A-List: Five Worst (Movie) Musicals of All Time
By J. Don Birnam
October 8, 2014

What do you mean, you're going to have a better career than me, Kelly?

Well, you knew this was coming, right? After struggling mightily to pare down all the movie musicals I have ever seen into only five that I considered the best (and landing on the perhaps controversial choice of Cabaret) it was inevitable that the frustration over the task would spill into wrath over the musicals that have made us grimace, cringe, and boo.

As I was doing research for this article, I noticed that the list of horrible musicals was much longer than I had previously imagined. This led me to think of two points about my iteration of the A-List column that perhaps seemed obvious to me at first but became less so when I was exploring the daunting list of bad musicals. At the risk of stating the obvious, it may be time to share these two points with readers.

The first point is that I only include movies in these lists that I have seen at least once, even if a long time ago. Granted, I have seen a…uh…boatload of movies in my life, but in no way shape or form should my making a list about anything be taken as anything other than my own views, limited by the human ability to know a body of work that spans millions of hours of art. Kind of like the Oscars, you see? “Best” is truly only in the eye of the beholder and is more a testament of the selector than of anything else.

The second, more subtle point, and perhaps related to the first, is that you shouldn’t expect to see F-list movies on this list. Yeah, Gigli or Norbit could make appearances - I have sadly seen those movies, and they were mainstream in the sense of having recognized stars at their forefront. But when it comes to truly ridiculous flicks (who has heard of a 1990 musical called “Shout”??) that are completely outside of anything you could possibly imagine you would enjoy… you’re not going to see those on this or any other A-List—on a “best” or “worst” of anything. That, perhaps, is the problem inherent in making a list of “Worst” anything. Great movies, while plenty, are easier to study. The cream rises to the top. But, when it comes to art, there is plenty of trash out there, and it would be truly impossible to catalog it all. Weeding through muck is much harder. Thus, “Worst” lists are more “worst of the mainstream” than anything else.

With that said, the same rules apply to this particular list as did to the best movie musicals list - I’m leaving animated films out of it for now.

There are many (dis)honorable mentions. Most of them are sequels. Grease 2? Ugh. I’m not sure what on Earth possessed me to watch that. And despite its cult-classic like-status amongst my generation, I’m not sure I’m in love with Save the Last Dance. In fact, I pretty much dislike it and never understood what the fuss was about. But I’ve left it off because of the existence of more truly objectionable choices. I also saw bits and pieces of High School Musical 2 once - no, it wasn’t a drunken stupor, young nieces and nephews will do that to you. Truly horrendous.

Others will wonder about the exclusion of panned movies like Mamma Mia! I quite enjoy ABBA’s music and I adore Meryl Streep. Yeah, the singing was pretty bad, but the movie was all around fun and silly. I would place it as a perfectly mediocre entertaining musical, not worthy of mention beyond this paragraph.

By contrast, these five deserve to live in ignominy. As a musicals lover, I am offended these movies somehow got made.

5. Glitter

I can hear you now: I deserve it for watching this movie. But, in my defense, Mariah was popular in the 1990s and she had produced some great songs. But the movie was beyond horrendous. Mariah’s acting was predictably atrocious - I’m not sure if she was trying to express constipation or consternation. And the plot was truly bizarre. (Spoilers ahead.) The murdered boyfriend? Not only did it make little sense, it left you feeling like instead of a fun, Mariah musical - the title is Glitter after all - you had somehow been tricked into watching something called “Diarrhea.”

Expecting a fun ride, the viewer is left with a depressing, poorly acted, and incongruous film. Mariah’s poor victim lead character was deserving of a Cinderella ending and is instead left devastated. How ironic: the makers probably thought they would go outside the mainstream and not give us the happy ending, but instead made the experience even worse. The girl is supposed to get the guy at the end of a silly rom-com. That’s how it works.

In sum, even Britney Spears’ musical (Crossroads) was better than that. Heck, even Spice World surpassed Glitter (but don’t get me wrong, all three of these deserve a special place in the dustbin of 1990s pop star musical history).

Oh, but the worst part of Glitter was how poorly the filmmakers integrated the songs into the movie. They were almost an afterthought, woven in like torn-up rugs as the writers insisted on focusing on Mariah’s tragic close-to-but-not-really Cinderella story. I am left to assume that the people behind this movie tried to play a practical role on all of us - but failed.

4. The Phantom of the Opera

There are two ways that one can look at this entry. One is that it was predictable that a movie based on one of the most beloved stage musicals of all-time was bound for failure. The other is that the makers of this movie simply screwed it up. I ascribe more to the latter view.

What is clear from watching the movie version of Phantom is that they tried very hard to repeat things that had led to Academy gold for the movie version of Chicago - the quick editing, the dark lighting, the music interspersed with speech. It simply didn’t work for Phantom. Those elements made sense for the slapsticky, raunchy tale of the Vaudevillian murderesses, but seemed completely off in the context of the haunting story of the Phantom.

The people behind Phantom also tried a trick that sometimes works when story tellers are tasked with repeating a well-known story or depicting an uber-famous historical figure: pick unknown actors so as to not distract the audience. The move also backfired here, as the ingénues prove inept at tackling these demanding and nuanced characters.

Add to all of this the death knell of any musical - like Glitter - the complete failure of the sound team to use the powerful music as an asset rather than an afterthought, and you have a complete failure of a movie. In retrospect, this one should have best been left unmade.

3. From Justin to Kelly

As if we needed more after the oversaturation that became the American Idol phenomenon in its first season, the greedy Hollywood/TV machine decided to “delight” us with a movie starring the two finalists of the first season. The plot is contrived and confusing (the love triangles are probably better described as tetrahedrons), and the names of the characters are so dully stupid as to be insulting (the leads are Kelly and Justin, respectively, like the lead actors).

I enjoy Kelly Clarkson’s singing as much as the next guy, but her “acting” is terrible - because, let’s be clear, those moments that are supposed to be candid on Idol are so clearly and painfully scripted that it makes us wonder why they didn’t just come up with a mostly fictionalized (but based closely on real life) version of the events behind Season One for the movie, instead of some off beat rags to riches story about struggling singers.

In the end, it wasn’t clear if this movie was a musical, a romantic comedy, a high school slapstick piece, or all of the above and none at the same time. This is another movie that clearly should have never been made - and absolutely should never be seen again.

2. The Producers

This is another colossal failure that should not have been so. This is such a tight musical on stage, beloved and classic, that it seems impossible to screw it up. But screw it up they did. Matthew Broderick gave perhaps one of the worst performances of his career, and the slapstick humor that characterizes the play proved to be more adept for live human interaction than for the more two-dimensional depictions on screen. Even Nathan Lane, a reliable comic for movies, was unable to project his considerable talent with his mostly flat singing.

The irony should not be lost on anyone. In telling the story of two sleazy producers who set out to purposefully produce a flop and accidentally make a hit, the directors of this movie surely set out to make a hit and accidentally but predictably made it a flop.

But perhaps what was most glaringly missing from the movie version of the acclaimed musical was something original to distinguish it from the stage version. Most of the great movie musicals that I have seen are either wholly original works (such as Moulin Rouge! accounting for the fact that it uses known songs in creative ways) or give spins to characters and plotlines so as to provide just enough novelty with the overall sense of familiarity that these movies induce.

Likely stung by the failure of adaptions of known quantities - most notably the Phantom flop - the people behind the Producers likely wanted to safely hew to the script to avoid any risks. This was a bad move, at least in retrospect, as the movie ended up with nothing to offer except a whole lot of pizzazz. And while some of the showy dance numbers are fun and exciting, even the dance sequences seem of poor quality compared to some of those in better movie musicals.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from failures such as the Phantom and the Producers adaptions (as if we didn’t know this lesson) is that Hollywood’s money machine’s pathetically transparent attempts to cash in on surprise victories never ends well. We know this because sequels to the Ocean’s Eleven movies were terrible - as were other revisits of 1950s and 1960s classics like the Italian Job. We know this because attempts to emulate the success of The Sixth Sense or of American Beauty or of The Lord of the Rings at the Oscars gave us Pay It Forward, Signs, and The Hobbit. All colossal mistakes. And we know that because the craze over musicals that characterized the mid- to late 2000s after the stunning victories that Moulin Rouge! and Chicago pulled off, not just before the Academy but with audiences, gave us things like the Producers and The Phantom.

Will they never learn?

1. An American in Paris

But without a doubt the worst musical movie I have ever seen is the winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1951, Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris. One word suffices: boring.

To put it simply, not much at all happens in this contrived and obnoxiously happy-go-lucky movie. The story nominally revolves around a struggling painter in post-World War II Paris as he pursues deems of artistic redemption, and the woman who takes an interest in helping him.

I’m fully aware that the other movies on this list, as well as many others that I ignored, are objectively worse than An American in Paris, a movie that some critics at the time called fantastic. But my own personal vitriol for this movie puts it at the top of my list because I simply cannot believe that this was somehow anointed the best movie of any year - by anyone, even the foolhardy Academy.

Perhaps this means that this movie belongs on my list of Worst Best Picture winners of all time. Perhaps I will write that column soon. But in the meantime, no rant about bad musicals is complete without this uneven pastiche of drama, comedy, and music that amounts to a whole ball of nothing.

To add insult to injury, one need to look only to some of the much better movies that An American in Paris ousted: A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Two difficult, challenging movies fall to the easy, not-challenging fluff. Sound familiar? This was the beginning of the heyday of the movie musical with the Academy - but the choices that succeeded this movie, like My Fair Lady, West Side Story and the Sound of Music and even Oliver!, are masterpieces (or in some cases good movies) in their own right. At least the Academy corrected course from getting off decidedly on the wrong foot when it came to recognizing movie musicals.