This week, the seemingly unstoppable march of “La La Land” continues as Damien Chazelle‘s Globebuster musical expands nationwide and everyone finally gets a chance to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a film we loved at Venice, partly because it felt like a reinvigoration of the musical form — a form we were under the impression, after years of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Into The Woods“-style abuse, we were cool on. But compiling this feature, which gave us the opportunity to look back at decades of musicals, has reminded us of how much this quintessentially American, frequently lightweight and often-disparaged genre has meant to us over the years. Turns out, we love musicals, and musicals are kind of what we need right now.
It has also highlighted some blind spots, though. Most egregious is the fact that no Bollywood movies appear, and considering how many of them are musicals, we can only plead the excuse that Bollywood isn’t simply another national cinema, but an incredibly populous, massive industry with its own aesthetic and narrative rules, and we frankly didn’t know where to start. In fact, looking outside the borders of America in general wasn’t particularly fruitful — the movie musical is so very, deeply American, after all. However if you are aching to get your musical on in subtitled form, here’s an excellent starter kit of international musicals from Vulture.
Ok, now that we’ve cleared out throats, done our warm-up stretches and tuned our instruments, let’s begin: Here are our 50 Favorite Movie Musicals of All Time.
50. “The Band Wagon” (1953)
Fred Astaire may have appeared in more than one film in which he was a good generation older than his love-interest co-star (“Funny Face,” “Easter Parade,” etc.), but at least he tended to have the decency to make age a part of the plot. As is the case in many Astaire joints, “plot” is a generous description of what goes on in “The Band Wagon,” which details Astaire’s aging movie/theater star’s supposed comeback, which pairs him with gradually defrosting ballerina Cyd Charisse. The show flops under the weight of its director’s high-art pretensions, but is retooled for pure entertainment by Astaire, who also wins the heart of his leading lady. Hard to imagine what kind of show could possibly encompass hayrides, girl-about-town numbers and a creepy bit in which three adults dress as mutually murderous baby triplets, but “The Band Wagon” suggests there is such a thing.
Best Number: But then comes “Girl Hunt,” the extended impressionistic jazz-pulp finale of the show which basically justifies the whole rest of the movie.
49. “Pennies From Heaven” (1981)
A famous flop at the time, in part because it saw Steve Martin, at the peak of his fame, play a non-comic role for the first time, “Pennies From Heaven” holds up surprisingly well 35 years down the line. A remake of Dennis Potter’s BBC series from three years earlier, it stars Martin as a sheet-music salesman in 1934 with a failing job and marriage who has an affair with a teacher (Bernadette Peters), marked by fantasy musical sequences. Some might quibble with the description of the film as a musical, given that all the numbers, Depression-era standards, are delivered through lip-sync rather than singing, but it hardly matters: Herbert Ross directs it beautifully (with lovely, Edward Hopper-ish photography by Gordon Willis), and it packs a real punch. Indeed, in its mix of bleak social realism and musical fantasy, it’s an obvious influence (with its source material) on Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer In The Dark.”
Best Number: Probably the first time we got to see Christopher Walken do the soft-shoe shuffle with his rendition of “Let’s Misbehave.”
48. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1969)
Overlong, with a tone that veers from cloyingly cute whimsy (the kids singing “Truly Scrumptious” is enough to give anyone a toothache) to odd surreality (the bit where Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes play life-size dolls) to nightmare-inducing (the Child Catcher villain slightly overshoots “scary” for which we’d wager we have screenwriter Roald Dahl to thank), this adaptation of Ian Fleming‘s children’s book is, like its namesake, a creaky old jalopy and no mistake. But as it wheezes and clanks its way through its 145 minutes, there is also plenty of charm and invention (the set design alone is more considered and spectacular than usual), and while it will never eclipse the far superior “Mary Poppins,” it does a rare job of basing its set pieces on real insights into a child’s imagination, from candy factories to the peculiar attachment we all feel toward the family car of our childhood.
Best Number: We could earworm you with the (infuriatingly circular) title track, but for staging, choreography and setting, the less catchy “Toot Sweets” shades it.
47. “Stormy Weather” (1943)
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Dooley Wilson, The Nicholas Brothers — with a cast like this, who cares about plot? Clearly not the writers nor director Andrew Stone, who roughly slap together a threadbare life-in-flashback story, further hampered by casting Horne as Robinson’s love interest despite a 40-year age difference (this would be Robinson’s last film). Their distinctly avuncular chemistry aside, though, “Stormy Weather” deserves its place in history not for narrative, nor for the weirdness of seeing black performers wear blackface, but for preserving at least these paltry slivers of performance from this roll-call of underserved greatness. Horne was never so lovely, and her voice singing the wonderful title track is like caramel dripping off a spoon.
Best Number: Fred Astaire declared the Nicholas Brothers’ routine to “Jumpin’ Jive” the greatest musical dance number ever. True then, true now. Remember to close your mouth or flies will get in.
46. “Guys And Dolls” (1955)
We’d argue that Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ “Guys And Dolls,” a musical inspired by the short stories of Damon Runyon, is probably the greatest thing that ever played Broadway, and one of the great works of 20th-century art. That means that while Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is actually a somewhat disappointing adaptation of the show, it easily makes the list just because it doesn’t fuck things up too badly, and because the source material is hard to mess up in the first place. Detailing gambler Sky Masterson’s (Marlon Brando) attempts to woo clean-living Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) so Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) can find somewhere for his craps game, it’s often flatly directed, not massively cinematic, and frequently miscast (Brando in particular), but when it works — when Sinatra, Simmons and Vivian Blaine get to do their thing, mainly — it soars.
Best Number: With the seminal “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat” being only so-so in the film, we’d pick Blaine doing “Take Back Your Mink.”
45. “Oliver!” (1968)
Take it from someone [Oli here] who’s had people saying “please sir, can I have some more” to him because of his first name for nearly three decades now — you can try to hate Carol Reed’s film of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!,” but it’s nearly impossible. A peppy, surprisingly faithful hit-filled musical take on “Oliver Twist,” the film delivers lavish spectacle and fine performances, including from its young actors (not always a given in musicals). But Reed does what the stage version doesn’t always do, and brings in the Dickensian darkness, thanks to some excellent production design and a terrifying Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes. It’s admittedly insane that it won Best Picture at the Oscars that year over “2001” (which wasn’t even nominated), but it’s still as solid a version of the stage show as you could want.
Best Number: “Food Glorious Food,” clearly.
44. “The Muppets” (2011)
Music and the Muppets have always gone hand in (felt) hand, and frankly, if they hadn’t come back in a musical in James Bobin’s reboot (penned by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel, with songs by “Flight Of The Conchords” member Bret McKenzie), there might have been riots. But no one was quite prepared for it to work quite this well as a musical. Capturing the anarchic, let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here spirit that Jim Henson’s creations have always had, nodding to classic tracks and utilizing fun guest stars (Feist! Mickey Rooney! In the same song!), and even letting Chris Cooper rap, it’s scrappy and rough around the edges, but always at its best during the musical numbers, and has the Best Original Song Oscar to prove it.
Best Number: “Man Or Muppet” took the Oscar, but it’s the opener “Life’s A Happy Song” that stole our hearts.
43. “Once” (2007)
He’s returned to the semi-musical with some success twice since, with “Begin Again” and “Sing Street,” but Irish director John Carney really found his groove the first time at bat with the utterly charming “Once.” A modest, tiny-budgeted movie that somehow became a worldwide favorite, it stars Glen Hansard of band The Frames as a lovelorn busker in Dublin who crosses paths with a young Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) who helps him find his musical mojo again. With songs by the duo (that became a Grammy-winning soundtrack), it’s a winningly low-key kind of romance, owing more to “Brief Encounter” than most rom-coms, feelings going mostly unspoken except through the music. Carney’s refined the formula since, but never bettered it.
Best Number: The Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly.”
42. “The King And I” (1956)
If you can get past the howling Orientalism of its premise (and that is a pretty big ask for a modern audience), Walter Lang‘s version of Charles Brackett‘s screenplay of Rodgers & Hammerstein‘s musical has much to recommend it — especially if your sexual orientation tends toward the Yul Brynner end of the scale. Here giving an Oscar-winning knee-trembler of a performance, all flashing eyes and mercurial temper, Brynner is a force of nature onscreen as the autocratic King of Siam. And Deborah Kerr (whose singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, the great unseen heroine of the Technicolor musical) is an appropriately quivery English rose as the British nanny who is both his unconsummated love interest and his foil in matters of propriety. There is a serious message underneath, about slavery and injustice, but “The King And I” succeeds best as a classic Harlequin romance, albeit a chaste one.
Best Number: Its just the two of them, but the costuming and staging of “Shall We Dance” is so gorgeous it has to have inspired the classic ballroom scene from “Beauty And The Beast.”
41. “Little Shop Of Horrors” (1986)
It’s perhaps no wonder that “Little Shop Of Horrors” was never a hit on film: The idea of a horror-comedy musical remake of a 1950s Roger Corman B-movie about a killer plant was not exactly “A Chorus Line” when it came to marketability. But fortunately — and perhaps inevitably — Frank Oz’s film has become a cult item over the years, a fitting fate for a musical as strange and singular as this. Following nerdy florist Seymour (Rick Moranis), who attempts to woo his colleague (Ellen Greene) away from her dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) with the help of a man-eating alien plant, it’s a tonal mishmash that’s just about held together by Oz’s energetic direction, and elevated by an excellent selection of rock-‘n’-roll and Motown-infused songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who’d go on to help to revive Disney.
Best Number: Unusually, the best number might be one added especially from the film, Audrey II’s “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space.”