History of Musical Film

The 1970s: Big Names, Mixed Results

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, revised 2014)

"Goin' Like Elsie"

Adaptations of Broadway originals continued to dominate the musical screen in the 1970s. Two were bona fide hits --

Costly Bombs

However, most of this decade's Hollywood musicals – originals as well as adapted stage works – were mishandled. With millions of dollars poured into poorly produced projects, the early 1970s became the golden age of bad big-budget movie musicals. Some of the most memorable clunkers –

The commercial failure of several animated musicals, including the enchanting Charlotte's Web (1973), coupled with the dismantling of the Disney Studio's animation unit, seemed to spell the end of screen animation of any kind. Attempts to revive the genre drew tepid results until the 1990s, when animation would make an industry-shaking comeback. More on this in the chapters to come.

Rocking the Big Screen

Rock movie musicals had a mixed record in the 1970s. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and the Who's Tommy (1975) appealed to youthful audiences despite overblown productions. Mindless mistakes like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) were dismissed by critics and the public. Hollywood's most successful original rock musical was The Rose (1979), the story of a Janis Joplin-like rock diva who's professional success sends her into a self-destructive spiral. Overcoming a melodramatic screenplay, pop diva Bette Midler made a dynamic screen debut.

Despite a poor critical reception, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) developed a one-of-a-kind cult following. Teenagers came back to see the film week after week, singing along, talking back to the screen and enacting scenes in costume. The film became a camp classic. Late night screenings for Rocky Horror buffs continued all across America right into the next century.

By the late 1970s, the screen musical was considered a dinosaur, but a massive hit proved that the genre had some kick left in it. Grease (1978) and its white trash teens coming of age in a 1950s American high school became a world-wide phenomenon. The stage score was augmented by several new songs, including the new interpolated pop hits "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want." Where the stage version stressed period spoof, the film stressed the love story involving a mildly rebellious leather jacketed boy and a squeaky-clean "Sandra Dee"-type girl. Ingratiating performances by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and a spirited production delighted audiences, making the film a pop-culture landmark. Earning $159 million on its initial relesem it became the highest grossing film musical up to that time.

Big Names, Mixed Results

Several major directors attempted screen musicals during the late 1970s, but the results were more interesting than successful.

By 1980, the consensus in the business was that film musicals were dead and buried . . . the same conclusion many had made back in 1933. This time it would take puppets and dancing teapots to prove the experts wrong. In Hollywood, it takes all kinds . . .

Next: Film 1980s