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These are the weirdest, most transgressive movie musicals ever made

Move over, Dicks: The Musical — it gets way stranger than you

How to even describe this? Okay, it’s a girl’s wide-eyed Claymation head, not very realistic except for the eyes, screaming into the face of a tiny marble-colored naked winged demon-creature with its back to the camera and its ass prominently displayed. Happiness of the Katakuris is a weird movie. Image: Arrow Video

They sing! They dance! They call God the F-slur!

They’re identical twins who are definitely straight and who under absolutely no circumstances want to bone. They’re the stars of Dicks: The Musical, an acid-brained, NSFW riff on The Parent Trap from Borat director Larry Charles, who apparently will stop at nothing to make the wildest new midnight movie on the scene.

A crudely made, sophomoric musical extravaganza, Dicks: The Musical feels like the answer to an age-old question: “What if Rodgers and Hammerstein got really high and adapted Freddy Got Fingered?This film has everything: graphic incest, Megan Mullally’s disembodied vagina, and two little gremlins called Sewer Boys who live in a cage and are fed ham directly from Nathan Lane’s mouth, like baby birds.

The audience response to something this consciously weird and transgressive will vary, but it’s difficult not to at least reticently admire a film that brings such wholehearted stupidity and fucked-uppery to the big screen, particularly in the sweet, usually sanitized genre of the movie musical. Its release feels like an appropriate reason to dig into the movie-musical oddities that came before it — the tuners that waded so fully into WTF territory, they’d make even the people behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch scratch their heads.

So here’s a list of the strangest, most transgressive movie musicals in cinema history.

Phantom of the Paradise

Paul Williams, wearing a plastic silver face-mask with his glasses on over the mask, belts his rock-opera heart out in 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise Photo: 20th Century Fox/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Where to watch: Fubo, Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube TV, Vudu

Before dumping a bucket of pig blood on Sissy Spacek in Carrie or introducing us to Al Pacino’s “little friend” in Scarface, Brian De Palma directed this weirdo glam-rock riff on The Phantom of the Opera. Its plot plays out like a sort of Mad magazine movie parody, with a wronged composer disfigured in a record press, and a Faustian bargain involving tunesmith Paul Williams as a Machiavellian record exec. But the real thrust of the 1974 movie is the sheer gonzo chutzpah De Palma injects into nearly every scene. Featuring wonderfully expressionistic costume and production design by Rosanna Norton and Jack Fisk, respectively, the film is a visual smorgasbord — a 1970s Tumblr page festooned in glitter and scored by Williams’ electric tunes. The film’s main theme, “Faust,” could kick “The Music of the Night’s” ass.

Lisztomania

Hoo boy, where to start? In a B&W promo still from Lisztomania, a man in 19th-century court garb and wig stands to the left of the screen, head back, mouth open. A woman covered in shiny paint at the right side of the screen, pretending to be part of a fountain statue, squirts milk from one breast in an arc through the air, into the man’s mouth. The Who’s Roger Daltrey, wearing only a loincloth, stands between them, making a hoop from his arms for the milk to arc through. Wild. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Where to watch: Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube TV, Vudu

In 1975, Ken Russell showered Ann-Margret in an orgasmic bath of baked beans in his film version of The Who’s concept album Tommy. Seven months later, though, he released an even bigger cinematic freak show. Billed as “the film that out-Tommys Tommy,” Lisztomania takes its name from the apparently very real historical term for the feverish fandom surrounding 19th-century composer Franz Liszt. Framing Liszt as a sexy pop star (played by Who frontman Roger Daltrey), the film features all the familiar beats of a music biopic: Boy rises to fame; boy meets girl; boy engages in an epic sci-fi battle with Richard Wagner, a vampire who also at one point becomes a Frankenstein version of Hitler with a machine-gun guitar. Outlandish, foul, and a fabulous watch, it is certainly the greatest movie in which Roger Daltrey sprouts a 10-foot erection and Ringo Starr plays the pope.

The First Nudie Musical

Four singing men dressed as stylized white dildos sing on stage in front of what appears to be a White House backdrop, as women wearing only Easter bonnets and translucent hoop skirt frames dance around them in The First Nudie Musical Image: Paramount Pictures/Tubi

Where to watch: Tubi, Freevee, Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube TV, Vudu, Apple TV

A cheeky riff on the whole “we’re gonna lose the [farm, clubhouse, theater, orphanage, etc.] unless we come up with money fast, so let’s put on a show” style of musical, this early Cinemax staple centers on a bankrupt production company forced to produce an all-singing, all-dancing porno in order to save the studio. The 1976 movie has a one-joke premise, though it doesn’t lack charm. In fact, there’s hardly anything salacious here. While there’s plentiful nudity, a chorus line of dancing and vibrating dildos, and a tango number titled “Lesbian Butch Dyke,” this is more Easter Parade than 2 Girls 1 Cup. Laverne & Shirley’s Cindy Williams stars, with an uncredited (and clothed) appearance by Ron Howard as a hopeful auditioner.

Popeye

Where to watch: Hoopla, Kanopy, Pluto TV, Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube TV, Vudu

In the late 1970s, Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans lost the bidding war for the film rights to the musical Annie, and quickly greenlit the development of this live-action musical about everyone’s favorite spinach-eating comics/cartoon sailor man. The resulting movie, written by famed cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, and directed by, of all people, Robert Altman, is a baffling yet fascinating piece of cinematic anarchy. Both a painstaking live-action re-creation of the aesthetics of comic strips and an agonizingly stressful experience on par with Uncut Gems, 1980’s Popeye is one of the most watchably unwatchable films in existence. Robin Williams plays the titular incoherently mumbling sailor; Shelley Duvall is his scrawny, burbling love interest, Olive Oyl; and Harry Nilsson penned the songs. They all sound like gremlins haphazardly singing nonsense over a light jam session in purgatory, but highlights include “I’m Mean,” “He’s Large,” and, perhaps best of all, “Everything Is Food.”

The Apple

A woman in a revealing red spangled top, standing against an abstract red background, presents a basketball-sized apple, half green and half red, to an unseen crowd whose hands reach up from below, trying to grab it in the 1980 musical The Apple Image: Cannon Films

Where to watch: Tubi, Pluto TV

1980’s Xanadu is often referenced as one of the worst movie musicals ever made, but it can hardly hold a candle to this sci-fi disaster released the same year. Set in a dystopian version of 1994, where the music of choice is (of course) disco, The Apple places the Adam and Eve story into the context of a Eurovision-esque music contest lorded over by the devil, because why not? The aesthetic is THX 1138 as per the Village People, and the messaging is all over the place. “Corporations are evil,” says the film, “but so is exercise?” There’s a strong anti-individualist message, but also, the heroes wind up being a bunch of hippies who rave in a cave until the rapture comes. During this number, a man in a golden speedo wielding a giant apple sings the immortal words, “It’s a natural, natural, natural desire / Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire,” at which point a vampire appears and does jazz hands. Y’know… normal stuff.

Meet the Feebles

A Muppet-like lizard puppet with brown felt skin and big blue eyes holds a huge revolver to its temple in Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles Image: Wingnut Films

Where to watch: YouTube

Long before becoming the cinematic master of Middle-earth, Peter Jackson was best known for a collection of cheap, crude, darkly funny, gleefully violent B-movies. Perhaps the strangest and most perverse one is his second feature, a 1989 puppet musical about a troupe of animal performers who act as a sort of Dark Side version of The Muppets. Aggressively grotesque, yet still oddly charming, this vomit-and-expletive-ridden bacchanalia has everything from puking rabbits to interspecies romance. That includes a nightmarish flashback to the Tet Offensive starring a bunch of frogs, and a mass shooting carried out by a busty hippo while a fox sings about sodomy. It’s enough to make you wonder how the hobbits didn’t wind up more pervy.

Cannibal! The Musical

Trey Parker in close-up as Alferd Packer in Cannibal! The Musical, wearing a black Stetson hat, a long black wig, and a long fake black beard with blood smeared thickly across his cheeks, nose, mustache, beard, lips, and teeth Image: Avenging Conscience

Where to watch: Peacock, Tubi, Pluto TV, Prime Video

This film is arguably the closet one on this list to the spirit and feeling of Dicks: The Musical. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made this 1993 musical retelling of Alferd Packer’s 19th-century trip from Utah to Colorado, during which, for reasons that were never fully clear, Packer wound up eating his traveling partners. While Parker and Stone went on to further explore the musical form on screen in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police, and on Broadway in The Book of Mormon, this remains to date their only live-action movie musical. It’s crudely made and sophomoric, as South Park fans would expect, but it’s also a prime Rosetta stone for the duo’s mix of lighthearted showmanship and schoolboy satire. Parker and Stone star, with Parker also writing the tunes, which include gems like “Shpadoinkle,” “When I Was On Top of You,” and “Let’s Build a Snowman!” (Note: This was a full 20 years before Frozen.)

The Happiness of the Katakuris

A Japanese woman in a white bridal gown and tiara and a Japanese man in a white military-esque suit and silver goggles with red lenses lie on their backs, arms spread, smiling, against a backdrop of space with a large ringed planet behind them, and huge multicolored pansy blossoms spangling the image in Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris Image: Discotek Media

Where to watch: Tubi, Google Play, YouTube TV, Prime Video, Apple TV

This violently absurd 2001 horror-comedy musical from director Takashi Miike begins as the tale of a down-on-their-luck family whose mountain-based guest house seems cursed, given how many people die there. As the family tries to cover up those deaths, the movie goes off of about eight different rails simultaneously: There are zombies! An active volcano! A little claymation demon that emerges from a bowl of soup and rips out a woman’s uvula! Miike references everything from Dawn of the Dead to The Sound of Music to karaoke music videos. Depending on viewer mileage, the result is either a delightfully hallucinogenic roller coaster, or just exhausting.

Annette

Adam Driver, in dim blue light with fog and tree shapes behind him, in Annette Photo: Kris Dewitte/Amazon Studios

Where to watch: Prime Video

The most recent entry on this list is Leos Carax’s and Sparks’ 2021 rock opera about a baby pop star (played by a puppet) who battles for agency against her opera-diva mother (Marion Cotillard) and faltering insult-comic father (Adam Driver). On its surface, it’s a grand exercise in shitposting, a sublime sung-through multimillion-dollar joke featuring Driver singing while eating Cotillard out, and a fierce little marionette girl headlining the Super Bowl. But underneath its meme-ready surface, it deepens into a full-throated celebration of performance, storytelling, and the absolute joy and simultaneous ridiculousness of committing to the bit 100%. (Seriously, where’s Simon Helberg’s Oscar nomination?) All the while, Carax and Sparks slyly spin a dark fairy tale about how parents can weaponize their children against each other, and they stick the landing with one of the best final scenes of the decade so far.