Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.
London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it. However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform. London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera. Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war. It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.
Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one. London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation. Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.
Les Misérables (2012)
2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road. The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing. What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form. Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.
Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio. The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats. Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.
Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing. A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting. For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad. Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs. When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.
While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways. It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack. More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.