The musical genre has been one of the most successful film genres in the history of cinema. The genre has been around since the early 1920s. Once silent pictures started to fade away and talkies began to take over Hollywood, it was only natural that music and film would be blended as one. In 1927, Warner Bros. released Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer, which is considered the first true film musical. It was the first film to feature synchronized dialogue with a diegetic and non-diegetic soundtrack.
After the release of The Jazz Singer, the musical genre exploded in the 1930’s. The golden age film musicals span across the 1930s through the 1960s. The genre had never been more popular than during that era, and Hollywood created some of the most iconic and influential musicals in history.
During the 30s and 40s, the Hollywood studios controlled every aspect of filmmaking from who directed, starred, and where the films were shown. If the studio didn’t think the movie would turn a profit, then it would not be made, which is why musicals were so prominent. Similar to the super-hero genre today, musicals were almost always a success.
Musicals have been responsible for 10 best picture winners at the Academy Awards. The genre has 8 films listed in the American Film Institutes Top 100 Films. The musical genre has contributed to some of the finest films of all time and some of the most memorable moments in the history of cinema. The following 30 films are ones that helped shape the genre and contribute to the landscape of culturally and socially significant cinema.
30. Phantom Of The Opera (1943)
The first talkie based on the most famous opera of all time is an excellent and interesting take on the beloved story. The film was produced by Universal Studios and was marketed as another monster movie, although the film isn’t in the same vein as Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931) Phantom of the Opera is still considered a classic Universal horror picture. The film is a remake of an earlier, silent version of Phantom also produced by Universal Studios.
The film’s narrative is different from both the stage play as well as the earlier film version. In this film an aging violinist and pianist, Erique Claudin, is released from the Paris Opera House. He tries to get his latest piece published and accuses the publisher of stealing his music. He kills the publisher and is deformed by a woman who witnesses the murder by throwing acid in his face.
Claudin breaks into the opera house and begins living there with plans of making a young opera singer named Christine sing only for him while he plays music in the sewers underneath the opera house. Universal’s objective was to give the film a horror tone and give audience members something different with a classic tale.
A standout feature of this film is the beautiful set constructed for the opera house. Universal used the same set from the 1925 version but this film has much more intricate camera work and the color is beautiful. The film won two Academy Award’s for both cinematography and art direction. The music in the film is mostly classical pieces from composers such as Chopin and Tchaikovsky, and Edward Ward, who scored the rest of the film, wrote Claudin’s concert piece. Phantom of the Opera is a timeless story and Universal did a fantastic job reimagining the stage opera as both a horror film and a musical.
29. Funny Girl (1968)
Director William Wyler is as iconic as it gets when talking about old Hollywood. He has directed over 60 films spanning from 1925-1970. On top of that, he has been nominated for an unprecedented 12 Best Director awards at the Oscars. Funny Girl happened to be his second to last film and the only musical he ever directed, and it’s apparent that Wyler never lost a step in his vision as an artist and filmmaker.
The film stars Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, who was a real life comedian and stage performer. The film is loosely based on her rise to stardom on Broadway and her rough relationship with her husband Nicky Arnstein. Streisand shines in this film and controls the screen; she gives a serious knockout performance. Before taking the lead in Funny Girl, she was a well-known singer, but had never acted in a film before. Streisand’s performance even gained her an Academy Award for best actress. Aside from being well acted, the film is gorgeously shot and of course superbly directed.
The soundtrack is mainly performed by Streisand herself and is home to some of the most iconic film songs ever. Songs such as, “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” and “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You” are all staples in the musical world. The film was a major success for Wyler and was a perfect way for audiences to see a major feature directed by him one last time. Funny Girl is well written, well acted, well shot, and well directed. It is a standout film from his large body of work and is a film that still holds up today.
28. Hairspray (1988)
John Waters’ Hairspray was made as homage to the teen dance television shows of the 1960s and 70s (American Bandstand, Soul Train, and The Buddy Deane Show). Hairspray is a unique film is Waters’ filmography because it is without question his most mild mannered movie. It’s also the only PG rated film he has ever written and directed. Although it stands alone in his body of work, the movie still has its fair share of controversial subjects, mainly racism.
What makes Hairspray a worthy musical is the film’s subject matter. Most films made for the sake of nostalgia trips (musicals especially) look at the respected decade through a rose tinted lens. Waters however, chose to keep some of the 1960s darker truth present in his film. Hairspray deals with segregation as a main point of the plot. The idea that the white kids can only dance on the “Corny Collins Show,” while the black kids are only allowed on one day a month for “Negro Day.” The main character, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) fights for the rights of the black teens in her community to integrate the show and end segregation.
Hairspray was the toughest choice for me whether or not to include the film in the list. It is in fact a musical, but not a traditional one. The films doesn’t feature any musical numbers performed by the characters to progress plot, but instead they dance to music. Music is the main aspect of Hairspray, the songs just aren’t sung but the characters. Is Hairspray a traditional musical? No, it’s not, but it is an important film and paved the way for a hit Broadway adaptation as well as a 2007 re-make written by Waters.
Hairspray put John Waters into the mainstream spotlight and held him there for many years. Hairspray was very influential in the shift from the classic Hollywood style into a more contemporary way of making musicals in the 90s. You won’t find the big song and dance scenes, but you will certainly hear fantastic music from the period as well as excellent choreography throughout the film.
27. Cry-Baby (1990)
In 1990 John Waters’ did make a traditional musical, and similar to Hairspray, it was a trip back in time. Cry-Baby is a spoof on the teen films of the 50s and 60s as well as a spoof on Grease. While the film is not as well known as Hairspray, it is still a significant piece of the musical genre as well as one of the great cult films of the 1990s. The film also stars a young Johnny Depp, in only his second leading role.
Cry-Baby is another one of Waters’ milder films, but it is a slight return to form for the notorious king of filth. As mentioned before, the idea behind Cry-Baby was to homage the rebellious teen movies from the 50s, while Grease in it’s own way was an homage to the genre, Cry-Baby was much more satirical and humorous in its attempt. The film follows a gang of misfits called “The Drapes,” led by Cry-Baby as they run wild in the city of Baltimore.
The rich, posh kids known simply as “The Squares” look down on The Drapes as menacing punks, until one of the squares, Allison, falls for Cry-Baby sending the square kids into a frenzy. As far as narrative is concerned, it’s a simple story, but because the film is a spoof and a satire, the plot is perfect for what Waters wanted to accomplish.
While Cry-Baby didn’t succeed as well as it should have, it was also adapted into a stage play and really launched Johnny Depp into the star he has become. The films has a large cult following and like Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is still shown in smaller art house theaters and major cities all over the country. The soundtrack to Cry-Baby is excellent as well, giving listeners and viewers a trip back to the old days of rock and roll.
Songs such as, “King Cry-Baby,” “Sh-Boom,” and “Doin’ Time for Bein’ Young,” are all examples as to why Cry-Baby is a must see for any fan of the genre. Cry-Baby is certainly an example of a musical anyone can enjoy, even people who scoff at the genre. Cry-Baby didn’t just give the 1990’s its first cult classic, but its first great musical.
26. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are no strangers to the musical genre; the beloved series has dozens of musical numbers, the first feature film they ever directed, Cannibal! The Musical gave them the start up cash to make the South Park pilot, and they wrote one of the highest acclaimed Broadway musicals ever, Book of Mormon. It was only natural really that the big screen adaptation to their highly successful TV show be a musical.
The film focuses on censorship or really, the dangers of censoring what people can see, hear, and say themselves. Before the film was released Parker and Stone had a constant battle with the MPAA over the rating of the movie. The film was consistently being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating meaning that most movie theaters in the country would refuse to screen the film. Just 2 weeks before opening night the film finally secured the R rating.
The film’s legacy also revolves around the time of its release. America was still recovering from the tragedy of Columbine and many figures in the media were being blamed for the tragedy. The South Park movie was able to show people that censorship and sheltering our youth will not help them to become better citizens. The idea of loving each other and not being afraid of what’s different is a major theme in the movie.
Aside from the strong satire, the film has a wonderful soundtrack that was even nominated for an Oscar, for the song, “Blame Canada,” and the film is widely regarded as one of the funniest films ever made as well as one of the best animated films of all time.
25. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors is an odd film to say the least. It’s a horror comedy that was destined to be a cult classic. It is based on an off-Broadway stage production, which was based on a Roger Corman film from 1960. It has an excellent ensemble cast, and a wild narrative as well. As if these elements aren’t enough, the film was shot entirely on a soundstage complete with painted backdrops and replica city streets, which gives the film a look and feel of musicals from the golden era.
The story of Little Shop of Horrors follows an awkward nerdy man, played by Rick Moranis, who discovers a Venus flytrap-like plant at a Chinese flower shop. He discovers the only way to feed this plant is to give him human blood and flesh. He goes from being an ordinary guy struggling to survive, to the big talk of the country. This flesh-eating plant also talks, sings, and plots to kill his caretaker in hopes of taking over the human race. The film also features cameos by Steve Martin (in one of his funniest roles), Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Jim Belushi, and John Candy.
The visual style and production quality is one of the standout reasons why this film is a worth looking at. The choice to shoot on a soundstage gives it that “classic” look, despite the fact the rest of the film’s production elements aren’t typical of a Hollywood musical. The soundtrack is a lot of fun and has some really wonderful rock and roll songs.
Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs voiced the killer plant and was nominated for best song at the Academy Awards for the song, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space.” Other songs such as “Suddenly Seymour,” “Feed Me,” and “Grow For Me” also provide quality songs from the soundtrack. Little Shop of Horrors is an excellent example of how a smaller production can still be an influential film. Frank Oz and his team did a wonderful job bringing this offbeat little film to life.
24. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
A landmark in cinematic history and the first film in the Walt Disney Animated Classic series shaped the future of not just animation but filmmaking for generations to come. Snow White was the first feature length animated film and made Walt Disney a household name across the globe.
The story for Snow White comes from the fairy tale written by the Grimm Brothers. Disney is no stranger to using classic stories as inspiration for their films, but this was the first to mold the Disney model. Snow White changed everything in the way people viewed cinema. Animation was used primarily as a form of short entertainment before live-action feature films were shown. Studios and filmgoers weren’t exactly investing in animation until Disney made it possible.
Although the film was a landmark and a marvel, let’s not forget that it is also a great musical. The songs are deeply rooted in American culture and well known by children and adults alike. Songs such as “Whistle While You Work,” Heigh-Ho,” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come” made audience members come back for more. This film single handedly paved the way for the next 70 plus years of animation and musicals. It’s hard to find a film more socially significant and influential than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As far as musicals are concerned it’s one of a kind and just the tip of the iceberg for what Walt Disney Studios was able to accomplish.
23. Grease (1978)
Randal Kleiser’s fun and romanticized version of teen life in the 50s swept the world by storm when Grease hit theaters in the summer of 1978. The film was an instant success and went on to gross over 180 million dollars in the US alone. Audience members loved the nostalgia trip back to the time of greaser hair, leather jackets, polka dots, and early rock and roll.
Grease follows the story of Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson, two high school teens that had a summer together and fell in love. When they went their separate ways they thought they would never see each other again. However, instead of going back home to Australia, Sandy begins classes at the same high school Danny attends and they fall back in love. It’s a true Hollywood romance, and American and international fans couldn’t get enough.
Both John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were well known stars before the release of Grease, but after the film came out they were global superstars. Both actors as well as the film itself have become household names and the film remains the highest grossing musical of all time. Love it or hate it, there is no denying the cultural significance of Grease.
The reason the film was so successful wasn’t just because it gave viewers a rose colored view of the 50s, but it had a lively and energetic soundtrack. The soundtrack to Grease was the second highest selling album of the year and the film was nominated for best song at the Oscars. Songs such as, “Summer Loving,” “Grease Lightning,” “Sandy,” and “You’re The One I Want” elevated Grease into the box-office smash it was. Grease is apart of American culture, and Americans love to look back on the 50s with positive eyes, and this film gives viewers that fantasy.
22. Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Lars Von Trier’s experimental musical is unlike any musical I have ever seen. Dancer in the Dark is truly a unique viewing experience. The film is about an immigrant mother who is working in a factory to save money for her son’s surgery. He needs the surgery so he doesn’t go blind, which she herself is slowly losing her vision throughout the film. To put it simply, Dancer is the Dark is not the typical happy kind of musical; it is dark, drab, and emotionally draining. It also stars Björk in her first and pretty much last film.
What sets Dancer in the Dark apart from not just other musicals, but also other films in general is its unique visual style. Von Trier along with Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) invented a style of filmmaking known as Dogme 95, a style of filmmaking which utilizes non-Hollywood equipment and focuses not on the visuals, but on the performance of the actors as well as narrative.
These films were shot on handheld cameras and used no special effects. There is a complete list of rules a filmmaker must follow to have their film qualify as a true Dogme 95. Dancer in the Dark was heavily influenced by the visual style of Von Trier’s early work. The movie was shot on many small digital cameras, and gives the final product a home movie feel. A musical at its core is a massive production with huge sets, big lights, glam and glitz; Von Trier threw all of that out the window for his musical drama.
The music in this film is excellent and Björk at the time was a major icon in the indie and hipster music scene. Von Trier was lucky to have Björk not just write the original score but perform a majority of the songs as well. Her voice is haunting and cuts through the scenes like a knife. While most musical performers have voices fit for the stage that radiate confidence, Björk’s voice possesses a quality of fear and sadness that are genuine, not just acted.
The film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes film festival and Björk took home the award for best actress as well. The song, “I’ve Seen it All” was also nominated for best song at the Oscar’s. Of all the films listed, this one is the most unique and the one that stands out from the crowd. It’s the black sheep of the bunch but despite its differences, it is an accomplishment in filmmaking and is a film that deserves your attention.
21. Guys and Dolls (1955)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed a splendid and highly entertaining film about a group of hustlers and gamblers in 1940s New York City. Mankiewicz along with Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht (Gunga Din, His Girl Friday) were able to craft a fast-paced and clever screenplay that makes the big screen version of the stage play the superior.
The ensemble cast of Guys and Dolls can be credited as one of the main aspects to the film’s success. Although casting Marlon Brando is generally a good idea, the film met some criticism because people were skeptical as to whether or not he could sing and handle the role of Sky Masterson. Of course, Brando was red hot at the time and delivered an excellent performance as always.
Frank Sinatra played the role of Nathan Detroit, which was a natural fit for the acclaimed singer. The original stage actress, Vivian Blaine, shines on the silvers screen in the role of Adelaide. Her voice and comedic talents match up to both Brando and Sinatra. Aside from the casting the film is very well shot and the choreography, which was done by the original Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd, is top notch as well.
The soundtrack has worked its way into one of the most memorable film soundtracks of all time. Between Sinatra, Blaine, and Brando the soundtrack was equally a hit. Songs such as, “Luck Be A Lady,” “A Bushel and a Peck”, and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” are signature songs in the genre. Between the acting, the music, and the screenplay, there is no doubt that Guys and Dolls is one of the great film musicals.