (at least in America) slice-of-life from Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), about an aspiring pop singer (Jo Kennedy) who wants to break out of her blue-collar town and will do just about anything to catch the spotlight. It's quirky and sweet and packed with regional detail — imagine if Local Hero's Bill Forsyth made a DayGlo musical — and among its best songs are the goofy, Devo-adjacent "Monkey in Me" and the irresistible "Body and Soul," which was written by Tim Finn of Split Enz and became a radio hit in its home country. Streaming on Tubi ♦