The movie musical is one of our most celebrated film genres, a marriage of a classic art form (the stage musical) with the limitless possibilities of filmmaking technology. These films not only take advantage of film craft, but often expand what imagery and thematic content we thought was possible to represent on screen.
The vivid color-coding and stage-like lighting of West Side Story; the shocking-yet-subtle Nazi themes running throughout The Sound of Music; the iconic visual storytelling and choreography of Oklahoma! All of these films benefit from their lush musical scores, and their stage counterparts benefit in turn from the expansive timelessness of the films. A perfect symbiosis of artistic expressions.
In many ways, the movie musical is not thought of as a modern genre. The “old classics” are revered and upheld as standards by which all others are measured. But the turn of the century has brought with it a new pack of stunning, emotionally-resonant, intelligent musicals. Some take Broadway shows as inspiration, while others are more interested in re-hashing Disney tropes or pop music of a certain time and place. Whatever their intent, the five movies I’ve chosen—all live-action, all utilizing music as an essential storytelling tool—are wonderful and singular in their own right.
This 2007 Disney film is the Disney spoof to end all Disney spoofs. Wait, what? That’s right: in this tale of Princess Giselle (Amy Adams), transported from her effortless animated life to the hustle and bustle of modern-day New York City by an evil witch (Susan Sarandon), Disney skewers its own take on the possibilities of true love in the real world. How brilliant to have the man Giselle winds up staying with, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), be a divorce lawyer who reminds her over and over that her supposed “one true love,” Prince Edward (James Marsden), will likely never show up! Likewise, Edward and Giselle’s flustered confusion in the face of a city whose cinematic history isn’t exactly Disney pure in nature.
Even better, the film’s several musical numbers highlight the absurdity and adventure possible in animation by directly referencing other Disney songs in both content and visual form. “That’s How You Know” resembles both “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, as Giselle assembles a larger-and-larger mass of kooky and colorful Central Park-goers to illustrate how true love works. And in “Happy Working Song,” the wide-eyed, Snow White-esque princess calls to her animal friends for help in cleaning up Robert’s messy apartment, only to be shocked when sewer rats, pigeons, and cockroaches respond.
More than most of Disney’s animated films, the musical numbers feel like an indispensable part of Giselle’s journey toward self-discovery, her little injection of magic into a bleak reality. And Adams delivers a career-high, Oscar-worthy performance, just endearing and emotionally-rich enough to make you forgive how gosh darn cutesy she is!
Standout Musical Moment: Giselle leads a horde of disgusting New York City animals in a kitschy and sly Snow White send-up, the “Happy Working Song”
4. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It’s difficult now to distinguish the award-winning Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch from its original 2001 film form—let alone the off-Broadway run prior—but John Cameron Mitchell’s creation rings loud and clear as a unique and daring indie musical cult hit.
Winner of Sundance’s dramatic directing and audience awards, Hedwig follows a transgender punk-rocker, born a boy in East Germany, whose escape comes in the form of an American G.I. named Luther. When he forces Hedwig (played superbly by Mitchell, as in the off-Broadway show) to undergo sex-reassignment surgery in order to leave the country, though, the botched procedure leaves her with an “angry inch” of flesh: neither male nor female genitalia. After arriving in America, Luther leaves Hedwig for a boy he meets at church and the singer winds up falling in love with Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a boy who lives near her trailer park. When he finds out about the “angry inch,” though, Tommy runs away, taking to the bank all the songs he and Hedwig wrote together as well as a rock star identity she bestowed on him: Tommy Gnosis.
With a fabulous rock score by Stephen Trask and a propulsive, angry energy throughout, Hedwig is a character study that lays bare the universal truths in all humans, no matter their sex or gender. The best songs include “The Origin of Love,” which tells an ancient story of how people used to be both male and female fused together, and “Wicked Little Town,” a slow-tempo, emotional ballad. But they are all inventively filmed and perceived through Mitchell’s particular lens, and what a fabulous ride it provides.
Standout Musical Moment: The whole audience is invited to sing along as Hedwig takes out her “Wig In A Box” and indulges in a trailer park fantasy number
Many would reduce Bill Condon’s 2006 adaptation of the Tony-award winning musical to Jennifer Hudson’s stirring rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” But it is so much more than that.
I recently re-watched the movie—which traces the origins of a female singing group a la The Supremes and the Motown record label that signs them—and was overwhelmed by the sheer power and expertise of the filmmaking on hand. The music is excellent and more than any film on this list (save for several of Hedwig‘s more personal songs) it advances the development of our characters while also acting as believable stand-ins for songs of the 1960s and 70s. But the editing, cinematography, production design, and costume design is stellar throughout as well, a visual feast that does not overwhelm the film’s emotional impact.
A stellar cast makes sure of that. Jennifer Hudson—as Effie White, the jilted powerhouse vocalist tired of singing backup for the Dreamettes—is one performance high among many others. Eddie Murphy deserved an Oscar for his portrayal of Jimmy “Thunder” Early, a coked-up, joke riffing, hugely talented act who gives the Dreamettes their start. And Beyoncé, from whom no one would expect great acting after her turn in Austin Powers in Goldmember, is seductive then helpless then powerful as Deena, the leader of the Dreamettes who gets in too deep.
Standout Musical Moment: Jennifer Hudson wins her Oscar with a ferocious, heartbreaking rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” but not before her entire support team turn their back on her in the powerful ensemble number “It’s All Over”
2. Moulin Rouge!
Save for my number one choice, no musical impacted me as greatly upon first viewing as Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 pop pastiche melodrama starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. It is perhaps the least traditional musical on this list, given its affinity for David Bowie, Madonna, and Elton John tunes, but its themes are timeless.
The film centers on McGregor’s Christian, a playwright residing in the poor Sacre Coeur neighborhood of Paris at the turn of the twentieth-century. He is roped into writing a script for Spectacular! Spectacular!, a musical dramedy involving the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and starring Satine (Nicole Kidman), the “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub. Satine is also a consumption-afflicted prostitute, and she and Christian make the mistake of falling in love with one another. They are constantly threatened by their investor, The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), to whom Satine is promised. In the end, things do not end well for almost anybody, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t a buoyant, joyous exercise in extravagance.
From the “Elephant Love Medley” performed by our two leads atop Satine’s home (shaped like an elephant) to a particularly sinister version of The Police’s “Roxanne” sung by an narcoleptic Argentinian, the musical numbers are lavish, expertly choreographed, and beautiful to behold. Other standouts include Jim Broadbent’s delighted, girlish performance of “Like A Virgin,” and the film’s gorgeous original song, “Come What May,” about tragic love.
This is a Luhrmann at his most devilish and his most narratively focused, and the result is a deeply moving and quite satisfying soap opera, exhausting and liberating in the same breath.
Standout Musical Moment: Ewan McGregor serenades Nicole Kidman’s afflicted prostitute, Satine, with his take on Elton John’s “Your Song,” transporting them both to a magical vantage above the clouds (bonus points for the operatic moon, my favorite character in the film)
I was ten years old when Chicago, Rob Marshall’s sexy and dangerous, Oscar-winning film, was released in theaters. I begged my parents to let me see the PG-13 movie—it seemed incredibly risque at the time—and they finally relented. When my dad and I sat down in the theater, and the first song, “All That Jazz,” started playing, I became utterly entranced.
It was one of the best film-going experiences of my life: wickedly entertaining and wholly satisfying on a visual and narrative level. In transferring a sparse Broadway musical to the big screen, Marshall brought to life a vivid and exciting world filled with fabulous frocks and sets and stages that still leave me in awe. The dancing is sensual, the performances all top notch—particularly Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly and Richard Gere as Billy Flynn—and the editing, the editing, sublime. To suggest that much of the experience of Roxy Hart (perfectly embodied by Renee Zellweger) and her descent into the corrupt under-belly of Chicago murderesses is imagined–a concept that many of the film’s best musical numbers allude to—is daring and beautiful. Over-stated? Perhaps. But simply spectacular all the same.
While the “Cell Block Tango” is clearly the best part of the film, there are countless other songs made into visually arresting production numbers. “We Both Reached for the Gun” becomes a ventriloquist act on steroids; “When You’re Good To Mama” is a raucous and randy good time, performed to the hilt by Queen Latifah; “I Can’t Do It Alone” is a tour-de-force for Oscar-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones; and “Mister Cellophane” is somber and eloquent, while “Razzle Dazzle” is blunt, exaggerated, and utterly silly.
Simply stated, Chicago is a movie musical classic, achieving, like those films past, a perfect symbiosis: grander than the stage show could ever be, and nothing without its Kander and Ebb-penned songs, themselves exuberant expressions of society’s low lives and what it was to live (or try to) in 1920’s Chicago.
Standout Musical Moment: Everything! But mostly the salacious, sensual, scathing “Cell Block Tango,” led by a top-form Catherine Zeta-Jones (pardon the strange subtitles and the moment where the video pauses for a few seconds—YouTube, ya know?)