With Hamilton streaming on Disney+, now seems as good a time as any to delve into the wonderful, colourful and often dreadful world of musicals.
I’ll avoid the latter and countdown my 10 favourite musical movies of all-time, from the brilliant to the batsh*t. A disclaimer to say I haven’t seen every big-hitter there is in the genre – I will have the patience for three hours of Fiddler on the Roof someday, but that day is yet to come (and a long way off, to be honest).
Anyway, let’s crack on.
Hamilton doesn’t deserve to be last on any list, but it has to be if we’re talking film. It’s not meant to be seen this way – even if it is newly available. Realistically, it’s probably a top five entry on this list, but let’s suspend judgement until it inevitably gets the Hollywood treatment.
Theatre is where Hamilton thrives. The stage narrows the scope, but amplifies the powerful storytelling. It’s almost too contemporary for its own good, exuding class with catchy hooks telling an underrepresented history, and it packs an emotional, unexpected punch. It’s a must-watch – at home if you have to, but go to the theatre when they eventually reopen.
9. West Side Story
Many consider this the best musical of all time. It’s not.
I hated the first 45 minutes of it and wanted scratch my eyes out. A little unfair, maybe, but the rest of the film is sumptuous in comparison.
What the first act lacks in flavour, the remaining sections make up for in colour, bursting with cleverly written vignettes of urban struggle; contemporary and heart-breaking with iconic songs, just as good today as they were back in 1961. It’s top drawer and maybe I’d be fine with the beginning on a re-watch, but my god do I not want to see that first 45 again.
8. La La Land
The backlash against La La Land was fuelled by people who think Sean Connery’s James Bond films are still serviceable and who point at a picture of fish and chips on a menu when they order food abroad.
Nostalgia for the past doesn’t mean everything new is bad. La La Land is exceptional. It pays homage without slipping into parody, its songs are well choreographed and scored, intelligent and understanding of the genre. It’s as good as any musical – a bit counter intuitive given this is a countdown, but never mind – and the plot is heart wrenching.
People disliked it only because they wanted to – having to lie to their wives that they definitely weren’t dancing around the bathroom to Another Day of Sun in her underwear while she was downstairs.
7. The Wizard of Oz
It’s a bit rickety and frayed at the edges, but of course it is; it’s literally older than your Nan. You can see the trap doors, the edge of the scenery, the joins of the naff costumes, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still enchanting. Can something be timeless and dated at the same time? Maybe not, but the fairy-tale plotting is all that matters anyway.
It also has Somewhere over the rainbow in it. That tells you all you need to know about the quality. This isn’t the first appearance Judy Garland makes on this list either – the queen of the genre.
6. All That Jazz
The best film you’ve never seen. Is it a musical? Ish. It weaves in and out of genres in such a unique way that it defies description. Part biopic, part musical, part drama, part black comedy, part surrealist arthouse Lynchian thing, it’s something to behold.
Roy Scheider is incredible, as are the rest of the cast. It’s edited within an inch of its life and is as funny as it is moving and dark. If there are two films on this list you should see, it’s this one and #5; certainly the two most avant-garde and interesting interpretations of the musical…probably.
5. Phantom of the Paradise
Brian De Palma’s cult musical is overshadowed by the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but succeeds where Rocky fails.
A genuine treat, POTP (as no one calls it) is an acid-trip of a film, cobbled together with an Oscar nominated score by Paul Williams and a plot that’s a lusty 70s interpretation of the Phantom of the Opera.
Perplexing and interesting, the film is an allegorical condemnation of the music industry and is as much a horror as it is a musical. I’m not sure it’s as niche as I think it is, but it deserves to be seen by far, far more people. It comes highly recommended. You’re welcome.
4. A Star is Born (1954)
A story that’s been done to death, this is the quintessential telling of A Star is Born.
James Mason and Judy Garland’s rich chemistry is a delight and the story is so raw for 1954, giving a vivid insight into addiction and the follies of stardom; the classic story of fame rising while another falls will never age or fall into a trope.
I’m not going to be snooty and ignore Bradley Cooper’s latest stab at the plot, but if you haven’t watched either, I’d start with this.
3. Beauty and the Beast
The best Disney film – 90’s kids (of which I am one) will tell you the Lion King is the best. It’s not. And of course I’m talking about the animation, not Emma Watson’s attempt at warbling.
Every song is perfect and this is the best fairy-tale ever written (I think – I can’t really back that up with any demonstrable evidence). La Belle et La Bête is extraordinary in its telling of the same tale, but this is absolutely the seminal version.
I don’t need to tell you what happens, you already know. A few Disney films could have snuck onto this list, but this one HAD to be here.
The first animated film to be nominated for best picture, just losing out to the similarly beautiful romance, Silence of the Lambs.
2. Meet me in St. Louis
The Trolley Song is pretty catchy and Judy Garland is fantastic, again. Watch it at Christmas, watch it on Halloween, watch it in the autumn, watch it now; a musical that spans so many seasons that it’s always relevant and always heart-warming.
A ludicrously simple plot – it’s literally about a family moving home – and a genuine masterpiece. I don’t say that lightly, but it’s pretty perfect. There are a few outdated elements to it, and one dubious (maybe offensive) song, but that’s forewarning to an otherwise wonderfully composed film.
- The Music Man
My favourite musical.
I’m not sure how familiar people are with it in the UK, probably one for the older generations who grew up with it in the 60s and 70s, but I feel it’s somewhat forgotten in this country. It’s VERY American, but is also very unique.
Ya Got Trouble may be the cleverest song ever penned for a musical and Marian the Librarian is SO well put together. Robert Preston is handsome, charming and as slimy as you want him to be, with a silky voice contributing to an altogether weird, long musical with a ridiculous plot. But it’s wonderful and exactly what a musical should be.
A favourite of Seth McFarlane and Conan O’Brien, and featuring an 8 year old Ron Howard, The Music Man is two and a half hours of unbridled joy.
It’s definitely a Sunday afternoon film, but what a film.