The 10 Best Movie Musicals
By Ryan O’Toole
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We are in the midst of a musical revival. After what felt like a decades-long drought of movie musicals, 2021 has ushered in a biblical level flood. So far, the slate includes the vibrant In the Heights, the lovably weird Annette, and the mess of a modern retelling of Cinderella. And this weekend’s release of Dear Evan Hansen begins a fall full of musicals, with Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, Disney animation’s Encanto, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Cyrano, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick, Tick… Boom!
It seems as good a time as any to look back at Hollywood’s most joyous genre and highlight the10 essential movies. Below are the 10 best movie musicals.
10. 30’s Musicals
As soon as the industry figured out how to put sound on film, the first idea was to make musicals. Music has been integral to cinema from its very inception. The first sound movie was The Jazz Singer (1927), and while the first couple of years with sound were still figuring out this new medium, musicals really found their footing in the new decade.
The 1930s was dominated by musicals and in looking at the best that this era has to offer, I could have gone with Love Me Tonight, any of Busby Berkeley’s movies, 42nd Street (1933), The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), or Footlight Parade (1933). But the best musicals in this era were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ collaborations. Starring in 9 films together this decade, including the wonderful Top Hat (1935), the highlight of their films is Swing Time (1936).
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Swing Time features some of the most mesmerizing dancing ever put on film. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are magical in every dance sequence. Their chemistry is unmatched. It is a movie about the magic of dance, playing out like a standard rom-com, but all of the sparks that fly between them are on the dance floor as they effortlessly move with each other. It is one of the purest cinematic experiences, witnessing greatness by two of our best dancers.
9. Animated Musicals
Another subset of the musical with a long history is the “animated musical”. The first animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), was a musical and since then, animation continues to be a fantastic vessel for musicals. The vivid animation is a great way to capture the magic and emotion inherent to the musical genre. And there have been tons of great animated musicals over the years: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), The Prince of Egypt (1998), South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), An American Tail (1986), and I’ll even throw the Muppet movies into this category, even if it’s not really animation, it’s at least a distant relative. However, the undisputed king of this genre is Disney, and while I could pick Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), or The Little Mermaid (1989), for this entry, I am going with Fantasia (1940).
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Fantasia is the embodiment of music itself. It is an attempt to visualize how classic pieces of music feel. When you listen to The Nutcracker Suite, what does it look like? What does A Night on Bald Mountain look like? What does music look like? It is an impossible question to answer, but Fantasia valiantly tries and comes away with some of the most indelible images in animation and one of the purest musical experiences put on screen.
8. Concert Documentaries
Sometimes, all it takes to make a great musical is to capture real musicians at the height of their powers. Documentary filmmakers have filmed some of the most captivating performances to preserve a specific moment in musical history. Capturing the raw energy that can come from a live performance is a tall task, but one that has yielded one of a kind masterpiece films. Whether it is encapsulating the entirety of an event like Woodstock(1970) or Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006), the personalities at play when recording music in Original Cast Album: “Company” (1970), a musician at their most magnetic in Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (2018), or trying to document an entire musical movement in The Decline of Western Civilization (1981). However the best musical performances documented for film belong to David Byrne. His solo broadway show, American Utopia (2020) is an exuberant experience, but it is Stop Making Sense (1984) that holds the title for the best concert documentary.
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Filmed over multiple performances, Stop Making Sense captures Talking Heads’ 1983 performance at the Hollywood Pantages Theater. Directed by The Silence of the Lambs’ Jonathan Demme, the film begins with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne alone on stage singing “Psycho Killer.” One by one, the other members of the band join him on stage. As the audience, you get to watch as each element of their music is added, stressing the importance of each member of the band. This all culminates in the infectious Byrne putting it all out on stage, giving the performance of a lifetime, jogging all around the stage, dancing with the backup singers, and wearing the iconic big suit. Everyone on stage looks overjoyed to simply be there performing their songs. It is as close to perfection as a movie can get.
7. Visual Albums
Although music documentaries are not the only way for great musicians to translate their music to the screen. Some artists build an entire movie around their own music, using their own image to build off of. Visual albums act as a companion piece to their music and fleshes out their iconography. These are Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982), Prince’s Purple Rain (1984), another David Byrne entry, True Stories (1986), or any number of Beatles movies like A Hard Day’s Night (1964) or Help! (1965). But for number 7, I’m going with Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016).
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No stranger to visual albums, Beyoncé has also made Black is King (2020) and her own concert documentary, Homecoming (2019), but Lemonade remains her crowning achievement. The film and the album attempt to contextualize Beyoncé’s personal experiences of trauma and grief within the story of black American women. It examines the cultural and generational effects that lead to infidelity and oppression. The film includes a quote from Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman." Lemonade sees Beyoncé contending with these ideas and creating a one of a kind artwork. Placing gorgeous visuals next to her own music, Beyoncé has created some of the most indelible imagery of the last decade.
6. Foreign Musicals
America is not the only home to fantastic music. Foreign musicals allow audiences to see another country’s culture and introduce us to their music. They are home to a wide range of music and offer a new perspective to the movie musical. This includes the movie that introduced the world to reggae, The Harder They Come (1972), the Brazilian bossa-nova music in Black Orpheus (1959), or the music of Bollywood in Sholay (1975) or Lagaan (2001). But the master of foreign musicals is Jacques Demy, who made The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Donkey Teeth (1970), and number 6, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a French musical romance centering on the always phenomenal Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. It takes place over years chronicling their doomed romance, as he goes off to war and she moves on and marries someone else. Every piece of dialogue is sung, constantly elevating the melodrama to a theatrical level. Demy takes everyday moments, love and tragedy and is able to reach operatic levels with them. It is filled with emotion, with joy and melancholy equally mixed while also constantly vibrant, colorful and filled with gorgeously composed music by Michel Legrand, creating a masterpiece of musical storytelling.
5. Music Biopics
Another great way to showcase music in a film is through the musical biopic. Exploring the life of a real musician and chronicling their music as it evolves with them. This can be seen in the rise and fall of Charlie Parker in Bird (1988), the dual storylines of Johnny Cash and June Carter in Walk the Line (2005), or Kurt Russel’s portrayal of the king of rock and roll in Elvis (1979). And even though the musical biopic has been criticized for its formulaic nature, Todd Haynes has breathed new life into the genre with the exceptionally eccentric Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) and the kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007). But the best musical biopic exploring what it means to be a musician is Amadeus (1984).
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Amadeus is the story about a master, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and a journeyman musician, Antonio Salieri, writing and composing music at the same time. Brilliantly performed by both Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri, Amadeus depicts the story of jealousy and despair, as Salieri tries so hard and is always in the shadow of the pure talent of Mozart. The film is a lavish and maximalist recreation of the time in not only the costumes and the production design, but also in recreating the music of Mozart. Recreating scenes from Mozart’s operas and with music composed for the film by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the film is able to capture the talent and scope of Mozart’s symphonies and operas. The film is a funny and heartfelt tale of these two interconnected musicians.
4. Movies about Musicians
Not all movies about musicians are based around a real person. There are tons of movies about fictional musicians creating and performing music. Because it less strictly follows a person’s life, these movies are allowed to further explore topics within the music. They can explore the rise and fall of musicians like most versions of A Star is Born, the down on their luck musicians waiting for a big break in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and Once (2007), the obsession to a craft in The Red Shoes (1948), the autofiction of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), or even show an odyssey through the 1950’s New York folk music scene in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). However, the movie that best represents musicians is the most ambitious in the genre: Nashville (1975).
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Nashville attempts to show the entirety of the country music scene in Nashville in 1975. Robert Altman weaves a rich tapestry of 24 different characters all inextricably linked within country music. The film is about fame, celebrity, and politics as we follow these stars and the people around them. It shows the biggest icons in this world, their managers, the fans, or smaller musicians trying to make it big and performing in small bars or on the side of a NASCAR track. And Altman weaves in and out of these 24 storylines. The camera seems to have a mind of its own, flowing within the set landing on different characters, showing slices of their lives and conversations, before making its way to the next character. Each scene ends with a different character than it started on before cutting to a new location filled with 10 more characters. The music in the film is all written and performed by the actors, contributing to the authentic feel of each performance. Nashville is a cinematic epic covering all aspects of politics and celebrity in a masterfully crafted film set in the country music capital.
3. Broadway Adaptations
Of course, musicals are not exclusive to movies. A lot of musicals start off as theatrical productions on Broadway and are later adapted to the screen, trying to capture the high energy of the Broadway show. This includes all-time classics like The Sound of Music (1965), The King and I, (1956) Grease (1978), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Guys and Dolls (1955), and especially the works of Bob Fosse with Cabaret (1972) and Sweet Charity (1969), but the best broadway adaptation is West Side Story (1961).
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West Side Story is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with music and lyrics by two great Broadway legends, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the original Broadway version of West Side Story and with the help of Robert Wise, adapted it onto film in 1961. It keeps all of its theatricality as it enters its new medium, embracing the artificiality of the backdrop in the rumble, the snap-dance-fighting between the Jets and the Sharks, and the wonderfully choreographed musical numbers with highlights being “America” and the school dance. It’s not striving for realism, but instead trying to showcase the emotions of its characters. It’s a movie you feel instead of just watch, showing the best that this genre has to offer.
2. Musical Reimagining
Not all musicals start off as being a broadway show, some are based on other materials and then reimagined as musicals in the film. Musicals like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Mary Poppins (1964) were all based on books and then added music to their stories. High Society (1956) is a musical remake of decidedly non-musical The Philadelphia Story (1940). But the best piece of adaptation and reimagining is Brian De Palma’s combination of Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Faust: Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
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Brian De Palma’s only musical, Phantom of the Paradise is a rock opera about an aspiring songwriter, Winslow Leach, who has worked his whole life on a rock opera based on Faust. He shows it to a legendary music producer, Swan, played by Paul Williams, who also writes the music for the film. And after Swan tricks him and steals the music for himself, Winslow decides to get his revenge by haunting the Swan’s concert hall, The Paradise, as his new persona, the Phantom. Initially a flop upon its release and met with negative reviews, Phantom of the Paradise has undergone a critical reevaluation of its satire of the rock music industry and has become a cult film. Phantom of the Paradise takes its inspiration from three classical literary works, but adds a rock soundtrack and campy aesthetic over it to create one of the wildest hodgepodges in musical history, cementing it as one of the most unique movie musicals ever made.
1. Original Musicals
And finally, musicals don’t need to be based on anything to begin with. Of course, there are many musicals that created whole cloth for the silver screen. Recently, Damien Chazelle paid homage to classic Hollywood musicals with La La Land (2016). And there are many classics like The Band Wagon (1953) and White Christmas (1954) that were created for film. But, the king of original cinematic musicals is Gene Kelly, with An American in Paris (1951), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and his magnum opus, Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
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A singular cinematic achievement, Singin’ in the Rain is set in the transition from silent films to sound. And much like the musicals from the 1930’s, Singin’ in the Rain is the perfect argument for how important music is to the very idea of cinema. The two are intrinsically connected, with music showing off the heights that can be reached with sound movies. The music is exhilarating and Gene Kelly is phenomenal, really the only dancer in the history of cinema to give Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers a run for their money. Gene Kelly was at the height of his powers in 1952, and along with collaborator Stanley Donen created some of the most memorable images in cinema history, with Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence, the “Broadway Melody” sequence, and of course the most iconic moment in the film, Gene Kelly singing in the rain. Singin’ in the Rain is a masterpiece of a film and a perfect encapsulation of the everlasting power of movie musicals.