by Jose Espinoza
The Musical has always held a special place for audiences within the Film genre. It’s the only type of cinema that flourished during tough times like the Depression and World War II. The reason musicals have managed to stay popular with modern audiences is because the genre lends itself as a vessel for social commentary while enriching the screen with song and dance numbers.
Putting together a list that encompasses the best film Musicals of all-time is a difficult endeavor. Of course, no list can be definitive and with recent musicals like Moulin Rouge, Chicago and Wicked, there will always be a debate concerning the merit of some titles rather than others. It is my hope that this list will spark some debate amongst you and will further the discussion on which are the best films in the musical genre. Here are the top 10 film musicals; be sure to tell us your favorites in the comments.
10 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
This musical has a twisted edge to it that is both haunting and queer. The film begins out innocently enough when a couple get engaged at a friend’s wedding and get a flat tire in the middle of the night while it’s raining. They head out to a castle in search of help. Little do they know that the castle is owned by Dr. Frank N. Furter, a mad transsexual transvestite scientist who has recently created a creature that he will use for personal reasons. As the night progresses the couple get over the initial shock of Dr. Frank and his band of strange characters and start loosening up.
Upon its release in 1975, the film was an astounding flop. But a few devotees persuaded a New York cinema to show it at midnight and from that moment on, one of the ultimate cult films of all time was born. The songs are addictive (just try getting “The Time Warp” or “Toucha Toucha Touch Me” out of your head), the raunchiness amusing and the plot line utterly ridiculous. In other words, this film is simply tremendous good fun.
9 – Cabaret (1972)
One of the first Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations to break out of the old mold was 1972’s Cabaret. Set in the Berlin’s hotspot, Kit Kat Klub, in 1931, a starry-eyed singer and the club’s master of ceremonies try to bring happiness and decadence to the lives of Berliners as the specter of Nazism grows around them and threatens to destroy their lives.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Cabaret with eight Oscars.
8 – Grease (1978)
It’s the musical for everyone who thought musicals couldn’t be cool. It has great, show-stopping songs, and is perfectly cast, despite the ‘schoolkids’ ranging in age from 19 (Dinah Manoff as Marty) to 35 (Stockard Channing as Rizzo).
It’s California, 1959 and greaser Danny Zuko and Australian Sandy Olsson are in love. They spend time at the beach, but when they go back to school, they unexpectedly discover they’re now in the same high school; will they be able to rekindle their romance?
Important to the storytelling, as with many musicals, are the songs. In Grease, “Greased Lightning,” “Summer Nights,” and “You’re the One That I Want,” are fabulously choreographed and incredibly catchy.
Grease became the highest grossing film of 1978 and the highest grossing movie musical of all-time.
7 – My Fair Lady (1964)
My Fair Lady was experienced director George Cukor’s film musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion that ran successfully on Broadway.
The tale is about a flower girl heroine (Audrey Hepburn), who is trained by a misogynistic, bachelor linguistics expert to speak properly within six months as a result of a daring challenge and bet. During her elocution lessons, her unrepentant and calculating drunk father appears for handouts. She makes an embarrassing first appearance at the opening day Ascot Races, but she catches the eye of high-born but poor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Although she experiences personal triumph within high society at the Embassy Ball, and wins her teacher’s love, she storms off after being transformed only to return by film’s end.
This musical has produced some of the best known songs and lyrics in the musical genre, including: “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
6 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
This title stands perhaps as the least familiar title for many who are casual fans of musicals. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is at once a homage to musicals of the past and a sort of preamble to what would follow as the complexity of the 1960s and ’70s took over the cinematic medium.
Not only was this French Musical a daring musical experiment (because the entire screenplay is a kind of epic song), but it also introduced Catherine Deneuve, who was 20 years old when the film was released and became one of France’s all-time screen legends. Deneuve plays a young woman in love with a local auto mechanic named Guy who has been drafted into the army. In his absence she learns that she is pregnant and then marries a rich man who agrees to raise the child. The bittersweet story follows what happens when Guy returns from service.
5 – Mary Poppins (1964)
In just one word: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Disney’s pioneering mixture of live action and animation (based on the books by P.L. Travers) exerts a formidable charm and is technically very accomplished. Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance as the world’s most magically idealized nanny. Dick Van Dyke is the perfectly cast as Bert the chimney sweep who is always up for an adventure. The songs are also terrific, ranging from bright and cheery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) to dark and cheery (the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) to touchingly melancholy (“Feed the Birds”).
4 – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
When it was first released in theatres the film didn’t start out as the perennial classic it has since become. The film did respectable business, but it wasn’t until its debut on television that this family favorite saw its popularity soar. It’s difficult to imagine a motion picture more magical and more wonderful than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s beloved and classic 1939 cult musical; is there anyone who doesn’t immediately think of the film upon hearing the words, “Dorothy,” “Toto,” “Emerald City,” “Ruby Slippers,” “Yellow Brick Road” or the lines to the song “Over the Rainbow?”
Young Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), her dog, Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow have become pop-culture icons and central figures in the legacy of fantasy for children. As the Wicked Witch who covets Dorothy’s enchanted ruby slippers, Margaret Hamilton has had the singular honor of scaring the wits out of children for more than six decades. The film’s still as fresh, frightening, and funny as it was when first released.
3 – West Side Story (1961)
Winner of 10 Academy Awards, this 1961 musical by choreographer Jerome Robbins and director Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music”) remains a classic. Based on a smash Broadway play updating Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the 1950′s era of juvenile delinquency, the film stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the star-crossed lovers from different neighborhoods and ethnicities. The film’s real selling points, however, are the highly charged and inventive song-and-dance numbers, the passionate ballads, the moody sets and the sheer accomplishment of Hollywood talent and technology producing a film so stirring.
West Side Story is a truly electrifying piece of cinema; it sets ageless tragedy on the slums of New York in the 1950′s and does it maturely and with stunning style. The violence and some unnecessary language may slightly falter it, but Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s unforgettable score, which includes such famous songs as “Maria,” “America” and “Tonight,” makes up for whatever may put the film down.
2 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
This musical is timeless and a classic of the genre; even people who hate musicals rate this film as one of the all-time greatest film musicals.
It’s not only a great song-and-dance piece starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and a sprightly Debbie Reynolds; it’s also an affectionately funny insider spoof about the film industry’s uneasy transition from silent pictures to “talkies.” Kelly plays the debonair star Don Lockwood, whose leading lady Lina Lamont has a screechy voice hilariously ill-suited to the new technology and her glamorous screen image. Among the musical highlights: O’Connor’s knockout “Make ‘Em Laugh”; the big “Broadway Melody” production number; and, best of all, that charming little number in which Kelly makes movie magic on a drenched set with nothing but a few puddles, a lamp post, and an umbrella.
In many respects, this musical is a throwback to the early ones of the era it satirizes, for many of its musical numbers (for example “Make ‘em Laugh”) have absolutely nothing to do with the story it tells. However, unlike such early musicals the storyline is exceptionally strong, and since the film is about the creation of an early all talking, all dancing, all singing movie in which such musical numbers were typical, they have here a certain validity that could not otherwise be achieved.
1 – The Sound of Music (1965)
Yes, it’s on your television every year. Yes, you may think you’re sick of it. But, you have to admit it: You love it!
The story follows a good-natured, flighty novitiate (Julie Andrews) who is hired to care for the seven children of a militaristic, icy, widowed Austrian captain (Christopher Plummer). She ultimately wins the heart of the children and the captain, but their lives are threatened by the encroachment of Hitler’s new Germany.
When Julie Andrews sang “The hills are alive with the sound of music” from an Austrian mountaintop in 1965, the most beloved movie musical was born. Some critics argue that the songs are saccharine and that the characters and plot lack the complexity that could make them more interesting. For this reason, some would argue that “singing in the Rain” has all the elements to make it number one. However, this film simply has everything one could want in a musical. First of all, it has a real romance, one where you can watch the characters slowly fall in love. It’s not like today’s movies where two characters meet and the next scene is them waking up together. Second of all, it has humor. Not syrupy or corny humor, but very wry, dry tongue-in-cheek humor. Third of all, it’s got adventure. The Nazis are the ultimate villains in any movie; WWII was as clear a case of good vs. evil as you can find and so it’s exhilarating to see Maria, the Captain and the kids outwit them. To finish off, this film has got great music, great scenery, a great plot and most important of all, it has captivating dialogue.
The Sound of Music was an exceptionally successful film in the mid 1960′s and at the time of its release; it surpassed “Gone with the Wind” (1939) as the number one box office hit of all time. It was the high-point of the Hollywood musical. In 1978, the film’s status as the most successful musical was finally surpassed by “Grease”.
“All That Jazz” (1979); “Gold Diggers of 1933” (1933); “An American in Paris” (1951); “A Star is Born” (1954); “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)