Musical films have enthralled audiences since the 1920s when sound film technology emerged. Typically considered an American genre, musicals are actually quite an important art form across several countries. They incorporate elements across artistic disciplines such as song, dance, music and theatre, and often borrow stories from oral lore, popular plays, important works of literature or even mythology. In a nutshell, they capture the history and artistic inclinations of their origins. The heyday of the musical movie was in the Golden Era of Hollywood, from the 1930s to 1950s. Even when other genres overshadowed musicals, they still remained popular, undergoing renewal every few years.
Some of the recent musical films have been a natural development of the musical biopic. But several others chose to express their narrative through songs over dialogue. With an electrifying mix of song, dance and narratives, musicals are a delightful experience and an escape from reality.
To celebrate this classic genre, here are the 15 best movie musicals of all time:
15. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
At the time of its release, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! became a lightning rod for polarising opinions. Set at the end of the 19th century, it indulges in its fair share of fin-de-siècle art. The story of an aspiring writer, Christian, who falls in love with Satine, a courtesan unfolds with glamorous tragedy and spectacle. The film is told through dizzying pop ballads from the likes of Madonna, blended with Hollywood homages to screen icons like Marilyn Monroe. It adds a distinctly American, Art Deco flair that Luhrmann is known for, creating Parisian decadence that feels straight out of Vegas.
Further adornments include re-imagined hit pop tunes from the likes of Elton John, The Police, Queen, and other artists. Moulin Rouge! is high on style, but also focuses on the emotional aspects of the tender love story enough to not simply be hollow sheen.
14. Once (2007)
John Carney’s Once is that rare, elegant creation that seamlessly crosses the gulf between authenticity and dramatic performance. This is perhaps because the actors playing the leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, had previously recorded music together. In fact, the film was loosely based on its two lead actors and their professional and personal relationship. Once eschews larger-than-life production values typical of musicals. Instead, it provides a simple and moving story with an amazing soundtrack.
Hansard and Irglová composed and performed the original songs included in the movie. Their unnamed characters find each other through music and go on a life-changing journey together. There’s a palpable chemistry between the characters which makes the film a compelling watch. Shot on a bare budget in 17 days, the film is an artistic triumph which feels true to life but also magical in the manner of great musicals.
13. La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle’s modern-day musical combines a nostalgia for 40s Hollywood with an underdog story of two artists trying to make it in Los Angeles. With La La Land, Chazelle became the youngest director to win an Oscar. The film revolves around Mia and Sebastian, two struggling artists who develop a great connection. But as their professional lives start looking up, cracks form in their personal relationship, threatening to separate them.
The movie is not filled to the brim with musical numbers, but what’s there is spectacular. The variety of the songs is great and each piece reflects the mood of the narrative perfectly. The jazz and pop fusion feels innovative and fresh, while still retaining the old-world charm of a time when Hollywood was the place where dreams came true.
12. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Made during the height of Beatlemania, Richard Lester brought the Beatles to the big screen for the first time in this film. It was certainly made with the aforementioned demographic in mind, but it is much more than fan service. A Hard Day’s Night was cinematically innovative for its time and set the precedent for future band movies.
The plot employs madcap comedy portraying 36 hours in the lives of the Beatles as they prepare for a televised performance. The group was famous for its humour and Lester uses it to bring out the personalities of the band members. While it creates a brief escape for both the audience and the characters, opening up a window to the band members’ lives, even if for 36 hours, grants the film enormous intimacy. Most importantly, it is filled with iconic songs that capture a moment in time when four young men from England changed music forever.
11. Love Me Tonight (1932)
Rouben Mamoulian directed this pre-Hays Code musical comedy that set the bar for impressive editing and sound design. This is seen from the memorable opening scene itself, with its documentary-style images showing Parisian street-life. The movie also gave us a musical sequence which was revolutionary for its time. The famous song Isn’t it Romantic? was shot in different locales and performed by different actors in a continuous sequence, which was a brilliant innovation at the time.
Love Me Tonight is a love story between two unlikely people. A tailor pretends to be a nobleman and ends up falling in love with a princess. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of plot, but the manner in which the seemingly unrealistic story is handled makes it a success. With a bunch of classic songs, performed delightfully by a cast including the likes of Myrna Loy and Maurice Chevalier, this is one for the ages.
10. A Star is Born (1954)
George Cukor’s take of A Star is Born is considered by many as the definitive version. Told in the style of a tragic melodrama, it revolves around Hollywood star Norman (James Mason) and Esther (Judy Garland), an aspiring songwriter. They fall in love and Norman helps start her career, making Esther a star. But his own career starts crumbling and he descends into severe alcoholism. This familiar premise seems fresh in the hands of Cukor. He presents the gut-wrenching story in an emotionally powerful manner. The observations the movie provides regarding the poor state of the contemporary studio system are incredibly interesting.
Such is the power of the tender narrative it presents, that it has since spawned multiple adaptations, the most recent being the 2018 musical of the same name.
9. The Sound of Music (1965)
Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music was one of the biggest Hollywood commercial successes of all time when it was released. It is based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Julie Andrews portrays the joyful and charming Maria, who is tasked with taking care of the Von Trapp children. With a lively and joyful presence, it is clear why the children Maria looks after become so fond of her.
The opening scene of the film with Maria in the Swiss Alps has become iconic in popular culture. But it is not only the hills which are alive, every scene is vibrant and colourful. The landscape creates a great atmosphere reflecting the tone of the film. The Sound of Music has a heart-warming story and an uplifting spirit that shows how freeing music can be.
8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz has been delighting, mesmerizing, and even frightening audiences ever since it was released. It took viewers on a journey to the technicolour land of Oz with its dazzling visuals and assortment of odd characters. Judy Garland delivers a positively sparkling performance as Dorothy, a girl from Kansas just trying to find her way home along with her dog, Toto.
On the way she meets a motley crew of lovable characters and also faces a formidable villain. The Wicked Witch, played by Margaret Hamilton is one of the most recognised villains in cinema history. With a brilliant soundtrack that has since inspired many spin-offs, the film is a perfect example of the power of musicals to educate, uplift and delight audiences with their escapist fantasy.
7. The Band Wagon (1953)
Although it was a moderate success on first release, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is now considered as one of the best MGM musicals. It marked a comeback for the aging Fred Astaire, who plays a rather self-reflective role here as Tony. A musical star, Tony fears that his career may be over, but still has hopes of another Broadway success.
The Band Wagon is a highly entertaining song-and-dance movie set around the process of making musicals itself. But it also has dramatic plot points and shows tension between the characters in a realistic manner. Astaire is poignant in this role and through his melancholic singing at the beginning of the film, conveys the character’s emotions perfectly. As joyful as the film is, there is also an underlying sadness to it which depicts the ups and downs (mostly downs) that Broadway stars go through.
6. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A unique cinematic experience, Lars von Trier’s musical is equal parts excruciating and delightful. It stars music icon Björk as Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant with a difficult life. Her one escape is her passion for the song and dance numbers typical of Hollywood musicals. Björk delivers an impeccable performance here as a struggling artist with a heart of gold. Trier’s Dogme 95 style gives a shaky, realistic look to the film, which is a rarity in the genre.
The musical sequences provide a contrast with this style through its creative, expressionistic visuals. The songs elevate the film a great deal and make it both beautiful and jarring. Dancer in the Dark is, undoubtedly, a bold musical, leaving viewers with a sense of melancholic tragedy in its wake.
5. Cabaret (1972)
Cabaret is a rare kind of film that evades the trappings of its genre and is not particularly concerned with pleasing the viewer. Bob Fosse’s musical has a darkness that pervades the atmosphere so subtly that it takes you by surprise when it goes off the deep end. The plot revolves around Sally Bowles, a cabaret dancer at the Kit Kat Club, who gets romantically involved with two men.
The lives of these characters become intertwined with the Nazi Party that is gradually rising to power. Cabaret is an entertaining movie, but not a light-hearted one. There may be happiness on the surface, but at the core of the movie there is despair and desperation. All this is framed within amazing song and dance numbers that re-emphasise the absurdity of events around the characters and highlight the small moments of joys in their life.
4. All That Jazz (1979)
All That Jazz was Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical movie inspired by his life and career as a dancer, choreographer, and director. It dramatises the frantic period in his life when he was trying to edit his film Lenny and simultaneously stage the musical Chicago. Through the fictional character of Joe Gideon, the film also focuses on his personal issues, creating a wonderful and rather satirical look at the trope of the neurotic, lonely artist.
Frantic and exciting, the film peeks behind the curtains of Broadway and gives us a glimpse into a brilliant multi-talented artist’s mind. The choreography is superb, and the fantasy elements are presented through great visuals that transport the audience into their whimsy. There’s a hallucinatory, fever-dream quality to many of the sequences that perfectly encapsulate the magic and madness of musical theatre.
3. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy’s wonderfully original musical is refreshingly free of clichés. It is probably one of the most famous musicals that did not originate in Hollywood. The film revolves around the relationship between a young couple, Genevieve Emery and Guy Foucher. When Guy is drafted into a war, Genevieve must face the prospect of moving on without him.
Catherine Deneuve does an exceptional job here as Geneviève, and her chemistry with co-star Nino Castelnuovo wonderfully conveys the pangs of first love. There are no big production dance numbers in this film. Instead, the entirety of it is presented via song. The dialogues are sung rather than spoken in the manner of operatic works. Demy explores the nature of different kinds of love in this bittersweet film, a homage to the eras of operas past that delivered great emotion via music.
2. West Side Story (1961)
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins directed this recontextualised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that refocuses the rivalry of the original into a timely message about immigrant communities in the US. Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) are lovers who get caught between two rival gangs — the Jets and the Sharks. Their trouble is expressed through a number of elaborate song-and-dance sequences. Civil rights, immigration reform and race issues are at the centre of the conflict, which gives a contemporary twist to the classic tale.
The fusion of different genres of music in this movie was remarkable at the time, utilising an eclectic mix of jazz, pop and Latin American tunes. Besides the score, the film has some great performances and truly iconic choreography, particularly in the song America.
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical masterpiece, Singin’ in the Rain, is often considered the greatest movie musical of all time. The film has gained a legendary status over the years. It is a light-hearted depiction of the 1920s Hollywood era. This was the period of the great transition from silent films to “talkies.” The film humorously shows how several actors working had trouble adjusting to this.
When Don (Gene Kelly) and Lina (Jean Hagen) are pulled into the world of musicals, it is clear that Lina isn’t cut out for it. Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) is brought in to record Lina’s voice. This trio has great on-screen chemistry. The choreography is unbelievable and the physical acting of the iconic song-and-dance sequences is gleefully brilliant. Singin’ in the Rain is fun, original, and still feels fresh.
Creators and artists have long noticed a musical’s potential in conveying social and political messages, and the genre saw a massive influx of new themes and stories that focused on marginalised communities and at-risk demographics. In fact, one of the major reasons associated with the queer community’s longstanding association with musical film and theatre is because the genre gave space to sensitive issues like trans communities, drag performers (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2001) and the AIDS epidemic (Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, 2008). With this list, we hope we’ve nudged you to break into song a little more often, and revisit your favorites.
Which of these are you looking forward to?