25 musicals

posterHere we have my take on 25 movie musicals. This is not a best-of or worst-of list. Tonight I sat down and wrote out a list of 25 movie musicals I’d watched in the last year or so. This is the list in the order I wrote down the titles… completely at random. Here I will present some thoughts on each movie and a star rating. Each title links to the movie’s IMDb page. (The original year of release and the director are included in parentheses.)

Why musicals? In this age of video games, iPads, MTV and Miley Cyrus, the musical remains one of the most entertaining… and uplifting… experiences to be had. Musicals have the power to bring us out of our doldrums and bring cheer to nearly anyone. Each of these movies is worthwhile for that fact alone. However, among this most grand of movie genres, a few films do stand above the rest, and some others suffer from the passage of time or just being overrated.

Each movie is a full-length theatrical feature film* (however, one is a made-for-television movie that equals or exceeds most of the other titles on the list, and another is a 2013 live television production that made the Hollywood adaptation look much better in comparison). The star ratings are completely subjective, and represent my opinion only. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree with any of these. As always, spoilers are kept to a minimum, but I can’t guarantee plot details won’t leak out occasionally.

*For the purposes of this page, I’ve avoided discussion of some of the great animated musical shorts like One Froggy Evening and What’s Opera, Doc?. These are wonderful movies, but for editorial purposes I’m concentrating only on full-length theatrical films for now.

som1The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise)

Sound of Music is the archetypal movie musical. Produced in the mid-sixties, just before musicals were starting to fall out of fashion with audiences of the era, it was one of the first blockbusters (before Jaws and Star Wars brought on the modern blockbuster era). Sound of Music was the last of the super-successful big Hollywood musicals.

Today, the film holds up pretty well. Julie Andrews brings a lot of fresh energy to the role of Maria von Trapp. Christopher Plummer is a credible foil–very stern and steely eyed. The children aren’t half bad, and were obviously chosen by the casting directors for their singing-and-dancing skills.

Sound of Music is difficult to consider as a serious work of cinema… it’s easier to identify it as the cash cow it was (and continues to be). But producer-director Wise, working with the addictive Rogers and Hammerstein songs and a lively screenplay by Ernest Lehman, manages to hold the whole affair together pretty well.

The movie is entertaining in a sweetly-saccharine kind of way, and it never feels as long as its actual running time. It’s an undeniable classic and a family favorite which will still be immensely popular for years to come.

starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

mmislMeet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli)

It has a handful of classic songs (The Trolley Song; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; the title song), but Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 Judy Garland vehicle is a bore.

It probably didn’t feel like a bore in ’44… but at the time, audiences were probably accustomed to movies with a different rhythm. Nowadays, sitting through this Technicolor classic puts me to sleep.

starstar out of starstarstarstar.

wozThe Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

Wizard of Oz will always occupy the top position on many best-musicals-of-all-time lists (if it doesn’t, it should). Garland’s rendition of Over the Rainbow is the best singing performance ever committed to celluloid (at least in my opinion). The movie is dark and scary, produced at a time when it could have not been dark and scary.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

wWoodstock (1970, Michael Wadleigh)

Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film is the best of the postmodern musicals. It’s a lengthy performance piece, showcasing the artists who performed at the 1969 music and art festival. As a documentary record, Woodstock is invaluable. In addition, it occupies a position of incalculable importance in film and music history. It’s stark, honest, and alive.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

spSouth Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999, Trey Parker)

Outside the world of Disney, South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut is one of the better animated musicals you’re going to find. The songs (co-written by Marc Shaiman and South Park co-creator Trey Parker) are catchy and clever. The plot (America invades Canada) is snarky and super-timely. The jokes, of course, are below the bottom of the barrel, but many of them work. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut will never be mistaken for highbrow entertainment, but it’s a diverting 82 minutes.

starstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

aAnnie (1982, John Huston)

I present these next two films as a study in contrasts. John Huston, the legendary director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen (two of my favorite movies), was chosen to direct the big-screen adaptation of Annie, the smashingly-popular Broadway musical inspired by the classic newspaper comic strip.

The problem is that, for me, this movie doesn’t work. It strays too far from the original musical play. It drops some of the songs (the showstopper N.Y.C. for example) in favor of much less memorable numbers.

I sat down in 2012 with a new, high-definition copy of the 1982 Annie and tried to get into it, but I couldn’t enjoy it. So many things felt “off”… and that’s just the way it is for me.

starhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

a2Annie (1999, Rob Marshall)

This is more like it. Rob Marshall‘s 1999 made-for-television adaptation of Annie is everything the 1982 movie version wasn’t. It’s closer in spirit to the original Broadway play. It retains nearly all of the songs (including N.Y.C.) that the previous movie dropped. It has a heartbreaking rendition of Tomorrow (featuring Alicia Morton as the newest, and most polished, occupant of the title role).

It’s worth noting that the original play is about two and half hours long, but this movie is only 90 minutes. Therefore, some of the character development (and more) had to be cut (including the historical subtext, the socio-political themes and jokes, and the subplot featuring FDR). Oliver Warbucks (Victor Garber) comes off as a lot less gruff in this version. Andrea McArdle, Annie in the original Broadway play, makes a cameo.

But this 1999 version of Annie gets everything right. The tone of the play remains fully intact. The singing and dancing are delightfully staged. The cast, featuring Morton, Garber, Kathy Bates and Alan Cumming, is perfect. Annie is a made-for-television movie that transcended its roots and became one of my favorite of all movie musicals.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

oOklahoma! (1955, Fred Zinnemann)

Here we have one of the strangest situations of any of the movies presented on this list. However unknown it may be to the general public, there are two versions of the 1955 movie Oklahoma! starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.

Oklahoma! was filmed twice. Yes, that’s correct–the movie was filmed and produced two separate times with the same cast, crew and director. The first, and generally better, version was filmed in a new (at the time) super-widescreen format called Todd-AO. The second version was filmed in 2:35-to-1 widescreen (known as CinemaScope). Each version uses completely different takes. Many scenes are slightly different, with different blocking and camera movement. Line readings by the cast are different, and so is the soundtrack.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if the two versions were more or less the same. But there is a noticeable dropoff in energy among the cast in the second version. If you’re going to see Oklahoma!, try to find a copy of the Todd-AO version; you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.

Of course, the version shown on television for many years has been the CinemaScope one. The only home video copy of the Todd-AO version I know about arrives as the second disk in a two-DVD set. For the unfamiliar, you’ll know you’re watching the Todd-AO version because the opening titles/credits play over a black background, as opposed to the CinemaScope titles which play over a rolling field of corn.

So, is the movie good? It’s okay, in a 1950s sort of way. I did enjoy the chemistry between MacRae and Jones. I wish a movie called Oklahoma! wasn’t filmed in Arizona (yes, you can see the cacti in the background), but that’s a small quibble.

starstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

mlThe Sound of Music Live! (2013, Beth McCarthy-Miller)

It’s worth viewing strictly as a curiosity, but the 2013 version of Sound of Music sank under the weight of Carrie Underwood‘s wooden acting.

It’s important to note that the 2013 Sound of Music is an adaptation/regurgitation of the original stage play, not the 1965 Julie Andrews film. So we have to suppress any complaints about the song selections, the order of the songs, and some of the more minor plot elements.

Having said that, Underwood as Maria von Trapp is all kinds of wrong. From her twangy, country-and-western-trained singing voice, to her absolute mannequin-esque stage presence, Underwood is the wrong person for this role. Remember: Maria von Trapp was Austrian, not Oklahoman.

For completeness, I must mention some of the better things about this production. Filming the entire piece live, all in one take, was pretty audacious. The supporting cast, many of them Broadway veterans, shine (especially Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader). The children were well-cast, in particular Ariane Rinehart as Liesl von Trapp.

However, it’s hard to view The Sound of Music Live! as anything less than a vanity project for Underwood. As an idea, it was an interesting concept, but in execution, it left me scrambling for my clicker.

starhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

posterMy Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)

My Fair Lady is the best of the 1960s Hollywood musicals. It was intended to be the biggest, most glamorous musical ever made–and the filmmakers succeeded.

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (replacing Julie Andrews from the stage version) were cast in this movie adaptation of (arguably) the greatest musical of the twentieth century (certainly it has the best songs). Harrison and Hepburn give definitive performances here, parlaying off each other, neither giving an inch.

My Fair Lady is more than the sum of its parts. The production has a “large” quality to it, and yet the movie works mainly because of the smaller details. From the opening credits (beautiful imagery of white cursive writing over peonies), to the final scene (witness Harrison’s final reaction to Hepburn), it comes together as one of the most rewarding two hours and fifty minutes one can spend with a movie.

My Fair Lady is one of the greatest stories (based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) set to music, and its film adaptation was done with wit, style and flair.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

sitrSingin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)

If My Fair Lady is the best musical of the sixties, Singin’ in the Rain is, by far, the best musical of the fifties. A stellar cast (headlined by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds), some of the best songs to wind up in any musical, and an energy and pacing that never flag. It does have infectious energy and good cheer, without ever being too saccharine (like The Sound of Music). Singin’ in the Rain is worthy of your time for sure.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

caCabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)

The less exposed to the original Kander & Ebb stage play you are, the better. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret works best when you forget the provocative Nazi-themed drama that debuted on the stage in 1966 (and the incredible Broadway revival in 1998–the same production is returning in 2014). Instead, you have to put yourself back in time to the early ’70s, back when Liza Minnelli was in her prime and not the subject of constant tabloid fodder.

Cabaret is a good movie. It probably does the best job of divorcing itself from the Broadway-play-that-inspired-it of any such musical on this list. To Fosse’s credit, the story as told on film is more lively and cinematic than the original ’60s play. This is how you produce the movie version of a Broadway musical: you shed some of the more troubling aspects of the stage production (in this case, many of the songs and a subplot featuring an elderly Jewish fruit-market owner), and you re-imagine the whole thing as a movie. Kudos to Fosse for experimenting, and winning the effort.

Cabaret is a serious statement about the state of affairs of the Weimar German republic just prior to the rise of the Nazis. In themes similar to the silent film People on Sunday, the movie explores the darker aspects of life in this strange time and place.

starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

cChicago (2002, Rob Marshall)

Director Rob Marshall’s second entry on this list is really a Bob Fosse production in tone, spirit and choreography. The 2002 production of Chicago was criticized by Roger Ebert because it was filmed in Toronto (instead of Ebert’s beloved adopted city), but he still called it “big, brassy fun“. I agree.

Chicago is one of the best musicals. It’s sexy (without the darkness of Cabaret), fast-paced, and has some effective songs and performances, especially Queen Latifah’s rendition of When You’re Good to Mama.

starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

posterLes Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper)

To borrow from my earlier review of this movie:

Les Misérables is a failure. As a musical, the songs, as seen in this movie, left me completely unmoved. Think of the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. As a movie, Les Misérables suffers from many of the same ills as the 2005 film version of The Producers: the feeling you’re watching an elaborately-staged/choreographed theatrical production, or to put it another way: the equivalent of someone videotaping people singing on a stage. It’s more play than movie.

And what awful music it is. Yes, there are a couple of catchy tunes (Master of the House and Do You Hear the People Sing), but the rest of the songs/music always leave me looking for the mute button on the nearest remote control (or a power cord to unplug).

no stars out of starstarstarstar.

yYentyl (1983, Barbra Streisand)

No list of musicals would be complete without at least one Barbra Streisand effort. To that end, I’ve included a portion of my review of Streisand’s 1983 Yentl (Streisand co-wrote, directed and acted in the movie):

I enjoyed the movie, but most of the songs, which are all sung by Streisand, are very generic. No one song really stands out from the rest.

I had a hard time believing that Barbra Streisand could pose as a man and get away with it–she just is not all that convincing as a man. For two much more believable performances that involve women cross dressing, check out Joyce Hyser in Just One of the Guys (1985), or Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

A few other random observations… the story moves somewhat slowly. Streisand, for being a novice director, has some interesting camera moves.

starstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

batbBeauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise)

In the modern era of animated musical films (1970 to the present), two movies stand as the best of the best. The Little Mermaid (1989) is generally credited with kick-starting the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999), and it remains my all-time favorite animated movie. However, in many ways, Beauty and the Beast one-ups Little Mermaid and stands as Disney’s most mature, and polished film of their “Renaissance” period.

Belle (voice of Paige O’Hara) and Beast (voice of Robby Benson) are more than characters in a cartoon. Incredibly, they are relatable as individuals, with realistic personalities. Beauty and the Beast was one of the first major animated movies to use a screenplay, and as such, there is a richness and depth to the story (and the plotting) which are absent from many other animated musicals. Consequently, Belle and the Beast come off as realistic characters, with depth and humanity… we can identify with them as people, and not just animated characters on a screen.

Add a few of the best songs of any musical (featuring some of lyricist/producer Howard Ashman‘s best work), the literate script, winning performances by the voice talent, and some unquestionably great animation, and you have one of the best movies ever made.

starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

encEnchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

It was only a matter of time before Disney’s animated movies migrated their way into live action. That’s what happened in 2007′s Enchanted. The movie begins as a traditional animated film, but then (within 20 minutes) it’s all live action. This crisscrossing of genres is fresh and inspired; one wonders why someone at Disney (or another studio) didn’t think of this years earlier.

But all is not what it seems. Instead of being another princess-finds-her-true-love movie, Enchanted is a satire of the genre. Amy Adams stars as Giselle, a princess who’s looking for True Love’s Kiss, but she arrives there in the oddest of ways. Broadway veteran Idina Menzel is a standout in a supporting role, and Patrick Dempsey is a winning love interest. Susan Sarandon delights as the villain of the piece.

The movie features a lot of fun songs, composed by Alan Menken, who composed the scores and songs for the Disney classics The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and others. Menken’s music here is inspired, and the movie features some of his best work since the early 1990s.

starstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

dDames (1934, Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley)

In 1934, the Hollywood musical was a new genre. The sound era of movies had only existed for a handful of years. Filmmakers were experimenting with marrying the on-screen images to sound. For musicals to flourish, someone needed to come along who would really take advantage of sound pictures and show what could be done with this new, exciting medium.

That person was Busby Berkeley. Berkeley knew the potential for musicals–large-scale, brassy, big–and what kind of entertainment they could offer to the Depression-era audiences.

Berkeley was a master choreographer. He’s famous for those large-scale, geometrically-intricate, symmetrical dance numbers in musicals from the 1930s. When we think of Hollywood razzle-dazzle, Berkeley was the pathfinder. Movies were the ultimate form of escapism, and Berkeley was putting all the glitz and glamor up there on the screen that he possibly could.

I single out Dames because it’s a perfect example of Berkeley’s methodology. He would often go to the director of the movie (in this case, Ray Enright) and ask to direct the dance sequences himself. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell are the stars of the show, but the plot is of secondary importance. The point of Dames and other Berkeley extravaganzas (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and others) was the dancing–these big, showstopper dance numbers often including hundreds of dancers. The spectacle and the sheer number of dancers seemed to get bigger which each new movie.

Dames is a good starting-off point as an introduction to these movies. It was produced relatively early in Berkeley’s career–he’s only a choreographer and co-director of the film. It has a reasonable plot, some good performances, and gives you an idea of what to expect from Berkeley’s later films, should you choose to watch them. In the era of the early musicals (1929-1937), Dames is a winner.

starstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

gmThe Glenn Miller Story (1954, Anthony Mann)

Anthony Mann (he of Western fame) directs James Stewart in this (somewhat fictionalized) biography of big band leader Glenn Miller. It’s worth checking out because of Stewart’s credible, sober performance, and also because it offers a faithful facsimile of Miller’s music. I wouldn’t accept any of the more minute details as historical fact, but if you’re a fan of the big band and swing music, I recommend this movie.

starstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

bA Hard Day’s Night (1964, Richard Lester)

The best musical on this list is a classic of the ages: the most forward-thinking, irreverent rock musical ever made, leap years beyond anything that came before, and yet produced at a time before rock-n-roll and the Beatles were cultural icons.

The movie is pure joy from start to finish. Not a wasted moment, not a scene out of place. The film has not aged (unlike other musicals, some of which I’ve profiled here). Watching it, from the opening scene to the end, is pure delight.

A Hard Day’s Night was produced before the Beatles were stars, before they became cultural icons and “the best rock group in history”. This was a portrait of them in their prime… before negative influences and the cost of fame started to erode the band.

The movie was intended to showcase a few songs (from the album of the same name). It was cheaper (at the time) to sign the Beatles to a movie soundtrack album, and a promotional tie-in film, than it was to sign them to a whole new album. So what began as an exercise in marketing, grew and evolved by leaps and bounds into a genuine classic: the first great rock movie, and then one of best musicals of all time.

With frenetic energy, witty dialogue, incredible songs, and an arrival just as the Beatles were to take the world by storm, A Hard Day’s Night shines as the crown jewel of the musical genre.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

dhDiamond Horseshoe (1945, George Seaton)

Criminally underrated and vastly forgotten (it’s not even available on DVD), Diamond Horseshoe was one of many, many musicals that featured Betty Grable in a leading role.

Diamond Horseshoe is an example of a lost Hollywood era–the era of big musicals–when the grand movie palaces still only had one theatre, and the names on the marquee were bright and bold. Today, that time and place is more or less gone, and I’ve included Diamond Horseshoe on this list to remind readers that these big, brassy, and highly entertaining movies used to exist.

Having said that, Diamond Horseshoe is a lot of fun. It’s colorful, with inspired dance numbers and several good performances. It represents an era in film when movies were intended to entertain and not preach. In an era when simple entertainment was very much in demand, Diamond Horseshoe provided that entertainment very effectively.

starstarstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

fFantasia (1940, multiple directors)

Fantasia found Walt Disney in experimentation mode. This movie, produced at a time when Disney was still experimenting with surrealism (before he and the studio became more conservative and risk-adverse), stretched the boundaries of what animation, and music, could do in the motion picture idiom.

The standout sequence remains (for me) Night on Bald Mountain, although The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a close second.

starstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

prThe Producers (2005, Susan Stroman)

A little Mel Brooks goes a long way. The Producers has a few good song-and-dance numbers (most notably anything featuring Gary Beach and/or Uma Thurman), but the movie as a whole sinks under its caught-in-the-headlights cinematography and overlong running time.

starstar out of starstarstarstar.

amaAmadeus (1984, Milos Forman)

Amadeus, based on the play by Peter Shaffer (and written by him), is one of the great costumed dramas. Produced in Prague, Czech Republic (standing in for eighteenth-century Vienna), the movie is a great showpiece for the world of classical music in the era of Mozart. The movie’s drama is centered on the rivalry between the wunderkind composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the Austrian emperor’s court composer Antonio Salieri.

It’s more than a biopic, though. The script is a standout (lines like the Emperor’s “My sister Antoinette writes me that she is beginning to be frightened of her own people” are a treat for anyone who’s familiar with the history of the era). The performances, from F. Murray Abraham as Salieri to Tom Hulce as Mozart, and especially Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s wife, Constanze, are uniformly great.

Amadeus brings humanity to the life of Mozart. When historians are more likely to idealize and romanticize a historical figure such as Mozart, Amadeus shows the man for all his faults. Historical figures, whether they were politicians, scientists, artists, military leaders or musicians, were real people, and movies like Amadeus serve to humanize these figures and bring them down to earth.

starstarstarstar out of starstarstarstar.

stThis is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)

If the passage of time has been kind to A Hard Day’s Night, the exact opposite has happened to This is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner’s 1984 fake documentary (“mockumentary”) has not aged well. It was hailed at the time as the best of the rock musicals (a title I still give to A Hard Day’s Night). Gags and jokes that seemed boundary-pushing in 1984 do not hold up as well today (at least to me they don’t).

The plot involves a filmmaker (Reiner) who produces a documentary about his favorite rock band, the British heavy-metal group Spinal Tap. As you may or may not know, Spinal Tap is a fictional band, and the point of This is Spinal Tap is to lampoon all of the great rock documentaries (think of Woodstock and its ilk). This is Spinal Tap also started the Christopher Guest-directed series of fake documentaries (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and others). Although Reiner is the director, Guest is credited as a co-writer, and one wonders where Reiner’s involvement ends and Guest’s begins.

Having said that, the movie is fun and easy to follow. Reiner’s film rightly lampoons the world of aging rock stars, rock-n-roll tours, the fickle music industry, and the inner turmoil that has brought about the end to many bands. The actors (including Guest) perform their own music, which is also pretty interesting to think about.

Of my reviews, a negative review of Spinal Tap is probably going to be the most unpopular. But I just didn’t laugh at the jokes. Thirty years of edgier material (think Borat) will do that.

starstarhalf-star out of starstarstarstar.

Appendix A: Movies that missed this list:

(this is a list of movies I intended to include in my 25 films above, but for various reasons chose not to)

In alphabetical order:

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Lion King, The (1994)
Little Mermaid, The (1989)
Mary Poppins (1964)
Monterey Pop (1968)
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
My Blue Heaven (1950)
Princess and the Frog, The (2009) (my original review is located here)
Rocky Horror Picture Show, The (1975)
West Side Story (1961)

Appendix B: All 25 movies, ranked best to worst:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night
  2. The Wizard of Oz
  3. My Fair Lady
  4. Annie (1999)
  5. Singin’ in the Rain
  6. Amadeus
  7. Woodstock
  8. The Sound of Music (1965)
  9. Cabaret
  10. Beauty and the Beast
  11. Chicago
  12. Diamond Horseshoe
  13. Enchanted
  14. Dames
  15. Fantasia
  16. The Glenn Miller Story
  17. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut
  18. Oklahoma!
  19. This is Spinal Tap
  20. Yentl
  21. The Producers (2005)
  22. Meet Me in St. Louis
  23. Annie (1982)
  24. The Sound of Music (2013)
  25. Les Misérables
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