The musical sometimes 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 to run amok; the best transcend artifice and integrate songs that become expressions of pure character emotion. Musicals offer endless possibilities, but success demands a complete mastery of the medium.
The best movie musicals of all time have faced obstacles as varied as their creators’ styles and tastes. That’s in part because its integration of at least two art forms — music and film always, but sometimes also dance — demands an unusually high-caliber of multi-faceted talent from those attempting its complexities.
After Lee De Forest invented the “talky,” the opportunity oozing from that new tech prompted an industry rush on musicals in the last days of the 1920s. That went over well with audiences at first. But by the end of the ‘30s, movie musicals were a dime-a-dozen, leaving people fatigued and rapidly turning music into the Marvel debate of mid-century cinema. Who needed another film with “Broadway Melody” or “Big Broadcast” in the title?
Of course, historic hits throughout the ‘40s, ’50s, and ‘60s, including “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Singin’ In The Rain,” meant Hollywood’s best movie musicals were still to come — with story and emotion put first. The genre saw another decline in popularity later in the 20th century when action flicks reigned supreme. But such is the ebb and flow of the genre, which has been (incorrectly) declared dead more than once.
Even now, with the success of Steven Spielberg’s jaw-dropping “West Side Story” and more musicals in the pipeline (see Baz Luhrmann’s recently released “Elvis”), movie musicals are offering yet another encore to audiences hungry for their lively energy. Sure, 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. But the skills of contemporary movie musical champions, like Spielberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the promise of Disney-backed animated musicals tell us the curtain will never close on this movie moment.
From “A Star Is Born” and “Swing Time” to “Chicago” and “West Side Story,” here are 55 musicals that represent the height and the incredible range of the genre.
Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, Ryan Lattanzio, Jude Dry, Kristen Lopez, Jenna Marotta, Jamie Righetti, Michael Nordine, Siddhant Adlakha, Christian Blauvelt, Noel Murray, and Alison Foreman contributed to this list.
55. “God Help the Girl” (Stuart Murdoch, 2014)
A shaggy and melancholic yet oh-so-bouyant pop musical from Belle and Sebastian mastermind Stuart Murdoch (whose character-driven songs always seemed to be written with a camera in mind), “God Help the Girl” is so extravagantly twee that it almost renders that word insufficient, but that’s not a bad thing. Not in this case. Not when you’re talking about a semi-autobiographical movie from someone whose brilliant career has been predicated upon finding strength through sickness, mining joy from ennui, and hearing truth in the shyness that keeps introverted young people from sharing themselves with the world.
Fleshed out from Murdoch’s delicate pop album of the same name and doubling down on its undercurrents of sadness, “God Help the Girl” stars a note-perfect Emily Browning (her performance equal parts Anna Kendrick and Anna Karina) as a Glaswegian waif who falls in with just the right people after being discharged from the facility where she was recovering from a severe eating disorder.
After forming a hipster band with a lovestruck beanpole (Olly Alexander) and his wide-eyed tutee (“Game of Thrones” survivor Hannah Murray), Eve gradually begins to emerge from the worst period of her life and straight into that one magic summer that some young folks are lucky enough to share with each other; the one where every feeling arrives at fever pitch, and every song feels like it was written for the soundtrack of your life. Replete with vintage Murdoch tunes that are freshly reanimated by a flawless cast and a vivid 16mm sense of nostalgia, “God Help the Girl” remembers what life feels like right before the world starts closing its doors on you, and it crystalizes those last days of endless possibility so well that you may never forget them again. —DE
54. “A Woman Is a Woman” (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
If all Jean-Luc Godard needed to make “Breathless” was a girl, a guy, and a gun, then all he needed to create the Cinemascopic romantic comedy “A Woman Is a Woman” was a love triangle between Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Jean-Claude Brialy. Both an embrace and a rejection of the trappings of the American musical comedy, “A Woman Is a Woman” is one of Godard’s chicest and most accessible movies. But while the film seems on the surface less tricky than many of Godard’s other ’60s films, it’s nevertheless replete with his typical self-reflexive streak and eager to shatter the fourth wall.
“A Woman Is a Woman” is not well-remembered for its songs, which are defined by their intentionally unpolished sound mix and playful out-of-step choreography (which is charming in its deceptively unrehearsed casualness). Godard’s trusty DP Raoul Coutard floods modish neon light into the film’s Paris setting in a way that appears grounded in the city but deliberately artificial elsewhere in a bid to evoke the cheeky, inherent fakeness of a stagy movie musical. Among the musical highlights, “Chanson d’Angela,” for one, stands as one of the most iconic Anna Karina moments ever. She’s sexy, seductive, but coy with a sly grin, and ultimately out of reach. —RL
53. “Lagaan” (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)
The rousing sports melodrama “Lagaan” stars Aamir Khan as Bhuvan, a rebellious young man in a late 19th century Indian farming village, where a prolonged drought has made it difficult to pay the levies demanded by the occupying British army. When Bhuvan crosses a cruel military officer, he ends up getting his whole village involved in a wager, gambling their tax bill on whether they can beat the English at cricket. Writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker develops the underdogs-vs-overlords plot assuredly, dropping an appealing ensemble of stock heroes and villains into a story packed with political intrigue, romantic triangles, and the tension of a high-stakes, three-day cricket match. The Bollywood musical numbers are thrilling too. When the villagers sing in praise of the changing weather or the mysteries of love, the lively tempos and spirited voices provide this historical epic with moments of human-scaled joy. —NM
52. “New York, New York” (Martin Scorsese, 1977)
Let’s be honest: Martin Scorsese’s attempt at a big studio musical is a bit of a mess, but it is one of the weirdest, coolest, and most interesting messes ever made. Sandwiched between “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and fueled by equally large stacks of Hollywood money and cocaine, “New York, New York” is a backstage musical about Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle (played by Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro), the couple who wrote the eponymous ode to the city that never sleeps.
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; toss in some jazz, some deep-seated depression, and a storm of troubled relationships on and off-screen, and you’ve got a film that makes you reconsider both the genre and Scorsese himself from a completely different perspective. —CO
51. “The Band Wagon” (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
Made just as the older singer-dancer began to consider retirement, this late Fred Astaire showcase marked a comeback not only for him but also for the musical genre itself, as director Vincente Minnelli and MGM producer Arthur Freed gave the ultimate backstage musical everything they had.
Astaire, in the self-reflexive role of fading star Tony Hunter, brings poignancy to “I’ll Go My Way By Myself” as he contemplates failure in all its forms, only to be uplifted by his theater gang’s “let’s put on a show” ethos as they throw out their hideous Faust failure in favor of a light-hearted revamp centered on Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s rallying cry “That’s Entertainment!” Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant dazzle as a witty husband-and-wife writing team inspired by the movie’s (platonic) screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, while dancer Cyd Charisse memorably wrapped her long legs around Astaire during “Dancing in the Dark.” Sublime. —AT
50. “The Greatest Showman” (Michael Gracey, 2017)
Zendaya, Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Michelle Williams singing? What’s not to love! “The Greatest Showman” tells the outrageously true story of entertainer P.T. Barnum, portrayed by Jackman, as he conned his way to the top of traveling circus stardom. Barnum’s Circus includes a playwright (Efron), a singer (Rebecca Ferguson), acrobat siblings (Zendaya and Yahya Adbul-Mateen II), a dwarf (Sam Humphrey), and a bearded lady (Keala Settle) among its community. Williams plays Barnum’s wife Charity Hallett-Barnum. The sweeping production first came about after Jackman hosted the 81st Academy Awards in 2009, to which his stage presence and charismatic showmanship was likened to Barnum. The musical features original music, including Oscar-nominated “This Is Me,” and marks Michael Gracey’s directorial debut. From acrobatic numbers framing a young love story, to riding high atop elephants as the weight of stardom sinks in, “The Greatest Showman” may just be one of the greatest original musicals of our time. —SB
49. “Top Hat” (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
Few cinematic duos have possessed as much chemistry as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and “Top Hat” is the high point of their work together. While all their films feature stellar dancing, “Top Hat” gets bonus points for holding up as a legitimately excellent comedy in its own right. When Astaire’s Jerry Travers travels to England and gets off on the wrong foot with Rogers’ Dale Tremont, they get a second shot at romance due to a confusing case of mistaken identities. The film deserves to be mentioned alongside elite screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday,” and it boosts some crackling dance numbers to boot. —CZ Few cinematic duos have possessed as much chemistry as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and “Top Hat” is the high point of their work together. While all their films feature stellar dancing, “Top Hat” gets bonus points for holding up as a legitimately excellent comedy in its own right. When Astaire’s Jerry Travers travels to England and gets off on the wrong foot with Rogers’ Dale Tremont, they get a second shot at romance due to a confusing case of mistaken identities. The film deserves to be mentioned alongside elite screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday,” and it boosts some crackling dance numbers to boot. —CZ
48. “Blinded by the Light” (Gurinder Chadha, 2019)
A glorious and almost terminally pure coming-of-age story about a repressed British Pakistani teen in 1987 Luton whose mind explodes when he discovers an uncool American poet by the name of Bruce Springsteen, Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light,” is a film that feels as out of time as the music tastes of its 16-year-old protagonist. It exudes the earnestness of a Bollywood musical, embraces the familiar immigrant tropes of a less diasporic world, and electrifies its paper-thin but profoundly lovable characters with an optimism that’s as rare in Thatcher’s England as it is in Trump’s America.
Ldapted from a memoir by Pakistan-born, England-raised Bruce fanatic Sarfraz Manzoor, this fable-like film allows Chadha to combine the warm cross-cultural friction of her own “Bend it Like Beckham” with the exuberance of “Sing Street” before transforming them both with the bone-deep power of the Boss himself (Springsteen gave her permission to use his music as soon as he read the script). “Blinded by the Light” is the kind of guileless crowd-pleaser that will make some people cry a river of tears and others roll their eyes into the backs their heads; it will probably make a lot of people do both.
But if you have even the slightest emotional connection to Springsteen’s music — if you’ve ever found salvation in a rock song, or desperately wished that you could change your clothes, your hair, your face — this giddy steamroller of a movie flattens you whether you like it or not. —DE
47. “West Side Story” (Steven Spielberg, 2021)
Steven Spielberg had conquered almost every genre throughout his unparalleled fifty-year directing career, but one remained on his bucket list: the musical. To rectify that, he invited scrutiny by taking on one of the most beloved musicals of all time in “West Side Story.” And per usual, Spielberg delivered. After bringing in frequent collaborator Tony Kushner to update the script, he demonstrated his technical mastery by using new camera technology to bring shots to life in a way that would have been unimaginable in 1961. The result was a film that maintained all the best parts of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s original film (lavish dance numbers, iconic songs, Rita Moreno), while adding delightfully modern touches (Spanish language scenes, insanely complex camera movements, a star-making performance from newcomer Rachel Zegler). The combination of old and new proved that Spielberg is still unmatched as a purveyor of Hollywood showmanship. —CZ
46. “Tokyo Tribe” (Sono Sion, 2014)
An epic, gaga, and relentlessly ultra-violent Japanese rap opera about the zero-sum gang war that erupts after — spoiler alert — someone makes a big deal about a small penis, Sono Sion’s “Tokyo Tribe” is… well, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Deranged even by the standards of someone who once made a four-hour movie about an apocalyptic cult of upskirt photographers, this-one-of-a-kind extravaganza is teeming with memorable characters, incredible fight scenes, and at least one monster hook that’s strong enough to hold the whole thing together (“Tokyo Tribe / never ever die!”).
Sono has been dogged by accusations of casual misogyny, and it can be hard to shake the feeling that he’s having his cake and eating it too when it comes to his gonzo satirization of male insecurities. But “Tokyo Tribe” always returns to a Caligulan remix of overcompensation, and it saves all of its most scathing verses for the dicks who fuck everything up. Some people might not be able to feel the beat, while others will be ready to declare their eternal allegiance to Sono by the end of the dazzling first shot. Love it or hate it, there’s nothing else like it. —DE
45. “Pyaasa” (Guru Dutt, 1957)
In “Pyaasa,” director Guru Dutt casts himself as Vijay, an impoverished bard whose poetry captures the clash between idealism and harsh reality in a newly independent India. The film in turn embodies this tug-of-war through a tale of looking forward, towards a complicated future, and looking wistfully backward at the same time. The disillusioned poet becomes torn between two seemingly impossibly romances, as he crosses paths with both a kindly Calcutta sex worker named Gulabo (Waheeda Rahman), who comes to possess the only copies of his poems, and with his former flame from when he was young and quixotic, the now-married Meena (Mala Sinha), whose jealous husband happens to be Vijay’s publisher.
Along with legendary cinematographer V.K. Murthy, Dutt paints with light and shadow in dreamlike fashion, but the film’s masterstroke is its music composed by S.D. Burman and written by poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. Between the buoyant romance of “Jane Kya Tune Kahi,” the smoky nostalgia of “Hum Aapki Aankhon Mein,” the lamentations of “Yeh Duniya” and the tongue-in-cheek ad jingle “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye” — which Vijay pens for his masseur friend Abdul (Johnny Walker) — “Pyaasa” runs the gamut of musical mood and tone, and yet it feels like following a wild butterfly along a singular journey as it flutters on the wind. —SA
44. “Donkey Skin” (Jacques Demy, 1970)
French cinema has never shied away from the sinister undercurrent that runs beneath even the most innocent-seeming fairy tales — just take a gander at the world of difference between Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney’s respective takes on “Beauty and the Beast” — but Jacques Demy’s surreal “Donkey Skin” is still unique for how wantonly it combines taboo eroticism with the high fantasy of “happily ever after” storytelling.
Regular Demy muse Catherine Deneuve stars as a medieval princess who, upon finding herself the subject of her newly widowed father’s sexual attention, flees the kingdom while draped in the skin of a magic donkey that sweats priceless jewels (we’ve all been there). What happens next is something of a darkly enchanted cross between “Cinderella” and “The Revenant,” as Deneuve spends the rest of the movie posing as a peasant with the ass’ carcass hanging off of her head like a curse disguised as a costume.
Constantly referencing Cocteau’s masterpiece (down to the Beast himself Jean Marais reprising the role of a twisted royal) while feigning an innocence that only makes its underlying perversion seem all the more pronounced, “Donkey Skin” delivers all of its lilting music like a siren luring you deeper into a place where beauty and sin inhabit each other like the voices of a harmony; it makes you sing along to the sound of your own crawling skin, even as you trust that Demy won’t follow through on the film’s creepiest threats. A good fairy tale is scary and seductive in equal measure, and this remains one of the very best. —DE
43. “Beauty and the Beast” (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991)
The first animated film to land a nomination for Best Picture — and the only one to accomplish that feat back in the days when the field of contenders was still capped off at five — “Beauty and the Beast” continued the Disney renaissance while also presenting a huge departure from tradition for the re-emergent studio, who brought in screenwriter Linda Woolverton to adapt an 18th century French fairy tale rather than develop a script from storyboards. With an Oscar-winning score by the “Little Mermaid” team of Howard Ashman (who died eight months before the opening) and Alan Menken and several of the most memorable songs in movie musical history, animated or otherwise, this lush romantic fantasy marks the high point of Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg era.
The classical tale also paved the way forward, as the film memorably pioneered CGI dolly camera effects for the swirling centerpiece ballroom waltz with Beauty (animated by James Baxter and Mark Henn and voiced by Broadway star Paige O’Hara) and her magical, courtly Beast (animated by Glen Keane and voiced by Robbie Benson).
But the real stars of the show aren’t the title characters, but rather the enchanted castle servants who’ve been transformed into household items. Angela Lansbury is nothing short of legendary as the unbreakable Mrs. Potts; she nailed the film’s immortal title ballad in a single take that will continue to resonate for lifetimes to come. —AT
42. “Dreamgirls” (Bill Condon, 2006)
At its best, a well-timed movie adaptation can bring renewed interest to a beloved musical that might otherwise have faded into Broadway history. Released in 2006, “Dreamgirls” succeeded in updating the 1981 Broadway show for contemporary audiences while honoring the powerhouse performances that made it a hit in the first place.
Inspired by all-women R&B groups like “The Supremes,” “Dreamgirls” follows a fictional group called “The Dreams” on the emotional roller coaster ride of humble beginnings to super stardom. Original Broadway stars Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Loretta Devine were replaced by Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, and Anika Noni Rose for the movie; though no one can rival Holliday’s star-making tour-de-force performance of the show’s hit number, “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going),” Hudson did her predecessor proud, proving herself a formidable dramatic performer and winning an Oscar to prove it. “Dreamgirls” is also one of Beyonce’s best (and only) serious acting roles, making it a rare and precious gem in the queen’s untouchable crown. —JD
41. “Phantom of the Paradise” (Brian De Palma, 1974)
A glam rock cover version of “The Phantom of the Opera” that marries a satire of the entertainment industry with the tragic sincerity of its victims, Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” almost had to be a flop in order to earn its cult — a Faustian bargain for a film that hinges on them. But no movie this inspired, this sharp, or this devilishly subversive was ever in any real danger of being forgotten.
De Palma’s most natural synthesis between camp and classicism (one indelible sequence marries surf rock with “A Touch of Evil” in a singular use of split-screen), “Phantom of the Paradise” feels eternal from the moment it starts. That Rod Serling narration, The Juicy Fruits, Paul Williams’ sinister Swan… it all seems as legendary as its source material, even before William Finley’s dorky genius dons that iconic helmet and begins to terrorize the new venue owned by the man who stole his music.
“Suspiria” legend Jessica Harper is sensational as the wide-eyed Phoenix, and Gerrit Graham elevates the one-note Beef into a grade-A caricature of corporate sex appeal. But this movie belongs to Williams, whose silly but operatic songs expose the undying soul of rock & roll even as his character tries to sell it at any cost. —DE
40. “Funny Face” (Stanley Donen, 1957)
Give Fred Astaire credit for keeping up with the times. In “Silk Stockings,” he lampooned the movies’ efforts to maintain pace with TV, and danced to a bit of rock ‘n’ roll — punching his iconic top hat to symbolically retire it. But “Funny Face” remains the greater of the two films he made in 1957, a masterpiece for which he partnered again with genre trailblazer Stanley Donen to deliver a hilarious satire of the culture at large.
Astaire plays a loutish photographer for a fashion magazine who wants to co-opt Greenwich Village beatnik life for his next spread. That means seeking models who can “think as well as they look.” Who better to fit that description than bookstore clerk Audrey Hepburn? She’s an adherent of a new proto-hippie philosophical movement called “empathicalism.”
Style streaks through every frame of “Funny Face.” Donen tried to replicate fashion photography in cinematic terms: bold colors often appear against white backdrops, so you get the look of a Pop Art magazine spread, hammered home with a frequent use of freeze frame. One musical number even takes place in a photographer’s dark room.
But there’s a critical take here, a view that style always has a pricepoint, and even a nouvelle philosophy movement like “empathicalism” is just another brand for sale. So it’s no wonder this movie — a critique of how everything can be commodified — has been commodified itself in an infamous Gap commercial for the brand’s “skinny pant.” —CB
39. “In the Heights” (Jon M. Chu, 2021)
A full-throated celebration of the diverse Latinx community that’s been the lifeblood of Washington Heights since the white flight of the 1960s, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Broadway mega-hit “In the Heights” paved the way for “Hamilton” by transposing hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and other decidedly non-white sounds into a cadence that would appeal to Broadway audiences.
In hindsight, a movie adaptation seems like a slam dunk, but eyebrows were raised by when it was announced that Miranda’s personal ode to an under-represented community was being turned into a massive summer blockbuster by a filmmaker whose idea of visibility is simply making everyone larger than life. That approach wasn’t available to Jon M. Chu here, so he looked for the spectacle inside the stuff of everyday New York hustle, and — as usual — he found it through movement.
“In the Heights” is a portrait of “a people on the move,” and Chu illustrates that idea as literally as possible, not only by channeling it through Christopher Scott’s propulsive choreography but also by physicalizing the inter-generational rhythms of immigrant identity.
Even on its static Broadway set — shaken to life every night and twice on Sunday like a snow globe in a heatwave — “In the Heights” was animated by its fevered insistence that home is something people take with them wherever they go. By cracking that snow globe open and watching it spill onto the actual streets of Washington Heights, Chu has created a film that makes you feel like its characters are dreaming with their eyes open. And while there may be no Cassiopeia in Washington Heights, a star is born in this movie every time someone appears onscreen; whatever the future holds for the likes of Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, and Corey Hawkins, nothing will ever dim the memory of the instant classic that brought them all together. —DE
38. “Love Me Tonight” (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)
During the Depression, in the early 1930s at Paramount, Ernest Lubitsch wasn’t just a prominent director; he was a house brand. His witty, sophisticated humor — rooted in Hollywood’s vision of the European aristocracy — glided by with a liberated (pre-Code) attitude about sex.
With “Love Me Tonight,” ever-serviceable studio director Rouben Mamoulian took stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, Rodgers and Hart songs, and somehow out-Lubitsched the master himself with a formally playful film about a tailor (Chevalier) who tries to pass himself off as a nobleman after he falls in love with a Princess (MacDonald). The opening of Paris as a city symphony is one of the greatest sequences ever filmed and “Isn’t it Romantic?” is somehow even more cinematically inventive. —CO
37. “Las Cosas del Querer” (Jaime Chávarri, 1989)
“We will never see each other again. The three of us know it. I can’t live in this damn country anymore.” Jaime Chávarri’s under-seen but readily available (to rent on YouTube) “Las Cosas del Querer” — “The Things of Love” — might be a romantic film about the spirit of camaraderie and the power of a shared artistic vision, but it isn’t shy about the dark veil that can fall over a country during its darkest moments.
Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the movie chronicles the lopsided friendship that develops between a gay singer Mario (Manuel Bandera), his straight crush (Angel de Andres Lopez), and the beautiful folk singer who holds them all together (Angela Molina) through the morass of Francoism.
From the start, Chávarri creates an impenetrable sense that the world is working against these characters, even as they’re celebrated by local audiences for revitalizing war-ravaged communities with their music. For all of the joy that this trio sparks in each other and the people for whom they perform their Andalusian hits, the free country that Mario and his friends sing about bears little resemblance to the fascistic nightmare that foments around them. —DE
36. “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” (Tezuka Makoto, 1985)
“We are twins / we are super strong and sexy / we are the Stardust Brothers!”
The story goes that Tezuka Makoto — son of Tezuka Osamu, the legendary manga artist behind the likes of “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion” — met a musician named Chikada Haruo who’d written a soundtrack to a movie that didn’t exist. The year was 1985, Tezuka the younger was a 22-year-old filmmaker who was eager to step out of his father’s shadow, and “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” was waiting to burst into the hearts and minds of people around the world. That’s not exactly how things played out for a lightning-in-a-bottle musical that’s still in search of its cult (both in Japan and abroad), but watching Tezuka’s manic and relentlessly playful film today, it’s easy to imagine a future where it finds the love it deserves.
The story is the stuff of classic backstage musicals, albeit with a glam rockabilly twist that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi Park. Punk rebel Kan and new-waver Shingo are bitter rivals who reluctantly agree to join forces after an evil music executive — backlit in his tower office like an anime villain — orders them to Voltron together into a synth-driven supergroup. Together with their number one fan, Kan and Shingo rocket to the moon and back in a wild journey that reimagines the typical rise-and-fall saga with the “anything goes” dementedness of a Sono Sion movie.
From the ear worm of “London Boots” to the greatest “becoming an overnight sensation” montage in musical history and a cast that includes cameo appearances by the likes of “Tokyo Sonata” director Kurosawa Kiyoshi and “Lupin the 3rd” creator Monkey Punch, “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” is a breathless eruption of repressed artistic energy that captures the excess of ’80s Japan as it winningly enshrines one of the most glorious bands that never was. —DE
35. “Cabin in the Sky” (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)
Hollywood had made all-Black films before — check out King Vidor’s 1929 classic “Hallelujah” — but it wasn’t until World War II that the industry took a serious (if inconsistent) interest in cultivating a Black audience. In fact, it was partly a government-mandated imperative: Black recruits were needed for the Armed Forces, and the military decided that it was important for Black Americans to feel like they were included fully in the country’s fight against fascism.
That effort paved the way for “Cabin in the Sky,” Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of a successful 1940 Vernon Duke/John Latouche stage musical about a heavenly battle for the soul of a sinner (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) who’s torn between his wife (Ethel Waters) and a temptress (Lena Horne). Though the film had a white creative team behind the camera, there’s not a white person in sight onscreen, and “Cabin in the Sky” finds palpable joy in the sights and sounds of incredible Black performers being showcased by Hollywood’s greatest movie studio.
The plot has echoes of Spencer Williams’ “The Blood of Jesus” and serves as a framework to show off some of the era’s most luminous talent: Duke Ellington and, of course, Waters, with her tremulous warble of a voice putting a definitive stamp on stone-cold classics “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.”
Some unfortunate stereotypes are still there, but the takeaway from “Cabin in the Sky” is that this could have been the start of a new, more inclusive Hollywood. Instead, it was a spectacular one-off. MGM shelved the idea of making all-Black movies as soon as the government rescinded its request, and the studio never gave Horne another leading role, instead plugging her into cameo scenes that could be easily cut when her films played in the South. —CB
34. “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (Jacques Demy, 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. —DE
33. “A Star Is Born” (Bradley Cooper, 2018)
Every generation gets the “Star Is Born” version they deserve, but after nearly a decade spent in development hell and cycling through an enviable array of attached talent (Clint Eastwood and Beyonce, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lopez, the combinations were as endless as they were fascinating), it didn’t seem as if the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers and the Zoomers were ever going to get theirs. And then came…Bradley Cooper?
The lauded actor (and also voice of a cartoon superhero raccoon) pulled out all the stops for his directorial debut, not just slipping inside his rough-and-tumble Jackson Maine, but turning that dedication toward every facet of the feature itself. He hired Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott. He sang all his own songs and made them sound good alongside Gaga’s formidable pipes. Mostly, he found new levels of cinematic craftsmanship and honest heartbreak in a story that had been engineered to do just that, repeatedly.
The film pulled in eight nominations at the 91st Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Actress (Gaga, who ultimately won for Best Original Song), and Best Supporting Actor (Elliott). It was a box office smash and proof positive of Cooper’s directing chops and Gaga’s acting cred, but all that splashy stuff aside, what makes Cooper’s “Star” such a standout are the elements that go beyond box office take and award accolades: the songs and the emotion.
From the spine-tingling chills of Gaga’s raw “aww—awww—awwwwww!!!!” to kick off “Shallow” to the heart-rending final song a distraught Gaga sings to a crowd of assembled peers, the film conceives of a wholly realized musical world for its inhabitants in which they work out what’s happening to them. But the film also lives and dies by the smaller moments, a glimpse from Gaga at Cooper during their first meeting, a barely concealed grimace from Elliott during his last meeting with Cooper, a lovingly prepared last meal. Life might not always be worth singing about, but “A Star Is Born” bridges the gaps between each note, finding music even in the silence. —KE
32. “On an Island with You” (Richard Thorpe, 1948)
No respectable musicals list should be without a swimming musical, a wildly popular MGM creation of the 1940s and ‘50s that had its roots in various aquacade live shows that were popular in the U.S. dating to the early 1900s. One of the originators of the watery spectacles, swimming star Annette Kellerman, starred on Broadway in 1911 in an aquacade called “Undine,” a reimagining of which became Christian Petzold’s 2021 film of the same name.
Other briny stars followed, including Olympian Eleanor Holm. But the swimming musical only truly came to life on the big screen because of Esther Williams, an Olympic swimmer wannabe who missed the Games when they were canceled on account of World War II, and signed to MGM instead to launch a series of her own water-logged musical extravaganzas.
Which one is the best? There’s Williams’ poignant Kellerman biopic “Million Dollar Mermaid,” the dopey (but hilarious) “Neptune’s Daughter,” and the sexy as hell “Thrill of a Romance.” But for our money, “On an Island With You” is the most glorious display of how these films epitomized their time.
The plot concerns a Navy lieutenant (Peter Lawford) who becomes obsessed with Williams’ movie star character after she gives him a kiss during a WWII USO show, and kidnaps her in an attempt to prove his love. Yep: “On an Island With You” is the squeaky-clean MGM musical version of Almodovar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”
It’s as problematic as it sounds, but you’re not thinking about that while such an extraordinary parade of images floats before you, including a dream sequence where Lawford imagines himself having an underwater fight with Ricardo Montalban (who plays Williams’ fiancé). Montalban stars in several films with Williams (including the non-swimming, feminist bullfighting movie “Fiesta”) and his magnetism in these films is profound. Sex is on display in MGM’s swimming musicals, despite the veneer of wholesomeness, in a way unique for Old Hollywood. And Williams herself was a trailblazer: pioneer of waterproof makeup and form-fitting swimwear, “sporty chic” begins with her. —CB
31. “Once” (John Carney, 2007)
Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech singer-songwriter Markéta Irglová had already released one album as The Swell Season before Hansard’s old bandmate, filmmaker John Carney, approached them about turning their work (and, eventually, their own relationship) into a scrappy musical romance about a mismatched duo who find salvation in their street tunes. Perhaps that’s why the 2007 indie hit feels so intimate and real, as if Carney somehow managed to slip his camera (and a script) between two people just as they were beginning to explore how their emotions could inspire a romance and an enviable album filled with hits.
Shot over the course of just 17 days (and chronicling about half that time in actual narrative), the Indie Spirit winner and box office hit follows first-time actors Hansard and Irglová as loosely imagined versions of themselves, both singer and songwriters, struggling to make it on the streets of Dublin. When life (read: music) brings them together, they set about on a charming journey that sees both of them opening up to each other and the world around them.
While parts of the film keep things at a remove — the characters are never named, and important biographical details are slowly meted out over time, with a language barrier to boot — the chemistry between the duo, both emotionally and musically, ensures it keeps a firm hold on the audience’s heart. Rife with instant hits, like the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” and the truly clever “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” it’s the sort of film that will leave you singing out joyfully after a watch, only to remember, perhaps too late, the pain of the journey there. —KE
30. “Stormy Weather” (Andrew L. Stone, 1943)
Opening three months after MGM’s all-Black musical “Cabin in the Sky,” 20th Century Fox’s attempt at capturing that same audience falls short of its predecessor as a narrative. This story, the tale of a Black ex-soldier (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) rising to the top of showbiz in the years after World War I, is pretty much just a thin framework for showcasing musical numbers.
But what musical numbers! Far more dazzling than those in “Cabin in the Sky,” these set pieces offer as much for the eyes as the ears: There’s the title song, sung by Lena Horne — loaned out by MGM after her one and only starring role for Leo the Lion in “Cabin” — rendered with as much atmospheric spectacle as you can imagine. There are performances by Fats Waller (including his signature “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) and Cab Calloway.
And finally, to close out the movie, you’ve got one of the most spellbinding routines ever put on film. Just minutes before the film ends, Harold and Fayard Nicholas appear in their tuxedos and put on a dance number to “Jumpin’ Jive” unlike anything else you could see in Hollywood. Like whirling dervishes by way of acrobats by way of tap dancers, they don’t just hoof, they twirl, do splits, front flips, and back flips too. Precision and joy have seldom gone hand in hand with such grace.
When Fayard Nicholas died in 2006, the Associated Press noted that Fred Astaire declared the Nicholas Brothers’ set piece here “the greatest movie musical number he’d ever seen.” Just look at the way they’re able to come out of a split without using their hands! Who else can do that? The Nicholas Brothers alone would have enshrined “Stormy Weather” as a classic of its genre. —CB
29. “Kiss Me Kate” (George Sidney, 1953)
George Sidney’s adaptation of Sam and Bella Spewack’s “Kiss Me Kate” is one of the wildest, wackiest takes on Shakespeare you’re apt to see during the studio era. The film is about a company of Broadway players who modernize Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” only for the events to take on an added sense of mimicry.
But, really, this isn’t a movie that you’re necessarily watching for the story. The opening number sets the tone when Ann Miller’s dimwitted Lois Lane (no, not that one) jumps on the coffee table of Broadway star Fred Grahame (Howard Keel) to perform the song, “Too Darn Hot.”
The film was very of its time, right down to initially being presented in 3D. It’s a razzmatazz of the strange and bizarre, from Howard Keel’s overly flamboyant costumes and guyliner to Miller’s rendition of “Tom, Dick, or Harry” culminating with her shouting “a-dick, a-dick.” But while “Kiss Me Kate” is unintentionally hilarious you can’t deny the power of its beautiful Broadway score, from “Why Can’t You Behave” to the soaring “Wunderbar.” Add to that a top-notch cast of musical mavens, including the late, great acrobatic dancer Tommy Rall and a pre-directing Bob Fosse, and you have a truly underrated musical gem. —KL
28. “Sholay” (Ramesh Sippy, 1975)
“Sholay” epitomizes the mainstream Hindi musical, from its meticulous blend of tones (a style dubbed “the masala film”) to its wide range of influences, both subtle and overt. It’s a work of populist cinema whose every melody, lyric and spoken word is inescapably iconic in the Indian zeitgeist, with its dialogue track having been sold on shelves alongside its music shortly after release. The film’s success is the stuff of legend — it famously played in one Mumbai theatre for nearly six years — and not without good reason.
Taking after “The Magnificent Seven” and Bollywood Dacoit Westerns like “Khotay Sikkay” and “Mera Gaon Mera Desh,” the film, penned by legendary screenwriting duo Salim-Javed, follows petty criminals Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), who are hired to protect a small village by the policeman who once put them away, Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar). Every one of the film’s characters makes an immediate impact, from the maniacal, scenery-chewing villain Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), to Veeru’s feisty, fast-talking love interest Basanti (Hema Malini), to Thakur’s reserved daughter-in-law Radha (Jaya Bhaduri), to the bumbling, Chaplin-inspired Jailor (Asrani) charged with keeping Jai and Veeru behind bars.
Like its story and visual cues, the film’s music by R.D. Burman (son of “Pyaasa” composer S.D. Burman) may not be entirely original — the item number “Mehbooba Mehbooba” riffs heavily on Greek singer Demis Roussos’ “Say You Love Me” — but the result is far more affecting than a mere series of knockoffs. From its era-defining musical bromance (“Yeh Dosti”) to Basanti’s defiant dance on broken glass to save Veeru’s life (“Jab Tak Hain Jaan”), “Sholay” is a riveting remix of Spaghetti Western and Hindi musical melodrama that transcends the bounds of genre. —SA
27. “Golden Eighties” (Chantal Akerman, 1986)
The late, great Chantal Akerman — of the “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” Akermans — wasn’t exactly known for making light and frothy matinee fare, so it’s somewhat understandable that potential investors were a bit gun-shy when the Belgian auteur began fundraising for a musical in the grand tradition of MGM’s Technicolor classics at the start of the 1980s (an effort that she preserved in the documentary “Les Annees 80s”). Akerman was ultimately forced to pare down her vision, but “Golden Eighties” is all the more sublime for its intimate scale.
A shoebox musical that’s almost entirely set within the ultra-artificial confines of a Brussels shopping mall and backdropped by the post-war dispersal of Europe’s remaining Jewry (because this is still a Chantal Akerman film, after all), “Golden Eighties” chronicles the romantic entanglements of regular people as they criss-cross into a single lovelorn knot.
A playful and capricious energy takes hold from the very first shot — a whip-pan sight gag for the ages — and only grows stronger as the girl-crazy Robert (Nicolas Tronc) fends off the affections of two beautiful hairdressers who work at the salon next to his parents’ department store, and fawns over a third. Meanwhile, his Holocaust survivor mother (Delphine Seyrig) has a chance encounter with the American soldier who fell in love with her during the war, and old feelings come bubbling up to the surface in the span of a single note. The heart wants what it wants, and nothing is better at keeping a beat.
“Golden Eighties” may seem gossamer thin on the surface, and even spontaneous in its casualness and organic “choreography” (a lot of well-posed crowd shots and excellent use of an all-male, ultra-fashionable greek chorus), but the songs are catchy as hell, and Akerman is attuned to sea changes both large and small. Is it ever too late for poptimism to save the day? Is romance only for the young? Do we ever stop shopping for a better deal? Akerman’s musical outlier may not have become a hit, but it knows full well that a little bit of love is always good for business. —DE
26. “Chicago” (Rob Marshall, 2002)
Few musical masters have leapt from stage to screen with the polished panache of Rob Marshall. A Broadway dancer turned five-time Tony nominated choreographer and director, Marshall earned his first Oscar nomination for his 2002 adaptation of Kander & Ebb’s “Chicago.”
“In this town, murder is a form of entertainment,” quips Queen Latifah as the shady Matron Mama Morton, a scene-stealing alto role previously performed by Jennifer Holliday. Here the warden is speaking to accused killer Roxie Hart (a fabulously raw Renée Zellweger just hinting at what she’d do in “Judy”), but she might as well be breaking the fourth wall. Equipped with razor-sharp dark humor and faultless choreography, Marshall delivers the sordid tale of two Windy City murderesses (Catherine Zeta-Jones literally and figuratively kills as Velma Kelly) through his keen understanding of live audiences. More than most, this Best Picture winner meets the frenetic magic of live performance. It earned five other wins and seven more nominations from the Academy, making “Chicago” one of the most awards-showered movie musicals in Hollywood history. —AF
25. “42nd Street” (Lloyd Bacon, 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.” —JD
24. “Mughal-e-Azam” (K. Asif, 1960)
While its original 4:3, mostly black-and-white version is unusually hard to find (compared to its gaudy 2004 colourization), K. Asif’s “Mughal-e-Azam” remains the gold standard for Indian historical epics. A folkloric legend based on the real Mughal prince Salim — later known as the emperor Jahangir — the film follows the young emir, played by a dashing Dilip Kumar, as he falls for a young courtesan dubbed Anarkali (Madhubala), who also happens to have caught the eye of his father, Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor).
The production was tumultuous, to say the least, with filming first kicking off in 1946, but being derailed by the post-independence partition of India and Pakistan the following year. Filming would eventually restart in 1953, but would soon be followed by further delays and astronomical expenses stemming from the two-year long construction of a hall of mirrors for one of the film’s few Technicolor scenes.
However, the resultant musical number, “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya” — composed by Naushad and sung by the angelic Lata Mangeshkar — would go on to become one of the most lavish sequences in Hindi cinema, and much of the film’s nearly 200-minute runtime would match its enormous scale.
Although, despite its grandeur, the film has no dearth of intimate moments; the mellifluous black-and-white number “Teri Mehfil Mein,” for instance, uses the devotional qawwali tradition to tell a subtle story of the innocent Anarkali and her scheming rival Bahar (Nigar Sultana) battling for Salim’s affection. A father-son saga writ large through opulent sets, operatic performances and spellbinding cinematography, “Mughal-e-Azam” is a feast for the senses. —SA
23. “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (Aditya Chopra, 1995)
The Bollywood classic “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” found a massive audience not just in India but abroad, where its story of romantically entangled “NRIs” (non-resident Indians) resonated broadly. Kajol plays Simran, the daughter of a traditionalist convenience store owner in London; Shah Rukh Khan plays Raj, a carefree playboy who agitates Simran when the two meet on a train trip across Europe. Inevitably they fall for each other, as Raj encourages Simran to be more adventurous and she gets him to stop treating life as one big joke. The plot is simple but the locations are spectacular and the themes ring true, as writer-director Aditya Chopra engages with the real concerns of Indians living abroad — some of whom struggle to maintain a connection to their cultural roots while surrounded by western materialism. And yes, there are boffo musical numbers: bright and bouncy and surprisingly sensual, featuring performers sporting some of the coolest fashions 1995 had to offer. —NM
22. “A Hard Day’s Night” (Richard Lester, 1964)
Long before One Direction or the slew of boy bands populated the late ’90s, there were The Beatles and the legions of screaming fans that followed them across the U.K. Smartly capitalizing on the Beatlemania sweeping the world, Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” exposed audiences to the Fab Four’s personalities with a day-in-the-life snapshot that followed the band from backstage to center stage.
Filled with madcap humor and a slew of memorable hits, “A Hard Day’s Night” is still a delight. Although the Beatles were behind several more films, including the truly magical animated film “Yellow Submarine,” “A Hard Day’s Night” was the film that introduced John, Paul, George, and Ringo to the world and set the precedent for all band films to come. —JR
21. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (Stanley Donen, 1954)
Produced during the heyday of the MGM musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” takes a tricky premise — in which a clan of backwoods ruffians abduct and detain their potential mates — and turns it into a one-of-a-kind spectacle. Howard Keel plays a rugged Oregon mountain man, who woos and wins the pretty, practical townswoman Milly (Jane Powell). In turn, she trains her new husband’s six brothers to be more civilized. When the boys’ plans to enchant the local ladies goes awry, they resort to kidnapping. Yes, it sounds alarming. But the movie treats the scheme less like a serious crime and more like the stuff of fairy tales, with the ultimate lesson being that women hold the power to make men behave. Choreographer Michael Kidd and director Stanley Donen take full advantage of the CinemaScope frame, filling the screen with colorful costumes and elaborate dance sequences, cued to the rhythms of hard work and country living. —NM
20. “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
One of the most iconic queer stories ever told, John Cameron Mitchell adapted his star-making off-Broadway musical effortlessly to the screen, giving a whole new generation its very own “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The movie launched a varied and impressive filmmaking career for good reason. He plays the titular character, a role he reprised in a recent Broadway revival.
Hedwig is a force onstage and on screen: Soulful, provocative, funny, yearning, and deeply philosophical. Her journey is as much about gender and cultural identity as it is about heartache and hormone-fueled lust. Mitchell’s language may not jive with current norms around trans identity, but Hedwig was ahead of her time. Drawing from Plato, her lessons are evergreen. We all could use a many-gendered oracle to teach us the origin of love. —JD
19. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2013)
Some might argue that the Coen brothers’ wounded and circular portrait of a peripatetic folk artist in 1960s New York is more of a character study than a bonafide musical, but few movies have ever conveyed such raw feeling through songs, and few movies have ever so intrinsically valued the ability to sing them (an irony the penniless Llewyn Davis might appreciate with a bitter laugh and some blood in his teeth).
Nevertheless, we understand how the film could seem like an outlier on this list: In a genre synonymous with lavish spectacle and exuberant joy, the most piercing moments of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece are implosive, hushed, and almost entirely motionless. One is even quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
Grieving the loss of his musical partner, resenting the commercial failure of his album, and seething at a cold world that seems to have burnt out its warmth, Llewyn (Oscar Issac) hitches a ride to Chicago in order to perform a last-ditch audition for an industry type named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Pointing at Llewyn’s record, Grossman asks him to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Sitting in the middle of an empty club, Llewyn begins strumming away at “The Death of Queen Jane,” filling the ancient English ballad with all of the beauty that he can’t seem to find in his life. Isaac’s performance is genuinely heart-stopping, special even in a film where the actor crushes us with a new tune every 20 minutes.
But what makes this particular scene stand out isn’t its supernatural grace, but rather how much more desperate and deserving that grace becomes each time Llewyn looks up at the stone-faced man sitting across from him, checking to make sure that he’s hearing this.
By the time the song is over, there’s virtually no doubt that Llewyn’s rendition is one for the ages. But this isn’t that kind of movie. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” is all Grossman can muster, and the truth of the matter is that he’s probably right. Unfortunately for Llewyn, you just can’t put a fair price on a gift like that, even if it betrays its cost with every note. —DE
18. “Purple Rain” (Albert Magnoli, 1984)
When this rock musical hit theaters, pop culture embraced it as a multi-platform phenomenon, but how could it not? The hottest music star of the moment created and starred and performed in a semi-auto-fictional romance with a Platinum record soundtrack, which took three singles to the top of the charts and sold 25 million copies worldwide. Team Prince shot the $7.2-million feature in the Minneapolis environs that had nurtured him and his Revolution band (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) and pals, including scene-stealer Morris Day and The Time.
The Purple One stars as a loose version of himself, a striving multi-talented performer looking to make his way in the world, and who has to deal with struggles, both internal and external, to shoot to superstardom. It’s a familiar enough story, but backed by Prince’s own star-wattage and personal touch, “Purple Rain” is still one of the most authentic, propulsive, and exciting movie musicals ever made.
The movie grossed a total $72 million around the world and landed an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. For all of the film’s shortcomings and eccentricities, it always feels like the pleading romantic anthem “When Doves Cry” expressed everything that Prince wanted to say, and wrapped it up in a colorful and fantastic musical storyline to boot. —AT
17. “Swing Time” (George Stevens, 1936)
No question “Swing Time” is the best-directed film in the exuberant Astaire-Rogers RKO canon. With help from composer Jerome Kern and choreographer Hermes Pan, director George Stevens elevates the usual romantic misunderstandings with four of the most transcendent song-and-dance numbers ever executed. “Never Gonna Dance” feels like two people making love in front of our eyes with their clothes on, while the Oscar-winning ”The Way You Look Tonight” — played as comedy in the movie — became Astaire’s biggest hit record. Katharine Hepburn famously said of Astaire-Rogers: “He gives her class. She gives him sex.”
But while Fred was lauded as the greatest musical dancer of all time (and under-rated for his fine tenor), Ginger had to do it backwards in clingy gowns, feather boas, and heels. Truth is, they both worked and sweated their butts off to soar so lightly. —AT
16. “The Lion King” (Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, 1994)
If Disney’s photoreal remake of “The Lion King” rankled some viewers even more than the studio’s other recent retreads, it’s probably because the original still holds up as the best animated musical ever made. A clever riff on “Hamlet” that adds in the one thing that was always missing from Shakespeare’s play (a deranged hyena voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), the Sahara-set coming-of-age tale steered clear of clichéd romance to make it relatable to generations of kids and their parents alike.
The “staging” brilliantly echoes the classic Hollywood musicals that paved the way for it, with the Busby Berkeley nod in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” perhaps being the most spectacular illustration. In addition to one of the better Disney scores (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), the film also boasts several classic songs, including Elton John and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
“The Lion King” also claimed three Grammys and ushered in a revolutionary Broadway splendor; Julie Taymor became an instant legend as the first woman to accept a Tony Award for directing a musical on the Great White Way. Somewhere in the stars above, Mustafa is surely proud of the long shadow cast by his iconic son. —JM
15. “A Star Is Born” (George Cukor, 1954)
There are now four versions of “A Star Is Born,” but George Cukor’s 1954 masterpiece stands above William Wellman’s 1937 original, the widely maligned 1976 Barbra Streisand vehicle, and even Bradley Cooper’s beloved re-imagining from just a few long years ago.
A gut-wrenching melodrama tucked inside a flawless musical, Cukor’s version hinges on a premise that was already familiar by the time he got to it: James Mason plays a Hollywood star who falls in love with (the talent of) Judy Garland and helps make her a star while his career (and alcoholism) rapidly descends, but it’s Cukor’s sober view of the crumbling studio system that still proves revelatory. Garland’s off-screen woes also shine through, as the actress’ personal experience with controlling mine lends a palpably self-reflexive streak to musical numbers that are themselves preoccupied with the nature of performance.
“A Star Is Born” had a troubled production, and the 154-minute theatrical version cut a few crucial dramatic moments. The film was beautifully restored when they found Cukor’s pre-cut audio tracks, with production stills (think bad Ken Burns) added over the lost scenes. It’s the type of thing that’s an amazing DVD extra for fans, but difficult to integrate into the experience the first time you’re seeing the film and marveling at how fresh it feels in spite of the story’s intrinsic familiarity. —CO
14. “Fiddler on the Roof” (Norman Jewison, 1971)
Tevye the milkman said it best when he bellowed: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” And to any Jewish musical lover (a redundant distinction if ever there was one), “Fiddler on the Roof” is a tradition as sacred as lox on a bagel or schmoozing at shul.
One of the rare musicals with both a profound dramatic narrative and an unforgettable score, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s eminently hummable tunes would inspire many a lullaby and carpool sing along for generations to come. Inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s short stories, librettist Joseph Stein penned the screenplay for the 1971 screen adaptation of the 1964 musical, reworking his Tony-winning book for the screen. Under the guidance of a young Norman Jewison, the film is one of the most faithful, and successful, stage-to-screen musicals of all time.
It’s hard to go wrong with such great material, yet many have failed in their attempts to translate the epic nature of a live Broadway show to the comparatively flat screen. Led by Israeli actor Chaim Topol as the indefatigable narrator Tevye (though the decision not to cast Zero Mostel was controversial at the time), the movie delivers all of the laughs, tears, and chills of the musical.
Though it omits two excellent songs, “Now I Have Everything” and “The Rumor (I Just Heard),” the movie’s added scenes pack some cinematic dramatic heft, such as the Rabbi cradling the Torah out of the ark for the last time. From its rousing opening to its plaintive final notes, “Fiddler on the Roof” is nothing less than a cinematic tradition. —JD
13. “My Fair Lady” (George Cukor, 1964)
Eliza Doolittle is an undoubtedly iconic Audrey Hepburn role. The charming flower seller with a Cockney accent perfectly captures Hepburn’s knack for performing dreamy-yet-quirky characters; plus, she sings the stupidly delightful “I Could Have Danced All Night” among other classic numbers.
Still, casting Hepburn over Julie Andrews, who originated the role for Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, remains a mysterious sort of fork-in-the-road choice for director George Cukor. Sure, Cukor won the Oscar for Best Director, and Rex Harrison, who played opposite Andrews on stage, took home Best Actor for his second stint as Professor Henry Higgins. But even now, seeing Cukor’s hard-earned cinematic skills (he made more than thirty films over his career) in every finishing flourish of “My Fair Lady” makes you wonder what he and Andrews could have done if studios hadn’t deemed her “not famous enough.”
That said, Hepburn is fearlessly fabulous here, hitting every staccato note and pointed toe with unwavering energy. Rewatching this slice of movie musical history, which boasts exquisite technical prowess but is also just really freaking fun, is made better knowing Harrison thanked his plural “fair ladies” in front of the Academy. —AF
12. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is many things to many people. For some, it’s the most precious of all Vincente Minnelli musicals (produced by Arthur Freed at MGM), made when the director was most in love with his star, Judy Garland, who was never better. For others, it’s a fantasy vision of Americana they’ve only ever known on screen. And for at least one of the people involved, it was nothing less than a nightmare. 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 idyll.
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. It brings you back, potentially to a place you’ve never been, or perhaps to a place that never was. —AT
11. “The Sound of Music” (Robert Wise, 1965)
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final musical together opens with a cherubic Maria (Julie Andrews) serenading the Swiss Alps as if each peak and valley were enamored with her. Its reputation among young cinephiles may have cost it points with older ones, but they would be mistaken to discount this cinematic masterpiece simply for having a heart of gold. Lest we forget that director and producer Robert Wise edited “Citizen Kane,” the hills truly do come alive under his lens; every shot is stunning.
As Maria and her merry brood march exuberantly through Vienna’s mazes and meadows in sweetly tailored drapes, the landscape vibrates off the screen to their rhythms. Andrews and Christopher Plummer brought a quiet passion to their chaste onscreen romance, proving that — just like their movie — kid-friendly doesn’t have to mean unsophisticated. —JD
10. “Moulin Rouge!” (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
When it opened 20 years ago, Australian maestro Luhrmann’s greenscreen-heavy spectacle was a polarizing bombshell. This recasting of the Orpheus myth, with the “underworld” in this case being the erotic demimonde of Paris’s famed Belle Epoque nightclub, seemed to elicit only the most extreme opinions, whether in praise or in condemnation. And the detractors were dug in, arguing that Luhrmann’s MTV aesthetics would forever ruin the musical. Maybe even cinema. With the clarity of hindsight it’s obvious that, at worst, it didn’t alter the form at all — there’s basically no other director who can mimic Luhrmann’s singularly manic style, and the parade of awful, stagey movie musicals that followed from “Rent” to “The Producers” to “Nine” to “Les Misérables” suggested the music video had never even been invented.
With its soundtrack of rehashed pop tunes, “Moulin Rouge!” can’t even claim to have invented the jukebox musical, as “Singin’ in the Rain,” with its song score of recycled 1920s and ‘30s hits, pursued the same “what’s old is new” idea. At best, “Moulin Rouge!” reinvigorated the idea of the musical, even as a one-off. With the incessant flow of one reinterpreted pop hit into another there is simply more energy in the first 45 minutes than in most other musicals combined. It will exhaust some and exhilarate others. With 3,569 shots, it is the “Mad Max: Fury Road” of musicals.
But pure pastiche has rarely felt more alive because Lurhmann actually takes the time and care to reimagine all the old elements he’s sticking in his blender, down to the reused songs, almost all of which receive top-to-bottom transformations: The Police’s “Roxanne” becomes the electrifying dance “El Tango de Roxanne”; Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” becomes a poperatta-style anthem for the entire cast, like “One Day More”; “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” gets a Bollywood makeover as “Hindi Sad Diamonds.” “Moulin Rouge!,” along with the concurrent “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is also one of the last truly great fusions of CGI with practical effects and model work. After all the worries about “Moulin Rouge!” being the future, the real sadness is that — “Fury Road” aside, really — there’s been nothing else quite like it. If only we could have an existential crisis for cinema in the manner of a “Moulin Rouge!” once again. —CB
9. “Cabaret” (Bob Fosse, 1972)
Anyone who’s never seen Bob Fosse’s masterpiece probably knows it as the movie that robbed Francis Ford Coppola of his Best Director Oscar for “The Godfather.” The Corleones may never admit it, but Fosse deserved it.
The same may be said of Liza Minnelli, who earned the Best Actress statuette that eluded her mother, Judy Garland, as well as the six other Academy Awards won by this loose adaptation of the Broadway musical. One of those movies with an inner darkness that truly does sneak up on you, “Cabaret” begins in 1931 Berlin and charts the Nazis’ rise so gradually that, like everyone in the Kit Kat Klub each night, you won’t realize they’ve fully arrived until it’s much too late. In that way, it’s yet another film that feels far more relevant today than it should have to.
Life may only be a cabaret, but eventually the show stops and the curtain comes calling for us all. —MN
8. “Nashville” (Robert Altman, 1975)
Smack dab at the apex of the New Hollywood, Robert Altman pushed cinematic storytelling to a whole new level with his shaggy 1975 epic “Nashville.” Though Joan Tewkesbury wrote the script as an outsider looking into the country music scene, Altman’s film drops us right into it.
His gifted ensemble including Ronee Blakley (whose Barbara Jean gets one of cinema’s most grand tragic finales ever), Karen Black, Ned Beatty, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall, and Jeff Goldblum, many of whom composed and performed their own songs for this Tennessee-set snapshot of the region’s country music universe.
The Keith Carradine-written “I’m Easy” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but the soundtrack album features plenty of other standouts that have a charmingly amateurish vibe due to being penned by whatever cast member was singing them. As ever in the films of Altman, a thrum of political unrest runs below a chatty, jittery ecosystem of ordinary people, whose worlds ricochet across the filmmaker’s trademark overlapping sound design and dialogue. —RL
7. “The Wizard of Oz” (Victor Fleming, 1939)
As iconic musicals go, “The Wizard of Oz” nearly takes the cake. First, there’s the stunning transformation as the film shifts from monochrome to dazzling technicolor, a feat which likely seemed as magical to 1939 audiences as transporting over the rainbow.
Then there’s Judy Garland, clad in those sparkling ruby slippers and singing one of cinema’s most famous songs with a voice that could set the coldest hearts ablaze.
“The Wizard of Oz” has it all, from a truly terrifying Wicked Witch to a lovable ragtag team of misfit creatures who travel the yellow brick road singing along with Dorothy in her quest to get back home. The film’s enduring charm is its ability to help us see that what we seek is often already inside of us, but we sometimes need a nudge (or a trip to Oz) to tease it out. —JR
6. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Jacques Demy, 1964)
Jacques Demy’s lush wartime romance is all song, all the time, fetishizing its magical colors and titular umbrellas as much as each tender exchange and musical note.
Transforming the sweeping language of classic MGM musicals into a more intimate setting, Demy’s drama finds the soul-searching Geneivieve (Catherine Deneuve in one of her most iconic roles) falling for the steady Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), only to find their relationship complicated when Guy vanishes into the Algerian War. A child is born, and Genevieve falls into a loveless marriage, only to reunite with him on a snowy night outside a gas station for a bittersweet exchange that became instant film history. Demy’s movie is at once joyous and melancholic, regarding life as a constant melody in search of its next verse. —EK
5. “Mary Poppins” (Robert Stevenson, 1964)
During an eight-month period in the mid-’60s, Julie Andrews appeared onscreen twice as iconic, Best Actress-nominated, singing-and-dancing nannies. She won in 1965 for her winning performance as a no-nonsense enchantress summoned to Edwardian London by a willful brother and sister. Mary’s preferred mode of transportation is umbrella, her carpetbag carries a room’s worth of furniture, and she enjoys tea parties on the ceiling. With the children in tow, she befriends eccentric chimney sweep Bert (Dick van Dyke), and the two are unbearably charming whenever they’re together.
The film is delightfully quirky, unexpectedly deep, and not nearly as saccharine as its marketing would have you believe. Directed by Robert Stevenson, “Mary Poppins” was nominated for 13 Oscars — more than any Disney film to date — and also won Walt Disney the only Best Picture honor for the studio during his lifetime. Needless to say, the 2018 sequel did not live up to that legacy. —JM
4. “Dancer in the Dark” (Lars von Trier, 2000)
“Dancer in the Dark” is a punishing experience enlivened by an all-time performance from Björk who deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for walking through hell with von Trier — and through the hell of von Trier — and arriving intact on the other side. She’s a bursting tap of emotion as Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant put through the wringer in 1960s America, escaping her lot in life through song and dance.
While the non-musical sequences are grounded in von Trier’s shaky, vérité, low-budget style, the music numbers make for a thrilling contrast, delivering some of the director’s most colorfully expressionistic and forward-thinking cinema.
The choreography — unforgettable in the train-track-side “I’ve Seen It All” or the exuberant crash-bang-pop of “Cvalda” that turns factory hardware into a churning orchestra — complements the singular genius of Björk’s music so magnificently that even a song about a simple walk to the gallows feels touched with the divine, an effect that allows this kitchen-sink tragedy about the myopia of capital punishment to rattle your soul from the inside out. —RL
3. “West Side Story” (Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise, 1961)
A movie that predated most of us and will surely outlive us all, “West Side Story” might open with some of the most iconic shots of New York City ever committed to celluloid, but so much of its magic results from the hermetically sealed (and obviously staged) snow globe of a world that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins created for this big-screen version of the Broadway hit.
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s songs could have propped up even the latest adaptation, and the doomed romance at the center of the story all but tells itself. But “West Side Story” is an essential film because it sets itself against a vividly enchanted version of the Upper West Side, an unreal place where every brick and drip of spray paint feels touched by the technicolor love between Tony and Maria. Or maybe it’s just because Rita Moreno is there to pave over any flaws, the Puerto Rican star delivering a performance so full of life that it makes the whole movie seem real. —DE
2. “All That Jazz” (Bob Fosse, 1979)
Even though it preceded his death by eight years, “All That Jazz” now seems a kind of self eulogy for Bob Fosse. The prodigiously gifted multi-hyphenate, whose record-setting eight Tony Awards for choreography have yet to be matched, took on the Herculean task of staging the original production of “Chicago” while also editing “Lenny” — and then dramatized the experience in his penultimate film a few years later.
As a glance behind the curtain of an elaborate Broadway musical, “All That Jazz” is as stressful as it is exhilarating; as a glimpse into its creator’s singular headspace, it’s essential. Roy Scheider is best remembered for fighting a certain shark in “Jaws,” but he’s even better as the Fosse stand-in wrestling with his inner demons here — an effort that earned him his second Academy Award nomination and helped “All That Jazz” become the rare musical to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
He’s aided in that endeavor by Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, and Ann Reinking, among others, who make for invaluable supporting players in a fever-dream fantasia that ends the only way it can: with the star directing his own death. —MN
1. “Singin’ in the Rain” (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1954)
The most beloved 12 notes in all of film history have got to be the bouncy refrain the title song in the most iconic movie musical ever made. There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a movie about itself, and not only did “Singin’ in the Rain” set the bar high, it set it celebratory.
Co-directed by Gene Kelly and his “On the Town” collaborator Stanley Donen, and the inspired staging makes theatrical bits work for the screen — no small task. Of course, they had help from “The Wizard of Oz” cinematographer Harold Rosson, who photographs their vision in gorgeous technicolor.
It’s tough to imagine a 2017 version of the story, with all we’ve learned recently about the film industry’s dark underbelly, but it’s clear the rain is pouring down on Tinseltown. “Singin’ in the Rain” will never go out of style, but we could all use a little of Don Lockwood’s romanticism, Kathy Selden’s pluck, and Cosmo Brown’s joie de vivre right about now. The winning trio of Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor turned crackling onscreen chemistry into a game for three. O’Connor’s scene-stealing knockout, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” turned unbelievable physical feats into gut-busting farce. It’s the coolest that clown work has ever looked. —JD
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