If you want to know about the world in any particular era, just look at the musicals made during the period. I’m not talking about the “classics” — you won’t find Singing in the Rain or Oklahoma in the list below, although you will find Gene Kelly — but instead, the weird ones that seemed to slip through the cracks, yet say so much about the hopes, aspirations and weird musical stylings of the era.
Want to discover the secret history of the last century or so? Make your way through the following movies and you’ll know everything. Not only that, you’ll also have at least three different, equally horrific ear worms all fighting for attention inside your head. No, no need to thank us.
FIRST A GIRL (1935)
It’s really all here in this early example of the genre, as an aspiring actor has to fill in for her best friend, who’s a man performing what’s ostensibly a drag act in disguise. Gender confusion in society so polite it can’t even say the words “gender confusion” is lightened with some impressively polite songs that pretend to be bawdy, making you wonder how anyone actually managed to have sex in the 1930s.
BELLE OF THE YUKON (1944)
By the 1940s, things had loosened up enough to paint Canada as a refuge for debauchery and adventure, as Randolph Scott gets re-acquainted with his past in the delectable form of Gypsy Rose Lee, who plays the wonderfully named Belle De Valle. Sure, Dinah Shore also makes an appearance, but Gypsy Rose Lee, I mean, come on, people.
BEACH PARTY (1963)
It’s the movie that started the entire beach movie craze, and it’s got every single one of the cliches you’d expect — which makes it endlessly entertaining to watch. Come for the Annette Funicello, stay for the sounds of Dick Cale and the sight of Vincent Price as Big Daddy.
THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967)
An oddity almost any way you slice it, this French musical stars Gene Kelly as a visiting American romancing one of two sisters at the heart of the story, set in a beach town where dreams come true and soundtracks reflect the shifting sounds of the summer of love. This one has to be seen to be believed, and even then, you might not know what to expect.
CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC (1980)
Ignore that 1980 release date; everything about this movie screams the end of the 1970s, from the cast list — Steve Guttenberg! Bruce Jenner! The Village People! — to a soundtrack that includes such classics as “YMCA” and the title track. It arguably doesn’t get any better than this in terms of time capsule movies.
ONE FROM THE HEART (1982)
The 1980s were a dark time, as is proven by this forgotten Francis Ford Coppola classic set in a soulless Las Vegas on Independence Day, featuring that classic line-up of Harry Dean Stanton, Natassja Kinski, Teri Garr and the music of Tom Waits. If you think that sounds impressively bleak, just wait until you get to the abduction scene.
SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROCK! (1994)
As if proof that the 1990s was a time when America became obsessed with its own mythology, this TV movie — featuring a pre-stardom Renee Zellweger — plays out like a defanged Hairspray, dropping the civil rights aspect in favor of… well, standing up for rock and roll, really. Which, in an era of grunge, was hardly the most groundbreaking stance to take.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2008)
As culture fragmented into multiple subcultures, terms like “splatter punk” began to be taken seriously, giving this over-the-top epic — which features Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head and, surprisingly, Paris Hilton — a genre hook to hang its overly-festooned hat on. All you need to know about this movie is contained in the next sentence: an actor from Saw 3D and Joan Jett both make cameo appearances in this film.
CHICO AND RITA (2010)
While Disney has dominated the animated musical for decades, this wonderful cartoon about a Cuban piano player who falls in love with a singer will make up for years of overly-cute stories of orphans, talking whatevers and Randy Newman songs that make you forget that he can be pretty great when he puts his mind to it. If nothing else, the music from Bebo Valdés is worth the time and attention all by itself.
GIRLTRASH: ALL NIGHT LONG (2014)
And finally, this movie — the very definition of a guilty pleasure — is the musical prequel to a non-musical web series that feels, as much as anything else, like a chance for all those involved to have a good time making something without thinking too much about the end result. Let’s just say that the “trash” part of the title isn’t entirely incorrect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable — or a good indicator of where pop culture is these days.