Dig If You Will These Pictures: ’80s Musicals, from Dolly Parton to Prince


A smartly curated sampling of 13 titles, Anthology’s “Hollywood Musicals of the 1980s” dives into the decade that launched MTV—broadcaster of three-and-a-half-minute musicals 24 hours a day—to reveal the elasticity of the genre, from films in which almost all of the singing is done offscreen to showcases for a new-sound insurrection … and Prince and the Revolution.

Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982), billed upon release as “a new kind of old-fashioned romance,” works as a musical—mainly through pacing, mise-en-scène, and surfeit of feeling—even though only one secondary character sings briefly. Evoking both the melancholy romanticism of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the lushly artificial sets of such MGM evergreens as Singin’ in the Rain, the film takes place during a Fourth of July weekend, in a warm-neon Las Vegas built entirely on the sound stages of the director’s soon-to-go-bust Zoetrope Studios. Though there’s little crooning onscreen, there’s still plenty of music: Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle’s bluesy score, duets that narrate the heartbreak and reconciliation of leads Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest, who split up after five years together and seek out distraction in Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski.

More conventional, if frequently unendurable, is Colin Higgins’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), an adaptation of the 1978 Broadway tuner. You’ll need to steel yourself for Jim Nabors and Dom DeLuise; relief comes whenever Dolly Parton, as the madam of the Chicken Ranch, opens her mouth. The country star, in her second film after 1980’s Nine to Five, added two of her own compositions—Whorehouse‘s best numbers—to Carol Hall’s original music: “Sneakin’ Around,” a duet with male lead Burt Reynolds that has the magical effect of turning the overweening actor into someone passably charming, and “I Will Always Love You,” her 1974 single (covered by Whitney Houston in 1992 as a power soul ballad in her big-screen debut, The Bodyguard).

Released one year after Wild Style and the documentary Style Wars (whose influence is acknowledged in the closing credits), the Harry Belafonte–produced, trans-borough Beat Street (1984) features mildewy plot contrivances—the haunting memory of an older brother lost to gang violence, third-rail electrocution—in its desultory story of an aspiring South Bronx DJ, his kid brother, and their pals. And also has the greatest cast of hip-hop talent ever assembled. The Treacherous Three and Grandmaster Melle Mel & the Furious Five (among a million others) perform, the New York City Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew battle, and DJ Kool Herc has a ball playing himself.

No one enjoys playing himself—or his avatar, “the Kid”—more than Prince in Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984). Released a month after the soundtrack, the film (the lovesexy pop genius’s first movie role; two additional, ignominious screen ventures would follow) endures as the best two-hour album promotion ever made. The dramatic filler in between doves crying and Nikki masturbating with a magazine falls just short of being redeemed as camp: the fights with Wendy and Lisa; troubles with Mom and Dad; doing it with Apollonia in his candlelit, harlequin-doll-filled bedroom; Apollonia in general. But when the Kid’s onstage at Minneapolis’s First Avenue club, U would die 4 him.