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Flashback Five – The Real American Idols Are at the Movies

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Hey, did you watch American Idol Wednesday night? If you didn’t, you’re in the minority, as most of America lapped up the two-hour finale, watching (spoiler alert, kind of?) Kris Allen beat Adam Lambert for the big win. And it was more apparent than ever that night that reality show competitions take their cues from the movies: The dramatic pauses, the underdog stories, the last minute twists and reveals. Here’s a look back through the years at movies that made us believe anything was possible — if your version of “anything” involves recapturing your grade-school talent-show glory days, that is.

1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The 2006 movie is all about a family taking a roadtrip to the Little Miss Sunshine teen beauty pageant, so Olive (Abigail Breslin), a slightly overweight, bespectacled little girl can compete. At the climax of the movie, we finally see the secret routine her grandfather (Alan Arkin) has been teaching her, which is a wildly inappropriate strip-tease set to Rick James’ “Superfreak.” Olive loses.

2. The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
Guy Maddin’s film isn’t short on whimsy: A musical set during the Great Depression, it stars Isabella Rossellini as the head of a beer company who holds a competition to find the saddest music in the world. Also, she has two fake glass legs full of beer. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) wins the competition by playing a song so sad it causes Rossellini to stab him in the chest with a broken piece of her glass legs. It’s a comedy.

3. 8 Mile (2002)
Rabbit, the thinly veiled Eminem has finally worked up the nerve to compete in the climactic freestyle rap battle against arch enemy Papa Doc, when he does something completely surprising. Instead of hurling insults, Rabbit says all the nasty, mean things Papa Doc might say, taking away his enemy’s thunder. He wins the crown and goes on to sing something about “Losing Yourself,” which lands Eminem an arguably more covetable award — an Oscar. 

4. Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Baz Luhrmann’s movie about the Australian dancehall scene features all the classics: An ugly duckling who turns out to be a gorgeous dancer, a male dancer who won’t play by the rules, and a dance competition, The Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, that comes down to dancing-from-the-heart versus dancing-by-the-rules. Cinema gold! Dancing from the heart wins, and the whole crowd joins our heroes on the dance floor. Hooray.

5. Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
Though you might not guess it from the title, it’s the climactic talent show where the Nerds finally get their revenge. After being mercilessly beaten down by the jocky Alpha Betas, the nerds win the Homecoming competition with a musical performance that fuses the group’s individual music, science, and other geeky eighties skills, causing the whole student body to declare that they, too, are nerds. Control of the Greek Council is theirs!

Honorable Mentions:

1. Dreamgirls (2006): The musical kicks off with ’60s girl group The Dreamettes backstage at the Detroit Theater, about to win a talent competition and kick off their rocky road to fame.

2. Old School (2003): Is there actually a college in existence that has an Academic Decathlon requirement? Nevermind: As was the case in Revenge of the Nerds, the Old School frat has to compete in order to keep its charter.

3. Crossroads (2002): Britney Spears travels cross-country to compete for a record company contract, and wins against all odds. Along the way, she learns important lessons about life and love… which she promptly ignored in real life.

4. Superstar (1999): It isn’t until Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) gets the audience up and cheering by winning her high school’s talent competition that she truly earns the title… “Supah-stah!”

5. Smile (1975): This pageant parody ended like most pageant parodies do… in chaos.

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