The Definitive Movie Musicals: 50-41

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

hedwig_and_the_angry_inch_2001_685x38546. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

— Joshua Gaul

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