Total Recall

Total Recall: Let's Put On a Show!

With Joyful Noise hitting theaters, we take a look at movies about staging a big performance.

by | January 11, 2012 | Comments


Having a hard time shaking off the post-holiday blues? Alcon Entertainment has just the thing for you: Joyful Noise, the Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton musical drama about a newly instated small-town choir director (Latifah) whose battles with the former director’s widow (Parton) threaten to derail the choir’s performance in the annual Joyful Noise competition. In other words, we’ll get to see a rafter-raising musical number in the final act — which means we had no choice but to dedicate this week’s feature to a look back at some other movies that culminated in a Really Big Show. Whether they’re saving the orphanage or chasing a dream, the characters in these films have one thing in common: they all ended up on stage. Take your seats and turn off your cell phones, because it’s time for Total Recall!

Babes in Arms


A Broadway hit for Rodgers and Hart in 1937, this gee-whiz musical centers on a group of vaudeville offspring (including Judy Garland and a positively frenetic Mickey Rooney) who want to put on a show of their own and make it to the big time. Garland and Rooney would follow this same basic plot outline enough times that we could probably just give them a Total Recall of their own, but Babes in Arms is the first and arguably best. “It’s saved by Rooney’s brash nerve,” wrote TV Guide, “and especially by the triple-threat charm of Garland, a performer unequaled in the annals of show business.”

Be Kind Rewind


In this Michel Gondry cult favorite, a pair of buddies desperate to cover up the accidental destruction of the inventory at the VHS rental store where one of them works decide to start filming new versions starring themselves — a goofball enterprise they nickname “sweding,” after telling the customers the new versions came from Sweden. What starts as a stopgap measure soon becomes a profitable business venture, albeit one that’s quickly crushed by copyright law (and a steamroller). With the fate of their boss’s building on the line, the only thing left to do is get the whole neighborhood together for the most swedest sweded movie of all time. Unsurprisingly, the box office didn’t know quite what to make of Be Kind Rewind during its theatrical run, but it’s found an audience on home video among filmgoers who appreciate what James Rocchi called “a celebration of the power of film and the joy of the movies; not just great art, but also great trash.”

The Blues Brothers


Jake and Elwood spend pretty much the entirety of The Blues Brothers careening around Illinois, one step ahead of the law, Nazis, and a bazooka-toting Carrie Fisher. What could be worth all that aggravation? Their mission from God — get the old band back together for one last performance, a benefit gig that will raise enough money to save the orphanage where they grew up. In the end, all that sweet soul music isn’t quite enough to offset the massive property damage they cause along the way, or to keep the brothers out of prison — but it does save the orphanage, and it certainly adds up to what Film4’s Richard Luck called “A damn fine mess of a movie.”

The Full Monty


What can you do when you’re down on your luck in a town that seems to have run out of second chances? Swallow your pride, practice a few dance moves, hit the stage, and give the audience The Full Monty. This $257 million hit comedy follows the adventures of a group of unemployed steelworkers who decide to raise money by starting an all-male nude dance revue — a decision met with predictable resistance by some of their family members (to say nothing of local law enforcement), but ultimately ends up paying off with a sold-out show that culminates in what might be the most transcendent version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” ever performed. “The Full Monty is feel-good comedy,” argued Russell Smith of the Austin Chronicle, “with none of the pejorative hints of innocuous blandness that term so often implies.”

Hamlet 2


Rock me, sexy Jesus! Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 is every bit as ridiculous as its title would imply, following a sad-sack high school drama instructor (Steve Coogan) who resorts to desperate measures after discovering that his program is due to be shut down at the end of the year. To save his job, he writes the highly un-anticipated sequel to Hamlet, featuring a number of inappropriate musical numbers, himself as Jesus, and lots of time travel. The zany end result involves an enraged principal, the interference of a zealous ACLU activist (Amy Poehler), and what Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called “A high school musical that would make John Waters proud.”

Hannah Montana: The Movie


Setting aside for a moment its ridiculous premise (a blonde wig is all it takes to fool people into thinking you’re someone different) and somewhat troubling message (living a double life is, like, totally cool), Hannah Montana: The Movie is perfect for this list — when not treating viewers to slapstick mistaken-identity plot twists and musical numbers, the plot hinges on the efforts of a group of evil developers to raze pristine Tennessee meadows and build a shopping mall. You know it’s going to come down to a big benefit concert, but you also don’t watch movies like this for surprises; as Linda Barnard wrote for the Toronto Star, “Who cares if it gives anyone over the age of 12 a headache? The state of Hannah Montana is little-girl paradise.”

The Muppets


Technically, the Muppets have put on a couple of really big shows during their time in Hollywood, but for this list, we decided to go with 2011’s The Muppets, mainly because it felt so good to see them back on the big screen — and reuniting to save the old theater, which is where they truly belong. With musical numbers, feel-good optimism, and Muppets galore, it proved that nostalgia-driven entertainment doesn’t always have to feel like a step backward, and gave millions of thirtysomething parents an excuse to tear up in a darkened theater next to their children. Saying that it “marks a triumphant return for these beloved characters,” Aisle Seat’s Mike McGranaghan sighed, “This movie made me feel good all over.”

School of Rock


Unlike most of the folks on this list, Dewey Finn (Jack Black) doesn’t have any altruistic motivations for putting on a show — he just really needs to pay his rent before he gets evicted, so he impersonates his roommate (Mike White) in order to take a job as a substitute teacher at a posh private school. He quickly realizes he has no idea what he’s doing, but he also realizes his students have real musical talent, and just as quickly sets about turning them into a band that can help him win the $20,000 prize in an upcoming local competition.School of Rock is pure formula, but in this case, that isn’t such a bad thing; as Jack Matthews wrote for the New York Daily News, “This is fun for everyone, even those (like me) who hate contemporary rock music.”

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit


Once Sister Act raked in a surprising $231 million at the box office, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’d see a sequel. Alas, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit failed to spark the same level of critical goodwill — or commercial success — as its predecessor. Still, we’d be remiss if we ignored it here, as its plot is an unapologetic rehash of any random Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical (as previously mentioned): Delores Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg), who dodged the mob by pretending to be a nun in the first movie, is lured back into the convent in order to save her old friends’ school, which is facing closure by the diocese unless she can whip its choir (including a young Lauryn Hill) into shape. Its pure predictability caused many critics to groan in despair, but Entertainment Weekly’s Ty Burr didn’t mind, arguing, “Sister Act 2 doesn’t have one original idea in its entire 100 minutes. Somewhat bizarrely, it doesn’t matter.”

Waiting for Guffman


Usually, the “really big show” movie ends in over-the-top triumph. Not so Waiting for Guffman, a Christopher Guest mockumentary about deluded director Corky St. Clair (played by Guest) and his increasingly desperate efforts to pull together a play in honor of a small Missouri town’s 150th anniversary. Given that much of the film’s dramatic tension hinges on the fact that Corky has told his largely talentless cast (which includes Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey) that a Broadway producer named Guffman is coming to see the show, it would have been easy for Waiting to be mean — or simply rather sad. In the end, however, it’s smartly funny; as Roger Ebert wrote, “Attention is paid not simply to funny characters and punch lines, but to small nudges at human nature.”

White Christmas


It might have been a transparent attempt to bundle some of Irving Berlin’s biggest hits with the Technicolor chemistry of a high-wattage quartet (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen), but 1954’s White Christmas is one of the most cheerfully corny entries in the “really big show” genre, loaded up with old-fashioned Hollywood charm and an impeccable soundtrack. Called upon to save a Vermont inn that’s on the brink of shutting down due to lack of snow, Broadway producers Crosby and Kaye decide to bring their hit production to town, setting in motion a flurry of star-crossed love affairs, musical numbers, and feel-good sentiment. “White Christmas is the cinema equivalent of an inappropriate festive snog under the mistletoe,” chuckled Wendy Ide of the UK’s Times. “You know you probably shouldn’t enjoy it but you just can’t help yourself.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Joyful Noise.


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