Musicals might be the most escapist art form there is. When else in life do people spontaneously break out into song on the street, in the laundromat, alone in their bedroom or in a corn field? Never, that's when. Which is why watching these intricately staged, often over-dramatic spectacles can bring its viewer into a different world entirely. And don’t we all want to be in a different world entirely right now? Here’s a rundown of some of the top musical movies to help get you there.
The Sound of Music (1965)
The Sound of Music – based on two German films about the von Trapp family, and Maria von Trapp’s memoir – became a classic the instant it was released. Its star, Julie Andrews, was hot off the success of Mary Poppins (another perfect musical, if we’re honest) and well into astonishingly rapid rise to international stardom. Sadly, it was the final musical by famed musical theatre duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, the former of whom died from cancer in 1960. “Edelweiss” is his parting gift to the world.
There might have been a moment after Rocketman premiered where the world questioned whether they loved Elton John the most or Taron Egerton playing Elton John the most. Either way, this fantastical re-imagining of John’s early childhood up through his meteoric rise is an absolute showstopper, including scenes from some of his biggest concerts. In fact, the film was so good that it was booked to tour around the UK and EU with a live orchestra.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)
Many musicals are exclusively about the music – there's technically some acting in Mamma Mia, but that's not why you've come. Not so here. Based on a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, it tells the true story of the 'Mother of the Blues', Ma Rainey, and is, as you'd expect, awash in her foundational blues songs as well as spine-tingling new compositions by Branford Marsalis. But the performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman – in his last role before his untimely death to colon cancer – are even more powerful than the music.
Grease is, at its heart, a cheesy romance between Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John). But it’s the sub-plots that keep audiences coming back time after time, in our humble opinion. And the songs, from “Beauty School Dropout,” to “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” and “Greased Lighting”, which provide the soundtrack to those B-character’s storylines, are just as integral to fans’ undying love of the movie decades later.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann’s first and only musical, Moulin Rouge! stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, neither of whom are practiced singers. But that didn’t stop the two from doing their own vocals for the film, with some training beforehand. It's better than that sounds, though, offering a lush, absinthe-tinged glimpse at a world of glamour and despair in the bordellos of fin-de-siècle Paris.
The stars of Once, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, had a band together called The Swell Season before they starred in a movie together loosely based on their life written and directed by Irish auteur John Carney. The band’s self-titled first album was released on a year before the film, and the track “Falling Slowly” went on to be nominated for a Grammy and win an Oscar in 2008.
The Wiz (1978)
You really can’t get a cast more musically talented duo in a film than Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. And with song team like Luther Vandross and Charlie Smalls and Quincy Jones supervising, The Wiz has some of the best musical numbers ever put on film. Even better than the songs in The Wizard of Oz? Maybe.
A longtime Broadway hit with signature moves by Bob Fosse, Chicago seems a timeless topic. Originally, the story was a play from 1926 commenting on the celebrity criminal and corruption at all levels of the justice system. The film version, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Taye Diggs and Richard Gere, took home six Oscars, so clearly, raunchy criminals still pack a punch.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
A giant man-eating plant has a solo in this movie, so you know it’s worth watching. Voiced by Levi Stubbs of the famous Motown group The Four Tops, Audrey II really is the star of this show, but awkward Rick Moranis and svelte Ellen Greene really give this strange and wonderful musical its likeability.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It’s kind of a perfect set up for a musical – a movie production company needs to transition from silent films to the talkies. Choreographer and co-director Gene Kelly co-stars with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in one of the most chipper, light-hearted films around, signing or no singing. And you know that famous scene of Kelly singing? In the rain? He reportedly performed that with a 103-degree fever.
This John Waters musical is as weird as it is wonderful and will never have you looking at salty tears in quite the same way again. Starring Johnny Depp in his early Hollywood heyday, thanks to his success on 21 Jump Street, his co-cast of characters included Ricki Lake, Iggy Pop and Traci Lords. The story – good girl wants to be bad, so she dates a bad boy – is fairly commonplace, but the costumes, the songs and the attitudes are what make this campy cult classic a must-watch.
West Side Story (1961)
Speaking of bad boys and good girls, West Side Story stems from the classis Romeo and Juliet tale of yore, where families and factions decide who gets to love whom and young ones suffer in the midst. Starring Nathalie Wood (it was the first role she chose for herself since acting beginning at age four) as Puerta Rican American Maria and Richard Breymer as All-American Tony, West Side Story was first on Broadway only three years before being made into a film. It’s got a Steven Spielberg remake in the works, set to hit screens in 2021.
In the Eighties, not many films were exploring sexual identity. But book-ending this list with Julie Andrews feels right. Victor/Victoria stars Andrews as a struggling female soprano who finds success as a male impersonating a female, which of course becomes complicated. The original film was made in 1933 in Germany, of all places, by a Jewish writer-director.
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