Welcome to our epic list of the best movie musicals of all time. If you like great music tied into the story of a movie with great acting, you’ll love this thorough list.
50. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Signature Song: “I’ve Seen It All”
Who says people in a musical have to be able to sing? The list starts with a film directed by the director of Melancholia, Antichrist, and the recent Nymphomaniac films. Starring Björk, Dancer in the Dark takes place in the fantasy world of Selma, an immigrant from the Czeck Republic living in a blue-collar town in the United States. She lives on the property of a local police officer named Bill (David Morse) and his wife. She finds herself the object of a shy co-worker’s affection (Peter Stormare), but doesn’t entirely reciprocate, partly because she knows that she is slowly going blind. Terrified that her disease is hereditary and her son most certainly will get it, she works long hours at the factory, saving every penny to pay for an operation that may save his sight. To escape her humdrum life, Selma has daydreams that take the form of musical numbers, starring herself and the people in her life. This also affects her ongoing attempt to play the lead in her community production of The Sound of Music. The film received the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes, thanks to von Trier’s Dogme 95 style and Björk’s awkward, yet endearing performance. It’s dark. It’s sad. It has an ending you won’t soon forget. But it’s a magical reinvention of what a movie musical has to be.
49. Purple Rain (1984)
Directed by Albert Magnoli
Signature Song: “Purple Rain”
At the height of his popularity, it only seemed fitting that Prince get his own movie. What resulted was a relative train wreck, despite its incredible soundtrack (as expected). Prince plays “The Kid,” the troubled front man of The Revolution, dealing with problems at home (a physically abusive father and an emotionally abusive mother). His band competes for the top spot at their studio with Morris Day and the Time, while the Revolution is getting impatient with the way he is leading the band. The rest is relatively commonplace for any rock opera, with a love interest, rivalry between the two band leads, and all the rest, but not accomplished successfully. In essence, take 8 Mile and make it poorly acted and New Agey. Regardless of the film’s quality, it was an early example of a soundtrack being inherently connected to the film, so much so that the movie itself feels like its story is built around the songs. Much like today’s band-focused musicals (e.g. Mamma Mia), Purple Rain‘s real strength is the stories the songs themselves tell. The rest is mostly white noise.
48. Oliver! (1968)
Directed by Carol Reed
Signature Song: “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”
1968 Best Picture oSCAR winner Oliver! is a British film musical based on the stage musical, which was based on the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Filmed entirely within a British studio, the film follows the play pretty closely, broken into two acts. It centers on young Oliver (Mark Lester – songs dubbed in by Kathe Green) as he lives in a terrible orphanage, always scrounging for food. Eventually, through his determination and friendships (some self-serving), he learns to take care of himself, eventually taken in by a wealthy townsperson, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Connor). The main conflict involves plenty of adults and children wanting what they believe is best for Oliver, some pushing him toward a life of stealing, others the happier path. Oliver! took home the top Oscar, beating The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, and Romeo and Juliet, as well as Best Director for Carol Reed. The film hasn’t aged well, but the British production boasted a skilled cast of child actors, despite some voice dubbing. It’s not the best musical to win Best Picture, but it’s certainly not the worst.
47. Once (2007)
Directed by: John Carney
Signature Song: “Falling Slowly”
An Irish independent film that came out of nowhere in 2007 to take the Oscar for Best Original Song, Once stars musicians and frequent collaborators Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as nameless musicians who come together on a Dublin street. What results is an incredibly touching love story, set to beautifully written and performed music. But, within the romanticism of the relationship, what remains is the love of music, making music, and creating art with someone else whose affection for the craft is on an equal level. It’s a surprisingly heartbreaking film when it comes down to it, but it’s this performance (linked to above) – this impromptu sing-along in a music store has enough emotion and strength to drive the entire movie home, despite it coming relatively early in the film. As a result of the film’s surprising success, it became a Tony-winning Broadway musical that premiered in 2011, taking home Best Musical, Best Actress and Actor, and Best Direction. But it’s “Falling Slowly,” a song so ripe with intensity and beauty, that pushes the film over the top. A great film with engaging performances, sure, but when we talk about a “signature song,” this is one of the gold standards.
46. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Signature Song: “Wig in a Box”
Directed by first-time director John Cameron Mitchell (he would go on to make the devastating Rabbit Hole), Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered at Sundance in 2001, earning him Best Director and the Audience Award. The musical-comedy is based on the Stephen Trask stage musical of the same name about an East German transgender singer (played by Mitchell himself) and his fictional rock band. Hansel Schmidt meets an American soldier, eventually deciding to marry him. Unfortunately, for it to be legalized, it must be between a man and woman. After a botched sex-change operation, Hansel – now Hedwig – is left with the title angry inch: a tiny piece of flesh between her legs. She moves to Kansas with Luther the soldier, only to watch him leave on their first anniversary. Hedwig deals with the breakup by forming her band with a shy teenager named Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt). More heartbreak follows, but Hedwig continues to strive on, band in tow. Certainly one of the more bizarre films on this list, Hedwig is a trippy, but satisfying trip through a typically underseen world. Truly an rock opera more than anything, its message of individuality and acceptance is obviously paramount, but damn is it a fun, crazy ride.
45. Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Directed by Joshua Logan
Signature Song: “I’m On My Way”
Long before Clint Eastwood decided to bring a popular musical to the screen as director (Jersey Boys later this year), he starred in the Western musical Paint Your Wagon, adapted by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky from the stage musical by Lerner and Loewe. Set in a California mining camp during the gold rush, Paint Your Wagon begins with a wagon crash, leaving one man dead and the other (Eastwood) badly injured. Prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) finds them and decides to make the survivor his “Pardner” after they find gold dust near the crash site. From there, it revolves around this relationship between the men, Ben a drunken fool, while Pardner seems, at first, to be an innocent, caring man. But, just like in any other Shakespearean tale, a woman comes between them. A 154-minute Western musical is not a project anyone ever would take on then or now, but the magnitude of the film, the cinematography, and the insanity of Eastwood and Marvin even appearing in a Lerner and Loewe musical gave the film a level of creativity that deserves merit. The music is wonderful, the settings are grand, and the story, though somewhat overdone, gathered new life in this middle-of-nowhere mining town.
44. The Wiz (1978)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Signature Song: “Ease on Down the Road”
A weird amalgam of misplaced talent and Motown soul, The Wiz took the classic Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set it in an urban atmosphere, and used an all African American cast. Starring Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale, the film follows the same plot as all the other adaptations of the story, sending Dorothy to a magical land where she meets a scarecrow (Michael Jackson), a tin-man (Nipsey Russell), and a lion (Ted Ross). The film’s critical and commercial failure really marked the end of the 1970’s black film boom (beginning with the blaxploitation movement), but not without a fight. You can’t argue the talent in the film: beyond the stars already mentioned, Lena Horne plays Glinda the Good Witch and Richard Pryor plays The Wiz. On top of that, the screenplay was written by Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire and A Time to Kill) and directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, among others). It’s a wonder what resulted was a somewhat messy characterization of a beloved story and musical. It’s not without merit – the songs are catchy, the re-imagination of the story is actually somewhat clever. But Ross can’t act her way out of a paper bag and the pieces don’t all fit together. Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth mentioning.
43. Les Misérables (2012)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Signature Song: “I Dreamed a Dream”
Two years after he stole the Best Director Oscar from David Fincher with The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper directed a highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the stage musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Les Misérables is an onslaught of music – no words are spoken; everything is sung. The classic story features Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), newly released from prison by Javert (Russell Crowe). After being caught stealing, he vows to turn his life around, eventually owning a factory and becoming mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Javert eventually becoming chief of police. From there, the story involves one of Valjean’s workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), jumps forward in time to focus on Valjean and Fantine’s daughter, and leads on to the French revolution. It’s a big movie on an epic scale, coming close to collapsing under its own weight. Hooper filmed the movie with countless severe closeups on his characters, all while they sang on camera, as opposed to having the music dubbed in afterwards. The results are mixed – Crowe’s voice is not typical for his role and the film gets a bit convoluted and turned in on itself at times. But the scale Hooper’s film reaches for was justified – despite its 158-minute running time, all musical, Les Misérables, despite being an adaptation, still stood out as an original work in a sea of boring, less daring musicals and dramas.
42. Broadway Melody (1929)
Directed by Harry Beaumont
Signature Song: “You Were Meant for Me”
The second Best Picture Oscar winner and the first with sound, Broadway Melody (of 1929) is directed by Harry Beaumont and produced by film icon Irving Thalberg. It also included a Technicolor sequence, rarely seen in that day (it has since been lost), was the first musical released by MGM, and is hailed as Hollywood’s first sound film that’s also a musical. So, it’s a pretty big deal. It shuffles between various musical comedy actors and actresses, showing the backstage antics at a Broadway show. There’s a love triangle involving a vaudeville sister act, an engaged man falling for one of the sisters, and plenty of back and forth. As are many of the older sound films, it’s a bit over the top (as you’d expect with a Broadway film) and riddled with easy gags and plotlines. But, then again, it was early in the game, so who’s to say the film didn’t create those clichés? Along with the Best Picture win, it grabbed nominations for Bessie Love for Lead Actress and Beaumont for Best Director, failing to win either. It was followed by two spiritual sequels – Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1940, but you can’t deny its influence on the Broadway movie sub-genre.
41. Hairspray (2007)
Directed by Adam Shankman
Signature Song: “You Can’t Stop the Beat”
After a career littered with good choreography work, Adam Shankman stepped behind the camera with 2001’s The Wedding Planner and had middling to bad results until this 2007 adaptation of the stage musical based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore and follows local teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) as she yearns for stardom, despite her somewhat heavy-set frame. While she works to get onto the local TV dance and music show The Corny Collins Show, she learns about the politics of show business and the much more dangerous reality of racial segregation. Jam-packed with star power, the film grabbed three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actress, Musical/Comedy for Blonsky and Best Supporting Actor for John Travolta, who played the iconic cross-dressing role of Nikki’s mother with a zest and zeal that pointed toward a comeback that never happened. It gave the world Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow as villains, Christopher Walken as Travolta’s husband, the first true non-Disney performance from Zac Efron, and the best performance of Amanda Bynes’ short, tumultuous career as Nikki’s best friend who quickly falls for Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), an African American dance teacher who helps Nikki with her moves. It’s a good adaptation of an entertaining story with deeper themes and, most importantly, it’s a really fun time at the movies.
40. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Directed by Michael Apted
Signature Song: “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
Michael Apted certainly has a dicey filmography, this probably being his best: a biographical piece featuring a breakout adult role from Sissy Spacek, winning her the Oscar for Best Actress. Coal Miner’s Daughter is the story of the great Loretta Lynn, iconic country singer, and the struggles for her to break free of a difficult childhood, one of eight children to a poor coal miner (Levon Helm, in his screen debut) doing his best to eke out a living with his wife and family. Loretta marries her husband Oliver (Tommy Lee Jones) when she is only 15 and he is 22, beginning a life of popping out children, having four before she’s 20. Meanwhile, she yearns to perform, playing shows on the weekend and on the radio occasionally. She finds her husband surprisingly supportive, pushing her to uproot and take the family to go on a publicity tour after her first record gets released. The film is littered with moving, wonderfully realistic musical performances including Spacek’s, but Coal Miner’s Daughter‘s real depth comes from the exploration of Loretta and Oliver’s marriage and the never-ending dedication to each other, despite the ongoing stress and nervous breakdowns. Just seven years after she burst onto the screen in Badlands and four years after Carrie, Sissy Spacek proved she was so much more than a child star and hasn’t quit since.
39. Gigi (1958)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Signature Song: “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”
Another Best Picture winner, this one from way back in 1958. A Lerner and Loewe musical brought to the stage in 1973, Gigi focuses on a young girl named Gilberte – or Gigi – played by Leslie Caron. Gigi has been sent to etiquette school with her grandmother and aunt, who believe that the only way for her to have any success in turn-of-the-century Paris is to marry into the upper class. From there, it follows Gigi’s relationship with Gaston (Louis Jourdan), who has publicly shamed himself after mistreating his mistress. It’s an attempt at a female empowerment story, as Gigi herself is relatively progressive – she refuses to be someone’s mistress and wants to fall in love on her own terms, if at all. The film is one big parable of love conquering all, with Paris serving as one of the best backdrops you can ask for. The music itself is less than memorable, but Maurice Chevalier’s beautiful opening dedication to why the world truly needs the youth that grows up to become the women that we love and respect is at once a gorgeous little lullabye of truth.
38. Fame (1980)
Directed by Alan Parker
Signature Song: “Fame”
Originally titled “Hot Lunch” until director Alan Parker discovered a pornographic film by the same name, Fame is the overwrought story of students at the New York High School of Performing Arts, following them from auditions all the way to senior year and graduation. The film follows a number of different characters, each trying to find a way to prove they belong in show business, whether as an actor, singer, dancer, or songwriter. Starring a bevy of no-name actors and actresses, the real standout is young Irene Cara, who performed the theme for the film (which won the Best Original Song Oscar) and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role (she would go on to win her own Oscar for Original Song for co-writing “Flashdance…What a Feeling” in 1984). It’s still one of the more beloved high school films, spawning a short-lived television show in 1982, starring a number of the same performers, which spawned a spinoff show titled Fame L.A. It was remade in 2009 to middling effect, despite having a much stronger cast (of teachers, anyway). What Fame did above all was create a truly 80’s inspirational story that is forever of the decade. It tackled themes of independence and homosexuality, but framed it in a way that didn’t overtake the narrative. In the end, it’s a nice, harmless little musical that, if anything, serves as a decent intro to the genre.
37. Chicago (2002)
Directed by Rob Marshall
Signature Song: “Cell Block Tango”
It was unreasonably big – musicals had always been made, but their appeal was minimal in the decade or so before. But, in 2002, the iconic Broadway show was brought to the screen, directed by stage and TV movie director Rob Marshall, who’d won an Emmy for his work directing the 2001 Kennedy Center Honors. Chicago won Best Picture (and had 13 nominations) and reworked the genre a little. Instead of musical numbers coming within the plot of the movie, most of the performances came from shifts out of the story – characters performing on a sort of dream stage to no real audience. The cast was phenomenal, providing a platform for one of Renée Zellweger’s better performances, great work from Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly, and a deserved Oscar for Catherine Zeta-Jones. While the signature song from the Broadway show may be “All That Jazz,” the true standout moment comes from the staging, direction, and performance of “Cell Block Tango,” a wonderfully dramatic number that provides six distinct female voices. The film probably won’t hold up in due time, but it’s still one of the best musicals of the this millennium.
36. The King and I (1956)
Directed by Walter Lang
Signature Song: “Getting to Know You”
Rogers and Hammerstein comes to the big screen with the help of screenwriter Ernest Lehman with The King and I, based on the musical, which was based on Margaret Landon’s book Anna and the King of Siam. The film stars Yul Brynner (he won an Oscar) as the King of Siam and Deborah Kerr as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. Anna is summoned to Siam to educate the King’s children. As you might expect, Anna and the King repeatedly come to blows about how she educates the children, where she will live while she is there, and the vast difference in politics between her home and Siam. From imperialism to slavery, many heavy topics are touched on, but only in the context to develop the push-pull relationship between the two. It’s a love story, yes, but the most touching and memorable moments come between Anna and the children, both the King’s and her own son Louis, like the clip linked to above. Kerr didn’t sing any of the songs in the film – that honor went to Marni Nixon, who supplied the voice for many other iconic musical performances on film, which will appear later in this list. For The King and I, she received a whopping $420. Nominated for nine Oscars and winning five, The King and I is a more beloved stage show than a film, but Brynner’s work as the King lives on as one of his best performances in a long, impressive filmography.
35. The Muppet Movie (1979)
Directed by James Frawley
Signature Song: “The Rainbow Connection”
The first feature film from the felt fantastics, The Muppet Movie brought Jim Henson’s puppet creations to a much wider audience, delivering a style of comedy that was more British than American, more Monty Python than Saturday Night Live. Littered with wacky, bizarre comedic moments, dozens of cameos, and wonderfully dramatic and poignant musical numbers, The Muppet Movie was a road movie for the entire family, despite containing a lot more meta commentary and humor than was normal for 1979. It’s truly a movie-within-a-movie, beginning with the Muppets sitting together to watch the movie we see. While we eventually meet the Muppets one by one, we first meet Kermit and his first encounter with Fozzie Bear, when they set out in a Studebaker together. Insanity follows, where we meet every Muppet we’ve come to love, as well as run into human characters that change the fate of our heroes, most importantly the Hollywood studio executive Lew Lord, played by the great Orson Welles, who signs them to a contract (which would come into play in the 2011 reboot). But, at the very beginning, it’s the song that sets the entire film (and Muppet influence) in motion: Kermit the Frog, alone in his swamp strumming his banjo, delivering one of the simplest, yet beautiful original songs in movie history, earning an Oscar nomination (it lost to “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae). It’s still a high point for the Muppet franchise that lost its way in the 90’s and 00’s; most importantly, it gave the world “The Rainbow Connection.”
34. Dreamgirls (2006)
Directed by Bill Condon
Signature Song: “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”
In Oscar history, it’s an incredibly fascinating story, whether it was just dumb luck or there was truly a race-related issue at play. Dreamgirls grabbed eight Oscar nominations, the most of any film in 2006, but wasn’t nominated for either lead acting category or Best Picture, even after it won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy (where it beat Little Miss Sunshine, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar). The story of an African-American all-girl singing group and their rise to fame is the most expensive film of all time featuring an all Black cast and gave the platform for a young American Idol reject to shine, as Jennifer Hudson stole the show as Effie White, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (though it was honestly a leading part). Alongside her was a revitalized Eddie Murphy, giving his best performance in over a decade, earning an Oscar nomination also. Throw in Jaime Foxx, Danny Glover, and Beyonce Knowles, and Dreamgirls became an overstuffed, but wonderfully enjoyable trip through Motown for the novice viewer. The song above became the go-to song on every singing competition show for about two years after; though, truthfully, if I may be candid, it’s one of the least entertaining of the film.
33. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Directed by John Landis
Signature Song: “Sweet Home Chicago”
It’s tough to pick a signature song from this one, since the musicality is so ingrained in the protagonists’ story. One of the rare Saturday Night Live sketches that actually works better as a movie, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, respectively) return to their childhood home where they learn that the orphanage is on the verge of closing. In response, they decide they can raise the money to save it by reforming their blues band and heading out on their perpetual “mission from God.” The film is filled with cameos and guest performances from blues and R&B artists, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The film’s production was easily one of the most trying for any comedy, with Aykroyd taking 6 months too long to finish a script that John Landis had to rewrite anyway and filming continuously slowed by Belushi’s partying and drug use. That doesn’t even include the property damage they had to pay for after destroying large portions of Chicago filming sites, thanks in part to the iconic car chase. When all is said and done, it was all worth it – The Blues Brothers was such a successful concept and movie that the band still exists today, despite its rotating members, with Aykroyd still in the lead.
32. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Signature Song: “Yankee Doodle Dandy”
Before he was forever associated with mob movies of the studio era, the great James Cagney was a brilliant song and dance man, no more on display than in his fantastic lead performance in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. The story of George M. Cohan (Cagney) is, as most studio films were, relatively whitewashed, but a wonderfully entertaining trip nonetheless. At the beginning of World War II, Cohan comes out of retirement to star as President Franklin Roosevelt on Broadway. Just before his first show, he is invited to meet Roosevelt and ends up telling the story of his life to the president, the entire film told in flashback, beginning at the early days, when Cohan was a child watching is father perform on stage. He joins his family performing act, eventually getting too big for his britches, until he one day writes the iconic American war song “Over There.” Yankee Doodle Dandy is the Cagney show. He may have made a bigger impact on the film industry as the star of films like White Heat and Angels with Dirty Faces, but this is probably his best overall performance, showing a range of drama, comedy, and some of the most inventive dance moves of the era.
31. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Directed by Mel Stuart
Signature Song: “Pure Imagination”
It’s simultaneously an uplifting story about trying to be a good person and a fiendish nightmare of the perils of poor parenting, but the film adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel remains a nostalgic reminder of what you could get away with in children’s films in the 1970’s. Dahl never cared for the adaptation, but anyone who saw this psychedelic imagination of the novel most likely counts it among their favorite childhood experiences in the theater. When little Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) finds a golden ticket, he and his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) are awarded a trip to the London-based chocolate factory of the ingenious shut-in Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). Along with four other children, Charlie learns about how the delicacies are made and what happens when you aren’t a “good child.” In the history of Wilder’s brilliant comedic performances, this one is one of his most twisted – a man in charge of bringing happiness to countless children, but with a streak so demented that he scoffs at the idea of a child not paying for his/her sins. There are probably four songs that could be chosen as the “signature,” but Wilder’s playful performance of “Pure Imagination” as he waltzes through this candy room is what sticks out the most. Tim Burton’s remake/reimagination has its merits, but nothing can rival Wilder, the original Oompa Loompas, and the darkness that lived just below the surface of this playful film.
30. Annie (1982)
Directed by John Huston
Signature Song: “Tomorrow”
Originally a 1924 comic strip, the beloved stage musical about a red-haired orphan girl was brought to the big screen in 1982 and directed by John Huston (yes, that John Huston – director of The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, not to mention the villain in Chinatown). The film follows our heroine Annie (Aileen Quinn) during the Great Depression as she lives in an orphanage in New York City, assuming her parents just left her there. She is constantly punished by the orphanage’s supervisor, the alcoholic Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett), forced to clean up the building day in and day out. During one of her escapes, Annie befriends a dog she names Sandy, only to have her sent to the sausage factory. As luck would have it, a local billionaire looking to improve his image brings Annie into his home for a week and agrees to rescue Sandy. Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) starts off as a gruff man, but is eventually won over by Annie, who really only wants to find her real parents and possesses an unending streak of positivity. The film wasn’t a huge box office success and certainly wasn’t an overwhelming critical success (it was nominated for a number of Razzies), but there was something about that little red-headed girl that found its way into viewers’ heart, eventually turning it into a bit of a nostalgic cult hit.
29. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Signature Song: “Beauty and the Beast”
Two years after The Little Mermaid ushered in the Disney animation renaissance, the studio hit the jackpot again, this time with a film so critically acclaimed that it grabbed a Best Picture nomination – the first animated film to do so. Beauty and the Beast was originally conceived as a non-musical, until Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded it be made as such. An adaptation of the French fairy tale, the film features the voice talents of Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and, famously, Angela Lansbury. Not only did it grab the top award nomination, Beauty and the Beast managed to pull three nominations for Best Original Song, winning for the title ballad. It won for Best Original Score also, proving to be one of Disney’s standouts in terms of their animated musicals. It began a string of movies for Disney that not only provided box office success, but radio play success, as the themes began getting reworked and rerecorded; the title song was sung by Lansbury in the movie, only to be redone by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson for the radio. Regardless, in a history of Disney animated musicals that sometimes feel commonplace and lazy, Beauty and the Beast stands alone as both an effort in filmmaking and songwriting.
28. Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982)
Directed by Alan Parker and Gerald Scarfe
Signature Song: “Another Brick in the Wall”
You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat. Truer words may have never been spoken. The Pink Floyd 1979 rock opera was reimagined by lead singer Roger Waters as a movie musical in 1982, chock full of chaos and animated sequences, focusing on a rock star named Pink (Bob Geldof), as we flashback to his childhood growing up in 1950s England. He never had a father, his having died in the war. From there, he grows up, only to slowly see his psyche deteriorate, thanks to the stresses of touring and his overprotected, fascist upbringing. Then come the drugs, which help him perform on stage, but eventually give way to freakishly aggressive animated sequences, eventually breaking down the titular wall. It’s no Rogers and Hammerstein musical, that’s for sure, but it’s also not a terribly well-constructed narrative. The impact of the music was much greater than the film itself, which was more or less relegated to a great way to spend a drug-induced Saturday night. Its allegorical approach to the topic of self-destruction is evident and, while the disjointed approach is jarring, there’s no denying the image of marching hammers and faceless reform school students aren’t easily forgotten.
27. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)
Directed by Trey Parker
Signature Song: “Blame Canada”
If Beauty and the Beast proved that animated musicals still had their place in culture, Matt Stone and Trey Parker blew the doors off the animated musical in 1999 with their big screen adaptation of the show that saved Comedy Central. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut gave fans of the show the same filth and cutting satire that they were used to, but without the filter of cable television. A metacommentary about the insanity of the entire business and the MPAA, the film managed to secure an R rating just weeks before release. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny sneak into an R-rated film and, as a result, begin cursing and badmouthing their parents. But, as is typical with Kyle’s mom and her confidants, the rage is misplaced and eventually leads to the verge of warfare between the U.S. and Canada. There are numerous subplots in the film (including a love affair between Satan and Saddam Hussein), but the stories still feel tied together, even with all the insanity Parker and Stone inject into the film. With a laundry list of offensive lyrics and high concept humor, somehow the film garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “Blame Canada” (complete with a ceremony performance assist from Robin Williams). It was an early indication that, given the freedom to let loose, Parker and Stone could deliver something much bigger than the simplistic comedy they originally specialized in, as they would further prove with Team America: World Police and the Broadway behemoth The Book of Mormon.
26. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Signature Song: “Elephant Love Medley”
The exclamation point is essential. Baz Luhrmann had showed flashes of technical prowess with Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, but he took off the reins with Moulin Rouge!, an acid trip of pop music and melodrama, headlined by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. McGregor is Christian, a poor writer in France who gets swept up in the Bohemian movement, recruited by Toulouse-Latrec (John Leguizamo) to pen his group’s magnum opus “Spectacular, Spectacular,” in the hopes to sell the idea to Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the owner of the famed title nightclub. When his prize performer Satine (Kidman) mistakens Christian for a Duke (an investor), they quickly fall in love, putting a rift in Harold’s plan to promise Satine to the Duke in exchange for funding. Luhrmann packs the film with reinventions of classic love songs, from Elton John’s “Your Song” to The Police’s “Roxanne.” It’s jam-packed with Luhrmann’s unfocused camera and color wheel, though the most memorable moments actually come from the quiet spots, including the original song “Come What May” and the falling-in-love medley of the film, a duet sung in an elephant. It’s a breath of fresh air, thanks mostly to Kidman’s game performance in this crazy gem.
25. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Directed by Frank Oz
Signature Song: “Suddenly Seymour”
It was, at first, a 1960 film directed by Roger Corman and featuring a young Jack Nicholson. Then it was a 1982 musical based on the original film. Then, it became the most memorable of them, this 1986 adaptation of the stage musical, starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin. Directed by puppet master Frank Oz, Little Shop of Horrors is the surreal story of a mild-mannered flower shop owner named Seymour (Moranis) who, at his colleague Audrey’s (Greene) suggestion, decides to display the rare Venus fly trap-like plant he has been raising (named Audrey II), when business begins to slump. Unfortunately, that plant grows exponentially, to the point that it’s a completely animated, talking, and singing monster plant that feeds on human blood. The puppetry is something to behold – it still looks pretty good, almost 30 years later. Though the songs that bring the most entertainment come from the plant itself, the most memorable is Moranis and Greene’s duet, thanks to Greene’s brilliant take on the friend-turned-love interest. Plant or no plant, it’s Greene’s inventive delivery that sticks out most. Doesn’t hurt to have Steve Martin along for the ride to play a sadistic dentist.
24. Fantasia (1940)
Directed by Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norm Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Signature Song: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Just the third animated film Disney produced, Fantasia is an episodic exploration of classical music, standing as the first commercial film shown in stereophonic sound. Opening with a live-action orchestra gathering, the rest of the film is a collection of stand-alone short films, each completely animated and set to a classical piece, introduced each time by master of ceremonies Deems Taylor. Among them, we are treated to the changing of seasons set to selections from “The Nutcracker Suite,” a comic ballet with dancing hippos and elephants set to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” and most memorably, Disney’s iconic leading mouse playing a sorcerer’s apprentice, directing anthropomorphic brooms to Paul Dukas’ song of the same name. Mickey has existed in dozens of different motifs, but the image of the red robe and blue and white wizard’s hat still manages to stand out among them. The segment was originally created as a short film, based on a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem, on which Dukas based his musical composition. A sequel was eventually released titled Fantasia 2000, but the original film, though a box office failure (leading to the making of Dumbo in an effort to quickly recoup some money), is still recognized as Disney’s most daring animated film.
23. Top Hat (1935)
Directed by Mark Sandrich
Signature Song: “Cheek to Cheek”
Any number of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films could appear on this list, but I’m sticking with this one as a representative of their body of work. A screwball musical comedy, Top Hat stars Astaire as an American dancer name Jerry who moves to London to star in a show. When practicing a tap number in his room, he wakes his downstairs neighbor Dale (Rogers) and, when she comes to complain, he immediately falls for her. At the same time, Dale mistakes Jerry for the show’s producer Horace (Edward Everett Horton), a man married to her friend. When Dale leaves for Venice to visit this friend, Jerry follows her, all while Dale believes him to be the married Horace. Of course, things eventually work out, but not before an enjoyable tale of mistaken identity and puppy-love through Europe. As is often stated, if Astaire is the greatest dancer ever on the big screen, Rogers deserves the same or more credit, since she did every dance he did, but “backwards and in heels.” But the on-screen chemistry between Rogers and Astaire is like nothing since. It’s clear the difference between dancers with chemistry like these two and dancers just acting – the accompanying music is memorable (specifically the above clip), but it’s the choreography and the emotion behind the two leads that pushes these musicals into the stratosphere. “Cheek to Cheek” is not just a song about these characters; it’s a song about the actors that play them.
22. Tommy (1975)
Directed by Ken Russell
Signature Song: “Pinball Wizard”
The second album-focused rock opera in this section of the list, The Who’s Tommy premiered 6 years after the associated album and came flooded with star casting. Lead singer Roger Daltrey plays the title character, but the film also includes Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Elton John, and Tina Turner. As a boy, Tommy’s father leaves for the war and goes missing. His mother, Nora (Margret) believes him to be dead and eventually begins a relationship with another man named Frank (Oliver Reed), despite Tommy’s unease. When Tommy’s father unexpectedly returns, Frank ends up killing him in front of Tommy, scarring him for life. The film follows Tommy through his unbalanced existence at that point, involving LSD, pinball, and lots of mirrors. It’s difficult not to directly compare Tommy to The Wall, but the superior soundtrack and narrative structure of Tommy undoubtedly make it the better film and, in turn, the more essential one. It’s just as trippy as The Wall, but feels a lot more put together. Rock operas have been made since, but Roger Daltrey and Ken Russell’s dedication to scoping out an understandable story from within The Who’s trademark album set the stage for how it should be done. Margret received an Oscar nomination for her work in the film; Pete Townshend received a nomination for his work adapting the music and scoring the film. Of all the musicals based on one specific artist’s work, Tommy sits at the top.
21. My Fair Lady (1964)
Directed by George Cukor
Signature Song: “The Rain in Spain”
This 1964 Best Picture winner was written by Alan Jay Lerner and George Bernard Shaw and stars Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, an arrogant elocution teacher from high society London. He boasts he can teach anyone to speak properly so, sure enough, enter Cockney-accented Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a young flower girl who wants to works in a true flower shop. Higgins begins to instruct Eliza to frustrating results. That is, until one day, she just sort of starts speaking correctly (it’s true…it just kind of happens). Sure enough, she ascends to a point where she can mingle with the upper class comfortably, though on a few occasions, slips back into her accent. You can guess what happens – guy gets full of himself, girl gets mad because she isn’t getting any credit, girl leaves, guy realizes what he’s lost, love happens. Hepburn’s singing voice on film was provided by, again, Marni Nixon. Harrison refused to record his vocals before filming and have them dubbed, since he felt he could never talk his way through a song the same way twice, making lip-syncing near impossible. What resulted was an Oscar for the sound editors, who did phenomenal work putting the numbers together. Harrison won Best Actor, Cukor won Best Director, but Hepburn wasn’t even nominated. Julie Andrews originally played Eliza on stage, but wasn’t cast for the film, adaptation causing a bit of a controversy. No matter – Andrews won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1964 for her role in a different musical which, as you’d expect, is further up the list.
20. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Signature Song: “Jailhouse Rock”
It brought “The King” to the big screen for the first time in a film about a man in prison who learns to express himself through music, rather than violence (he’s in prison for manslaughter). Vince (Elvis Presley) accidentally kills a drunk in a bar fight and ends up cellmates with a former country singer named Hunk (Mickey Shaughnessy). When Hunk convinces Vince to perform in a prison show (which, for some reason, is broadcast on national television), he impresses and starts to received fan mail at the prison. Upon his release, he finds himself a star, signing with a label and going through all the typical pains of stardom; he becomes self-centered, takes advantage of his friends, and mistreats his girl, only to eventually wise up. Presley wasn’t a talented actor by any means, but his involvement with a major motion picture was big enough to sell tickets, grossing $4 million. It’s not an original story and it’s not a terribly well executed film, but Presley’s title song performance remains one of the big-ticket images associated with the King of Rock n’ Roll, easily his best moment in film and one of his greatest performance moments of all time.
19. Funny Girl (1968)
Directed by William Wyler
Signature Song: “Don’t Rain On My Parade”
Barbra. Funny Girl is the movie that brought “Hello, gorgeous” to the world also managed to win Barbra Streisand an Oscar for Best Actress (she tied with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter). Fanny Brice (Streisand) is reflecting on her courtship and marriage with husband Nick (Omar Sharif) as she awaits his return from prison. The movie is told chronologically, jumping from meeting to meeting between the two, eventually leading to Nick winning her over, leading her to leave her job with the Ziegfield Follies, despite her great success. She eventually returns to the show, only to see Nick fail at various business ventures, eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Funny Girl is truly a film about female empowerment; Fanny is an independent woman above all, despite her love and adoration for Nick. As Fanny sings in “People” (the other major song from the film), it’s surprising how strong people who need to depend on others can be. In the end, it’s Fanny’s strength and determination that get her through, never settling for a life of simplicity and boredom. As Fanny clearly states in the signature song above, no amount of negativity and pain is going to stop her from success and happiness. And what an anthem it is.
18. An American in Paris (1951)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Signature Song: “I Got Rhythm”
Inspired by the 1928 orchestra composition by George Gershwin, An American in Paris is more a ballet than a real musical, despite plenty of singing (it does end with a ballet, after all). Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) now lives in Paris, having left the United States to try and make it as a painter. The movie is inter-cut with dance sequences choreographed by Kelly, but maintains a story that flows along with Gershwin’s composition. Unlike movie musicals that are centered around an album or one artist’s work, there is no definitive story that needs to be followed, since there are no lyrics to force a storyline, in most cases; it doesn’t need to shoehorn plot into the proceedings. An American in Paris took home the Best Picture Oscar, thanks in part to some of the more romanticized cinematography captured on film (for which it also won the Oscar). It’s not difficult to make Paris look like the place where the world goes to fall in love. But to do it repeatedly in the same film, and from different perspectives, is a task. From scene to scene, number to number, Paris still still feels like the same place, but the lighting and camera angles change the way the dance numbers are approached and personify that city of love in very different ways. It’s never looked better.
17. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Signature Song: “The Trolley Song”
Back to back Minnelli films, and for good reason. Set in St. Louis, Missouri at the beginning of the 1904 World’s Fair, the Smith family is middle-class and happy, even with four daughters and a son. The second oldest daughter, Esther (Judy Garland), is in love with a boy in town named John (Tom Drake), which sets the majority of the plot in motion. Disappointingly, this is accompanied by news that Esther’s father must leave for New York and that he will most likely have to move the family there. Romances, courtships, and love abound for the sisters and brother, all against the Midwestern backdrop. Meet Me in St. Louis was the second-highest-grossing film of 1944, behind the Best Picture winner (and musical, though not on this list), Going My Way. More importantly, the film was the debut of some standards that Garland would eventually become known for: “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the signature song, “The Trolley Song.” “Christmas” may very well have been the more important song, but equally famous versions of it have been recorded since. “The Trolley Song” will always be Garland, her expressions chronically full of excitement and wonder. Meet Me in St. Louis is a breath of fresh air that refuses to wallow in self-pity – it’s a saccharine, unbridled joy expedition.
16. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Directed by Norman Jewison
Signature Song: “If I Were a Rich Man”
Adapted from the 1964 Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof centers on Tevye (Topol), a Jewish milkman living in Russia before the revolution. While the world around him changes and anti-Semitism becomes a growing problem, he finds it a struggle to marry off his daughters, by tradition using the local matchmaker to find them husbands for him to approve or disapprove. And so it goes – his oldest daughter is arranged to be married, but she wants to marry another and he agrees. His second daughter wants to marry a revolutionary and he has to accept their marriage. When his third daughter wishes to marry a non-Jew, he cannot give his blessing in good conscience. This all happens in context of growing fear in the household, while this title fiddler accompanies the actions with his instrument of choice. The center of all of this is the performance from Topol, originally playing the part of Tevye in London to great acclaim, despite subsequent memoirs claiming he was a difficult performer to work with. Regardless, the vim and vigor with which Topol portrayed Tevye is what sells the film and the musical numbers, specifically the brilliant performance of the signature song above, for which he was nominated for an Oscar (he lost to Gene Hackman for The French Connection).
15. All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by Bob Fosse
Signature Song:”Bye Bye Life”
What’s a list of musicals without a Bob Fosse entry? The Palme d’Or winner at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical fever dream from Fosse, inserting Roy Scheider as his stand-in, starring as Joe Gideon. Gideon is overworked and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, struggling to finish his Broadway show while editing a film he has directed. His steady diet of drugs, sex, and Vivaldi is catching up to him, while his girlfriend, ex-wife, and daughter try to keep him afloat. Without the musical aspect to the movie, this is an incredibly depressing film. It’s still an uncomfortable sit in places, but the flare of Fosse’s imagination and the brilliance of Scheider’s performance gives the film a wholly entertaining value. It’s an uproarious story that borders on the insanity of Fellini’s 8 1/2, though with a much more tied together story. It garnered mixed reviews, but not without recognition of the spectacle and the unapologetic self-indulgent approach to the film. Death is imminent throughout the entire film, but it still feels like an ego trip, littered with jazz hands and detailed choreography. Of all the films on this list, All That Jazz may be the most difficult to choose a signature song, since the numbers all meld together in memory. For the first time, it’s not a song or performance that jumps into my mind immediately when I remember this film (so I chose the finale – Ben Vereen!). It’s Scheider and the energy it took to deliver that powerhouse performance.
14. Amadeus (1984)
Directed by Milos Forman
Signature Song: “Non più andrai march” from “The Marriage of Figaro”
Maybe this one is more difficult from which to choose a signature song. The 1984 Best Picture winner is also the least lyric-filled entry on the list (though it does include a number of operatic performances). Amadeus is the fictional retelling of the life and career of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) through the eyes of his nemesis Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), who is relaying the story to a priest during a “confession” at the end of his life. The film centers on Salieri’s conflicted perspective on Mozart: he is appalled that such a young, immature man would have a gift that he strives to possess, yet he is enamored by the brilliance of his art. Salieri masks his contempt for Mozart and works side-by-side with him through much of the film, a witness to the brilliance, all the while stewing in his own comparative lack of talent. In the end, the film is about one man’s warped relationship with God and himself. Salieri cannot understand why such a petulant child would be blessed with such divine talent while he, a student of music for his entire life, is left in the squalor of mediocrity. The signature song above puts that in the forefront, as Mozart takes a march Salieri has written and transforms it effortlessly into a song which would eventually appear in one of his most famous operas. And that laugh…oh, that laugh.
13. Nashville (1975)
Directed by Robert Altman
Signature Song: “I’m Easy”
Robert Altman + musical doesn’t sound like it should work, but if this list was going strictly by quality, Nashville would probably be in the top five. Written by Joan Tewkesbury, the film is structured like most Altman films: multiple characters (24, to be exact), multiple storylines, and for this one, a lot of musical numbers. The film spans 5 days in the title city, all in preparation for the political rally for a candidate the audience never actually sees. Within the crowded list of characters, we meet a number of women who are enamored with womanizing country musician Tom (Keith Carradine), though he finds himself taken with gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a married woman. Meanwhile, Linnea’s husband Del (Ned Beatty) is planning a fundraiser for the campaign, popular singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) is trying to recover after an accident, and everybody comes together and fades apart over the 5-day period. To detail the rest of the characters is useless, as this is an Altman film and there’s only so much space. But the through-lines that hold the film together are the musical numbers, the relationships that get so clearly defined, and the ongoing theme of a desire to be seen. For some, that means financial success. For some, it’s political recognition. For others, that means love. And for some, it’s just a wink and a warm bed. Few musical numbers have the impact the signature performance above does (it won the Best Original Song Oscar), as Tom sings to a crowd, eyes fixed on Linnea as she sits in the back of the room. In a crowded town of wanna-be singers and ruthless fans, that one-to-one connection is hard to find, even if for only one night.
12. A Star is Born (1954)
Directed by George Cukor
Signature Song: “The Man That Got Away”
Forget the atrocious 1976 remake and, while respectable, glaze over the 1937 original. The most complete picture of a the titular star’s rise to fame came in 1954, directed by George Cukor and starring the great Judy Garland. Garland was 4 years removed from her previous work under contract for MGM, leading to this film largely being pitched as her return to stardom. After Esther (Garland) saves a fading idol named Norman (James Mason) from embarrassment, he becomes a mentor of sorts to her, pushing her to chase her dream to perform professionally. A series of missed communications and mistakes later, Norman and Esther are separated, eventually coming together after Esther’s studio has changed her name to “Vicki Lester.” A Star is Born is less about Esther and her rise to fame and more about her maturity and the way she rescues Norman from utter failure. While her career is flourishing and her determination has never been greater, she shows more strength by refusing to believe Norman is a lost cause. Despite all the naysayers, her greater battle is to stand by Norman when he hits his cellar, but having enough sense to keep him from holding her back. It’s about forgiveness and what it takes to be a successful anything: singer, spouse, person. A Star is Born is more about Esther’s personal patience than it is about her professional willpower.
11. Cabaret (1972)
Directed by Bob Fosse
Signature Song: “Cabaret”
Another Fosse film – easily his most famous – and a nice transition from Judy Garland in the starring role to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, as the star here. Based on the 1966 Broadway musical of the same name, the film is about American Sally Bowles (Minnelli) as she forms a relationship with British writer Brian (Michael York). The two become romantically involved, though eventually become unfaithful to one another, each sleeping with the same person behind each others’ backs. Sally and Brian have trouble overcoming the infidelity and their disagreement about the future, leading to nightmarish representations for Sally about what a “normal” life would look like. The film grabbed 10 Oscar nominations, winning eight; it still holds the record for most Oscar wins without winning Best Picture (it lost to The Godfather). Cabaret is stylish and engrossing, despite its wickedly unbalanced musical numbers and composition. Joel Grey won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, basically serving as a narrator for the film (the style was borrowed in 2002’s Chicago, with Taye Diggs in a similar role), as it twists in and out of musical set pieces and dramatic moments in Nazi Germany. Still, it’s Minnelli’s best performance (she won the Oscar) and Fosse’s most critically acclaimed achievement on film.
10. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Directed by John Badham
Signature Song: “Stayin’ Alive”
After making a name for himself with TV’s “Welcome Back Kotter,” John Travolta became a star with 1977’s cultural landmark Saturday Night Fever, a dance musical where Travolta plays Tony Manero, a young man who works a dead-end job, but spends his weekends as the king of the dance floor at a Brooklyn disco. The soundtrack, which was basically a reissue of a Bee Gees album, became a massive success, thanks to an original approach to cross-media marketing. Saturday Night Fever used the Bee Gees single “Stayin’ Alive” as a promotional tool, building interest in the film before its release by making the song a hit first. The film is a clear window into a subculture that was popular for a short period of time in the late 1970s and, more than almost any other film, can’t escape it. Saturday Night Fever doesn’t hold up too well. It’s dated, misogynistic, and overtly sexist. But that doesn’t deny the massive impact of the soundtrack, the costumes, and the explosion of Travolta who, with this film, became one of the youngest performers of all time to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, just one year before he would star in another musical that would push him into the stratosphere (see below).
9. The Jazz Singer (1927)
Directed by Alan Crosland
Signature Song: “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)”
While we’re talking about movies that feel dated, why not rewind all the way back to the beginning with the first feature film with sound included? Starring Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer centers on Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson), a Jewish man who is disowned by his family after singing popular music at a bar. He runs away from home, renames himself “Jack Robin,” and becomes a talented jazz singer, but struggles to deal with the schism between his professional goals and his family and faith. Oh, and to blend in with other jazz singers, he goes in blackface. So, there’s that. It’s a storyline that has been duplicated and mimicked hundreds of times since, though looking back at it feels a little absurd. The film was the first step in destroying the silent film industry, but the acting had yet to “evolve,” let’s say. Silent films need to have overly expressive action to make up for the lack of words; movies with sound don’t need that as much, but nobody told the performers here. Still, thanks to its trailblazing status as the first film with synchronized dialogue and some memorable musical performances from Jolson, it deserves mention among the definitive movie musicals.
8. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Directed by Jim Sharman
Signature Song: “The Time Warp”
It may possibly be the cult film above all cult films. The 1975 adaptation of the musical stage production is a tribute to science-fiction and classic B movies, but managed to garner an incredibly dedicated following after its original release. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick star as a young couple pulled into an underworld of science experiments and transexuality, headlined by the mischievous scientist Frank N. Furter, played with devious joy by the great Tim Curry. The film is all over the place – characters entering and leaving, all of whom possess a sort of monster movie sexuality. The story itself is a twisted re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with a lot more eroticism and absurdity injected into it. But the fan following is something else altogether. To this day, midnight movie showings continue, complete with super-fans dressing up as their favorite characters, singing along with every musical number. The most memorable of these comes in the form of “The Time Warp,” an unusually catchy dance number complete with instructions in the lyrics. As the clip above shows, this surprisingly entertaining sub-cultured film is an experience all its own; especially when seen with a crowd full of fellow misfits.
7. Mary Poppins (1964)
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Signature Song: “A Spoonful of Sugar”
Julie Andrews wasn’t cast in the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a part which she played on stage. So she starred in this Disney adaptation of the P.L. Travers book and won an Oscar for her performance. Mary Poppins is the tale of a young, idealistic nanny who comes to live with the Banks family, told through the eyes of a street performer named Bert (Dick Van Dyke). Mary (Andrews) shows the Banks children a world of wonder by forcing them to use their imaginations, taking them on journeys and adventures with animated characters through the English countryside. Mary Poppins is packed with memorable musical numbers: the one above is what sets her relationship with the children in motion, a simple song about getting your work done by having fun. Eventually, we get a performance from a group of street sweepers (Bert included) and one of the most memorable non-words ever invented (“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”). Mary Poppins has long since remained a favorite of the entire Disney catalog, its production eventually fictionalized as the film Saving Mr. Banks. Forgiving Dick Van Dyke’s terrible Cockney accent, there isn’t a misstep in this wonderful trip through an optimistic woman’s imaginative world.
6. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Directed by Richard Lester
Signature Song: “A Hard Day’s Night”
The same year Mary Poppins premiered gave us another iconic musical with a little less story and a lot more Liverpool. A Hard Day’s Night is the black-and-white fictionalized story of The Beatles as they leave Liverpool to play on a London television show. The film follows them on the train with Paul’s grandfather (who is the de facto villain, in a way) as they deal with multiple distractions, including screaming female fans and Ringo getting arrested. There’s not much to the story – we follow the Fab Four around, see them interact with one another and fans, and watch hilarity ensue. But, much like their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, A Hard Day’s Night managed to capture a side of the super group and their relationship with their fans, the media, and each other in a way that couldn’t be done in an interview or a printed newspaper article. The film has been borrowed from in genres ranging from spy films to television comedies, thanks to the innovative camerawork of Richard Lester and his cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. This was The Beatles the way that history should remember them: talented young Englishmen who enjoyed their lives, appreciated their fans, and loved every moment or their somewhat crazy existence on this planet. And that doesn’t even take into account some of the greatest music ever written.
5. Grease (1978)
Directed by Randal Kleiser
Signature Song: “Summer Nights”
Rydell High: the high school everybody wishes they could attend with teenagers who looked like middle-aged parents. Based on the 1971 stage musical, Grease is still one of the ultimate “sing-a-long” movie musicals. Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) are seniors returning from their summer breaks, neither realizing that Sandy has transferred to Danny’s school from Australia. The problem: Danny has a reputation as a slick bad boy at his school, the complete opposite of his persona over vacation. Eventually, thanks to the influence and peer pressure from their group of friends, they both make efforts to become what they think the other wants; Danny tries to become an athlete, and Sandy tries to become a loose, badass chick. In the end, the ups and downs lead them back to each other (of course), and they fly away into the clouds. Grease is heavy on the 50’s nostalgia and catchy tunes in exchange for some ridiculous dialogue and sub-par acting, but it never really hinders the film. Those who see its problems still enjoy it as a spectacle. Those who see past those issues get lost in its colorful, two-dimensional world, littered with poodle skirts, pink ladies, and leather jackets. It offers three or four “signature” songs, but none can top this karaoke duet to end all duets.
4. The Sound of Music (1965)
Directed by Robert Wise
Signature Song: “The Hills Are Alive”
Maria, the nun who taught the world to sing, came to the big screen in a big way in 1965 in the form of Julie Andrews running through the alps with Robert Wise’s Best Picture winner The Sound of Music. Andrews is Maria, a young nun sent to Austria at the beginning of World War II to educate and care for the Von Trapp children and the father Georg (Christopher Plummer) a strict disciplinarian military captain. After initial discord between Maria and the seven children, they eventually warm to her, thanks to her kind words and positive outlook. She sings her way into the hearts of the children and, eventually, their father. The Sound of Music has become a staple in world culture, thanks to its influence in dozens of areas. “My Favorite Things,” despite not being a deliberate Christmas song, has become a holiday classic. The children’s goodbye song and outfits have been parodied on many an occasion. The title song was even borrowed for one of the other films on our list (Moulin Rouge!), reconfigured and used as an important plot point. But, when all is said and done, it’s that crane shot above Julie Andrews as she sings the title song in the mountains that we always comes back to.
3. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Signature Song: “Singin’ in the Rain”
Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star who is always cast with the same leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). He is growing tired of her; she thinks they are in love. When the film industry moves into the sound age, the producers decide they have to update their latest offering with the stars to include the sound. When trying to record the sound, multitudes of issues arise, worst of all Lina’s horrifying voice. The studio brings in a voice double named Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) to dub Lina’s voice over and Don quickly falls in love, infuriating Lina. The love triangle is there; the mild satire of the movie business is adequate. When all is said and done, Singin’ in the Rain provides two performances that will forever be indelible: Donald O’Connor’s brilliant song and dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh” and Kelly’s whimsical dance in the street to the title song. The song has been borrowed dozens of times since, most memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, only because it was the only song lead actor Malcolm MacDowell knew all the words to. But that alone points to its impact. The image of Kelly tap-dancing in the puddles and hanging on the lightpost will forever be a picture of love, dedication, and the beauty of music an dance above all.
2. West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Signature Song: “Tonight”
Robert Wise again, this time with the help of Jerome Robbins, brings Romeo and Juliet to the screen in an inventive way. Based on the 1957 stage musical (which is based on the Shakespeare play), West Side Story taks the classic love story and sticks it in New York City, trading in Montagues and Capulets for rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are a local white gang; the Sharks are an immigrant Puerto Rican gang. The Jets’ leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), has the greatest trust in his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), until Tony falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakris). Just like the Bard’s classic, tensions flare, there’s murder and heartbreak; only this time, there’s music from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim! West Side Story grabbed eleven Oscar nominations, winning ten, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Chakris), and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno, who gives the standout performance in the film. Yes, Moreno’s voice was dubbed a few times by Marni Nixon and Betty Wand. No, Natalie Wood isn’t the least bit Puerto Rican. But so many brilliant song with exceptional lyrics and some of the best choreography put on film makes West Side Story one of the most important musicals of all time.
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Signature Song: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
It was MGM’s most expensive film to date and didn’t earn back the money on its first release, leading to numerous re-releases. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two. Most importantly, it is one of the most important films of all time, let alone musical. The Wizard of Oz, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, paved the way for film makeup, its use of Technicolor, and its staging of fantasy sequences and dreamlike visuals. Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives in Kansas, with her aunt and uncle and her dog Toto. When her house is taken up in a tornado, she ends up in Oz, a colorful world filled with strange creatures and three important figures: a friendly scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a kind tin man (Jack Haley), and a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr). They join her in her journey to the Emerald City to meet the wizard, while they try to escape the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and her band of flying monkeys. The film began running on television in 1965, becoming a yearly holiday tradition, only adding to its reputation. It was chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress in the first year (1989) the process was begun. But, with all the accolades, awards, and memorable moments, Dorothy standing near the cornfield, eyes to the sky is the moment that makes the film. The signature song (Best Original Song Oscar winner) – even 75 years later – is still the greatest song to come from a movie musical, despite its inclusion in a film with so many other memorable songs. The Wizard of Oz taught the world that, no matter what problems we face, wherever we end up, there’s no place like home.