When I was still working at Borders, I once said “I own almost every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on CD.” My co-worker Paul replied, “You might be the only straight male who could possibly say that.” I have always enjoyed musicals, both Broadway and on film. The strange thing is that my lists don’t overlap particularly well. I am a big fan of ALW musicals, but only Evita made a worthwhile film (I was so livid at what Joel Schumacher did with Phantom of the Opera that I actually screamed coming out of the theater). I love the Boublil-Schonberg musicals (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon), but no one has filmed them. One of the most enjoyable musicals is Return to the Forbidden Planet, but it requires audience participation and wouldn’t translate well to film. I love A Little Night Music, but the film is one of the worst ever made (though not as bad as Grease 2, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Back to the Beach or Human Highway, the worst of all Musicals).
For my actual top list, I have divided Musicals into two categories: traditional musicals (in which characters randomly break out singing and songs are used to advance the plot) and films in which music is dominant (mostly movies about fictional rock bands or biopics about real life musicians, rock and otherwise). Though I classify them all as Musicals, they really seem to be part of two different genres. Also, the traditional list goes to 13 because that’s where the drop-off occurs. To me, there is very little difference between 10 and 11, but there is a huge quality decline between 13 and 14.
Top Non-Traditional Musicals:
#10 – Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen) – 1999
A story about the second best jazz guitarist. I am hard pressed to find a great musical moment because I am not fond of jazz. But it really is a great underrated film.
#9 – A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest) – 2003
Best Song – “A Mighty Wind” – such a great moment when they all know to run on stage together for what really is a fantastic song. Funnier than every Judd Apatow film put together.
#8 – Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh) – 1999
It’s hard to find a single song to point out, but the moment where the cast objects to one of the songs being cut and the reactions from Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent are amazing.
#7 – All That Jazz (Bob Fosse) – 1979
Best Song – “Bye Bye Life” – the brilliant conclusion of the film during the open-heart surgery.
#6 – The Commitments (Alan Parker) – 1991
Best Song – Though it’s not actually played in the scene, the way the film ends by quoting “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is bloody brilliant.
#5 – This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner) – 1984
Best Song – “Stonehenge” – Dwarfs. Tiny models. You die laughing.
#4 – Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz) – 1942
Best Song – “Over There” – ranks with Mr. Roberts for best ending to a film ever. My mother’s favorite film.
#3 – A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester) – 1964
Best Song – “A Hard Day’s Night” is the best song, but “Can’t Buy Me Love” is the best moment.
#2 – Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) – 2000
Best Song – “Tiny Dancer” – “I need to go home.” “You are home.” Perfect.
#1 – Amadeus (Milos Forman) – 1984
One of the great all-time film biopics. Absolutely worthy of all 8 of its Oscars (though I would have switched Best Actor from Abraham to Hulce).
The 13 Best Traditional Musicals:
#13 – The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich) – 1934
Best Song – “The Continental” – Better than Top Hat because of how sweet and funny it is. The best of all the Astaire / Rogers films.
#12 – Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton) – 2007
Best Song – “A Little Priest” – They actually cut my favorite song (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”). This film is the antithesis of an Astaire / Rogers musical. Very dark and very bloody.
#11 – A Star is Born (George Cukor) – 1954
I can’t really think of a best song. It’s the performances that stand out here, from both Garland and Mason. The only truly great movie she made other than Oz.
#10 – Cabaret (Bob Fosse) – 1972
Best Song – “Wilkkomen” – Completely different from the stage musical, with several songs deleted and new ones added, but dark, visionary and loaded up with two brilliant Oscar winning performances.
#9 – Chicago (Rob Marshall) – 2002
Best Song – “When You’re Good to Mama” – The tenth best film of 2002, yet not a bad choice for Best Picture. That’s how good 2002 was for films.
#8 – Oh, What a Lovely War (Richard Attenborough) – 1969
I can’t name a best song, or any song. But the use of songs to create a vision of the folly and devastation of the first World War is amazing. I can’t believe it took until 2006 for this to come out on DVD.
#7 – O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers) – 2000
Best Song – “Man of Constant Sorrow” – Critics had long announced the death of movie musicals before this became a big hit and Grammy sensation, followed the next year by Moulin Rouge! getting nominated for Best Picture and the next year by Chicago winning Best Picture. The first of the Clooney / Coen Idiot Trilogy that continued with Intolerable Cruelty and concludes next month with Burn After Reading.
#6 – Across the Universe (Julie Taymor) – 2006
Best Song – “Dear Prudence” – I was so blown away by this film that I wrote a review and posted it on the blog, months before I was writing anything else for the blog.
#5 – The Music Man (Morton Da Costa) – 1962
Best Song – “Ya Got Trouble” – Another of my mother’s favorite film. I watched it tons of times as a kid before suddenly growing to appreciate it as a teenager and loving it as an adult. What other musical has so brilliant a performance from someone who has very little range as a singer and can’t dance?
#4 – My Fair Lady (George Cukor) – 1964
Best Song – “Why Can’t the English” – It shouldn’t have won Best Picture because it was up against Dr. Strangelove and they should have cast Julie Andrews, who can actually look both like a gutter-snipe and like a lady, but its still an overall fantastic film.
#3 – Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann) – 2001
Best Song – “Elephant Love” – Following in the footsteps of Return to the Forbidden Planet which had taken the great 50′s Sci-Fi film and put it on stage with great 50′s and 60′s songs used in place of most dialogue, the use of pop songs in this film is amazing. And finally, this November, Luhrmann will release his long awaited follow-up (Australia).
#2 – Singin in the Rain (Gene Kelly / Stanley Donen) – 1952
Best Song – “Make Em Laugh” – Everyone thinks of the title song, but the stunts that Donald O’Connor goes through in this song are truly unbelievable. This would be a great comedy and a great film about Hollywood even if it had no songs.
#1 – Michael Phelps
Sorry. I’ve gotten so used to his winning everything. The 4×100 Freestyle Relay and the 100 Butterfly were probably the two greatest Olympic moments ever. Seriously. Ever.
#1 – West Side Story (Robert Wise / Jerome Robbins) – 1961
Best Song – “Officer Krupke” – I really could have picked any song. But I went with the funniest, and the film moves it to before Riff’s death so that he can be part of the fun. This film corrects what I dislike about Romeo and Juliet – the idiocy of the characters. What happens to Romeo is stupid. What happens to Tony is tragic.