The musical often feels like a relic of a long-dead Hollywood studio system, but it remains a genre that captures movies’ ability to create story worlds that move freely between reality and fantasy. The worst examples come from filmmakers who give license to music, color, and movement run amok; the best musicals transcend artifice and integrate songs that become expressions of pure character emotion. It offers endless possibilities, but success demands a complete mastery of the medium.
Very few current stars could learn the choreography of Busby Berkeley, Jerome Robbins, or Bob Fosse, and adapting a medium developed and most suited for the stage requires innovative direction. In translating the joy of a live musical to the magic of cinema, some things are easily lost in the shuffle.
From “A Star is Born” to “Singin’ in the Rain,” here are 20 musicals that represent the height and the incredible range of the genre.
20. “42nd Street” (1933)
There are few visual pleasures more satisfying than Busby Berkeley’s choreography. In “42nd Street,” opulence, precision, and unadulterated joy ripple out like the concentric circles of ribbon dancers spinning wildly onscreen. Credited with kicking off the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, vaudeville actor-turned-director Lloyd Bacon films the classic showbiz tale with a keen eye, finding more beauty than the story required. Allentown, PA hasn’t quite been the same since little Peggy Sawyer left in search of Broadway stardom. The movie boasts hummable tunes like “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “42nd Street,” and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.” It’s the song you’ll love the melody of, “42nd Street.” — Jude Dry
19. “New York, New York” (1977)
Let’s be honest: Martin Scorsese’s attempt at a big studio musical is a mess, but it is one of the weirdest, coolest and most interesting messes ever made. Made between “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and fueled by Hollywood money (and, according to Scorsese, no shortage of cocaine), it’s a backstage musical about Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle (played by Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro), the couple who wrote “New York, New York.” The soundstudio artifice becomes a playground for the director to explore if he could make his gritty, unfiltered version of the musicals of his youth — look, it was the ’70s and with the coke it might have made sense. Toss in some jazz, some deep-seated depression, and troubled relationships on and off-screen, and you’ve got a film that makes you think about and appreciate the genre and Scorsese himself from a completely different perspective. — Chris O’Falt
18. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944)
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is many things to many people. It’s the best Vincente Minnelli musical (produced by Arthur Freed at MGM), directed when the director was most in love with his star, Judy Garland, who was never better — or lovelier. Minnelli was infamous for torturing child actress Margaret O’Brien with memories of a dead dog during the scene when her older sister (Garland) sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but O’Brian long denied the story, saying she could cry on cue. That song helped to turn the movie into a Christmas staple for many families who respond not only to the young romance at its core, but to an elegiac celebration of a lost American time. Sure, we remember the exuberant “Trolly Song,” but Mary Astor and Leon Ames sitting at the piano singing “You and I” is the movie’s emotional core. — Anne Thompson
17. “Lemonade” (2016)
No one has mastered the visual album quite like Beyoncé. In 2016, after releasing a single, “Formation,” and a video that commented on police brutality, Hurricane Katrina, and the resilience of the Black community in New Orleans, Queen Bey surprised fans with a momentous HBO special. “Lemonade” wasn’t just a series of music videos strung together as a preview of her upcoming album; it was a tremendously honest peek behind the curtain at the inner lives of the music world’s most powerful couple. Awash with Orisha imagery, nods to “Daughters of the Dust” and the Igbo people, and overlaid with the poetry of Warsaw Shire, “Lemonade” is stitched together with the raw pain of infidelity and the hope of forgiveness and rebirth. It is a stunning accomplishment, a testament to the power and endurance of Black women across generations, and hands down one of the greatest musical events of the 21st century. — Jamie Righetti
16. “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967)
A sneakily bittersweet masterpiece that hides its melancholy inside a multi-tiered wedding cake of exuberant musical numbers, “The Young Girls of Rochefort” is easy to mistake for a confection. In part, that’s because its story is a seaside romance about a pair of elegant twins (actual sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, appearing together for the only time before the latter’s sudden death) who daydream of falling in love and leaving their sleepy hometown. In part, that’s also because Jacques Demy made the film in the wake of his devastating “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and anything short of “Schindler’s List” would seem upbeat by comparison. But despite Michel Legrand’s zesty songs and some of Norman Maen’s jazziest dance choreography, this wonderfully colorful gem beats with a heavy heart. Not even an appearance by Gene Kelly can distract from a film that longs for the joy that’s always just beyond your fingertips; a film so tormented by unknown happiness that one of its characters can’t even see he lives around the corner from the love of his life. — David Ehrlich