A Musical fan’s Ranking of the Eighteen Best Movie Musicals— Made With Extreme Difficulty
Ranking these musicals was like ranking my hypothetical children.
We all know that the world is split neatly into two: people who love movie musicals, with their grandiose choreographed numbers and soulful show-stopping pieces and incredible swells of emotions; and people who have no taste. I’m kidding. Sort of.
It’s true that the movie musical—a close cousin to but not exactly the same as the stage musical—is extremely polarizing as a genre. Still, love them or hate them, it’s undeniable that musicals have always been a pillar of Hollywood productions. And that’s just looking at North America, because they might be even more relevant in the cinema industries of other countries. One example above all: India, where Bollywood and Tollywood have been, and still are, making incredible musicals each year. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, I will always love you.
But coming back to Hollywood. For a long time, movie musicals represented a sure-fire way to get your hands on an Academy Award. Their popularity dipped for a bit, it’s true, but it has been steadily rising back up in recent years. To quote Hugh Jackman during his performance at the 2009 Academy Awards, “The musical is back!” And so, here is a rundown of the eighteen best and most iconic movie musicals to have ever graced our screens.
Just a quick note on how this ranking was made before we begin. I’ve taken into consideration several factors, like pop culture impact, general musical value, how good of an adaptation a certain movie musical was when compared to its stage version (if it had one), as well as my personal taste. The result is a balancing act which ultimately still reflects what I find enjoyable about musicals. A balancing act that I hope you’ll still find entertaining.
18. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which premiered in 1954, appears on this list mainly because it holds a special place in my heart. That’s why got into this ranking, but also has to sit at the bottom. Look, do I think that its story most definitely did not survive the test of time? Absolutely. Would I despise someone who behaves like the Pontipee brothers if I were to meet them in real life? Also absolutely. Do I love “Bless Yore Beautiful Hide” and “The Sobbin’ Women” and “Barn Dance” so much that no matter how many times I see this movie—somehow always around Christmastime—they still make me smile and jump around? So much, oh my god.
17. My Fair Lady
The 1964 version of My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, is adapted from the stage musical of the same name. But it’s one of the many productions which rose to fame in its own silver screen right. Maybe it’s Audrey Hepburn. Maybe it’s the iconic costumes she wears. Maybe it’s the, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!,” or the fact that “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane.” It’s an absolute classic all around.
I’ll be honest, it doesn’t sit higher on this ranking because of my own personal tastes. But that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy watching it at the drop of a hat.
16. La La Land
Released in 2016, directed by Damien Chazelle and almost Best Picture Academy Award winner before presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway realised they had read the wrong card, La La Land makes no secret of how much it draws inspiration from a good chunk of other musicals present on this list. And while the vocal performances’ from leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling might not be the best they could possibly be, the movie’s atmosphere and the general nostalgic feeling it evokes are both just delightful—as is its soundtrack. “Another Day of Sun” I love you.
15. Funny Girl
Funny Girl is undoubtedly one of The Barbra Streisand’s roles. Streisand actually won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work as Fanny Brice in 1969, for her work as Fanny Brice. She was also the Broadway originator.
The result is another Hollywood classic filled with iconic songs, from “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to “I’m the Greatest Star” to “My Man.” Funny Girl is undoubtedly one of the greatest movie musicals ever produced. Just like My Fair Lady, though, my personal taste lead me slightly elsewhere. But I obviously own the DVD and will not have to be begged to put it on.
Fun fact, in case you missed some musical theater drama: Funny Girl is currently in production on Broadway, with Lea Michele of Glee fame taking on the role of Fanny Brice, despite some disturbing bullying allegations. That is a whole rabbit hole of a story.
14. The Little Mermaid
Disney’s The Little Mermaid actually stands in this ranking as a placeholder for all the Disney musicals that we know and love: Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, you name it. Disney’s animated movies were a huge factor in keeping the musical in popular culture, and some of them are true masterpieces of the genre. In particular, Academy Award-winner The Little Mermaid was the one that ushered in the Disney Renaissance, kickstarting a whole new era for the studio—and for pop culture in general.
Chicago is the movie adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, which is up there as one of the longest-running and most beloved musicals together with The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Its silver screen adaptation was just as successful, winning a grand total of six Academy Awards and praises all around for the performance of its cast—led by Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly respectively. Fun fact—all but two musical numbers in Chicago are fantasies that happen inside characters’ heads, taking a unique approach to the ever-tricky movie musical question of whether or not songs should be considered intradiegetic or extradiegetic.
Directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Cabaret is widely considered one of the best movie adaptations of a musical. While the performances are all magnificent and a big part of Cabaret’s success, that praise definitely has something to do with how the musical numbers were transposed to the screen. In most movie musicals, the various numbers happen in a way that sort of “stops” the story, cuing to the audience that the characters aren’t perceiving the action as they are. But everything in Cabaret is completely diegetic, meaning that all musical numbers really take place inside the club (with the exception of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”). Dripping in Academy Awards left and right, Cabaret is definitely a treasure of the movie musical genre.
11. The Lion King
Sure, we already had The Little Mermaid as a representative of the massive work done by Disney Classics in keeping the movie musical alive, but The Lion King deserves its own entry in this list. A Hamlet adaptation set within a pack of lions living in the savannah, with music scored by Hans Zimmer and written by Elton Jon and Tim Rice? It doesn’t really get much better than this—or maybe it’s the Nineties kids in me speaking. What’s certain is that the music in The Lion King is some of the best that Disney has ever produced, from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”—which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, just as the overall soundtrack won one for Best Original Score—to “Circle of Life” to “Be Prepared”.
10. The Wizard of Oz
The 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wizard of Oz—starring Judy Garland as Dorothy—is one of the most beloved movies of all time. It’s part of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register and the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Think about any detail about the movie, and you’ll realize how iconic it is. For example, there’s its use of Technicolor, which highlighted details like Dorothy’s red shoes and the Wicked Witch of the West’s green skin. And of course, there’s the songs, like “Over the Rainbow” and “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.”
And let’s not forget that if The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so legendary, then we probably wouldn’t have another modern Broadway blockbuster: Wicked.
9. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Queer culture staple and cult classic, the 1975 movie version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an adaptation of the 1973 stage production— and what an adaptation it is. From its costumes to some of its musical numbers, like the glorious “The Time Warp” and “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me,” everything about Rocky Horror has passed into legend and become immediately recognizable. While not my number one favorite, its overall cultural significance wouldn’t allow for it to be placed anywhere lower on this list.
“Stick to the stage version” interlude
To keep with the musical theatre tradition, this ranking also as an interlude. We’ll be diving into examples of musicals that did have a movie adaptation, yes, but one that didn’t come close to its original stage version. Take musicals like Into the Woods, or Rent, and especially The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.
The 2004 version of Phantom doesn’t hold a candle to the mega-smash-hit-blockbuster-classic that is the stage version—not in terms of production, nor in terms of vocals. Go watch the 25th Anniversary version at the Royal Albert Hall, and revel in Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess absolutely tearing your heart out of your chest with their performances.
And I have been a Les Mis girlie since forever and will never not cry at the first whispered notes of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”. But I have to say, no amount of talent from people like Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Aaron Tveit, and Samantha Barks could have saved the 2012 movie version of Les Misérables from being a bit of a hot mess. Why are you trying to force a musical-shaped peg into a “regular” movie-shaped hole, Tom Hooper. Why why why.
8. Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar, adapted from the 1970 rock opera of the same name composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, might be a somewhat controversial entry this high up in the list. I’m afraid you’re all just going to have to roll with my particular brand of Catholic trauma, the kind you can only get when you’re born and raised and live in a massively Catholic country like Italy. Jesus Christ Superstar is hands down one of my favorite movies on this ranking, I rewatch it regularly and every time I find myself losing my mind over the usual things—how brilliant Judas’ arc is and how iconic are his songs, “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Superstar”, and how incredibly gut-punching the entire “Gethsemane” sequence is.
7. The Sound of Music
You might think I’m joking when I tell you that I dragged my entire family to the Mirabell Palace Gardens when we visited Salzburg, just so I could recreate the “Do-Re-Mi” sequence from The Sound of Music. But I most definitely am not. That’s Julie Andrews’ power, as well as the influence of yet another cultural icon. The story of Maria and the von Trapps, aka the Captain (played by Christopher Plummer) and his seven children, has everything you could ever possibly want— musical shenanigans, terrible but overall charming children, a broody but secretly passionate love interest, defecting Nazi orders. I love it so much.
6. Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia! isn’t just iconic—it’s the best pickup movie of all time and also incidentally the perfect set in which I would love to live. Sun-drenched Greek island where I spend my days singing ABBA songs with Meryl Streep and Colin Firth? Do sign me up. Based on the 1999 musical of the same name, which is in turn based on the most famous hits from Swedish group ABBA, Mamma Mia! and his sequel—Here We Go Again, released in 2018—has become a camp pillar of pop culture and that’s nothing less than what it rightly deserves.
5. Moulin Rouge!
Fun fact, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is actually my personal favourite on this list. I love everything about it: Ewan McGregor singing his heart out, the over-the-top costumes and sets, the pathos and drama, the umpteenth example of a diamond necklace being used as a metaphor for a man’s control over a woman, Jim Broadbent performing “Like a Virgin,” the masterpieces that are “Elephant Love Medley” and “El Tango de Roxanne.” No matter how many times I watch it, I never really get tired of it. I had to place it in the top five, at the very least.
4. West Side Story
I know I’m using “iconic” and “cultural staple” to describe pretty much every single entry on this list, but how else am I going to describe something like West Side Story? The 1961 adaptation of the original 1957 Broadway show is very much both those things. Plus, it has the immense merit of giving us all Rita Moreno in the role of Anita. Moreno performs the masterpiece that is “America” and the heart-wrenching duet with Natalie Wood’s Maria, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” She’s one of the best features of an already great movie.
3. Mary Poppins
Magic happens when you put Julie Andrews and musicals together. That’s true for both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, with the latter probably being even more well-known, thanks to its status as a Disney production. Of course, Mary Poppins‘ fame is well-deserved in its own right: from its mix of live-action and animation used to create some of its sequences, to Dick Van Dyke’s infamous and terrible British accent, to classic songs like “A Spoonful of Sugar” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” It was much-beloved when it was released in 1964 and remains much-beloved now. Which is why it’s sitting in third place.
There it is. One of, if not the, greatest movie musicals of all time, at least when it comes to pop culture impact. Grease became the undisputed main version of this story, even above its original 1971 stage version. Everyone knows Grease, even if just superficially. You know John Travolta’s Danny and Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy, and even their friend groups, legendary Pink Ladies and T-Birds.
Sure, there are lines in the songs that have not held up to the test of time. But “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want” and “Greased Lightnin’ ” and “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” were, and remain, and forever will be iconic pieces of music. There’s only one title that can claim the number one spot and put Grease in second place. Because otherwise, it would reign supreme.
1. Singin’ in the Rain
If Grease is the greatest movie musical of all time in terms of pop culture, then Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest movie musical of all time, full stop. That’s if Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just one the greatest movies to ever have been made—it’s named so by contemporary critics left and right.
Singin’ in the Rain is a light-hearted, brilliantly-acted story about Hollywood, something which we all know that Hollywood loves. It has iconic songs and equally iconic scenes. I dare you to see anyone swinging around a street lamp without a drenched Gene Kelly popping into your mind. It’s a triumph of color and spectacle, in the very “classic Hollywood musical” sense—or better yet, in the “classic Hollywood musical” sense which Singin’ in the Rain very much helped solidify.
(Featured image: 20th Century Fox)
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