South Park: Millennials’ Defining Movie Musical

Released smack dab in the middle of arguably the best movie year thus far, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut celebrates its 25th anniversary on June 30 and remains one of the great comedies of the past quarter century — and beyond.

But as well as the jokes and social commentary from the screenwriting team of South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and longtime series creative producer Pam Brady hold up, it’s the film’s songs and grasp of musical theater history that increasingly feel like its defining elements.

Though Parker and Stone would soon expand their musical prowess with Team America: World Police and the stage show Book of Mormon, their musical pedigree was already somewhat established by 1999. Humorous songs often appeared on South Park, whose third season was on the air when Bigger, Longer & Uncut premiered (though Episode Six was delayed a week to not conflict with the film’s opening day). And brave viewers had been exposed to the forgettable Cannibal! The Musical since its 1993 release.

Yet over the course of the film’s opening stanza, sung by Parker’s Stan Marsh, there’s a sense that the South Park team is operating on a new and exciting level, one riffing on a range of stage and movie musical traditions in creative ways.

As the film circulated among South Park fans and (mirroring the story’s core conflict) the songs were devoured and memorized by underage youths like myself, numerous publications credited the musical success to its composer and co-songwriter Marc Shaiman. Already a veteran Broadway and film composer by 1999, with credits ranging from The Addams Family to Ghosts of Mississippi, his involvement brought prestige to Bigger, Longer & Uncut. But as Shaiman told Entertainment Weekly in 2014, his involvement was largely secondary.

“I was Igor to Trey’s Dr. Frankenstein,” Shaiman said. “The word genius gets thrown around a lot, but Trey truly is a genius. He can do it all. I understood and shared his sense of humor and musicality, but this was all Trey, and I was just along for the ride.”

Parker’s brilliance is evident in each of the film’s songs, all of which convey exposition yet are still catchy and funny. And they’re not just earworms about love, desire, and other standard fare, but compositions that speak to the times and remain just as relevant today — if not more so.

Complementing a plot that accurately predicts (albeit via nuclear hyperbole) the outrage that numerous adults would express at their children’s inevitable access to Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the lyrical explorations of censorship, hypocrisy, xenophobia, and extremism slot eerily well into 2024. And the familiar show tunes that the film references make the messages go down in a most delightful way. 

Reminiscent of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma! and “Belle” from the animated Beauty and the Beast, introductory number “Mountain Town” is somewhat of a throwaway to bring in the characters and get them to the animated Terrance and Phillip movie, Asses of Fire. But minutes later, things shift to another gear with the film-within-the-film’s “Uncle Fucka,” an Oklahoma!-like hoedown complete with a fart solo showdown from its Canadian stars.

Even with the overlapping Rodgers and Hammerstein influences, Bigger, Longer & Uncut starts to feel like a truly cohesive musical with school guidance counselor Mr. Mackey’s profanity-substitution tune “It’s Easy, M’kay,” which continues the banjo-forward country western instrumentation of “Uncle Fucka” while adding in horns.

By this point in the project, it’s clear that the filmmakers are treating the feature like a real musical. Only a few minutes lapse between songs, and these dialogue-focused stretches are typically underlined by Shaiman’s thoughtful score, thereby maintaining the overall musical feel. While hellbilly rock anthem “Hell Isn’t Good,” sung by Metallica’s James Hetfield as young Kenny McCormick descends to the underworld, and Stan’s Disney-esque internal love songs “There’s the Girl that I Like” serve as fun interludes, Bigger, Longer & Uncut hits its apex with “Blame Canada.”

Considering that it was written in the same year as the Columbine shooting, Eminem’s violent, misogynistic The Slim Shady LP, and the gun-heavy The Matrix, the central scapegoat theme (a call-to-action song in the vein of Mary Poppins’ “Sister Suffragette”) provides intelligent commentary at a time when Middle America was clutching its proverbial pearls extra tight. And the lack of personal accountability that endures 25 years later keeps “Blame Canada” decidedly modern and potent.

The wittiness keeps coming with an expanded version of the show’s “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch,” echoing the polka vibes of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”; “What Would Brian Boitano Do?,” a get-the-gang-together anthem in the vein of “When You’re a Jet” from West Side Story; and “Up There,” Satan’s “I Wish” song about living on earth, parodying The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” but with a huge backing chorus.

Likewise obvious yet effective, “La Resistance” takes inspiration from Les Misérables’ “One Day More,” peppering it with hilariously grisly lyrics, and kicks off a medley with reworked versions of previous songs, a la West Side Story’s “Tonight Quintet.” And Sadaam Hussein’s “I Can Change” checks the villain perspective song box, combining the deceptive promises of Kaa’s “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book with the bombastic energy of Scar’s “Be Prepared” in The Lion King, all with Middle Eastern instrumentation that evokes Hussein’s native land.

The film’s final number, Big Gay Al’s “I’m Super,” successfully combines Busby Berkeley choreography with the welcoming spirit of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Be Our Guest.” But like many (most?) classic musicals, Bigger, Longer & Uncut wisely shifts to action and dialogue in the climax rather than additional songs that almost certainly would have proved ill-fitting.

It all lands just as successfully now as it did in 1999, and lest one think Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an overpraised nostalgic relic from this elder millennial’s formative teen years, its musical elements earned the respect of some impressive peers. “Blame Canada” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, where Robin Williams memorably performed it live; Stephen Sondheim sent Parker a letter saying the film was one of his favorite musicals of the past 15 years; and Shaiman says the film was “certainly the thing that really led to me being asked to do Hairspray.”

Not bad for a bunch of foul-mouthed kids from Colorado.

“South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” is out now on 4K UHD and is streaming on Paramount+.

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