This article contains spoilers, and fruity language.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will happily concede that this will not be an impartial appraisal. In fact, I probably should confess that I consider the first 30 or so minutes of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a movie theatre, and quite possibly the funniest thirty minutes ever committed to celluloid. The fact that I hadn’t had a heart attack by the time Cartman enquires as to whether Mr. Garrison would like to suck his balls is little short of a miracle.
The shock of that first viewing is something that I’ll never forget – its immediate and overwhelming nature was not the norm for someone who is more used to offering up polite chuckles than big, breath-stealing, tear-streaming belly laughs.
It’s easy to see why it could have that instant effect, there is plenty of surface shock, and much of the grotesque about it – a burlesque of risque language and references (especially when coming from the mouths of babes), the noxious insults of Eric Cartman, the turning over and satirisation of common film ideas – it’s all stuff that would appeal to me instantly…
And then there are the songs. Oh my, the songs.
“‘Cause movies teach us things that our parents don’t have time to say…”
In short: Mountain Town is a classic musical theatre opener; from its first flourish, accompanied by banner-toting bluebirds, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut uses its music as both a very astute shorthand, and sharpened weapon. The music also allows the references, nods and digs to pile up at an alarmingly fast rate (certain articles I’ve read quote something like 40 references to other media or events in the film’s 80 minute quoted running time), which means you’ve got to have a decent handle on American culture to get a lot of the jokes.
To wit: Mountain Town immediately paints the picture of a Disney-perfect film-world by aping Beauty And The Beast’s Belle, while also introducing the less than perfect ‘reality’ of South Park. It allows us to meet our heroes, their parents and the film’s primary antagonist (Kyle’s mother, Sheila Broflovski) as part as a series of character-establishing asides, and gives us our first taste of thematics when, in the climactic stringendo march at the end, the boys triumphantly sing: “Off to the movies we will go, where we learn everything that we know…”
You know the rest, right?
Mountain Town is not the only time Disney legends Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (see our interview with him) are adopted as the movie’s musical reference point. As they were the team that provided much of the soundtrack to the ‘Disney renaissance’ of the late eighties/early nineties, that is frankly unsurprising.
Parodying their work serves two purposes: it grounds the comedy in what were be very immediate musical tropes of the time. It also avoids pointing obvious barbs at Disney’s other great songwriting duo, the Sherman brothers, and the nostalgic esteem in which they’re held.
If you’re going to do an animated musical comedy, you’re going to have to riff on Disney at some point, and the Menken/Ashman style was by far the more contemporary, relevant, richest and easiest target without coming off as curmudgeonly or touching the ‘untouchable’ classics of Disney’s golden age. Plus, the Ashman/Menken style is far more akin to that of modern musical theatre, than the pop-derived ditties ‘The Boys’ peppered Walt’s movies with (as an aside, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is a wonderful, bittersweet watch if you get the chance to see it), so are more stylistically suited to the way Trey Parker was working with long-time Bette Midler cohort Marc Shaiman on the music.
In all honesty, though, while I may hold the Disney revival catalogue of that time in some affection now (especially Beauty And The Beast), as a person who turned 18 in 1993, I can confidently say that the oft-smooth, gospel-tinted Broadway delivery of Menken/Ashman was the antithesis of what I was looking for in music at that time, and to see it so comprehensively taken apart and put back together in Parker and Stone’s image was an iconoclastic blast.
It’s still a blast now, just for different reasons.
“You don’t eat or sleep or mow the lawn, you just fuck your uncle all day long…”
Whether or not it’s actually the case, I can’t say, but I’ve always seen the Terrance and Phillip characters as Parker and Stone’s impression of other people doing an impression of them. I like to think of them as the duo’s worse possible selves being parodied… all fart jokes, insults and annoying voices; all of the style, none of the substance, if you like.
This has allowed me to take great joy in reading the peerless, sweary, Paint Your Wagon/Oklahoma riffing brilliance of Uncle Fucker as a massive meta middle finger to everyone who has moaned about South Park’s corrupting influence, and who would surely round on the movie when it arrived.
While I can think of other moments in musical film that have been as willfully offensive – actually, only Springtime For Hitler is coming to mind right now – no other moment is so willfully obnoxious and trashy about it. Uncle Fucker is everything that’s ‘wrong’ with South Park packaged into a tight little amalgam of ‘right’. It’s beautiful in its coarse ugliness. Parker and Stone’s attitude to their haters distilled.
Right from the get-go, South Park traded in shock and offence, encased its stories in a patina of bad language and crude set-pieces (never let it be forgotten that the very first episode starts with the ‘kick the baby’ routine, and concludes with Cartman having an alien ship emerge from his backside) and sought to antagonise moral crusaders. Yet the amount of serious academic study that has been focused on the series – second only to The Simpsons in modern times, I’d wager – belies the work that’s gone into giving it substance.
To understand a little about just how South Park positioned itself as the bete noir of TV in the late 90s, it really helps to have a handle on the idea of the ‘V-chip’. In the movie, it’s a device that is implanted in Cartman in an attempt to stymie his swearing, a skill that he has honed significantly through multiple viewing of T&P’s Asses Of Fire.
However, the V-chip is not solely the invention of Parker and Stone; a real V-chip exists, and it has been mandatory to install one in all TVs sold in the USA since 2000 in order to allow parents to restrict access to shows based on the ratings they are awarded. Indeed, one of South Park’s first adverts on Comedy Central, back in 1996, declared it as “The reason they invented the V-Chip” – the irony of this being, of course, that a significant portion of teenagers who shouldn’t be watching South Park if the censors had their way, would immediately seek the show out. That in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut Cartman subverts his V-Chip in order to win the day with a virtuoso display of bad language is just the icing.
Having bribed a homeless man to get them into the cinema, once the famous five are seated Parker and Stone unleash Uncle Fucker in true Singin’ In The Rain film-within-a-film style. It’s full bore moral majority baiting, replete with an exquisite fart solo and a closing “suck my balls”. A full-stop that may as well be directly aimed at anyone who takes offence.
Of course, this seemingly nihilistic offence-fest is also the driver of the narrative; everything that happens in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an overreaction to seeing a movie the kids would never have seen if their parents had paid more attention to what they were doing, and that would have probably disappeared had there not been such a media furore around it. Which, kinda, sounds a bit familiar.
Meanwhile for the rest of the movie, Asses Of Fire’s incredulous stars wander through events bemused and making more rude jokes… Read into that what you will.
“You don’t have to spend your life addicted to smack, homeless on the streets giving handjobs for crack…”
If a core theme of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is the abdication of parental responsibility in favour of blaming others – and it is – the Mr. Mackey’s mmmoment in the sunshine is a chance to parody the culture of self-help and multi-step plans pedalled by popular psychology, health education and anti-drugs propaganda.
Add into that the perverse nature of having the kids sing out all the words they’re not meant to say and more as part of an increasing frantic vaudeville routine, before declaring them all ‘cured’, and we see that the filmmakers don’t appear to hold much truck with such touchy-feely approaches. This is reinforced when they all immediately decide to spend their ‘reflection’ time watching Asses Of Fire again. Because, kids…
“We must blame them and cause a fuss, before somebody thinks of blaming us!”
Blame Canada is South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut‘s antagonist manifesto, a strident march that sets up the central conflict of the film. It sits in the correct place within the film to conform with the musical tradition for such exposition (think of The Lion King’s Be Prepared, or latterly Tangled’s Mother Knows Best).
Unlike those, however, Blame Canada is not an attempt to make the viewer understand a villain’s motivations, but rather an exercise in revealing their hypocrisy in a lyric that leaves none of parents untouched – whether it be Sheila’s fervent wish to turn back the clock, Sharon and Liane’s inability to attribute any blame to their own offspring, or Mrs. McCormack’s doe-eyed idea of a bright future for the son she recently told would go to hell, everyone is complicit. They’re also looking for someone else to blame, of course. It’s the core point of South Park’s satire, made plain, simple and very, very funny.
Blame Canada got the Oscar nomination for Best Song in 2000, of course – leading to the wonderfully surreal sight of the late Robin Williams blasting through (most of) its lyrics with full chorus to back him up. Behind that performance, though, was the sad truth that the voice of Sheila Broflovski, Mary Kay Bergman, had committed suicide in late 1999, just a few months after the film was released. Working under the name Shannen Cassidy, Bergman handled the majority of the female roles in the early seasons of the show and the film – alongside a host of other voice over work (hence the pseudonym) for Disney and other animation projects, including Den Of Geek fave The Iron Giant, Scooby-Doo, and many others. It’s a sad coda to the song’s story.
Apparently Williams wasn’t the first choice to replace the original performers at the Oscars, though. Legend has it that “that bitch Anne Murray” was asked too perform the song too, but prior committments prevented it.
Whether or not it got the nod from the Academy because it was the only song from the soundtrack to be even marginally suitable for broadcast on US primetime TV (one solitary fuck had to be removed) is debateable. In a masterful piece of irony, Satan’s opus Up There has no swearing whatsoever, but we can imagine that a song imploring us to sympathise with the plight of Satan’s wish to rise from his fiery pit of damnation may not have played too well with certain prominent demographics.
Blame Canada didn’t win the Oscar, but after Phil Collins got the South Park treatment a year or so later (series four’s Timmy 2000), we’re not too sure he was so happy about beating it to the statuette for his work on Tarzan.
“Talk to kids around the world, and it might go a little bit something like this…”
The first of the recycled songs in the movie, Kyle’s Mom’s A Bitch is resurrected as showcase for Eric Cartman, one of the great comic creations of the 90s and an exemplar of self-centred, ignorant, politically incorrect word and deed. It also allows the gang to riff on the opening of the song, with the extended “weeeeeeeellll” and threats from Kyle both raising the expectation for those who know what’s coming next, and heightening the pay-off when the song finally does explode from Eric’s big mouth.
KMAB first appeared in Mr Hankey The Christmas Poo as far back as season one episode nine, but gets a big Hollywood workover here. It is delivered in a showstoppingly bravura manner that highlights Cartman as the culturally tone-deaf bully we’d come to love by then, even adding a globe-trotting section featuring lines in Chinese, French, Dutch and Swahili (apparently) that allows him various costume changes – including the typically verboten ‘Charlie Chan’ and ‘blackface’ make up – just to up the shock quota and further victimise his ‘buddy’ Kyle.
Parker and Stone are really playing with us here, by daring us to imagine just what Cartman is capable of. As early as Pinkeye (season one episode seven) we’ve seen him in a Hitler costume, and his unreconstructed, selfish, bigoted version of logic is central to many of the plots in the series. It’s Cartman. We can laugh at the inappropriateness of it all, and kids are cruel, yo.
By the time he takes it home with a big band/bluesy showstopper of a finale that Dean Martin would’ve enjoyed, you’re almost shocked into submission. Only for the ante to be upped again by the appearance of Sheila to witness the crescendo first hand.
His reaction, of course, is profane comedy gold.
“I want this V-Chip out of me, It has stunted my vocabulary…”
Not the strongest song on South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut’s roster, What Would Brian Boitano Do? heads back to the Oklahoma musical vein first explored by Uncle Fucker, with more western-style string flourishes, while allowing us a small re-cap on the major plot-points.
Far more interesting, though, is South Park’s relationship with the eponymous figure skater himself.
The 1988 Olympic figure skating gold medalist is first referenced by Parker and Stone in the second of their now-legendary The Spirit Of Christmas shorts, which appeared well before South Park, in 1992 and 1995.
That second film (so NSFW), a remake of the duo’s first ever collaborative effort, was subtitled Jesus vs Santa and made with a $2,000 fee given to them by Fox executive Brian Graden, who wanted to use it in lieu of a greetings card that festive season. As it sets the template for much of the characterisation and humour of the first series, it is generally credited as being the start of the South Park juggernaut we know today. It also contains the first use of the phrase ‘What Would Brian Boitano Do?’, when the skater turns up to offer words of wisdom to the film’s heroes.
Boitano then appears again in the first season of the series proper, alongside another South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut returning character, Big Gay Al. He is shown skating as part of a big musical number It’s Okay to Be Gay…
Ironically, Boitano would not publicly come out as gay more than fifteen years after that appearance in the show, but did not seem to feel affronted by the show’s allusions. In fact, he appears to enjoy the exposure that Parker and Stone’s references to him have bought; he has appeared in documentaries on the series, written the foreword to the book South Park Guide To Life and borrowed the pair’s own ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ pun for a cooking show called What Would Brian Boitano Make? (no, really…).
So why him?
Well, Parker and Stone apparently wrote letters to Boitano to profess their admiration for him and his achievements in the wake of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut – along with contributing original artwork to the ‘What Would Brian Boitano Do?’ T-shirts he sold for charity. It’s all part of the wonderful randomness of South Park’s pop culture pick’n’mix… That, and Brian Boitano scans a hell of a lot better than John Elway if you’re trying to write lyrics, I guess.
“Without evil there can be no good, so it must be good to be evil sometimes…”
A direct take on Menken/Ashman’s Part Of Your World from the The Little Mermaid, Up There is not only a nice bit parody, but a fantastic piece of character progression that – as we mentioned earlier – asks us to sympathise with Satan himself and his life in the underworld. Of course, twinning that with the schmaltziest tune of them all is a direct comment on how music is used to manipulate audience emotions, a satire heightened by the vocal histrionics of the song’s falsetto climax and gospel trappings.
It also comes with some of the best visual gags in the movie, from Satan in hiking gear, through the backing singers, to the USS Manhandler.
“But that’s the way it goes, in war, you’re shat upon! Though you die La Resistance lives on!”
A staple of musical theatre is the Act One finale, and here South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut goes straight to one of the classics, Les Miserables’ One Day More, for its reference point. We’ve already had The Mole set the stage for this with his cynical gallic attitude to life and God, so the shift away from Broadway melodies is well foreshadowed.
However, this movie’s very own Gavroche doesn’t get a musical moment in the spotlight, and it’s left to Gregory to deliver the call to arms. While his initial tune is more reminiscent of Les Mis’ Do You Hear The People Sing, as the rest of the cast layer up the medley it becomes clear that this musical summary of all that’s gone before is the end of the beginning for our heroes – unfortunately, it’s the beginning of the end for the music in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, as nothing in second act, even the underplayed reprise of Mountain Town that closes the film, comes anywhere near topping it.
The lack of an ‘11 O’Clock Number’ is, perhaps, the great failing of the film. I’m going to prefer to cast it, however, as an indication of just how good the music is in Act One. We certainly miss it when it’s gone, that’s for sure – and no matter how funny that Windows/Bill Gates gag, nor epic Cartman’s hadouken, neither can fill the gap.
“I like to kill, I like to maim, yes, I’m insane, but it’s okay ’cause I can change.”
Hey, if Satan can get a song, why not Saddam Hussein? What the hell, right? Let’s have him do a version of Ursula’s Poor Unfortunate Souls from The Little Mermaid, right? Unlike Up There, however, Saddam’s turn doesn’t do much to add to our understanding of the character, apart from highlight his style over substance and duplicity and emphasise that he really is the sandy little butthole we assume he is (probably the point, granted).
That’s a shame, though, because the film has just gone out of its way to let us sympathise with Satan, the Dark Lord himself… And yet Saddam is so shallow, we never really understand how he could be taken in by such a dick. I know, I’m talking about South Park here, but I’m invested now, and I’m going to see this through.
I Can Change is funny, and features some nice wordplay, but it’s perhaps the lightest of all the musical interludes herein (indeed it descends into a dance routine that, given South Park’s animation style, is less than impressive). Probably fitting, though, as it comes from the shallowest of the characters.
That the scene concludes with a sniggersome sound effect is a fitting payoff – in as much as it’s a bit of a cheap shot, like this song.
“The whole world’s gone to hell, but how are you?”
A final attempt at a knuckle-biting showstopper, Big Gay Al – an irregular recurring character throughout the series – gets his USO show parody I’m Super to close a wildly inappropriate night of entertainment for the troops.
Again, though, it’s another indication of how the film tails off, musically speaking. These songs are interludes standing between us and the plot progressions, they are no longer driving the film forward. While I may have, allegedly, spent more than the odd afternoon walking around the house singing Al’s anthem to myself, I could never make a case for it being a masterpiece – or even for its inclusion in the film. It’s an aside and little more. That’s a crying shame, because – at just 81 minutes – South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a short film anyway, so to think it was being padded is a bit disappointing.
“Sure, life is kinda gay, but it doesn’t seem that way, through the eyes of a child.”
After the finale of the film relies on revisiting Mountain Town, this is Parker and Shaiman’s final stab at 90s Disney. The end-title ballad (sung by veteran balladeer Michael McDonald) seems a straight up shot at schmaltzy Disney sentimentality… And it is – probably Can You Feel The Love Tonight, specifically. In truth, though, it’s a sad replacement for a truly great closing number.
So, herein lies the genius
Reading what I’ve said about those last three songs, you may well be doubting my commitment to the premise of this article. Yet, while South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut definitely flags in Act Two, that does not detract from the sterling work done in Act One when we solely consider the music. The genius here is taking an accepted ‘staid’ formula, and twisting it to form something new and shocking – even if that shock is the burlesque of Uncle Fucker.
Musical theatre is the vessel for much of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut’s comedy, but is not its focus. On the contrary, the overarching themes of the film – censorship, the abdication of personal responsibility in favour of blaming ‘society’, the use of moral outrage for political capital and the idea of children/childhood as something (in the words of Ted Gournelos, in his excellent book Cultural Studies And The Tao of South Park) “simultaneously dangerous and endangered” – are speared by using the genre to its full effect. Bigger, Longer And Uncut’s first act is so good because it stretched what we knew about the effectiveness of musicals beyond what we were used to seeing them do.
That it couldn’t sustain the very high standard it set for it’s entire run is probably not surprising, just a little disappointing. Long theatre runs have been pinned on fewer tunes and less interesting libretto than the first 40 minutes of this film has, that’s for sure.
As a satire, it effectively says: look at what you can do with these musical tools and this genre when you stop dealing in cliche and jukebox-inspired laziness. At a time when American musicals were a shadow of their Trans-Atlantic cousins, it was almost a great American musical.
It’s a manifesto, in both form and function, without ever becoming a lecture. Nor does the story ever crack under the weight of its own cultural allusions and cross-referencing – largely because it packs such a large amount of its commentary into its pitch-perfect (literally and metaphorically) musical asides rather than dialogue.
In terms reinventing what a musical is, or is for, it’s took over 15 years for Hamilton to arrive and stick a rocket up the genre in the way I’d argue South Park did. In their work with Robert Lopez on The Book Of Mormon Parker, Stone may well have refined the musical comedy template they created here alongside Marc Shaiman, but they couldn’t repeat the shock to the system South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was. When Stephen Sondheim singles you out for praise, and calling your musical “terrific” and “wonderful”, you know you’re doing interesting with the format, right?
It’s trick is that, when musical theatre tropes are co-opted in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut they’re never as the subject of the barbs being thrown; it’s their use in the wider media (especially Disney), to manipulate narrative and emotion, that is being held up for us to see. They form a cocoon within which the writers can play with wildly inappropriate humour, both linguistically and in terms of the visual accompaniment. This has long been the case… in the same way that we’re happy to watch Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor terrorise their diction coach and trash a room in Singin’ In The Rain. South Park just goes cruder, and more meta with it. No surprise there.
While we may laugh at the subject matter of the songs, the language therein and the effect they have on the characters in the film, at no moment during Bigger, Longer and Uncut are we invited to laugh at the act of singing and dancing. It’s the joy the film takes in the oeuvre that that makes it such pleasure, and enforces the message of the songs to such great effect.
In a movie that had a lot to say about popular culture at the turn of a millennium, we were never made to feel like we should feel guilty for enjoying its musical turns so much.
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