Elvis Presley. The Beatles. Pink Floyd. Prince. Some of the biggest artists and bands of all time have something in common – they’ve all starred in, or their music has appeared in rock musicals.
Whether on the big screens, Broadway, Off-Broadway, or West End, the cultural impact of rock musicals can’t be underestimated, and even the Library of Congress has deemed certain entries worthy of preservation.
In this guide, we look at the best rock musicals – some classics, some modern, and some cult.
The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers often tops the list of rock musicals. Unquestionably, it’s one of my favorite band movies (“We’re putting the band back together”) too.
The 1980 musical action-comedy film was a little slow-moving, but it made up for it with its unforgettable one-liners, infamous car chase scene, and impeccable musical performances by the likes of James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Kahn.
Given that it is The Blues Brothers, it’s more soul and R&B than rock, but I get the sentiment. The Blues Brothers do rock, and let’s face it – without the blues, we wouldn’t have rock and roll, rock, and all its other delightful permutations like metal.
The Blues Brothers have inspired a sequel, plenty of tribute acts and performances, and in 2004, a musical called The Blues Brothers Revival, which premiered in Chicago. The story, fittingly, revolved around Elwood rescuing Jake from purgatory.
Whether as a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live, in the movie sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, or on radio shows, there have been many memorable moments for the non-fictitious band over the years.
But I don’t know that any moment has ever topped the original 1980 Blues Brothers film (and let’s face it – it’s not the same without John Belushi).
This Is Spinal Tap
You can truly only have two reactions to the 1984 musical mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap – laughter (most), or tears (The Edge of U2).
Featuring the sublime acting of stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, the story follows the unfortunately named fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap (an uncomfortable medical procedure) and their misadventures through waning popularity (which they are in denial of), and internal conflict within the band.
The film was met with critical acclaim, though the box offices told another story. This Is Spinal Tap was initially a commercial failure, but the film would eventually find a cult following with the VHS release.
I don’t know if there was a single song that wasn’t immortalized by the movie, whether the opening “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” the condescending “Hell Hole,” the over-the-top campiness of “Sex Farm,” or the disastrous progressive rock of “Stonehenge.”
What some viewing audiences had trouble admitting, upon its release, was how good the music was. It’s certainly on par with plenty of KISS albums if only more suggestive.
A Hard Day’s Night
This 1964 musical comedy featured none other than the legendary Beatles, so it’s no surprise the film went on to become a critical and financial success. Its significance simply cannot be underestimated, A Hard Day’s Night is considered one of the most influential musical films ever made.
The musical follows the lives of the members of the band as they prepare for a TV performance over the course of 36 hours.
The film features plenty of classic Beatles material like “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “If I Fell,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “She Loves You,” among others.
The film would ultimately inspire countless late 60s London spy thrillers, comedies, and TV series like The Monkees too.
Other Beatles entries for consideration include Help!, Yellow Submarine, and Magical Mystery Tour.
Phantom of the Paradise
The 1974 rock musical comedy horror, Phantom of the Paradise follows the story of a young and naïve singer-songwriter who is tricked into sacrificing his life’s work by an unscrupulous record producer. Seeking revenge, the songwriter adopts a new persona and haunts the producer’s concert hall.
The film was panned by critics, and it did poorly at the box office too. Its saving grace was its music, which helped propel the film to cult status in the ensuing years.
The best music of the film depends on whom you ask, but “Upholstery,” “Life at Last,” “Old Souls,” and “The Hell of It” are certainly worth a listen.
Pink Floyd – The Wall
The 1982 musical drama film Pink Floyd – The Wall, was created based on their 1979 album of the same name. Pink Floyd vocalist and bassist Roger Waters himself wrote the screenplay.
Following in the footsteps of the album, the film is very metaphorical, taking advantage of auditory and visual cues to tell the story. It features minimal dialog and is largely driven by music.
The film version of the songs sometimes differs from the originals, and there is even a song that was never included on the album – “When the Tigers Broke Free.”
Most critics praised the film, and it even got a bit of a cult following, mostly from fans of Pink Floyd.
Based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Roddy Doyle, The Commitments is a 1991 musical comedy-drama. The screenplay was written by Doyle himself, with the help of writer, director, and producer Dick Clement, and writer Ian La Frenais.
The film revolves around a young music fanatic, Jimmy Rabbitte. Rabbitte forms a soul band called The Commitments and acquires the necessary equipment. The band proceeds to rehearse until they finally land themselves a gig at a local church community center.
The cast largely consisted of inexperienced actors who were mostly chosen for their musical abilities and likeness to the characters portrayed in the novel.
The film didn’t quite do as expected in North America, but reviewers mostly had good things to say about the film’s music, humor, and performances, with its pacing cited as one of its chief weaknesses.
The first soundtrack album reached the top 10 on the Billboard 200, and the second secured gold sales status.
As with many musicals mentioned here, The Commitments went on to enjoy cult status. It also spawned The Commitments jukebox musical in 2013.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve probably at least heard of Jesus Christ Superstar. Created as a sung-through rock opera with the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyrics of lyricist and author Tim Rice, the musical is loosely based on The Passion, as depicted in The Gospels.
Jesus Christ Superstar largely revolves around Judas, who in the Gospels ultimately betrayed Jesus. It could even be said that Jesus Christ Superstar was a modern take on the events surrounding The Passion, reflected in the characters and their attitudes, sensibilities, slang, and more.
The composers were initially unable to get the backing they needed for a stage production. So, they released it as a concept album, which was successful enough to propel the production to Broadway by 1971. Jesus Christ Superstar ran for eight years in London, becoming the longest-running West End musical.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch
The name Hedwig and The Angry Inch is practically synonymous with rock musicals.
Following the journey of genderqueer German singer Hedwig Robinson, the story takes inspiration from actor, playwright, screenwriter, singer, songwriter, producer, and director John Cameron Mitchell, the child of a U.S. Army major general.
Glam rock dominates the musical selection, with the music of androgynous 70s artists intentionally chosen for the production – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and John Lennon.
The award-winning musical opened Off-Broadway in 1998 and went on to get a West End treatment in 2000.
While it doesn’t need much of an introduction, a name that’s sure to float to mind in discussing rock musicals is Grease.
In the 50s, the working-class youth subculture was known as greasers, which is where the musical got its title from. The musical, set in 1959, takes place at the fictional Rydell High School, which took its name from singer and actor Bobby Rydell.
Upon its launch, the 1971 musical was considered raunchy and was toned down in short order. Since then, it has only been further diluted, but the franchise remains popular.
The score is laden with early rock and roll music.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Based on the 1973 musical, The Rocky Horror Show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an independent 1975 musical comedy film.
The musical pays homage to Sci-Fi and B movies of the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and the story revolves around a young, engaged couple. After their car breaks down in a downpour, they head for the nearest castle to see if they can use the telephone to call for help.
This is where they encounter a strange convention with people in elaborate costumes, as well as the head of the house, Dr. Frank N. Furter.
The movie starred Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick. The soundtrack is near unforgettable, with classics like “The Time Warp.”
Rock musical drama Purple Rain was released in July 1984. The film was scored by Prince, who starred in the film, making his acting debut. The film was mostly created to showcase Prince and his talents, with multiple musical sequences featuring Prince with his backing band, The Revolution.
The film contains its share of bizarre, including a scene where actress and singer Apollonia Kotero spontaneously disrobes and jumps into a lake in front of Prince, who doesn’t seem to care one way or another.
It didn’t matter. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Some critics even called it one of the greatest musical films of all time, and the Library of Congress chose it for preservation.
With songs like “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Purple Rain,” it’s no wonder the musical was ultimately a success. Prince’s acting chops (or lack thereof) were largely irrelevant here.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny
2006 musical fantasy comedy film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny was written, produced by, and starred Jack Black and Kyle Gass, the two members of the rock duo, Tenacious D. Musician Liam Lynch co-wrote and directed it.
The film tells the fictitious origins of the band, who tracks down the Pick of Destiny, a pick allegedly used by the greatest guitarists of all time (Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, etc.), ultimately belonging to Satan, played by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl.
The same year, the band released the soundtrack, The Pick of Destiny, which reached number eight on the Billboard 200.
The musical didn’t do well at the box office upon its release. As with several other films mentioned here, though, it ended up finding a long-tail audience, becoming a cult classic retroactively.
The film features other notable appearances by the likes of Ronnie James Dio, Meat Loaf, Ben Stiller, and John C. Reilly, among others.
Based on the 1980 film, Xanadu, which was inspired by the 1947 film Down to Earth, Xanadu is a musical comedy with the music and lyrics of Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne and music producer John Farrar, with a book by playwright and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane.
The musical opened on Broadway in 2007, tallying up over 500 performances. In addition to being nominated for two Tony Awards, the musical earned a Drama Desk Award for Best Book and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical.
The musical was a critical failure, though it was a commercial hit. Several of the songs also went on to become hits.
Xanadu follows the story of Greek muse Kira who leaves Mount Olympus to visit Venice Beach, California. She goes on a quest to help a struggling artist to help him achieve one of the greatest artistic feats of all time, but in the process, ends up falling in love with him. Insanity ensues.
The Beatles certainly had their moment in the sun with multiple successful musical films. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, that The King also had his moment in the sun – literally, with the 1961 musical romantic comedy-drama Blue Hawaii.
The critics were mixed in their opinion of Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley, but it was a commercial winner, becoming the 10th top-grossing film of 1961.
Blue Hawaii centers on Chadwick “Chad” Gates, who is released from the Army and is eager to return to Hawaii. Against his mother’s wishes, Chad becomes a tour guide instead of taking over management at his family business. A love triangle ensues with one of Chad’s new client’s students.
The soundtrack included Bing Crosby’s “Blue Hawaii” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” among others.
Maybe more pop than rock, the 1997 musical comedy Spice World nevertheless followed in the footsteps of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and starred the members of the pop girl group Spice Girls.
In the film, the girls are on their way to performing a major concert at Royal Alberta Hall in London, and their journey is peppered with surreal moments, dream sequences, flashbacks, and humorous asides.
To throw a wrench in the mix, there’s an antagonist in the form of a newspaper editor who gets a smear campaign going against the Spice Girls for personal benefit.
The likes of Meat Loaf and Naoko Mori were cast in supporting roles, while the film also featured several prominent cameos by the likes of Elvis Costello and Gary Glitter.
Spice World was a box office success in the United States.
Top Rock Musicals, Final Thoughts
The world of rock musicals sure can be a strange one, but that is probably why so many people love it. You just never know what you’re going to get, and if nothing else, there is usually great music to enjoy!
What is your favorite rock musical? What rock musical do you plan to go and see now?
We hope you enjoyed this read.