10 Offbeat and Groundbreaking Musicals in the Criterion Collection

Singing and dancing…what’s not to love? Though the genre has had its ups and downs in film history, there’s a reason musicals have maintained a consistent presence in theaters since movies could talk. Naturally, the Criterion Collection includes some wildly interesting choices among the musicals in its library. Early  genre-defining classics, rock operas, lavish fantasies, even a period horror movie about a mermaid nightclub act—there’s more to the genre than Oklahoma! (not that there’s a single thing wrong with Oklahoma!).

All That Jazz
They’re called “musicals,” but it’s nearly impossible to imagine the genre without the dancing, and this film’s writer/director, Bob Fosse, stands as one of the 20th century’s best choreographers. Reimagining himself as “Joe Gideon,” and played by unlikely musical star Roy Scheider, Fosse tells the semi-autobiographical story of a choreographer who has taken on far more than he can handle, succumbing to speed and alcohol as his increasingly precarious health gives way. The group dance numbers are a highlight, as are the dazzling dream sequences and fantasies concocted by Gideon’s fevered imagination. Among the many bonus features included with this remastered edition is a 1980 episode of the talk show Tomorrow featuring Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille.

The Red Shoes
Though it’s not a musical in the conventional sense (no one bursts into song), there are few films in history so suffused with music and dance as The Red Shoes. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger became known in cinema history for their sumptuous technicolor feasts, and this one saw them at the top of their game, even if it’s not the candy-coated spectacle you might expect from that description. Moira Shearer plays a rising star in the ballet world who becomes caught between an idealistic composer and ruthless showman—her dreams turning to phantasmagoric nightmares as her desire to dance becomes an all-consuming obsession in this beautiful dark fantasy based on the (horrifying) Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Restored and remastered in high definition, the hallucinogenic cinematography has never looked better.

Swing Time
If you’re looking for a musical romp from the golden age of Hollywood, you’d have a hard time topping this quintessential Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers fantasy. Astaire plays Lucky Garnett, a gambler who has to earn $25,000 in order to prove himself to the father of the woman he intends to marry. The set-up leads to a run-in with dance instructor Penny (Rogers), but the plot is entirely secondary to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the stunningly choreographed and impeccably performed dance numbers. Many of the songs (“The Way You Look Tonight”; “A Fine Romance”) became instant classics, but the real draw is the perfect chemistry between the leads: Astaire is everything, and Rogers is everything… in heels. This disc includes a new documentary on the film’s propulsive choreography.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Utterly unclassifiable, this modern queer classic from director John Cameron Mitchell (adapting his Off-Broadway one-man/woman show, revived years later on the Great White Way) is a pulse-pounding rock opera starring Mitchell as the genderqueer Hedwig Robinson, an East German boy who reinvents herself in America as a stunning and glamorous rock diva with the help of music inspired by the androgynous, David Bowie-esque rock of the ’70s, made timeless by composer Stephen Trask. Hedwig’s journey of self-discovery and search for love is gorgeous phantasmagoria that was ahead of its time when originally released in 2001, and is only slightly less so today. Never before available in high definition, the film has been newly restored for this long-anticipated special edition, which also includes deleted scenes and a documentary tracing Hedwig’s journey from the stage to the screen.

True Stories
Though it will certainly make you nostalgic for the music of ’80s icon David Byrne and The Talking Heads, there’s much more to love about Byrne’s sole foray into directing. A juke box musical stitched together with one great song after another, it takes us to the fictional everytown of Virgil, Texas on the eve of its (why not?) Celebration of Specialness. The genuinely striking narrative is held together not just by the music, but by Byrne’s conviction that there’s something weird and wonderful at the core of even the most ordinary-seeming places. The Criterion edition includes, for the first time ever, a complete copy of the soundtrack on a bonus CD—a special feature that every movie musical should include.

A Hard Day’s Night
Conceived as a cheap, quickie cash-in on Beatlemania—a phenomenon that was surely doomed to peter out pretty quickly—Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night went on to become not only an enormous hit, but a critical success and a wildly influential musical, its inspired silliness setting a tone for ’60s pop culture and creating a template for movies, TV, and music to come. John, Paul, George, and Ringo play heightened versions of themselves, embarking on a surreal tour that cheekily comments on their already massive fame. Among the full setlist of extra features are multiple audio tracks, including one in mono and one remastered in 5.1 surround sound—and you know how Beatles fans love to debate mono versus stereo.

The Lure
Viewers who want an authentic take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” would do well to avoid the Disney version. You won’t find it here either, of course, but the debut of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska doesn’t shy away from the horrific elements of the original tale. In neon-lit 1980s Warsaw, two mermaids named Golden and Silver join the world of humans after following a band back to a nightclub where their siren songs make them hot commodities. The feminist coming-of-age story about emerging sexuality and exploitation finds the bond between the sisters tested when one of them falls for a human. With a synth-field soundtrack, wild musical numbers, and a few murders (a mermaid’s gotta eat, after all), its a colorful and wildly inventive fish tale. This edition includes early short films from the director.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical romance almost qualifies as an opera, with no dialogue that isn’t sung. The French New Wave masterpiece also introduced the world to Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève, one half of a pair of star-crossed lovers who find their romance circumscribed by the Algerian War. Demy used Hollywood-style glamour, style, and color to tell a somewhat more complicated story, aided by then-unknown composer Michel Legrand, whose score underlines everything that happens in the film. It’s available on its own, or as part of the Essential Jacques Demy box set, which includes five other films—two of them musicals.

Black Orpheus
Another film that’s not a musical in the traditional sense, though there’s absolutely no separating Black Orpheus from its legendary and influential Brazilian-inspired soundtrack by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, which almost singlehandedly kicked off an American bossa nova craze. Set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, the film tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with beautiful cinematography and extended moments of song and dance. Though there was a white director behind the camera, the music and local, all-black cast add authenticity and vibrancy to the ecstatic fantasy. The special edition includes a French documentary that analyzes the lasting impact of the 1959 film on Brazilian culture today.

Arguably the greatest work of legendary and eclectic filmmaker Robert Altman, Nashville stands as not only a great movie, but a defining piece of 1970s American filmmaking. The director explores the ins and outs of American life via a large cast of characters (24 with important roles) and an epic array of interwoven stories, all set in the titular music mecca in advance of a presidential primary. A perfect example of Altman’s collaborative, improvisational style, many of the film’s actors wrote the music that they sing in the film, live and on location. Very few films have more to say about life in these United States, and none do it with so much style. This  edition includes a commentary track from the late director and a feature-length making-of documentary.

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