“Oh, yes, I think South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is just terrific, and the numbers in it are wonderful” – Stephen Sondheim
South Park is often written off by people who have almost certainly never seen it as being nothing more than cheap, lowbrow shock value – eight-year-olds swearing like squaddies and people performing disgusting and depraved acts for no apparent reason. Those who have seen it, however, know that the language and the depravity are part of a highly exaggerated analogy that scathingly critiques and explores whatever current issue that episode is focusing on. Dick jokes alone can only get you so far, and they certainly don’t make you the third-longest running US animated series (behind only The Simpsons and, surprisingly, Arthur) or net you widespread critical acclaim, numerous Emmys, a Peabody Award and an Oscar-nominated feature film.
After the enormous amount of attention the series garnered with its first season, a feature film was commissioned whilst creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were working on the second season of the show. Parker later recalled that to him, it felt like the making of the second season was “disastrous”. The pair thought the bubble would soon burst, so whilst they had the opportunity to do so they would write a full-length musical film, and make the title a dick joke. They also took the opportunity to bend their own rule about only very, very rarely including celebrity cameos, filling the film with a rather strange roster of famous people they admire but, as usual, giving them tiny roles. George Clooney and Eric Idle briefly play doctors; Brent Spiner and Minnie Driver voice Conan O’Brien and Brooke Shields; Dave Foley (Flik from A Bug’s Life) is all the Baldwin Brothers; James Hetfield from Metallica briefly sings one song; Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran and Stewart Copeland from The Police each have a single line as two soldiers, whilst fellow animator Mike Judge provides the voice of the long muffled Kenny McCormick.
Looking back on the film over 15 years later, it’s no surprise it’s brilliant; Parker and Stone followed it up with Team America five years later, and in 2011 won a handful of Olivier Awards, as well as nine Tony Awards, for The Book Of Mormon, a feat only bested by three other musicals. Ever. At the time, however, although they had included some great standalone songs in the TV series, there was no indication that the duo were quite as adept as they are at crafting a long-form musical work.
The main narrative of the film is heavily self-satirising, as it centres around the release of the film Asses of Fire by Canadian toilet humour enthusiasts Terrance and Phillip, and the subsequent outrage from parents at the vulgar influence it appears to have had on their children. The parents use Terrance and Phillip as a scapegoat for their behaviour, rather than focusing on their own lazy parenting and lack of control over what media their children consume. Clearly, Parker and Stone were preempting some backlash.
In true South Park style, the point they’re making about censorship and freedom of speech is exploded out into the extreme, which leads to Cartman being fitted with an electroshock swearing-inhibitor chip, Kyle’s mother declaring war on Canada, the children banding together a ramshackle underground resistance movement, and Satan and his lover Saddam Hussein watching the outcome from the sidelines, waiting for their moment to take over the world. It’s brilliantly absurd, and also led to the incredible memo below coming into existence.
As mentioned above, however, it is the musical numbers that are the standout stars of the show. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the songs is how far-reaching the influences and parodies are – from Disney to Broadway, Parker and Stone show they know their stuff. The opening song, ‘Mountain Town’, recalls the opening from Beauty and the Beast as the boys walk through South Park to an upbeat tune, setting the scene on their way to the cinema, whilst Big Gay Al’s ‘I’m Super’ recalls ‘Be Our Guest’ from the same film.
‘Uncle Fucka’ from Asses of Fire perfectly skewers Oklahoma!, even including a fart medley at its close, whilst the fast-paced ‘Kyle’s Mom is a Big Fat Bitch’ is a top-notch send-up of the titular song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Meanwhile, ‘It’s Easy MMMkay’ parodies classic MGM chorus line numbers (complete with complex dance routines and Mr Mackey in a straw boater and cane) to demonstrate why swearing is bad through a song that features dozens of swearwords. Some of the more direct homages include ‘Up There’, Satan’s version of ‘Part of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid, with the devil himself longingly reaching up to the world above à la Ariel, and ‘La Resistance’, a rousing call to arms which nails the cross-cutting between different factions of Les Misérables.
Of course, the big one is ‘Blame Canada’, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (which Trey and Matt celebrated by attending the ceremony tripping on acid, dressed as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez, naturally). The song perfectly spoofs much of the criticism levelled at their own series – and at other media like movies and video games – by parents looking to blame anyone but themselves for their children’s bad behaviour. The blame game has escalated to the absurd point of pointing the finger at the whole of Canada, the friendliest place on Earth, and the thrust of the film’s argument can be boiled down to the closing verse of the song: “We must blame them and cause a fuss/Before somebody thinks of blaming us”. So, if you’re somehow not a fan of South Park, just think “What would Brian Boitano do?” and give the movie, one of the best musical films ever written, a shot – it might just win you over.