20. Babes in Arms (1939)
Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms was made as a tribute to the Vaudeville performers of the 1920s. Vaudeville was a style of theater similar to a modern day variety show. Vaudeville became virtually extinct once cinema began taking over.
What makes Babes in Arms a near forgotten classic has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, on the contrary Babes in Arms is an excellent musical; it was just released in the best year for cinema arguably ever. 1939 already had its choice musical, Wizard of Oz, oddly enough however; Babes in Arms also stars Judy Garland as well as a very young Mickey Rooney. The two play off of each other flawlessly, and their chemistry is undeniable. Had Wizard of Oz never been released, I still believe Judy Garland would have been a major draw in Hollywood because of her performance Babes in Arms.
The film features excellent choreography and Mickey Rooney is perfect in this film. Between his dancing, and Garland’s singing, the film was destined to be a hit. Babes in Arms was even was nominated for 2 Academy Awards; one for Best Actor (Rooney) and one for Best Music. The film features exceptional songs including “Good Morning,” and “God’s Country” as well as an array of songs from previous productions. Even though Babes in Arms never reached the stratosphere like Wizard of Oz, it is an exceptional film and an example of how Hollywood has changed politically over time.
19. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized, jukebox musical is an impressive and meticulously crafted film. Luhrmann is no stranger to making films with a unique look and feel (Romeo + Juliet and 2013’s The Great Gatsby). The film was the first major musical of the millennium and audiences responded positively to the bright and vibrant final product.
The film won audience members over for a few reasons; one reason is the incredible ensemble cast. Nichole Kidman is spectacular as the leading lady Satine, Ewan McGregor plays the tortured romantic, Christian, and an array of great supporting actors and actresses helped bring Luhrmann’s wild vision to life. Another reason this film succeeded is, of course, the music. Moulin Rouge! is different from any other jukebox musical, the music used in the film spans decades and are all pop songs.
Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, which uses all Beatles songs or Hairspray, which uses all songs from the period, this film uses songs by Madonna, Elton John, and even songs from other musicals, like The Sound of Music. The use of pop music as opposed to an original score allowed audience members to connect to the songs immediately and give an understanding of a scene based on the audiences knowledge of the songs being sang and performed.
The music and acting wasn’t all that made ¬Moulin Rouge! a hit. The costuming and set design was top notch as well. The film was critically acclaimed and was even nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Despite the fact that the film doesn’t have a true original score does not take away from the film in the slightest. It is a visually stunning, and well written love letter to a time when live performance dominated the entertainment industry.
18. Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall’s Chicago was a jolt of excitement and gave viewers something completely new and fresh in a genre that begged for a re-birth. Chicago took audience members by storm in the winter of 2002 and was a wildly successful film. Grossing over 170 million in the US alone, the film proved that American audiences were still willing to see musicals on the big screen and more importantly, that the genre could still deliver.
Chicago has an incredibly talented group of actors that brought the story of a corrupted murder trial in the 1920s to life. Richard Gere as the snake in the grass lawyer Billy Flynn, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, an absurdly talented showgirl, and Renée Zellweger and the new girl on the block, Roxie Hart.
The cast is a large part of what makes this film a joy to watch, everyone is perfectly casted in their roles and demand the attention of any viewer watching. Of course, the cast is just one aspect of Chicago that made it great; the soundtrack is at this point an honest classic and one of the great soundtracks of all time. Songs such as, “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango”, and “Roxy,” are all significant cinematic songs.
Chicago is a true modern American masterpiece. This is a dazzling film that has all the pieces that make a musical really wonderful. The soundtrack, the ensemble cast, the visual style, the narrative, the acting, the directing, Chicago has it all. It was also highly critically acclaimed and was the last musical to win the Oscar for best Picture, along with 5 other awards at the Academy Awards. Chicago gave a new life to the genre, and it is, without question, the last great musical.
17. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Richard Lester’s zany, goofball comedy is a highly influential and important film. It is considered one of the greatest British films ever made, and its impact in America was also significant. Made for a measly budget, (under £200,000) the film was a major success and was the first time John, Paul, George, and Ringo starred in a feature film.
The film follows The Beatles in their daily lives. They run from screaming fans, get into trouble, and in general, are involved in all sorts of humorous moments and shenanigans. Eventually, they make it to London to play a show on primetime television. Remember, this was released at the height of Beatlemania, this is suit and tie Beatles, not Magical Mystery Tour Beatles. To put it simply, The Beatles were the biggest thing on the planet in 1964 so it’s no surprise the film was a hit.
As far as soundtracks are concerned, what can really be said that hasn’t been said? It’s The Beatles in their early years, it’s pop music at its finest. Songs such as “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “If I Fell,” and “She Loves You,” are just a few of the iconic songs you will hear throughout the film. The Beatles did other films after A Hard Day’s Night but none as funny, acclaimed, or influential as this one. It really is the definitive jukebox musical, and above all, it is a wonderful film.
16. Oliver! (1968)
Carol Reed is a legend in British cinema. He was one of the UK’s premier filmmakers, and gave the world incredibly important and culturally significant films spanning from Night Train to Munich to The Third Man. However, the film Reed hit his most success with and the one most people remember him for is a musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.
Oliver! has a story that is embedded into the culture of America at this point. Dickens’ classic tale of an orphan who escapes a miserable workhouse and, unknowingly, joins a gang of thieves before being taken in by a kind older man who gives Oliver a good and healthy life. While viewers may already know the plot of Oliver! it is Reed’s direction and use of camera that make this film stand out. Like all of Reed’s films, it is gorgeously shot and the attention to detail is stunning. With Reed’s direction, the performances by Ron Moody as Fagin and Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes make it hard to turn away from the film.
The song sequences from Oliver! are wonderfully directed and choreographed. Songs such as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Pick a Pocket or Two,” and “Oom-Pah-Pah” doesn’t take a viewer out of the film at all, they are entrancing and it shows Reed’s craft as a filmmaker. Even though the film is based on a timeless tale, making it a musical was a great way to give new life to the story and it’s hard to see Oliver! any other way.
While Reed was well respected before, this was the only time he won for best director at the Academy Awards and the film also took home best picture. Oliver! is a truly enjoyable film and even though it’s Oliver Twist, it manages to feel fresh and gives the story a flawless re-creation.
15. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Beauty and the Beast is the perfect Disney animated film. It has everything a great Disney classic should have and it does it better than most do. The film was released during Disney’s renaissance period, which is the era from 1989-1999 (although films prior used this formula also such as Snow White).
This particular era revolves around stories based on old fairy-tales and well-known folklore from other countries. This era is one of Disney’s most successful, and the 10 films released during this time were all box office successes and they were all critically acclaimed as well. Despite such classics as The Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Aladdin, there was no better musical released during this time than Beauty and the Beast.
The story is based on a French fairy-tale, which was written in the 1700s. The protagonist of the film is Belle; a young French woman who goes to search for her missing father only to find out a once beautiful prince has taken him prisoner.
An enchantress who saw the Prince for who he really was, a shallow and arrogant man, cursed him to be a hideous monster until he could find true love in his unattractive form. Belle sacrifices herself for the release of her father only to eventually fall in love with the Beast turning him and his servants back to their human form. It’s a wonderful story with a true Hollywood ending and twists along the way. The narrative of Beauty and the Beast is one of its strongest suits.
The film was a smash hit across the globe and is one of Disney’s most acclaimed films. It was the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards before changing the amount of films to 10 in 2010. It also won for best score and best original song.
The American Film Institute voted it the 7th greatest animated film ever made, as well as the 22nd best musical of all time. Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s best-animated film. The narrative, the songs, the visuals, and the characters this movie brought to life surpass any other film Disney has done. Disney has produced many musicals over the years, but none are as masterful as this one.
14. Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The epitome of a cult classic, and a film that changed the way fans experience the theater is Jim Sharman’s bizarre and hilarious sci-fi masterpiece Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film is about a transvestite doctor, played brilliantly by Tim Curry, as he tries to create the perfect man. The film was made as a tribute to the B-movie sci-fi and horror genre as well as a nod to 1950s rock and roll. The film succeeds as all three, and is without question a sexy, and over-the-top rock opera.
The film gained success and a cult following due to its lengthy run as a midnight movie in New York City. The film is considered one of the major midnight films along with John Waters’ Pink Flamingos¬ and Alejandro Jodaworski’s El Topo. Rocky Horror Picture Show is so beloved by fans that the film is still played in theaters all over the country. Despite the budget being less than 2 million, the film has managed to gross almost 140 million and the number is still rising every year.
Rocky Horror Picture Show gave the world some hilarious and catchy songs including “Time Warp,” “Dammit Janet,” and “Sweet Transvestite.” If you decide to go see Rocky Horror Picture Show on a Saturday night at midnight, it would be wise to know the songs by heart as well as most of the dialogue. Fans act out the film and they have turned Sharman’s work into their own live show. Rocky Horror Picture show may not be held in as high regards as some of the other films on this list, but there is no denying it’s cultural impact or fan base it has gathered after all these years.
13. My Fair Lady (1964)
George Cukor’s landmark film is one of the most decorated musicals ever made. Cukor’s near 3-hour epic swept through audiences like wildfire upon its release. Aside from giving filmgoers their first major musical in 3 years, it also revived the career of the legendary director.
What makes My Fair Lady so popular is its narrative. The film is a true rag to riches story, which American audiences historically love. Aside from the narrative, the film starred one of Hollywood’s true icons, as well as one of the biggest stars of the time, Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn brilliantly brought the brash and un-mannered character of Eliza Doolittle to life and deserved the praise she received for playing the character as honest as she did. The film follows Doolittle as a poor, flower saleswoman who is taken in by Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) to teach her the importance of speech and to turn her into a “proper” lady.
Like West Side Story the film was shot in Super Panavision 70, so of course it has majestic color and sharp imagery. The soundtrack to My Fair Lady is in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals. Songs such as, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Show Me,” and “Without You,” are all mainstays in the genre. Audience members weren’t the only ones to praise ¬My Fair Lady, as mentioned before, it was highly acclaimed. The film took home 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography. My Fair Lady is a true American classic and one of the most influential musicals ever.
12. Cabaret (1972)
Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is an exaggerated, loud, and vibrant look into the Berlin nightlife in the early 1930s during the dawn of Nazi takeover. The film was a major success and made Liza Minnelli into an icon in the musical world. Its screenplay and cinematography are fantastic, but the performances by Minnelli and Michael York made the film, the two of them absolutely steal the show.
Cabaret has a unique style, and was highly influential on musicals to come after. The musical numbers in this film are separate to the narrative that is occurring; all but one number takes place on stage in the club in which Minnelli works. Its dark tone, and underlying political themes made the film a landmark of 70s cinema and helped shape the decade as one of cinema’s best.
The soundtrack is home to multiple iconic songs such as the films title track, and also “Money, Money” and “Maybe This Time” The awards and accolades Cabaret achieved are impressive as well, the film won 8 Academy Awards but lost best picture to The Godfather. It is considered one of the best 100 films ever made as well as number 5 on AFI’s greatest musicals list. Cabaret is a socially significant piece, and will always be talked about as one of the great musical films.
11. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
Arguably the best musical of the 40s is this family masterpiece directed by Vincente Minnelli. Meet Me In St. Louis follows the Smith family in their daily lives. We follow them as they try to find love, deal with work, and decide whether to stay in their beloved St. Louis, or relocate to New York City. All of this occurs in 1903, which was the year St. Louis was to host the World’s Fair.
With all that occurs in the lives of these characters, it is hard not to be captivated by the story unfolding on screen. The film stars Judy Garland in one of, if not her best performance in her accomplished career. One reason this film so enjoyable is the screenplay. The dialogue is quick and clever and seems to give a more honest approach to conversation as opposed to many films from the era.
The children for example are unapologetic and even crude in some scenes. Another aspect that makes Meet Me In St. Louis worth your time is its masterful cinematography. The shot selection and use of color in this film are top notch and some of the best from the decade. The use of camera angles and lighting set this film apart from others of the era.
The film’s soundtrack was responsible for many classic hits, and a song that we hear year after year as well. One of the most famous Christmas songs debuted in this film, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which is performed by Judy Garland. Other songs such as “The Trolley Song” and “Meet Me In St. Louis” were big hits upon the films release.
All of these factors make the film a must see musical and it is held in very high regards. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including best-adapted screenplay and cinematography. While Wizard of Oz will always be what Judy Garland is known for, there is no doubt that this is the film she not only gave her best performance in, but also, cemented herself as a true musical icon.