The Definitive Movie Musicals: 30-21

As we continue on, I need to once again clarify that if this list was “Joshua Gaul’s 50 Favorite Movie Musicals,” it’d be a quite a different list. But, if my tastes determined what is definitive, I’d be asking you all to consider Aladdin as a brilliant piece of filmmaking and wax nostalgic about my love for Batteries Not Included and Flight of the Navigator (not for the musicals list, of course). Much to my dismay, my tastes are not universal. I’d like to think my research methods are.

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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.

beauty and the beast three29. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fantasia24. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

–Joshua Gaul

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