Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.

New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.

Monday, May 21, 2012

10 Best Musical Moments in Non-Musicals

If there's one thing better than a really good musical, it's a really good musical sequence in a non-musical film or series. Music is always present in film and television—enhancing mood, establishing characters, and conveying the setting—but when it becomes the focus of the moment it can, if done properly, create something extraordinary. Romance becomes deeper, loss more wrenching, comedy funnier, and triumph even more awesome.

So here's my list of the ten best interludes, montages, musical episodes, and other delights from movies and shows that don't normally step into the song and dance zone.

10.) “Hallelujah” from Shrek

With its overly sincere recital of melodramatic, metaphor-heavy lyrics (“I saw your flag from the marble arch/But love is not a vict'ry march/It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah”), Leonard Cohen's oft-covered ballad can be cheesy in the extreme if done wrong, or a gut-punching tearjerker if done right. The first Shrek film, using a version performed by John Cale, gets it right. It appears during the emotional low point of the film, with Shrek and Princess Fiona separated and alone after a mutual misunderstanding derailed their budding affection. He's returned to his cherished, isolated swamp, she is preparing for her wedding to diminutive tyrant Lord Farquaad. Both have what they've been fighting for the entire movie, and both of them couldn't be more miserable about it. The song fits the regret and hopelessness in the scene, and the dissolves between the characters are remarkably well-done.

9.) “Mayhem of the Music Meister!”, Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Whenever a series does a musical episode, the question arises: how do we get these people who don't normally sing and dance singing and dancing? Dream sequence? Just run with it and pretend nothing weird is going on? Sure, those routes can work fine. But if you're working with a show that already has a touch of the fantastic about it, there's one way to provide an in-universe justification for the concept: introduce a character who brings the singing and dancing with them. “Mayhem of the Music Meister” is one of two great musical episodes that employs this idea. The titular antagonist (voiced by special guest villain Neil Patrick Harris) is a former choir geek who discovered his singing had hypnotic capabilities, and plans to use this power in the most tuneful plan for world domination ever devised. The result meshes well with the Silver Age silliness inherent in the show, and thanks to Harris is a lot of fun to listen to.

(Note: decent embed-able scenes from this cannot currently be found on YouTube.  Go look it up, it's awesome.)

8.) “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar?”, cast of The Guild

Take one undisputed Queen of the Internet (Felicia Day), one highly underrated musical talent (Jed Whedon), throw in a bunch of geek double entendre lyrics (“Tank 'n' spank,” anyone?) and a catchy dance beat and set the whole thing to a parody of every “sexy music video” cliché ever, and what do you get? One of the most entertaining commercials ever made. Designed as a promotion for web series The Guild's second season, the video features Day and her cast-mates spoofing the wish fulfillment of roleplay gaming and online relationships, and generally having a blast in front of the camera. The result is so effortlessly funny and entertaining that it manages to wrap all the way back around to sexy. (“Hotter than reality by far”? That's hard to imagine.) The Guild has made other music videos (the Bollywood-inspired “Game On” and geek revenge anthem “I'm the One That's Cool”), but this first one remains their best.

7.) “Toobular Boobular Joy,” Mystery Sciencce Theater 3000

Lots of comedy teams have a decent songwriter or two in their ranks, and the writers of the greatest snark show to ever mock a horrible movie is no exception. The MST3K writers often put a little music into their host segments, frequently to excellent effect. (Among the honorable mentions: The ultra-PC “Merry Christmas (If That's Okay),” Mike's parody of Girl in Gold Boots' love ballad, and the wonderfully inane “”When Loving Lovers Love.”) But perhaps the funniest is their "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"-esqe attempt to describe the sheer amounts of skin on display in the sword-and-sorcery cheapie Outlaw. The tongue-tying list of adjectives ranges from the clinically anatomical to cheerfully blatant--”A latissimal-dorsical, hung-like-a-horsical, calipyligical ball”--and was probably as fun to invent as it is to listen to. Hey guys, how's the movie?

6.) “HMS Yakko,” Animaniacs

There had to have been some serious musical geeks on the Animaniacs writing staff. How else do you explain the dog-and-cat team of Rita and Runt doing an extended parody of Les Miserables? Or the Warner Brothers (and their sister Dot) turning their mischief on a short, puffy-lipped, egotistical composer who is an extremely obvious Andrew Lloyd Webber parody? But as always, it's Gilbert and Sullivan who prove to have the best filking fodder. The plot follows the same basic form as most of the Yakko, Wakko, and Dot shorts (the trio find someone who really needs to be taken down a peg, and proceed to do so with great glee), but the clever parodying of key HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance songs make it one of the most memorable moments in the series. Even the inevitable “Modern Major General” rewrite is carried of with panache.

5.) “When She Loved Me,” Toy Story 2

Despite not dabbling in full-blown musicals (unlike Disney's traditional animation wing), the folks at Pixar know how to use the score to incredible effect. Remember WALL-E's fondness for Hello Dolly, or The Incredibles' jazzy James Bond-esque soundtrack? But when people talk about Pixar moments that really stick with them, this song almost inevitably comes up. Sung by Sarah MacLachlan, it accompanies Jesse the cowgirl doll's memories of her first owner Emily, who loved her and played with her until inevitably dolls and playtime gave way to rock music and lipstick. It's a wonderful encapsulation of the central tragedy of the Toy Story series: that the characters must inevitably watch the children they love grow old and forsake them. And I realize I just used the word “tragedy” to describe a movie series about talking toys. What can I say, Pixar really is that good.

4.) “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers (1968)

There is a certain genius to writing deliberately bad music well. It needs to be bad, certainly, but it needs to be bad in a way that the audience finds entertaining and funny rather than grating. And “Springtime for Hitler” is quite possibly the best bad musical number ever devised. From its light and cheerful celebration of the Third Reich to its wonderfully cheesy choreography and even cheesier showgirl costumes, it's an amusingly awful sample of the show Messrs. Bialystock and Bloom have hit on as the worst play ever written. When The Producers went full musical, it inevitably expanded the number into a full-blown production, but wisely left the audience's silent, gape-mouthed reaction untouched. Why mess with the best “What the F*CK was that?” take in film?

3.) “Once More With Feeling,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Leave it to Joss Whedon to take the concept of the musical episode and turn it into something more than a gimmick. With a plot that examines some of the major issues that had been building for the first half of Buffy's sixth season, “Once More With Feeling” is more than just a plain old song and dance. Like “Mayhem of the Music Meister” it uses the in-universe explanation of an antagonist forcing the regular cast to sing their hearts out—in this case, a smooth, sharp-dressed demon named Sweet who forces people to express their deepest thoughts and darkest secrets musically until they literally self-destruct. (Pretty clever meta-commentary on the genre, that.) Whedon knows his cast's strengths, giving major solos to the best singers (Amber Benson, Anthony Stewart-Head) and keeping the less talents ones (Allyson Hannigan) in the background. Only two things prevent this episode from being higher on the list: the reveal of how Sweet came to Sunnydale is ultimately unsatisfying, and it was the last time Buffy was really good.

2.) Pippin's Song, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Howard Shore's score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy is an extended exercise in awesome. (Heard the symphonic version yet? If not, get thee to YouTube right away!) So it's kind of ironic that the best musical moment in the trilogy doesn't belong to him, but to actor Billy Boyd. Boyd not only sings this adaptation of “Upon the Hearth the Fire is Red,” he composed it's simple, folk-ballad melody. The song is juxtaposed with scenes of Faramir leading a charge to battle (and doom) at the hands of the orcs, encapsulating the trilogy's overarching theme of simple folk caught up (and making a difference) in world-shaking events. If you can watch it without crying...well, you're made of sterner stuff than I am. Which isn't saying much, but still.

1.) “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” Monty Python's Life of Brian

Let's face it, the Pythons are concentrated awesome. This is a scientifically proven fact. And there are a lot of musical segments they did that could have wound up on this list (“Knights of the Round Table” and “Every Sperm is Sacred” to name just a couple). But I always point to Life of Brian as my favorite Monty Python project, so that means the top honor goes to Eric Idle singing a cheerful little ditty as pretty much the entire cast gets crucified. There's a terrific irony to the scene that, somehow, circles back around to wisdom: life can be pretty awful, but it's what we've got so we might as well enjoy it. No surprise that a lot of people shuffling off their mortal coils (including the Python's own Graham Chapman) have this sung at their funerals, sending them off with one last laugh.

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