Our favorite rock musicals

Bye Bye Birdie roosts at Film Forum. But have you hoisted your lighter to these?

Sure, Loving You might be more mythically autobiographical, and Jailhouse Rock may boast that take-no-prisoners title number. But it’s Elvis Presley’s 1958 musical noir—and the last film that the cultural icon made before becoming U.S. Army Private #53310761—that’s arguably the prime example of the royal rock star’s surly, sexed-up Southern charisma. As Danny Fisher, a New Orleans punk trying to make it in the music biz while standing up to the local gangster (Walter Matthau), Presley proves that he was capable of offering more than just a pretty face and swiveling hips. Credit director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) for drawing a bona fide performance out of the musician, thus lending the film’s chip-on-the-shoulder ditties—especially the white-hot Leiber and Stoller blues composition “Trouble”—extra weight and depth. It’s the most satisfying Elvis flick across the board, and his last gasp before the military turned him from a hound dog into a teddy bear. Long live the King.—DF

NEXT Lisztomania (1975)

Subtlety and accuracy have never been writer-director Ken Russell’s strong suits—especially in bat-shit crazy biopics like this one. The eponymous 19th-century musician is played by the Who’s Roger Daltrey as a womanizing egotist who eventually morphs into a spacesuit-clad messiah. His archnemesis is Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas), the German operameister behind the Ring cycle, whom Russell portrays in a variety of monstrous guises (vampire and Nazi Frankenstein being the most memorable). It’s not so much the music that resonates—overemphatic, synthesized arrangements by Yes’s Rick Wakeman—as the orchestrated lunacy. Penises, both implied and actual, are prevalent, most notably in the infamous Princess Carolyn antechamber sequence, in which Liszt’s oversize member is guillotined. Personally, I’ve always preferred an earlier scene, set in a cavernous boudoir, where Liszt swings around like Tarzan while his lover’s husband tries to slash him with a rapier and a country-western sounding hick sings, “I think Franz Liszt, he might be circumcised!” Eat your heart out, Stephen Sondheim.—KU

NEXT Purple Rain (1984)

The theatrical site of many an adolescent meltdown, Purple Rain converted millions of boys and girls into crotch grinders wearing parachute pants. As a cultural event, the movie’s significance can’t be overstated: While MTV was just beginning to have a national impact, Prince’s “first motion picture” (as posters solemnly stated) was a huge smash in malls and multiplexes. That meant this pansexual, purple-clad genius—“the Kid,” as Prince’s Minneapolis-based character was called—could have his naughty way on teens bold enough to escape their parents and sneak into R-rated bliss. Of course, the original soundtrack is stellar, the peak of Prince’s futuristic rock and the dirtiest music to ever grace a Hollywood production. (Fuck you, Tipper Gore—“Darling Nikki” will outlast you.) But let’s not forget the cinematic virtues also on display, particularly the comic contributions of Morris Day and Apollonia Kotero’s voluptuous dive into Lake Minnetonka. [Moan]—JR

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