Film Studies: Cult Musicals

High School Hellcats to Skid Row: Identity, Culture and Class in the Cult Musical

Historically, musicals have always proven most popular during times of socio-political turmoil; prevalent eras for the genre have often coincided with periods of severe cultural unrest, with the Depression era in the 1930s and the time during and after the Second World War being two of the most successful eras for the Hollywood musical film. It is perhaps no surprise then, that the genre is enjoying both a critical and commercial resurgence in recent years as a response to turbulent global politics and striking social anxieties.

This suggests that musicals offer audiences much more than simply escapist entertainment. Whilst the genre clearly relies upon romance, humour and a sense of nostalgia, the musical also offers spectators a distinctly cathartic experience, opening a discourse on current fears and paranoias and revealing a great deal about the culture in which they are produced and released. Perhaps most striking is the cult musical; films which have enjoyed a legacy far beyond their often disappointing box office sales.

Of course, the cult film more generally is traditionally defined by its fan base, with such films having an uncommonly dedicated and passionate following; such a definition also extends to films which are more transgressive and subversive, perhaps shunned by mainstream audiences but finding popularity and a resonance with a devoted, smaller crowd. Unsurprisingly, the mother of cult musicals is often considered to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but in the three decades since it performed miserably at the box office and then went on to become one of the definitive cult films of all time, there have been countless further examples of darkly rebellious musicals by some of America’s most subversive and imaginative directors.

This course will comprise four screenings and four discussion sessions that will span some of the most celebrated examples of cult musicals across three decades. From Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (a film that pre-dates Rocky Horror) to John Waters’ Cry Baby (1990) via Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and Purple Rain (1984), we will explore the cultural and political context of each film and interrogate what about each picture grants it its cult status; we will also investigate each film in terms of its production history and its place in the oeuvre of its director – particularly in the cases of Brian de Palma and John Waters, a director William Burroughs once dubbed “The Pope of Trash”.

Despite being strikingly different films, the films on this course share significant thematic concerns: notions of class, identity social inequality and acceptance. In their own darkly humorous, subversive and satirical way, these films are a cathartic exploration of anxieties and concerns which demonstrates just how culturally significant the musical genre can be.

Rose Butler is an independent scholar in film and television studies and is currently completing a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University.

Full Course Pricing:

Adults: £65

Concessions: £50

Cine26: £32

To book the full course, please pop into Box Office, or get in touch with them on 0114 275 7727

Screening as part of BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery, BFI Film Audience Network and

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