On Screen: Top 9 Musical Films


Dylan Wright, Staff Writer

By Damzow Matanya's graduation project This file was uploaded as part of Matanya's graduation project. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Damzow Matanya’s graduation project This file was uploaded as part of Matanya’s graduation project. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The musical film has captivated audiences from the time sound made its way onto motion pictures. Audiences around the world, barred financially or geographically from Broadway’s Great White Way, flocked to theaters to see these singing and dancing extravaganzas. Here is a list of nine great musical films, from the classic Broadway standards to the modern take on musicals.

9. Moulin Rouge (2001)
At times, Moulin Rouge can almost be described as a fever dream of a musical film. Directed by Romeo and Juliet’s Baz Luhrmann, the variety of visuals moving across the screen at any time throughout this film can be overwhelming, but rewarding upon multiple views.The main actors, Ewan McGregor and Nichole Kidman, share great chemistry, and the singing of the cast as a whole is on point.

However, the energy that this musical creates is manic and oftentimes a little too much. What makes this film a part of this list is its unique soundtrack, which feature contemporary pop hits in an 1899 Paris. Though it has its flaws, Moulin Rouge deserves to be on this list because of its innovation, and for the passion that was put into its creation.

8. Hairspray (2007)
Hairspray is a musical that is dripping with camp, fitting of its original creator John Waters. Each performance is done with an unrelenting earnestness that makes the often dark humor all the more effective, and who can turn down the power couple of Christopher Walken and John Travolta? The sets also show the bright 60s optimism while also referencing the dark parts of the era, such as racial segregation and body image.

The film suffers from the inclusion of false conflicts, such as the possible “affair” that Walken’s character might be having with Michelle Pfieffer’s character. It drags the movie down a bit and goes off the path it is trying to stay on.

7. Across the Universe (2007)
A Jukebox musical is often very difficult to pull off. A film that does this well is Across the Universe, using the notoriously difficult to obtain rights for music of the Beatles to tell the story of Jude and his love for Lucy. The songs generally fit into the story and are used well. As one would expect from a movie based off of Beatles song, there is a lot of psychedelic imagery that is pulled off rather well and makes for interesting settings at times. The actors really sell their roles and are great singers.

The problem with Across the Universe is a lack of a consistent tone, as well as seemingly random celebrity cameos. Some songs seem shoehorned to be in the musical, often leading to diversions from the main story for no reason other than to spotlight a popular song. One other positive thing can be said about Across the Universe: it’s a better Beatles musical than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band featuring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.

6. Les Miserables (2012)
This adaptation of the stage show that, in turn, was adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo is innovative in its method of recording the actors live-singing their performances instead of having it pre-recorded in a studio. This enables more raw and passionate performances, like Anne Hathaway’s Fantine in what is considered the musical’s most famous number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hathaway’s heartfelt and honest delivery is truly heartbreaking and feels real. However, some actors (Russell Crowe) suffer from having to perform their parts while acting. Had the production gotten seasoned theatrical performers for more of their roles like Samantha Barks as Eponine, the film may have faired better.

The production aspect of the film is impressive, as we see the grimy and war-torn streets of Paris in great detail. However, because a musical requires listenable songs in its repertoire, especially one like Les Miserables that is mostly singing, it cannot go any higher on the list. Russell Crowe, like the film itself, tries and ultimately falls short of its expectations.

5. The Producers (2005)
Based on a musical that is based on a film, The Producers does a fantastic job satirizing the musical theater industry. The film manages to put out some great musical numbers and funny performances from its leads Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. One thing that The Producers does right is it gets most of its cast from the Broadway show, save for Will Farrell and Uma Thurman. You can tell that the main cast understands their characters well, and you genuinely feel disgust for Max Bialystock’s numerous schemes.

The comedy within the film is biting and pulls no punches, and the fact that the protagonists ultimately get their comeuppance at the end is unique and works for the cynical nature of the musical. The songs contrast this underlying pessimism by being glitzy showstoppers. However, the subject matter within the film can be considered a bit controversial, causing the film to not place as high on the list as it could have. The Producers acts as a nice tribute to the original film while adding Broadway panache to the whole affair.

4. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

By Flickr user Nieve44 CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Flickr user Nieve44 CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Disney has been a staple of musical films for decades, and can even be credited with reviving 42nd Street and Broadway to the status it has today. Of all of the Disney animated musicals, it is hard to find one that tops Beauty and the Beast. Like any Disney animated film, the story does have certain beats it needs to hit, and it does those beats well, effectively combining the signature “I Want” princess song with a song introducing us to what the town thinks of Belle. The animated choreography and musical pieces are eye-catching and grand in scale, and the film is really beautiful to look at.

The villain in the story (Gaston) is somewhat weak, and the whole Stockholm Syndrome situation with Belle and the Beast is problematic, but out of all of the other animated musical films in the Disney Renaissance, Beauty and the Beast has one thing above them all: the side characters are not that annoying. Yes, LeFou can often get on your nerves, but his scenes are quick and painless. The staff of the castle that are turned into objects are genuinely enjoyable to watch and have their own goals and wishes. Overall, Beauty and the Beast is a template of how animated musicals should be made.

3. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

By Trailer screenshot (Singin' in the Rain trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Trailer screenshot (Singin’ in the Rain trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Though most well known for its iconic title sequence (which Gene Kelly performed with a 103 fever), Singin’ in the Rain features some of the best musical numbers and dancing prowess ever put to film. Though on-set arguments and disputes occurred behind the scenes, the film exudes joy and playfulness. The cast is simply the best at what they do, with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s dancing scenes being a highlight of this film. Debbie Reynolds is perfect for her role, and is truly a delight to watch.

What prevents this film from taking one of the top two spots is that the songs within it suffer from not being vitally important to the story. Like other musicals of the time, most of the songs are taken from other projects and musicals and repurposed for this film, creating this want of narrative significance. Besides this flaw, Singin’ in the Rain is a great musical film, and has definitely earned its place in the top three.

2. Chicago (2002)

By Headsillroll (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Headsillroll (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Who knew a musical about a woman murdering her boyfriend would be so compelling? Chicago has everything a good musical could ever want: toe-tapping numbers, a great cast, beautiful set pieces, fantastic choreography, and to top it all off, Queen Latifah and Richard Gere. The film gives off its 1920s feeling by the handful, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

Each and every scene is brimming with atmosphere, and the framing of a variety show used to introduce each song is really unique and works well to contrast the reality of the situation with the showy façade that they characters put on. Each character is given a spotlight (sometimes literally) throughout the film and the different styles that each character has are both era and character appropriate. Chicago is an impressive film, and had the next film never been made, would have been the best musical film.

1. Mary Poppins (1964)

By Trailer screenshot (Mary Poppins Trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Trailer screenshot (Mary Poppins Trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a classic musical film, pure and simple. Mary Poppins deserves to be on a list of the best musical films for more reasons than can be counted. Every single song in this musical is memorable, and, more importantly, common knowledge. Most importantly, each song tells the audience something about a character or a plot point. The use of animation mixed with live action in the chalk drawing scenes was revolutionary for that time, and still holds up pretty well today. The performances (besides Dick Van Dyke’s loveably horrendous Cockney English accent) are a delight to watch, with Julie Andrews again showing her singing and acting talents.

What was perhaps the main reason that this musical made the number one list was its emotional impact that it manages to have at the end of the film with the transformation of Mr. Banks as a character. The film as a whole is fun from beginning to end, and yet still manages to find time to show this pretty powerful realization this man has in regard to his job, status and family. The balance between this impactful message and the joy that the rest of the film brings is perfect, or rather, “practically perfect in every way.”

For more commentary on musical films, be sure to check out the latest episode of the On Screen podcast.