“Xanadu.” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “Can’t Stop the Music” starring the Village People. They don’t make ’em like they did back in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reason they don’t make ’em, of course, is because critics trashed ’em and few people went to see ’em.
While some ’70s movie musicals like “Grease” found an audience, more didn’t and the ones that didn’t were such spectacular big-budget bombs that they killed the genre. After that, Hollywood stopped making musicals, with a few exceptions, like “Newsies,” “Chicago,” “Hairspray” and “Moulin Rouge.” The years 1977 to 1980 saw the last gasp of the movie musical and the death of a once-great part of American cinema.
That’s really a shame, because if there’s any one genre that should be brought back, it’s the movie musical. No, really, that’s a serious statement. First, there are already signs of resuscitation. Reuters just reported that Australian actor Hugh Jackman is set to portray circus impresario P.T. Barnum in an upcoming film, “The Greatest Showman on Earth.” There’s also the New York City arts project Break Out in Song, in which actors unexpectedly perform musical theater selections in outdoor public spaces.
Movie musicals peaked in popularity in the 1930s when the economy was lousy. It’s easy to see why. They offer fantasy and fun and an escape from reality. With the worst economy since the Great Depression, we could use a little escapism again. In the past decade, mainstream media has gotten too reality-driven. What’s more fun — and uplifting — than watching Olivia Newton-John and some dancers shimmy to a disco groove?
Hip hop’s aesthetic of “keeping it real” has also lost some of its panache because these days people don’t need to be reminded of how difficult life is. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have made us privy to everyone’s own private realities.
Enough, already. Part of the purpose of entertainment is to divert us away from the travails of everyday life. This is why good ol’ Bill Shakespeare wrote fantastical comedies like “Twelfth Night” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in addition to his intense tragedies. If Shakespeare were around today, my guess is that he’d only be keeping it real half the time. The other half would be devoted to keeping it ridiculous.
Keeping it unreal That said, let’s not kid ourselves here. Pretty much every musical from the ’70s took ridiculousness to new levels. They kept it so unreal it was, uh, unreal. Beyond the aforementioned films, there was “The Wiz,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “All This and World War II” and “Tommy.” You could also throw in the 1978 disco movie “Thank God It’s Friday” (even though it’s not strictly a musical), and two 1980 films: “Popeye,” which gave Robin Williams his first major film role, and “The Apple,” a science fiction musical.
They’re all campy and cheesy, but they’re definitely entertaining. These musicals weren’t appreciated in their day, since they had to go up against heavy hitting fare like “Kramer vs. Kramer.” But they sure work on DVD, where they can be looked upon as unique artifacts from our pop culture past. Consider them part of the American tradition of kitschy cinema, like the B-movies they make fun of on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
It’s tempting to say these films are entertaining now despite the wooden acting, silly plotlines and sillier costumes, but they entrance you because of those very reasons. Since the production values and conceptual ideas are so different from anything these days, they’re able to conjure some of the fantasy world their directors probably intended.
There’s also the escapism factor. While lots of movies offer escape, there’s some sense that reality lurks underneath somewhere. But the peculiar universes conjured up in “Xanadu” or “Sgt. Pepper” have almost no point of reference outside of themselves.
The public is still interested in these movies in one way or another. “Xanadu” got an unexpected second life on Broadway, where it finally found an appreciative audience. Two high profile fans include Entertainment Weekly’s Clark Collis, who penned an essay about why people still love the movie, and USA Today’s Whitney Matheson, who uncovered what happened to the film’s male lead, Michael Beck.
As the EW article notes, “Xanadu” also has a strong following in the gay community; so does “Can’t Stop the Music,” which occasionally shows up on the bill of gay film festivals. And “Sgt. Pepper” got a cooler younger cousin in the 2007 film “Across the Universe,” which used Beatles songs in a more mature way to tell its story. Then there’s the stage and movie success of “Mamma Mia!” the musical compendium of ABBA hits that was the one musical they should have made back in the day but didn’t.
But the main reason for reviving movie musicals is that there’s a newly receptive audience: teenagers. Today’s teens were raised on the “High School Musical” series, which was so successful it graduated from TV screens to the big screen. Teens also flocked to see last year’s Jonas Brothers vehicle, “Camp Rock,” which wasn’t a musical, but came close. Also, when the current crop of teenagers were kids, they were making ’90s cartoon musicals like “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” big hits.
The entertainment industry is already on the case. The teen flick “Bandslam,” opening Aug. 14, looks like it’s meant to build on the success of “Camp Rock.” Again, it’s not strictly a musical, but uses music to tell the story of a teen band (fronted by Vanessa Hudgens). On TV, the musical comedy series “Glee” premieres Sept. 9.
On Sept. 25, a remake of the one successful ’80s musical, “Fame,” hits theaters. If “Fame” catches on, maybe Jackman’s musical will find an audience. His song-and-dance routine wowed ’em at this year’s Academy Awards, so he seems like just the person to get ’em to make ’em like they used to.
Tony Sclafani is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.