BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen is the UK’s greatest ever season to celebrate the film musical, at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the country. Runs October 2019-January 2020
The Oscars and the film musical grew up together, being born in Hollywood at the tail end of the roaring 20s, just as the movies were learning to talk. And while the Academy has historically disdained many of the more ‘frivolous’ genres, it’s always seemed to hold a place in its heart for song-and-dance films, perhaps recognising them as dream-factory show business in its purest form.
The second ever best picture winner, 1929’s The Broadway Melody, was a musical, and musicals were regularly up for the award (with a few big wins) throughout Hollywood’s golden age. In the 1960s, when bloat and a-changing times spelt a decline for the genre, the industry kept the faith by awarding no fewer than four of the decade’s best picture prizes to a tentpole musical – even though that meant preferring Oliver! to 2001. When the industry mounted a nostalgic comeback musical in 2002, Rob Marshall’s Chicago, the Academy couldn’t engrave a statue fast enough.
Well, viewers with eyes will know that Chicago wasn’t the best film of 2002. It wasn’t even the best musical. Heck, The Broadway Melody wasn’t the best musical of 1929 either; there were at least three far more lasting and innovative releases that year.
With such grievances in mind, and in place of a more traditional top 100 musicals list, we thought it would be fun to mark our mammoth Musicals! season with a rundown of the best musical of each and every year – from that late-20s moment, when sound (and music) arrived on our screens, to the era of Les Miz (2012) and La La Land (2016), when the Hollywood hills are once more alive with the sound of musicals.
On the way, we’ll see how the genre waxed and waned over the decades, how it offered succour in times of the Depression or the Second World War, how it swung in the 60s (or didn’t swing hard enough), and the various off-kilter ways in which international musical-makers met the millennium.
While the film musical began as a particularly American idiom, like jazz or the western, the genre has also found full voice in outposts like Britain, Egypt, Japan, France, China, Russia and, most spectacularly of all, in India. And so our list reflects that global reach, while also not reflecting it enough. We’ve spotlit some incredible examples of the international musical, but our choices have also been led to some extent by the issue of availability for English-speaking audiences.
So take that word ‘best’ with a pinch of salt, or a spoonful of sugar. Let’s have more jazz hands and less hand wringing, and just say that these selections represent a cross-section of the most thrilling, the most boundary-pushing or simply the most enjoyable. Even for die-hard fans of the musical, our timeline should throw up some new favourites you’ve never seen before. For, as the first movie on our list put it more than 90 years ago, you ain’t heard nothing yet…
The Jazz Singer
Director Alan Crosland
Less a musical than a silent with songs, Alan Crosland’s adaptation of Samson Raphaelson’s play, The Day of Atonement, changed cinema forever after extrovert showman Al Jolson realised that the microphone was still on between the numbers ‘Dirty Hands, Dirty Face’ and ‘Toot Toot, Tootsie’ and slipped in a speech that famously culminated in the boast, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” Centring on a cantor’s son who defies his father to become an entertainer, the film wasn’t the overnight sensation that movie myth suggests, as a shortage of venues capable of playing Vitaphone discs meant that most audiences in 1927 watched it in silence.
Best musical moment: Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, during which Jolson ad-libs dialogue between the verses, much to unprepared co-star Eugenie Besserer’s consternation.
The Singing Fool
Director Lloyd Bacon
If The Jazz Singer turned the American public on to sound films, with the follow-up Warner Bros got them hooked on musicals. The Singing Fool made nearly $6m for the studio, and was the highest-grossing sound film until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. It’s another Al Jolson melodrama, with plenty of opportunities for him to sing and get misty-eyed. He plays Al Stone, “by occupation, a waiter – by ambition, a songwriter – by nature, a singing fool”, who croons his way to Broadway fame and a flashy young bride. But celebrity comes at a cost, and soon he is back on the skids. Back in 1928, there wasn’t a dry eye in any house when Jolson sang ‘Sonny Boy’ at the film’s emotional climax – nowadays the use of blackface in this scene diminishes an audience’s emotional engagement, but there’s no denying the power of Jolson’s voice.
Best musical moment: Jolson wriggles, claps, clicks his fingers and belts out the joyful number ‘I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World’.
Director King Vidor
Although the novelty of sound was beginning to wear off by 1929, as songs were stuffed into almost every kind of picture, this was also a year of innovation. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade and Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause brought a sense of visual fluency to talkies, but Oscar-nominated King Vidor took a different lead in using an all-black cast. Time has exposed the flaws in the depiction of Zeke Johnson (Daniel L. Haynes), the sharecropper-turned-preacher whose good intentions are corrupted by the seductive Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). But the location camerawork was as pioneering as the use of spirituals on the soundtrack.
Best musical moment: Irving Berlin’s ‘Swanee Shuffle’, which conveys the atmosphere of the African American dance-halls in which jazz was born.
Director Ernst Lubitsch
Famed for his sophisticated comedies, German émigré Ernst Lubitsch was a key figure in the emergence of the film musical, making a succession of song-and-dance soufflés in the early 1930s as vehicles for Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Monte Carlo is the second of these, with Jack Buchanan filling in for Chevalier but all of Lubitsch’s trademark effervescence present and correct. MacDonald is the countess who jilts her foppish fiancé at the altar, escaping to the Riviera where she falls for a count masquerading as a hairdresser. As the New York Times’ enchanted critic put it at the time: “The merriment in this film is like the bubbles in champagne.”
Best musical moment: MacDonald singing ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ as her train speeds to Monte Carlo, the chugging and whistling of the locomotive adding to the melody and field workers waving as it passes.
Director René Clair
René Clair’s Le Million isn’t much seen anymore, but it was once considered a model of cinematic ingenuity and voted one of the top 10 films of all time in the first ever Sight & Sound poll. It takes place in a glistening Paris of everyday enchantment, where light bounces off the cobbled streets and window panes, and Clair’s unfettered moving camera charts the frivolous tale of a down-on-his-luck artist who misplaces a winning lottery ticket. Making great strides for sound cinema, Le Million advances on the innovations of Clair’s previous film (and France’s first musical), Sous les toits de Paris (1930), and for the blink of an eye was beating Hollywood at its own game.
Best musical moment: Hiding amid the forest scenery during an opera, lovers Michel and Béatrice are reconciled as the love duet on stage echoes their feelings and petals fall all around.
Love Me Tonight
Director Rouben Mamoulian
Paris is waking up: a workman swings his pickaxe, a woman sweeps her broom, two cobblers start their hammering, and suddenly we’ve got a rhythm – a din of urban life that wakes Maurice Chevalier from his bed and accompanies his first song. Even nearly 90 years later, the opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight takes the breath away. One-upping René Clair for innovation, it’s the most inventive musical of the genre’s infancy, while virtually predicting the Jacques Demy pictures of the 1960s in the startling way it finds melody in the everyday. More typically for its era, it’s another story of subterfuge, with Jeanette MacDonald’s princess falling for Chevalier’s imposter nobleman only to discover that – as a memorable song puts it – ‘The Son of a Gun Is Nothing but a Tailor’.
Best musical moment: ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, which starts out being sung in Paris by Chevalier, then is taken up and the melody passed on via taxi ride and train journey to soldiers in the field, a gypsy encampment and finally to Princess Jeannette at her balcony.
Gold Diggers of 1933
Director Mervyn LeRoy
Wildly inventive choreographer Busby Berkeley first hit his stride in Hollywood with a series of early Warner Bros musicals, including this pre-Code classic. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and Aline MacMahon play aspiring Broadway stars who are so broke they don’t just share an apartment but a single audition outfit. There are boyfriends (including Dick Powell), and backstage subplots, but this movie is all about what happens in front of the footlights, in that ever-expanding, constantly surprising Berkeley choreography, from the abstract beauty of ‘The Shadow Waltz’ to the eyebrow-raising antics of ‘Pettin’ in the Park’. The film opens with ‘We’re in the Money’ and memories of the worst of the Great Depression are never far away.
Best musical moment: Etta Moten singing, Blondell emoting, and hundreds of extras marching, in tribute to ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’.
- Book tickets for Gold Diggers of 1933 at BFI Southbank
- Watch Gold Diggers of 1933 online on BFI Player
Director Ray Enright
Reuniting Warner lovebirds Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, this lively satire on hypocrisy was aimed squarely at the newly reinforced Production Code. Millionaire Hugh Herbert’s Ounce Foundation for the Elevation of American Morals lampooned the Hays Office, and producer Hal Wallis felt it wise to avoid a confrontation by removing a cat-and-mouse routine that ended with Joan Blondell issuing an invitation to “come up and see my pussy sometime”. As she was heavily pregnant during the shoot, choreographer Busby Berkeley devised ‘The Girl at the Ironing Board’ as a replacement number, and George Barnes artfully photographed it to hide his wife’s bump.
Best musical moment: Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, which features dozens of chorines wearing Ruby Keeler masks.
Director Mark Sandrich
Anxious to avoid becoming part of another team after his 1920s stage partnership with his sister, Adele, Fred Astaire was reluctant to commit to a fourth pairing with Ginger Rogers. However, he couldn’t resist the temptation of headlining Irving Berlin’s first screen musical. The composer sat in on script conferences to ensure that the songs were wholly integrated into the screwball scenario about an American dancer who falls for another hotel guest after he comes to London to mount a new show. With the art deco sets epitomising the RKO chic that provided essential Depression escapism, this is Fred and Ginger at their inimitable best.
Best musical moment: The Oscar-nominated ‘Cheek to Cheek’, which remains pure class, despite Ginger’s dress periodically shedding feathers.
- Top Hat screens at BFI Southbank in December
Director James Whale
Tackling the themes of race and prejudice in an unprecedentedly adult manner, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s American operetta had been Broadway’s longest running show during the Jazz Age, and this was Universal’s second tilt at bringing it to the screen. Hammerstein wrote the screenplay that director James Whale insisted on shooting in a realist style at a pace that suggested the Mississippi rolling along. Each principal had previously played their part on stage, while nine of the original songs were retained, as they had been written to flow naturally from the narrative and were sung in character as private expressions of emotion rather than overt performances.
Best musical moment: Paul Robeson’s rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’, which combined character credo and social commentary in reflecting shared Jewish and African American experiences of discrimination.
- Show Boat screens at BFI Southbank in December
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Director David Hand
Adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairytale, Disney’s first ever feature animation was a wild critical and commercial success, receiving a standing ovation at its premiere, earning Walt Disney a Time magazine front cover, and inspiring MGM to produce The Wizard of Oz two years later. The evolution of the animated musical form and over-exposure to Disney’s multi-billion-dollar holdings mute its impact on contemporary audiences. However, it was a risky project at the time and its successful release 10 years after the dawn of sound heralded the emergence of a new artform. While Snow White herself now feels like an old-fashioned heroine, the dwarves hold up as joyful, idiosyncratic characters captured with playful aplomb.
Best musical moment: The seven dwarves singing ‘Heigh-Ho’ while hard at work.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
Director Mark Sandrich
Reflecting Hollywood’s growing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis, this is without doubt the strangest of the classic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairings. In Carefree, the new science is treated equally as dangerous mind-meddling and trumped-up hooey, as Astaire’s bookish shrink attempts to study Rogers’ thoroughly well-adjusted society dame and ends up sending her on a wild shotgun rampage, getting her punched in the face, hypnotising her through the medium of dance and eventually (inevitably!) falling madly in love with her. Oh, and Rogers sings an entire song about yams, for some reason.
Best musical moment: Roger’s dizzying dream dance, where the motion suddenly slows and she and Astaire seem, for a moment, to be floating on air.
The Wizard of Oz
Directors Victor Fleming
The musical that made Judy Garland a child-star also set her on the road to drug addiction and premature death, so it feels bittersweet to make the necessary hat-doff to one of the greats of the genre. Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers were written as silver in L. Frank Baum’s source novel; however, MGM changed them to make use of Technicolor. The symbolic resonance of this story about a girl who just wants to get back home, but must first deal with witches, wizards, munchkins and flying monkeys helped by a rag-tag gang of pals has made this story endure and morph, inspiring such variations as The Wiz (1978), not to mention counter-cultural and queer tributes.
Best musical moment: The pure longing of Dorothy singing ‘Over the Rainbow’.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
- The Wizard of Oz screens at BFI Southbank in December
Broadway Melody of 1940
Director Norman Taurog
After his run of RKO pictures with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire returned to MGM for the final entry in a franchise that had started with the first talkie to win the Academy Award for best picture, back in 1930. Producer Jack Cummings wanted to shoot in Technicolor, but the commercial impact of the war in Europe caused the budget to be slashed. Nevertheless, Broadway Melody of 1940 makes a virtue of the monochrome stock to highlight the elegance of Cedric Gibbons’ sets and the precision of the choreography, which confirmed that Astaire and Eleanor Powell were the best screen dancers in golden-age Hollywood.
Best musical moment: Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’, whose influence on the planetarium duet in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is all too clear.
Moon over Miami
Director Walter Lang
The early 1940s found 20th Century Fox hitting paydirt with a series of exotic Technicolor musicals with titles like Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio and Week-end in Havana, featuring such contract stars as Betty Grable, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda falling in love in tropical locales. Starring Grable as a Texas carhop who decides to up sticks for the Flamingo Hotel in Miami in search of a millionaire husband, Moon over Miami is a delicious example, playing out its frippery of a plot in a world where everyone dresses to the nines for dinner, the house orchestra plays swaying rhythms into the night and romantic switchbacks unravel under an intensely blue moonlit sky.
Best musical moment: ‘You Started Something’, a piano duet between Grable and Robert Cummings’ playboy that turns into a tap dance under the palms.
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Director Michael Curtiz
Released in May 1942, less than six months after the US entered the Second World War, Yankee Doodle Dandy was just the kind of nationalistic jingoism the studios were beginning to churn out by the week. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, especially in the hands of Michael Curtiz – who’d be back with Casablanca (1942) in time for Christmas – and Oscar-winning leading man James Cagney, back on musical duties for the first time since Footlight Parade (1933). As composer and fervent patriot George Cohan, writer of marching tune ‘Over There’ (“as powerful a weapon as any cannon”), Cagney tears his character from the clutches of a bizarre framing device that sees him narrate his life story to President Roosevelt. Even outside the big title number and its segue into ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, this is the Cagney show through and through, enough to put any film at the top of its respective year.
Best musical moment: Cagney’s improvised tap dance down the steps inside the White House is immortal.
Cabin in the Sky
Director Vincente Minnelli
Credit: SeparateCinema/Reel Art Press
Made with an all-black cast, Vincente Minnelli’s ambitious directorial debut is based on a 1940 Broadway show and centres on a gambler who is sent back to earth from purgatory to prove he deserves to go to heaven. Although it does concede to some racial stereotypes, it provided a great platform for a host of African American entertainers of the time, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington among the cast. Its female stars, in particular, light up the screen, despite having fairly one-dimensional roles. Ethel Waters as neglected wife Petunia and Lena Horne as gold-digger Georgia Brown are clearly having a whale of a time here. Approach the plot with trepidation, but stay for the performances and the assured visual stylings of a director who would go on to become one of the musical’s supreme figures.
Best musical moment: Ethel Waters is utterly spellbinding in ‘Taking a Chance on Love’.
Meet Me in St. Louis
Director Vincente Minnelli
At 22, Judy Garland was keen to escape from the juvenile roles that MGM kept foisting upon her, and she actively sought to duck this adaptation of Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories, which shared its message of ‘there’s no place like home’ with The Wizard of Oz. Director Vincente Minnelli convinced her that this was an important theme for families divided by the war, and Garland lost her heart to both her director and the role of Esther Smith. Celebrating female emancipation and technological advance, while also championing good old-fashioned American values, the film is as full of contradiction as sentiment. Hence its enduring appeal.
Best musical moment: Garland’s rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, which encapsulates the musical’s bittersweet tone.
- Meet Me in St. Louis screens at BFI Southbank in December
Director George Sidney
Mention MGM musicals and many will think of the Arthur Freed Unit. But Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak (who had helped save Universal with Deanna Durbin) also produced their share of hits, with the latter handling the first of Gene Kelly’s three teamings with Frank Sinatra. Kelly would land his only Oscar nomination for his typically cocksure performance as a shoreleave sailor who boasts to Kathryn Grayson that he can get her an audition with conductor José Iturbi. What everyone remembers, however, is his duet with cartoon icon Jerry the Mouse, which was supervised by Joseph Hanna and William Barbera after Walt Disney refused to loan out Mickey Mouse.
Best musical moment: ‘The Worry Song’, which Family Guy reworked for Kelly and Stewie Griffin.
The Harvey Girls
Director George Sidney
The more controversial choice for 1946 would be Disney’s disappeared deep-south fantasy Song of the South, but the underrated Judy Garland musical western The Harvey Girls offers plenty of points for contention of its own. An ode to the civilising influence of pioneer capitalist Fred Harvey and the troupes of starch-uniformed (and all white) waitresses who helped him build a restaurant empire through the west, George Sidney’s film is an unquestioning hurrah for gentrification that hymns the decline of the unruly saloon days – think The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance done with aprons and chastity instead of law and order. We first join Garland on a train bringing her west through Monument Valley, and highlights include a first role for Cyd Charisse, Angela Lansbury as a territorial brothel madam, Virginia O’Brien singing about the disappointments of ‘The Wild, Wild West’ and a bucking-limbed tap routine from Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow, Ray Bolger.
Best musical moment: All aboard for the terrific ‘On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe’, an ode to the railroad that won the Oscar for best original song.
Director Charles Walters
MGM screenwriting duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green had a thing for the year 1927. Five years before they mythologised that year’s arrival of talking pictures in Singin’ in the Rain, they were adding their customary sparkle to this varsity musical set that same year at the fictional Tait College. It’s the second big-screen version of a 1927 Broadway show, done here as a roaring 20s period piece, with Peter Lawford as the college’s hero football player and June Allyson as the sensible-shoes librarian who teaches him French and hopes he’ll notice her. Collegiate musicals were all the rage in the 1940s and this is a good ’un, spinning out its low-stakes romantic complications alongside an eye-grabbing depiction of campus life wherein part of the fun is just gawping at those 1920s student fashions. This was choreographer Charles Walters’ debut as director, and he’d go on to even greater things with Easter Parade (1948) and High Society (1956).
Best musical moment: Babe Doolittle (Joan McCracken)’s medicine man-inspired advice to ‘Pass the Peace Pipe’ escalates into a massive, mock-tribal dance extravaganza in the campus café.
Director Rouben Mamoulian
We might have gone for Fred and Judy in Easter Parade or Gene and Judy in The Pirate, but Summer Holiday is a near-masterpiece that deserves to be better remembered. Another in MGM’s run of nostalgic musicals steeped in turn-of-the-century Americana, it’s based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness! with Walter Huston playing the patriarch of a Connecticut family and Mickey Rooney his priggish student son. With its charmingly recalled sequences of small-town life, it’s a bit like a musical version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), with Agnes Moorehead likewise playing the aunt, and similar scenes involving excitement around a new automobile – here in the wonderful ‘Stanley Steamer’ number.
Best musical moment: The open-air Fourth of July picnic sequence: a glorious summer’s day of beer-swilling, lake swimming, croquet playing and polka dancing.
On the Town
Directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Paired for the final time after Busby Berkeley’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly helped modernise the movie musical, as the latter teamed up with co-director Stanley Donen to rework a 1944 Broadway show that MGM chief Louis B. Mayer had dubbed “smutty” and “communistic”. Trailblazingly shot in actual New York locations, the action fizzes with urban energy and proves that musicals didn’t have to be exclusively about show people, as sailors Sinatra and Jules Munshin become distracted by cabby Betty Garrett and anthropologist Ann Miller while helping Kelly’s lovesick gob track down Vera-Ellen’s Miss Turnstiles during a 24-hour furlough.
Best musical moment: ‘New York, New York’, which packs 18 locations and three-and-a-half diegetic hours into a breathless two-and-a-half minutes.
Cossacks of the Kuban
Director Ivan Pyrev
The Soviet musical was dominated by the husband/director and wife/actor pairings of Grigori Alexandrov and Lyubov Orlova and Ivan Pyriev and Marina Ladynina. The latter duo impart plenty of kolkhoz folksiness into this tale of love and duty that contains echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. At its heart are horse breeder Vladlen Davydov and field worker Klara Luchko, whose quaint dalliance reminds Ladynina and Sergei Lukyanov of the romance they spurned to devote themselves to running their respective collectives. Few films have been condemned or rehabilitated with such frequency, as the message and socialist realist style went in and out of Kremlin fashion.
Best musical moment: Isaak Dunayevsky and Mikhail Isakovsky’s opening number, ‘Harvest’, which is lustily sung by workers from each kolkhoz over a rustic montage.
An American in Paris
Director Vincente Minnelli
Not only one of the great musicals but one of the great American films period. If An American in Paris isn’t the best best picture winner of all time, it’s certainly up there. Gene Kelly is the GI who stayed on in the titular city after the war, with dreams of making his money as a painter – “Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you may as well give up and marry the boss’s daughter” – Leslie Caron the girl on whom he, and his mate, have their eye. Songs come from George and Ira Gershwin, with the former’s eponymous suite serving as the centrepiece of a balletic finale of staggering invention.
Best musical moment: Kelly and Caron’s dance along the Seine to ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’ is swoon-inducing, but there’s no beating Kelly’s solo tap number to a bunch of kids with ‘I Got Rhythm’.
- An American in Paris screens at BFI Southbank in December
- Watch An American in Paris online on BFI Player
Singin’ in the Rain
Directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
If you watch just one Hollywood musical, make it this kaleidoscopic charmer, which is propelled by the force of Gene Kelly’s radiant charm and a collection of toe-tapping tunes from the MGM back catalogue. Singin’ in the Rain is set at the close of the silent era and enacts the birth of the musical as a new and glorious form – yet now we look back on it as the epitome of the musical’s second golden age. It was made by the powerhouse that was the Arthur Freed Unit and co-directed by Kelly with Stanley Donen. Although it wasn’t such a big hit when it was released, its irresistible attractions, from Donald O’Connor’s comedy to Cyd Charisse’s electric, jazzy cameo to Debbie Reynolds’ sweet ingenue, have made it a classic.
Best musical moment: Kelly’s splashy, joyous dance in the rain.
- Singin’ in the Rain will be back in cinemas nationwide from 18 October
- Book tickets for Singin’ in the Rain at BFI Southbank
- Watch Singin’ in the Rain online on BFI Player
Director David Butler
Although the actress built her career on her wholesome persona, Doris Day’s turn as wild west heroine and tomboy Calamity Jane saw her take on an uncharacteristically provocative role, at least from today’s perspective. Though Calamity repeatedly declares her love for handsome Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin, it’s the feminine Katie that she soon moves into an isolated cabin with. When a romance blossoms between the two-dimensional, bland, practically absent Danny and the complex, likeable Katie, Calamity’s anger about her best friend stealing her man is utterly unconvincing. It’s a beautiful example of the way old Hollywood disguised queer – in this case, lesbian – love stories with demonstrative over-compensation for the sake of propriety.
Best musical moment: Calamity’s entrance on The Deadwood Stage is a spectacular introduction to an energetic character, but Oscar-winning song ‘Secret Love’ is a beautiful coming-out anthem.
- Calamity Jane screens at BFI Southbank in December
A Star Is Born
Director George Cukor
The second and best of the four versions of William Wellman’s showbiz as hell scenario is essentially a melodrama with showstoppers. But it took the genre into cynical new territory and provided Judy Garland with her last great musical role. Having been born Frances Gumm, she would have been readily able to identify with Esther Blodgett, as she is transformed into Vicki Lester. But Garland’s own off-screen issues meant she would have had equal empathy with Norman Maine, the fallen star played by James Mason. She had the perfect director in George Cukor and should never have been gazumped at the Oscars by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.
Best musical moment: Leonard Gershe and Roger Edens’ arrangement of the 18-minute ‘Born in a Trunk’ medley that offered a foretaste of cabaret Judy.
- A Star Is Born screens at BFI Southbank in December
Artists and Models
Director Frank Tashlin
1955 brings several sacred cows of the musical, notably Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma! But it’s also the year of Artists and Models, the best of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis films for director Frank Tashlin, and the picture that introduced the world to Shirley MacLaine. It’s one of the finest musical comedies of the 1950s, even with the caveat that Lewis’s shtick is something of an acquired taste. But then, the beauty of a Martin and Lewis picture is that those who don’t take to Jerry can find solace in Dean’s crooning straight man. Either way, director Tashlin is on hand to choreograph the inspired lunacy with every bit the master’s touch.
Best musical moment: The title song at the end is great, but Jerry and Dino’s opening number ‘When You Pretend’ is pure unadulterated joy.
The King & I
Director Walter Lang
Yul Brynner was forever associated with the role of King Mongkut I, having played the role on stage on 4,625 occasions and having won an Oscar for Walter Lang’s film. Yet, his original intention was to direct Marlon Brando opposite Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens, the 19th-century English governess whose exploits had prompted stage legend Gertrude Lawrence to commission the score from Rodgers and Hammerstein. Kerr’s vocals are partly dubbed by the queen of Hollywood playback singers, Marni Nixon. But she excels in tasking the autocrat about his flawed nobility and outdated barbarity in frank and increasingly affectionate exchanges that challenged Hollywood conventions on mixed-race relationships.
Best musical moment: ‘Shall We Dance?’, with the camera swirling and swooping to capture Kerr and Brynner as they polka around a vast and conveniently sparsely furnished room.
Director Guru Dutt
It hurts to shunt aside Silk Stockings and Funny Face here, but for its soulful romanticism, glistening black-and-white cinematography and earworm after earworm, 1957 is Pyaasa’s year. Until his tragic overdose in 1964, its director-producer-star Guru Dutt was one of Indian cinema’s boldest talents and Pyaasa is his masterpiece. He plays Vijay, a poet struggling to get his work recognised in post-independence Calcutta, where his output is considered so worthless that it’s sold by his own brothers as waste paper. Dutt’s heart was with the marginalised and downtrodden, and here it’s the help and love of a prostitute that puts Vijay on the path to recognition, setting the stage for an extraordinary back-from-the-dead finale that ranks high among the musical genre’s most spine-tingling moments.
Best musical moment: That magnificent finale, Vijay returning from the apparent grave to savage a society that ignored him in life but profited from his death: “Burn it, blow this world away!”
Director Vincente Minnelli
Don’t judge this gorgeous film by one song. Yes, this is the movie that features an ageing Maurice Chevalier crooning ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’, but the meaning of that song is quite innocent, while the meaning of the film is rather subversive, taken from a 1944 novella by Colette. Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi is considered by many to be the great last gasp of the studio musical, and it’s packed with pleasures. Enjoy the on-location Paris shooting, the decadently rich set design and ripe lead performances by Leslie Caron as a young girl groomed to be a courtesan and Louis Jourdan as a scoundrel in need of reformation. Don’t forget the bitingly satirical dialogue, especially that voiced by Isabel Jeans and Hermione Gingold.
Best musical moment: The effortlessly effervescent ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’.
Kaagaz Ke Phool
Director Guru Dutt
Pyaasa might just edge this one, but if proof were needed that Guru Dutt was no one-hit-wonder, it’s right here. Dutt once again directs and stars, this time as a superstar filmmaker, whose downward trajectory into booze-fuelled oblivion stands in counterpoint to the rise of the young girl he’s discovered to star in his big-screen adaptation of Devdas. Comparisons to the various iterations of A Star Is Born are inescapable, but this is arguably better than any of them, and made all the more poignant by the film’s parallels to the life of its creator, dead from pills and booze just five years later at 39.
Best musical moment: Cascading light pours ethereally into an empty studio, as Dutt and his leading lady Shanti sing the halting, haunting ballad ‘Life Brings Us…’ Impossibly beautiful.
Bells Are Ringing
Director Vincente Minnelli
Times were a-changing, and this Broadway transfer was the last musical produced by the fabled Arthur Freed Unit, which had been responsible for so many MGM classics. It also marked the 12th and final collaboration between Freed and Vincente Minnelli, who deftly managed Judy Holliday’s insecurities to enable her to reimagine the Tony-winning role of telephonist Ella Peterson that she had played 924 times on stage. Old friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green had written the show to boost Holliday’s fragile confidence at a time of personal and professional crisis, and there’s affecting charm in the rapport with her Susanswerphone clients, including suave playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin).
Best musical moment: The ensemble patter song ‘Drop That Name’, although Holliday is still wearing the same red dress for the equally memorable ‘The Party’s Over’ and ‘Just in Time’.
West Side Story
Directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Possibly the coolest movie musical ever made: a gang-war melodrama set in contemporary New York but descended from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with an impeccable score by Leonard Bernstein. The film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, who directed the original 1957 production on Broadway. The best sequences in the films are without doubt those choreographed and meticulously shot by Robbins, but when the shoot over-ran, Wise had to finish the rest without him. Still, it’s hard to argue with this youthful, urban musical, and its phenomenal tunes, from ‘America’ to ‘Somewhere’ to ‘Tonight’ – let alone the knockabout joys of ‘Gee Officer, Krupke’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’. Will next year’s Steven Spielberg remake improve on this early 60s favourite? Time will tell.
Best musical moment: The street-ballet prologue: ice-cool moves in sweltering Manhattan heat.
- West Side Story screens at BFI Southbank in December
In Search of the Castaways
Director Robert Stevenson
A more obvious choice for 1962 would be the best picture-nominated The Music Man, but we had to give a shout out to the songwriting genius of the Sherman brothers. Having regrettably denied (Demy’d?) their big hitters Mary Poppins for 1964 and The Jungle Book for 1967, let’s run the flag up the pole for this childhood favourite instead. Based on a novel by Jules Verne about a professor helping two children search for their missing father in the Andes, in truth it’s an adventure film with songs rather than a full-blown musical. But if you put Maurice Chevalier and Hayley Mills in something, it becomes a musical almost by default, and the former’s spirit-raising rendition of ‘Enjoy It’ looks like a dress rehearsal for ‘The Bare Necessities’ in its extolling of the simple things.
Best musical moment: On a perilous, mist-enshrouded Andean mountain path, like something out of Werner Herzog, Chevalier keeps the expedition’s mood up with ‘Grimpons’ (‘Let’s Climb’) – “the French recipe for the good life”.
Director Peter Yates
For most Brits in the early 60s, the idea of journeying to foreign climes – without having to kill anyone when they got there – was still a glamorous pipe dream. Enter thrusting young screen icon Cliff Richard and a double-decker bus full of peppy teenage tearaways, gallivanting across the continent and showing Johnny Foreigner that us Rosbifs could have just as much saucy, sun-kissed fun as they could. A smash success at home, the film had the bad luck to be released in the US two days after Kennedy was shot. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t really in the mood.
Best musical moment: It’s got to be the title track, sung by Cliff at the wheel of the bus, waving at passing demoiselles and pondering a (we’re guessing fish paste) sandwich.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Director Jacques Demy
This year was an extraordinary vintage for musicals, with Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady also in the mix. However, French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s Palme d’Or winner is a many-splendoured gift – one that lands even with musical agnostics. In La La Land, Damien Chazelle plundered its sumptuously-coloured production design and a love story so realistic and heartbreaking that it punches through the picture postcard setting. Fitting right into this snowglobe perfection are the well-matched beauties/lovebirds Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, whose unreal looks are undercut by the simple smalltalk that forms the lyrics over Michel Legrand’s powerful music.
Best musical moment: It’s all one long ‘best musical moment’.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
The Sound of Music
Director Robert Wise
Credit: © 1965 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The most successful film of all time when it was released, breaking box office records in 29 countries, The Sound of Music has aged surprisingly well, largely because it never really went away. Julie Andrews is all bright, brisk business as the plucky apprentice nun who rescues glowering patriarch Christopher Plummer and his family of adorable moppets from the Nazis, and the songs are lodged so deep into the global psyche that they’re as uncriticisable as nursery rhymes. Playing for more than four years in American cinemas, the film scored five Oscars and sparked a rebirth of the grand-scale Technicolor musical – with mixed results.
Best musical moment: The opening helicopter shot – with Andrews twirling through an Alpine meadow as the title track swells – is unforgettable.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Director Richard Lester
Following A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), Richard Lester swapped Lennon and McCartney for Plautus and Sondheim in this bawdily hilarious Roman romp. Phil Silvers had been sought to play Pseudolus on Broadway, as Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book suited his wisecracking style. But Zero Mostel was cast instead, and Silvers got the screen consolation prize of the flesh-peddling Lycus. Mostel championed Lester’s cause over Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles and Mike Nichols, and responded impishly to his voguish blend of slapstick, Goons and nouvelle vague. Several numbers from Stephen Sondheim’s libretto were cut, but Ken Thorne still won the Academy Award for best adapted music score.
Best musical moment: The bravura opening number, ‘Comedy Tonight’, which plays over the credit sequence and serves as an impromptu trailer, while Mostel gleefully breaches the fourth wall.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort
Director Jacques Demy
By 1967 the air was going out of the Hollywood musical, the sprightly pleasures of the golden age subsumed by lumbering running times and stodgy staging. But across the Atlantic, in the French seaside town of Rochefort, Jacques Demy was at work on the follow-up to his all-sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that many devotees claim is the greatest musical of them all. Scored by the late Michel Legrand, the wonderful Les Demoiselles de Rochefort features twin sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in a pastel-coloured world where chance encounters, missed rendez-vous and freighted misunderstandings unravel over one eventful weekend. Beginning as a fair arrives in town and ending as they depart, it’s like a two-hour flashmob of giddy joy and sadness that can only leave you elated.
Best musical moment: Maxence’s café song, when the sailor reveals he’s travelled the world in search of a woman who haunts his imagination.
Director Carol Reed
Oliver! goes to show that there is no source material too grim for catchy tunes and an exclamation mark to turn into fun for all the family. (Still waiting on the musical of Hard Times!) Based on the stage musical, which was based on the Charles Dickens novel about an orphan raised in a workhouse then drawn into a circle of juvenile pickpockets, Oliver! took home six Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Carol Reed. To be fair, it’s a melodramatic romp, with richly-drawn characters, spearheaded by Oliver Reed as uber-villain Bill Sikes, plus an ensemble of disciplined, all-singing and dancing young urchins.
Best musical moment: Fagin glorifying a life of crime backed by a chorus of young pickpockets.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
- Oliver! screens at BFI Southbank in December
Director Bob Fosse
Though a box office bomb upon release (it cost $20m to make and grossed only $8m at the US box office), Bob Fosse’s debut film, inspired by Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (1957), is endlessly light and enjoyable. From Shirley MacLaine’s stellar turn as the unlucky-in-love taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine to Fosse’s jaw-dropping signature choreography in numbers such as ‘Big Spender’ and ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ (which Beyoncé pays homage to in her ‘Get Me Bodied’ video), there’s never a dull moment. An extremely promising sign of things to come from Fosse, who would next turn to Cabaret.
Best musical moment: It may seem controversial not to choose ‘Big Spender’, but watching Sammy Davies Jr’s hippie-skewering ‘The Rhythm of Life’ is even more goose-bump inducing.
Director Jacques Demy
Following his 60s run of romances set in French coastal towns and a trip to LA for Model Shop (1969), Jacques Demy kicked off the 70s with a full-blown, Michel Legrand-scored, storybook fantasy – and one of the strangest fairytale films ever to grace the screen. Much of that strangeness comes from Cinderella author Charles Perrault’s original tale, which involves a fairytale king’s incestuous desire for his daughter and the latter wearing the skin of a donkey (one that poos jewels) for much of the action. Demy adds in talking roses, courtiers with blue faces, a red-painted knight, an old crone who spits out toads, and a double-wedding finale in which the king (Jean Marais) and the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig) arrive by helicopter. Disney this ain’t.
Best musical moment: Catherine Deneuve’s princess dons a golden gown to sing the recipe for a ‘cake d’amour’.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Director Mel Stuart
The psychedelic movement finally met the blockbuster musical in this splashy, surreal and only slightly terrifying family adventure based on Roald Dahl’s hugely popular children’s novel. Dahl himself disowned the film, and it’s not hard to see why, as director Mel Stuart and uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer replace his dark wit and sly satire with slapstick and saccharine. But it’s still wildly inventive and entertaining, from the iconic, orange-painted oompa-loompas to the freaky, overblown set design, all ruled over by Gene Wilder’s crazy-eyed, lovably dictatorial Wonka.
Best musical moment: It’s more of a rap, but Wilder’s intensely unnerving rhyming soliloquy during the LSD-inspired boat sequence is magnificent.
Director Bob Fosse
Don’t let anyone tell you musicals are just escapism. Some of them are explicitly about escapism: the insidious dangers and life-affirming pleasures thereof. In Bob Fosse’s immaculate recreation of early 1930s Berlin nightlife, as painted by Otto Dix and George Grosz, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and the Em Cee (Joel Grey) shimmy the nights away at the Kit Kat Klub while the Nazis are on the march outside. Throw in a love plot that turns seedy almost immediately and this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood is one of the darkest, and greatest, entries in the musical canon. Every fibre of Minnelli’s unimprovable movie-musical pedigree shines whether she’s on stage or off, but especially in her glorious rendition of ‘Cabaret’, a justification for the genre all by itself: “What good’s permitting/Some prophet of doom/To wipe every smile away?/Life is a Cabaret, old chum/Come to the Cabaret.”
Best musical moment: Sally Bowles outlines her minxy modus operandi in a song specially written for the movie: ‘Mein Herr’.
The Wicker Man
Director Robin Hardy
In 2012, the National Theatre of Scotland mounted a stage version of cult horror film The Wicker Man as a musical. But by our reckoning, The Wicker Man already counts as a weird folk musical of sorts. From the maypole dance song to the impromptu pub singalong ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’, it contains several indelibly strange and catchy musical numbers, at least one of which – Britt Ekland’s naked seduction song – breaks the bounds of a ‘realistic’ storyworld, as her singing is accompanied by wispily folky, non-diegetic (ie Britt’s character herself can’t hear it) musical backing. So we’re having The Wicker Man as our favourite musical of 1973, but if you’re not convinced you could always try Lost Horizon.
Best musical moment: That maypole routine, an expression of joy through community that plays like an old-weird-English cousin to the barn-raising sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Phantom of the Paradise
Director Brian De Palma
There are few filmmakers that could simultaneously pull off a satire of the musical as commodified genre, while delivering one so honest-to-golly sincere at the same time. But then there’s no-one like Brian De Palma. In narrative terms, the film takes its cues from Faust and, as the title suggests, The Phantom of the Opera, but any such description does little service to the formal acrobatics and auteurist preoccupations its creator lobs in and among Paul Williams’ stellar numbers. The film’s midnight movie appeal saw it play in perpetuity, somewhat randomly, in the city of Winnipeg, where many a local is inked with Phantom signifiers; but any notions of campness are wholly dashed by how deeply the film’s tragedy finally cuts.
Best musical moment: Jessica Harper’s Phoenix audition is pretty special, but it’s gotta be Bill Finley’s Faust anthem, right?
Director Ken Russell
More acid rock fever-dream than cohesive film musical, Ken Russell’s adaptation of The Who’s legendary rock opera is so determinedly peculiar that it actually works. Drawing on songwriter-guitarist Pete Townshend’s own memories of childhood abuse, the film follows a troubled young man in postwar England who witnesses his mother in flagrante with his Uncle Frank and retreats into a fugue state, only emerging when he discovers the joy of pinball and becomes the new Messiah. Crammed with mad invention and memorable cameos – Elton John! Eric Clapton! Jack Nicholson! – they truly don’t make ’em like this any more.
Best musical moment: Tina Turner’s bug-eyed, hip-quivering performance of ‘The Acid Queen’ is made even more impactful by the demonic presence of Oliver Reed.
Director Alan Parker
Alan Parker’s directorial debut, and first foray into the musical genre (later to be followed by Fame, The Wall, The Commitments and Evita) is a prohibition gangster comedy, cast entirely with child actors in adult roles. Yet what could’ve been a twee gimmick comes across as charming, fresh and funny. With cream pellets and splurge guns instead of blood and bullets, it’s knowingly silly, but the kids’ playing-it-straight performances are so compelling that you soon immerse yourself in their world of pedal cars and cream pies. With composer Paul Williams’ undeniably memorable jazzy numbers, it remains an original and enduringly fun musical comedy.
Best musical moment: The cream-covered grand finale reprise of ‘Bad Guys (We Coulda Been Anything)’ into ‘You Give a Little Love’.
New York, New York
Director Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s impassioned attempt to infuse the widescreen Hollywood musical with street-level Cassavetes realism is an idiosyncratic oddity. At times the film is all glitz and glamour, as Liza Minelli’s ambitious showgirl and Robert De Niro’s irascible saxophonist meet at a VJ-Day celebration and set about taking on the world. At others, it’s as bruising and unsettling as Raging Bull: De Niro’s performance is all nervous tension and tight-lipped threat, utterly at odds with the star-spangled showbiz world around him. When the film vacillates between these two styles, it can be infuriating. When it picks a side – whether in the full-bore emotional blowouts or the big musical numbers – it’s magnificent.
Best musical moment: The title song has become far more famous than the film itself, but the Happy Endings sequence, in which Scorsese indulges his inner Michael Powell, is even better.
Director Randal Kleiser
Written by resting actor Jim Jacobs and bra salesman Warren Casey, this blissful slice of 50s nostalgia premiered in a converted Chicago tram shed and had the distinction of being the first hit Broadway musical to be composed entirely on a guitar. After Ralph Bakshi’s plans for an animated adaptation fell through, producer Allan Carr strove to cast Henry ‘Fonz’ Winkler as Danny Zuko. But he lucked out in landing John Travolta, who would be Oscar-nominated for Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Olivia Newton John, whose Aussie compatriot and longtime collaborator John Farrar composed both ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’.
Best musical moment: ‘Summer Nights’, which sets the scene by amusingly cutting between Sandy and Danny’s markedly contrasting accounts of their holiday romance.
All That Jazz
Director Bob Fosse
1979 sees a little competition from the likes of Milos Forman’s Hair and those fuzzy fellas in The Muppet Movie, but this wasn’t a tough choice. A hyper-meta deconstruction of the musical and the life of one of its foremost innovators – and winner of the 1980 Palme d’Or – All That Jazz stands as perhaps the finest of Broadway legend Bob Fosse’s big screen experiments. Roy Scheider is the barely disguised Fosse proxy Joe Gideon, at work on another theatrical extravaganza as he wrestles with the edit of a film about a stand-up comedian that isn’t called Lenny. His demons are persistently knocking, and soon so is the reaper, who until the final act takes the form of a Jessica Lange hallucination. Bravura stuff, both structurally and formally, All That Jazz takes a scalpel to notions of creative vanity, terror and mortality.
Best musical moment: ‘Bye Bye Life’ – a variant on the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’ – is like the end of Terence Davies’ Death and Transfiguration (1983) done disco.
Director Robert Altman
A massive box office catastrophe, if there’s a film on this list – or any list – in need of the critical reappraisal a restoration and re-release would bring, it’s Popeye. While certainly a musical in every sense of the word, the film is best approached as a Robert Altman picture. It’s every bit the auteurist text, its breathtaking Maltese set the staging ground for the director’s typically textured examinations in community. Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) is often the superficial touchstone, but expensive production design aside, the two films have little else in common. Altman’s world is one of absolute generosity and empathy, its inhabitants seemingly embarrassed of the camera’s – and the genre’s – intrusion. Such offbeat rhythms and abashed awkwardness make it all the more easy to love.
Best musical moment: Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl. Her ballad ‘He Needs Me’ was gorgeous enough for Paul Thomas Anderson to resurrect it for the soundtrack of Punch-Drunk Love (2002).
Pennies from Heaven
Director Herbert Ross
Few musicals have proved so divisive. Fans of the BBC’s six-part serial were dismayed that Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell were replaced by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters by MGM, who contractually kept the 1978 original off the screen for a decade and forced Dennis Potter to redraft his screenplay 13 times. Furious that a scene from Follow the Fleet (1936) was sampled, Fred Astaire raged, “I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar.” But Potter and director Herbert Ross make inspired use of lip-synched numbers and stylised 1930s settings to expose the chasm between Hollywood escapism and grim reality.
Best musical moment: Christopher Walken’s bar-room strip to ‘Let’s Misbehave’ is unforgettable, but ‘Yes, Yes!’ sees Steve Martin’s meeting with bank manager Jay Garner turn into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.
Une chambre en ville
Director Jacques Demy
Successfully fusing the street-level realism and sexual frankness of his 1969 American effort Model Shop with the euphoric theatricality of his 60s French musicals, Une chambre en ville (A Room in Town) is perhaps Jacques Demy’s final masterpiece, at once thrillingly experimental and disarmingly human. Told in the style of grand opera, with every line of dialogue sung, the film explores the fallout from a shipworkers’ strike in 1950s Nantes, where docker François (Richard Berry) meets straying wife turned part-time prostitute Edith (Dominique Sanda), only to have their fleeting romance torn apart by the actions of the thuggish local police force.
Best musical moment: The final stand-off between the strikers and the riot cops – each of them singing their demands – is absolutely electric.
Director Barbra Streisand
Watching Yentl, it’s kind of astonishing to think of it as a debut feature. It wasn’t just a first for Barbra Streisand as director, it’s been cited as the first feature to come from a female writer-director-producer-star since the silent era. Oh, and she sang all the songs. It’s a remarkable achievement by any measure. Steven Spielberg, at an early screening, told her not to change a frame. Yentl was nominated for a stack of Oscars, but none for its writer-director-producer-star, for whom it would take a decade to get another picture off the ground. The film is old-fashioned in the best possible sense, and in possession of an impressive sense of cinematic spectacle in its telling of a young woman in early 20th-century Poland who must pass herself off as a man to receive an education.
Best musical moment: The Oscar-nominated ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?’ is a knockout ballad and then some.
Director Albert Magnoli
In Herbert Ross’s Footloose, another 1984 release, a preacher bans a town’s teenagers from dancing and listening to rock’n’roll. In the real world, while that film was still in cinemas, Tipper Gore – wife of US senator, Al – was busy decrying the “obscene” lyrics to the Prince track ‘Darling Nikki’. It’s safe to say that conservative commentators had been worried about the diminutive star for a while, but things came to a head when, in the summer of 84, he simultaneously held the #1 single, album and box office spot off the back of his debut feature, Purple Rain. It’s the ultimate rock musical, parked somewhere in the vicinity of autobiography, but with a battle-of-the-bands narrative machine-tooled for commercial success. The concert scenes are beyond electric, the next best thing to seeing Prince live in his prime.
Best musical moment: Impossible to choose, but let’s swerve the obviousness of the title song and give a hearty shout-out to the live performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’.
Tangos, the Exile of Gardel
Director Fernando E. Solanas
Having settled in Paris after fleeing Argentina in 1976, Fernando E. Solanas channels his exilic homesickness into this mournful Godardian reverie with musical interludes about a troupe of enforced expats staging a tanguedia. Lurking in the wings is the spirit of Carlos Gardel (Gregorio Manzur), the French-born tango icon who made a series of films with Louis J. Gasnier at Paramount’s Joinville studios outside Paris before being killed in a 1935 plane crash in Colombia. Four of his songs appear on the soundtrack, alongside a clutch of commentary numbers composed by José Luis Castiñeira de Dios with lyrics by Solanas and the dazzling instrumental pieces produced by Astor Piazzolla.
Best musical moment: The nocturnal rendition by Gardel’s ghost of Enrique Cadícamo and Guillermo Barbieri’s ‘Anclao en Paris’, which reflects upon a decade spent in exile.
Little Shop of Horrors
Director Frank Oz
There truly is no musical to compare with the tale of Seymour (Rick Moranis), a meek flower-shop employee from downtown New York and the man-eating plant he accidentally unleashes. Written by Charles B. Griffith, and originally made into a film by Roger Corman in 1960, Little Shop of Horrors was turned into a Broadway musical, which was then adapted by Frank Oz into this hilarious, macabre and poignant cult classic. Steve Martin is unforgettable as an evil dentist, and the songs are wall-to-wall bangers, from the Greek chorus-like ‘Skid Row’ to ditties sung by the malevolent plant itself, such as ‘Feed Me’ and ‘Suppertime’.
Best musical moment: An ensemble leaping through brown puddles for the heartrending ‘Skid Row’.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
- Book tickets for Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut + After Party at BFI Southbank
- Watch Little Shop of Horrors online on BFI Player
Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire
Director Alan Clarke
Often incorrectly cited as ‘the only vampire snooker musical in film history’ – Alun Armstrong’s Maxwell Randall isn’t actually a vampire, he just dresses like one – this fiercely odd, frequently astonishing tale of sporting rivalry marked a radical left-turn for legendary director Alan Clarke. Eschewing the realism of Scum (1979) and Made in Britain (1982) but keeping the raw edge, Cockney slang and Phil Daniels, Clarke turned a script inspired by the rivalry between snooker legends Jimmy White and Ray Reardon into an expressionist gothic odyssey shot entirely on studio sets and spiked with hard-edged musical numbers and bone-dry humour.
Best musical moment: The electro-tinged ‘Supersonic Sam’s Cosmic Café’ anticipates Blur’s entire career by half a decade.
Director John Waters
It’s thrilling to think that Baltimore’s ‘pope of trash’ John Waters, notorious for having Divine eat dog shit in Pink Flamingos, broke through to the mainstream with an amiable 60s-set musical satire about dance, de-segregation and “pleasantly plump” girls winning trophies. Ricki Lake is charm personified as Tracy Turnblad, teen fan of the Corny Collins show. She ends up its brightest star, to the fury of its reigning queen Amber Von Tussle. Hairspray wears its politics lightly, trading in imaginative mockery of reactionary characters. It became a cult classic on home video and is now a Tony-award winning Broadway mainstay.
Best musical moment: Tracy inserting herself into the middle of a group dance on the Corny Collins show.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
The Little Mermaid
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker
Marking the start of the Disney Renaissance that would later give us The Lion King, among other titles, The Little Mermaid derives much of its staying power from the deeply disturbing conceit at its centre. When 16-year-old mermaid Ariel falls in love with Eric, a terrestrial human, she agrees to give up her voice in exchange for a pair of human legs. It’s a truly dreadful deal, and the way Ariel is unable to communicate with Eric once on dry land, him not minding her silence all that much, makes her a literal and haunting example of woman as object of the scopophilic gaze. But like all the best children’s stories, it’s this utterly horrific scenario, together with some truly imaginative songs and memorable supporting characters that make the film stick to the memory.
Best musical moment: In the superlative ‘Under the Sea’, Ariel’s crab friend Sebastian sings the praises of underwater life, joined by an increasing number of sea creatures that become a veritable orchestra by the number’s thrilling crescendo.
Director John Waters
His second film after going legit with 1988’s anti-racist doo-wop masterpiece Hairspray, Cry-Baby saw DIY trash-merchant John Waters working on an even larger canvas. The film even features a bona-fide Hollywood icon in the lead role: Johnny Depp, almost alarmingly beautiful as Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker, the Baltimore greaser whose star-crossed romance with pretty-girl Allison (Amy Locane) infuriates both the freaks and the squares. Incorporating both established 50s classics – ‘Gee’, ‘Sh-Boom’, ‘Mr Sandman’ – and convincingly ramshackle original numbers, the soundtrack feels a whole lot more attuned to its period than its obvious precursor, Grease; in fact, Waters’ film often feels like an enthusiastic two-finger salute to that film’s ersatz disco-billy fakery.
Best musical moment: His voice may have been dubbed in, but Depp gets his Elvis moves down to a T in the hayloft hoedown ‘King Cry-Baby’ sequence.
Beauty and the Beast
Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
At the peak of Disney’s creative comeback, this beautifully drawn adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s classic French fairytale was the first animated film to be nominated for the best picture Oscar (another musical wouldn’t be nominated in this category again until Moulin Rouge! in 2001). This was also one of the first major Disney Studios films to use CGI as part of the animation, noticeably during the ballroom scene as Belle and the Beast waltz against a gorgeously realised backdrop. With the sweeping romance of it all still as magnificent as ever, characters you can root for and Alan Menken’s lively, theatrical songs, this tale as old as time sits as of one of animation’s greatest.
Best musical moment: Angela Lansbury (AKA Mrs Potts the teapot) sings the title song ‘Beauty and the Beast’ during the ballroom scene.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Director Brian Henson
Michael Caine plays it straight as grumpy old Ebenezer Scrooge alongside Kermit, Miss Piggy and the Muppet gang in a festive favourite that manages to be hilarious and moving while bringing the ghostly drama of Dickens to a younger audience. As expected from Jim Henson’s creations, there’s a sense of anarchic silliness and felt-covered warmth that runs through it all. Paul Williams provides another excellent book of cheery songs, which makes this not only a fantastically enjoyable and accessible Dickens adaptation but something to sit alongside Meet Me in St. Louis as one of the most enduring Christmas film musicals.
Best musical moment: Festive cheer and an ensemble final number with ‘It Feels like Christmas’.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Director Henry Selick
Released by Disney’s Touchstone branch, this animated cult masterpiece was conceived out of the macabre mind of Tim Burton, long before he began parodying himself with box-office crowdpleasers like Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo. Directed by longterm Disney animator Henry Selick, it remains as imaginative, inventive and artful as ever. With groundbreaking stop-motion produced in exquisite detail alongside Danny Elfman’s twinkling songs (he also provides the voice of Jack the Pumpkin King), The Nightmare Before Christmas masters the near impossible trick of being both extremely Christmassy and suitably scary for Halloween. A 1990s antidote to the fairytale princesses that usually peopled animated musicals, it paved the way for goth kids everywhere to sing along to timeless show-tunes in skeletal face-paints and ghoulish costumes.
Best musical moment: Jack Skellington singing ‘What’s This?’ as he tumbles into fairy-lit Christmastown.
The Lion King
Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
The first Disney musical not adapted from an already existing story (although it notoriously lifted from the work of Osamu Tezuka without crediting him), The Lion King lives and dies on its expressive animation and excellent, pan-African soundtrack from Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer. From its exuberant, nearly transcendent opening moment of ‘The Circle of Life’, a sequence Disney was so confident in that they used it as the first trailer, it’s packed with songs that will be forever seared into the memory of entire generations, despite Disney’s best efforts to pave over it with lacklustre remakes.
Best musical moment: The film’s true crowning moment is Scar’s song ‘Be Prepared’, appearing as a dark inversion of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’, Jeremy Irons’ outstanding, smooth and menacing voice-work twisting into a villain song for the ages.
Haut bas fragile
Director Jacques Rivette
In Jacques Rivette’s movies, genre is there in the air: turn a corner and his characters might step into it. More often than not, the genre is conspiracy thriller, but in 1995’s Haut bas fragile (Up, Down, Fragile), it’s the musical. And so, after 50 minutes in which we’ve been introduced to his three female leads – a petty thief, an adoptee searching for her real mother, and Louise, who is just out of a coma and on the cusp of discovering a secret about her dad – the French New Wave master has his film unexpectedly burst into song, beginning a succession of song-and-dance routines in which the open-air spirit of Stanley Donen and On the Town lives on in joyously DIY form.
Best musical moment: The detective tailing Louise confesses he loves her, leading to an enchanting routine around a bandstand in Paris’s Parc Montsouris.
Everyone Says I Love You
Director Woody Allen
“We’re not the typical family you find in a musical comedy. For one thing, we got dough.” One wonders why it took so long for Woody Allen to get round to making his musical. Less of a wonder is how good it is. The plot – which hops between Manhattan, Venice and Paris – serves up some romantic entanglements as mere excuse for Woody’s heartfelt plundering of the Great American Songbook, all gamely delivered by a starry cast. This is the musical as expensive fan-fiction; few of the cast can carry much of a tune or hoof it especially, but the sheer joie de genre carries it wholly and, occasionally, transcendently.
Best musical moment: Woody and MVP Goldie Hawn recreating the Seine dance from An American in Paris, before taking to the skies two decades ahead of La La Land.
On connaît la chanson
Director Alain Resnais
Alain Resnais’ hommage to Dennis Potter borrows the trope that the English TV writer first developed in Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective: in the middle of a scene, characters suddenly burst into song, lip-syncing to popular numbers. Transposed to France, this results in a strange but winning mix of 1970s, 80s and 90s radio hits – Dalida, France Gall, Johnny Hallyday, Alain Souchon – and 1920s/30s chansons describing the characters’ emotions. Rather than make snide references to the lowest common denominator that is popular culture – the way so many blockbusters with 1980s soundtracks do today – Resnais fully engages with it, understanding its emotional and bonding value all too well.
Best musical moment: There are no consistent rules to whether Resnais’ characters can hear each other’s singing, which makes the moment when all of them lip sync to ‘Ça (C’est vraiment toi)’ by Téléphone all the more glorious.
Director Mani Ratnam
If you want to witness one of the most gobsmacking moments in any modern musical, load up Netflix and skip to the 08:42 mark of Dil Se.. There’s already been a late-night encounter in the pouring rain at a tiny train station. Sharukh Khan’s radio journalist meets a mysterious woman (Manisha Koirala) and he’s smitten, but she disappears on to a train before he can find out anything about her. Then the needle drops on A.R. Rahman’s Sufi-infused banger ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ and we’re suddenly atop the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, winding through green hills as Khan, Malaika Arora and a host of dancers perform an astonishing traintop dance routine – perilously done by the actors just as you see it in the film. Mixing such Bollywood-style largesse with a story of separatist insurgency in Assam was a risky venture, but one that Mani Ratman pulls off with aplomb.
Best musical moment: If that train scene isn’t enough for you, try ‘Satrangi Re’ as Khan and Koirala dance against the Tibet-like landscapes of Ladakh.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Director Trey Parker
The latest Terrance and Phillip movie (the most troublesome thing to come out of Canada since Bryan Adams) is in cinemas, corrupting the children of America. Kyle’s mum leads the attack in the press, declaring war on Canada when those north of the border drop bombs on the Baldwin acting dynasty in retaliation. Meanwhile, Satan is planning his ascension to earth, but he’s having romantic troubles with his new sex-obsessed lover, Saddam Hussein. At once a pastiche of the musical in the Broadway/Disney mode, and one calibrated to perfection in its own right, the South Park movie also works as a typically incisive satire on censorship and outrage culture, while laying claim to being, if not the funniest, then certainly the sweariest film on our list by a mile.
Best musical moment: Satan’s dream of life on earth with ‘Up There’ is a pitch-perfect riff on Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but who are we kidding? ‘Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch’ will never cease to amaze.
Dancer in the Dark
Director Lars von Trier
Danish auteur Lars von Trier teamed up with ethereal Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork for this deeply traumatic melodrama, and both went on to win at Cannes in their respective categories. Continuing von Trier’s Dogme 95 tradition, the film is shot mainly on hand-held camera (apart from the musical numbers), with grim realism mixing with fantastical musical sequences in 1960s America as a Czech factory work struggles with blindness, corruption and injustice. The upsetting themes are highlighted by the playfulness with which the film deals with the conventions and escapism of the cinematic musical genre, making for an unsettling but profound experience, made even more so by Bjork’s haunting performance.
Best musical moment: Set on a train, the bleak but beautiful ‘I’ve Seen It All’.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Director John Cameron Mitchell
Writer, director and star John Cameron Mitchell’s low-budget classic is a glam-rock-infused treat. The story of genderqueer East German singer Hedwig Robinson is an anarchic journey of identity that wears its Bowie influence on its glittery sleeve. But unlike Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ similarly Bowie-inspired glam fest, Mitchell’s exploration of sexuality is much more personal. What began life as an off-Broadway show has now become a phenomenon, with a Tony award-winning revival of the stage show, and screenings across the world to rival its perhaps camper but less explicit 1970s queer cult sister, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Best musical moment: The Plato-inspired ‘The Origin of Love’.
- Book tickets for Hedwig and the Angry Inch at BFI Southbank
- Watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch online on BFI Player
Director François Ozon
Set in a country house in 1950s France, François Ozon’s murder mystery comedy is a bright, bubbly, sumptuous affair bordering on the kitsch and with tongue firmly lodged in cheek. A stylised genre hybrid of Agatha Christie-style whodunits and classic Hollywood song-and-dance with a touch of saturated melodrama thrown in, there’s a lot of campy fun to be had. With exquisite costumes and ravishingly elegant smoking, the all-star cast of French cinema royalty – including Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve – elevate it to iconic status, with the latter evoking memories of Jacques Demy and earlier French musical classics.
Best musical moment: Deneuve’s Gaby sings the seductive ‘Toi jamais’.
The Saddest Music in the World
Director Guy Maddin
The Saddest Music in the World is right out there on the outer limits of the film musical. Done in grainy, flickering black and white, in a feverishly insane take on the visual grammar of 20s and 30s Hollywood, it’s like a deep-time transmission from the genre’s uneasy subconscious. But if that makes this missive from the mad poet of Manitoba, Guy Maddin, sound difficult, in fact the set-up could hardly be more appealing: in the frozen north during the Great Depression, to celebrate Winnipeg being named the “world capital of sorrow”, Isabella Rossellini’s baroness invites teams from around the world to descend on the Canadian town to perform in a contest to discover which country has the most melancholy music.
Best musical moment: We don’t want to spoil who wins, so we’ll pick Maria de Medeiros’s lovelorn walk in the snow, her song taken up by ice hockey players, nurses, sailors and street cleaners.
Director Yash Chopra
Hailing from pre-Partition Lahore, veteran director-producer Yash Chopra was the perfect fit for this paean to the Punjab and its peoples. The complex plot is related in flashback by Indian Hindu prisoner Veer (Shah Rukh Khan) to human rights lawyer Saamiya (Rani Mukerji), as he tries to explain how he was framed 22 years earlier after falling for Pakistani Muslim, Zaara (Preity Zinta). Complete with cameos by Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini as Khan’s doting uncle and aunt, the Romeo and Juliet saga has to tread carefully politically. But the musical numbers that Sanjeev Kohli concocted from some of father Madan Mohan’s unused melodies are staged with poignant panache.
Best musical moment: Madan Mohan and Javed Akhtar’s ‘Lodi’, a fire festival ensemble routine with playback vocals by Gurdas Maan, Udit Narayan and Lata Mangeshkar.
The Wayward Cloud
Director Tsai Ming-liang
Perhaps the greatest outlier in this list, from the always experimenting Tsai Ming-liang comes the audacious and absurd The Wayward Cloud, his second musical (after 1998’s The Hole) and a quasi-sequel to What Time Is It There? (2001), which featured the same lead characters. It’s a film that oscillates between the quiet reflection that one would expect from the Taiwanese slow cinema master, and pornographic sex scenes and bizarre, spontaneous musical moments about repressed feelings and watermelons. Its most talked-about sequence is the disturbing finale, one that holds its romantic leads to account in an unflinching and controversial scene that caused mass walkouts on its festival screenings.
Best musical moment: There’s no beating the wild song-and-dance number on the plight of erectile dysfunction, sung by a Taiwanese porn actress wearing a costume compiled from traffic cones.
Memories of Matsuko
Director Tetsuya Nakashima
A film that defies easy classification, Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko is as jubilant and hilarious as it is devastating in its exploration of a woman who only seems to suffer in return for whatever love she gives. With its giddy musical sequences, it sugar-coats a fairly miserable story, and this almost contradictory clash of emotions extends to its candy-coloured visuals, which play as if Barry Sonnenfeld split duties with Baz Luhrmann on Dreams of a Life.
Best musical moment: It’s between ‘Happy Wednesday’ and ‘What Is a Life’ – the former hilariously upbeat about Matsuko becoming someone’s mistress; the latter like a combination of Chicago and Lauryn Hill in a number about life in prison.
Director John Carney
A low-key indie romance with liltingly lyrical folk songs and heartfelt compassion. Directed by Dublin-born John Carney, its soulful spirit made it an unlikely but welcome hit transfer on to the West End stage. Set in Dublin, the film follows an Irish busker and a Czech woman brought together through a love of music and a desire for companionship. Its simplicity and low budget aesthetic make this one of the most intimate of on-screen musicals. The honesty of tender human emotion shines through the performances from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, their off-screen musical collaboration adding to the authenticity and chemistry of their relationship and the songs themselves.
Best musical moment: ‘Falling Slowly’, which the unnamed guy and girl sing at a music shop piano.
Director Phyllida Lloyd
Adapted from the stage musical written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, this runaway commercial success directed by Phyllida Lloyd is responsible for the resurgence of the jukebox musical and is a simple joy that serves as an antidote to life’s many complexities. Part of the charm of this Greek-island-set tale powered by ABBA hits is the fact that Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård absolutely cannot sing. It’s immaterial. Their earnest delivery is all we need. That, plus: Meryl Streep owning her powers, a sunny island stage, lavish set-pieces, sparkly outfits and a full-bodied embrace of the loving warmth that make ABBA songs so enduringly anthemic.
Best musical moment: ‘Waterloo’, with everyone in their shiniest, silliest costumes.
Sophie Monks Kaufman
Director Penny Woolcock
2009 brings some slim pickings to our musical buffet (Rob Marshall’s Nine, anyone?), so we’re left with the most interesting of a bad bunch. In fairness to Penny Woolcock’s Birmingham-set, grime-flavoured musical, it’s at least trying to do something different with the genre. Set over the course of 24 hours, 1 Day sees protagonist Flash in need of the £100k he’s borrowed from the stash of his boss, a drug dealer released from prison that day. If the plot is paint-by-numbers, it’s not wanting for energy, and the cast made up largely of non-actors prove, well, committed at least. Woolcock told the BBC: “I thought about it being a musical as soon as I decided to make it a fiction. I walk past groups of boys in the street rapping to beats on their mobile phones all the time. Hip hop and grime are an authentic expression of street life. It’s the way people tell their stories.”
Best musical moment: ‘Angeleye’ sees 33 and 4th Lord en route to take out Flash. Shot within their car en route to the hit, it’s a suitably angry and energised number.
Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
2010 wasn’t much better than 2009, in all honesty, but this 50th animated feature from Disney amicably passes the time. A CG take on the Rapunzel story, one Walt Disney had been trying to get up and running in the 1940s, Tangled boasts the usual array of nifty action set-pieces, of which an escape from an exploding dam takes centre stage. The magic-haired heroine is kidnapped as a child and locked in a tower, where a witch can steal from her youth-giving locks at will. Cue dreams of escape, a would-be prince charming and a stubborn horse. It’s largely routine fairytale fare from the studio, but not without the odd moment of animated wonder, as when thousands of Chinese lanterns take to the skies.
Best musical moment: When Rapunzel finally sees the lantern display in person, her Oscar-nominated ballad ‘I See the Light’ proves blandly effective.
Girl Walk // All Day
Director Jacob Krupnick
Throughout this timeline, we’ve prioritised song-and-dance movies over dance films. Peerless as it is, you’re not convincing this writer that The Red Shoes is a true musical. But we’re going to cheat and make an exception for this Kickstarter-funded joy from Jacob Krupnick, essentially a feature-length music video for mash-up maestro Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day. Available for free in 12 parts on Vimeo (like the album, it contains way too many uncleared samples to get a conventional release), it follows an unnamed, shell-suited girl (Anne Marsen) after she busts free of her sedate ballet class to begin a 70-minute dance odyssey through New York. Linking back to the great city musicals of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli, the result is a euphoric rush.
Best musical moment: The climactic, sparkler-lit parade through Central Park at night, as UGK’s ‘One Day’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ collide on the soundtrack.
Director Jason Moore
This hilarious post-Glee campus musical may mark the moment when the High School Musical generation grew up, or at least got accepted into college. Twenty-first century movie-musical icon Anna Kendrick stars as beat-savvy hipster Beca, who is obviously far too cool to join her university’s dorky a capella singing group the Barden Bellas. Or is she? You don’t have to believe Beca’s worship of David Guetta is cutting-edge to enjoy her growing determination to turn the beat around and transform the Bellas into a musical force to be reckoned with. Expert comic turns from the likes of Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson and Elizabeth Banks (who went on to direct the first sequel) and the delightfully loopy invention of the “Riff-off” made this 2012 film a sleeper hit. “Hands in, a-ca-bitches!”
Best musical moment: Anna Kendrick’s finger-clicking, tub-tapping rendition of ‘Cups (When I’m Gone)’ in her audition scene.
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Disney Studios’ retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has all the required elements of an animated Disney classic: memorable melodies, likeable characters, a witty script and outstanding animation. Its message of sisterly love over unfeasible, old-fashioned romance and an identifiable princess in the tormented Elsa meant that its appeal was even wider, making it (until the remake of The Lion King) the highest grossing animated film of all time. The film’s phenomenal success was helped enormously by ‘Let It Go’, which became a karaoke favourite, LGBTQ anthem, Grammy and Oscar winning mega hit and probably one of the most popular songs to ever be released from the House of Mouse’s hit-filled songbook.
Best musical moment: Queen Elsa’s escape to ‘Let it Go’, sung by broadway star Idina Menzel.
The Last Five Years
Director Richard LaGravenese
If there’s one thing holding back the current film musical renaissance, it’s the retro stylings of them all, their dependence on either nostalgia for old Hollywood, the safe familiarity of a jukebox songbook or – in the case of Disney – needless rehashes of the back catalogue. Few dare to risk anything new. The Last Five Years goes against the grain: it might be based on an off-Broadway show from 2001, but in movie terms it feels fresh and in-the-moment in its non-chronological examination of the breakdown of the relationship between New York actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). Almost entirely sung, in the Sondheim manner, the narrative has some similarities with the later La La Land, but with none of the pastiche-y trappings. It’s exuberant, modern, sharply written and, if you’re wired its way, difficult to resist.
Best musical moment: The lakeside reunion that disintegrates into a blazing (sung) row.
Director Johnnie To
Though he’s best known in the west for his sharp, punchy gangster thrillers, there’s barely a single genre that Johnnie To’s long, storied career hasn’t touched. Known for marrying high concepts with astute political commentary, his foray into the musical, Office, might be his most successful in this regard, satirising corporate culture and its disingenuous claims towards companionship in songs that are as funny as the design is handsome. Though the numerous songs about office politics, corruption and the financial crisis are hilarious, the standout here is the unique, modern production design, meeting a halfway point between stage musicals and the cinematic with its set entirely constructed from interconnected prisms of metal bars.
Best musical moment: In which an executive quickly and decisively breaks the mirage created by previous songs about how corporate office culture is really about ‘family’, bursting in with a song about all the expensive brands she owns and how one “may as well be dead” if they can’t afford designer clothing.
La La Land
Director Damien Chazelle
The gloss on Damien Chazelle’s nostalgic ode to Hollywood and its musical heyday may have been slightly tarnished by its infamous last-second loss of the Oscar for best picture to Moonlight, yet the film’s popularity, original score and critical praise undoubtedly contributed to the genre’s resurgence. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Mia and Sebastian – two dreamers trying to make it big in LA – brings an authenticity and charm to the stylised spectacle. With a genuine sense of melancholic loss as the film draws to a close, and the song and dance numbers fade away, this rises above mere pastiche to become a modern musical classic.
Best musical moment: Mia and Sebastian evoke Fred and Ginger against the backdrop of LA at dusk with ‘A Lovely Night’.
The Greatest Showman
Director Michael Gracey
Freely adapted from the life story of American showman P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman turns his dubious use of people as curiosity attractions into a supposedly aspirational tale about the greatness of being ‘different’. For this critic, however, what makes the film so enjoyable isn’t its story, but rather the way it transcends it. Carried by Hugh Jackman’s boundless enthusiasm, catchy tunes, as well as Zac Efron and Zendaya in supporting roles, The Greatest Showman is a gloriously camp object that overlooks its own obvious shortcomings with incredible panache. Whether the filmmakers were aware of them in the first place is the central wonder of this endlessly fascinating curiosity.
Best musical moment: The duet between Hugh Jackman and Zac ‘High School Musical’ Efron, each one tap dancing on a bar, is worth the price of admission alone.
Season of the Devil
Director Lav Diaz
For the uninitiated, at 234 minutes Season of the Devil is ‘one of the short ones’ for Filipino maestro Lav Diaz, a director whose greatest works can run anywhere between eight and 13 hours apiece. It’s his first musical, in the loosest possible definition of the term, so don’t expect any numbers as such, the effect being more a sung-spoken operetta. Diaz is back in historical territory, charting the period of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos in the late 1970s, when the so-called CHDF order decreed 70,000 civilians armed and given power “to help quell the so-called rebellious deeds of the Communist Party of the Philippines”. The circular repetitions of both music and form instil a numbing effect in the face of the many atrocities depicted, but for those with the patience – and perhaps a few Lavs already under their belt – this remains vital viewing.
Best musical moment: It’s really not that kind of film – there aren’t musical ‘moments’, despite most dialogue being sung – but the recurrent refrains hold a cumulative power, especially in the film’s later, darker stretches, while crazed Chairman Narciso has quite a scene.
With Disney rebooting its 90s favourites Aladdin and The Lion King for a new generation, the Elton John biopic Rocketman repping for the jukebox musical, and Donald Glover’s Guava Island a good outside bet, the big-screen musical revival has continued apace in 2019. But with Frozen 2 not due in cinemas until 22 November and the trepidatiously awaited Cats coming on 20 December, it’s too soon to make the call on what this year’s greatest film musical will be. But we’re happy to carve out 2020’s spot now: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is going to be something to see, and its Christmastime release date next year can’t come soon enough.