25 greatest musical movies?


The American Film Institute, in their infinite wisdom, have announced the 25 greatest film musicals, probably so that there can be some sort of exciting countdown documentary on American television at some point soon.  These things are always fun, and great for a debate/argument/fight.  It’s an interesting list – the oldest is 42nd Street from 1933 and the newest is 2002’s Chicago.  Some are adaptations from the stage, like West Side Story and the inevitable Sound of Music, others are originals written specifically for the big screen.  Some I agree with, some I don’t.

Top of the list is Singing in the Rain, a movie which I absolutely love.  It’s just such a joy from start to finish, and the character of Lina Lamont is awfully funny.  The musical leads – Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor – can’t be beaten and the score is an evergreen.  Did you know that most of the songs weren’t actually written for that film, though?  It’s a compilation musical like Crazy For You or Ain’t Misbehavin’, with its musical numbers drawn from the back catalogue of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.  However, the songs are woven brilliantly into the plot, and I can almost forgive the composer and lyricist for blatantly stealing the tune and idea of Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’ to create ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’.  Almost.  A great movie, and certainly in my top ten.

Other choices I definitely agree with are West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, The King and I, 42nd Street, Top Hat, On the Town and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Some of these are adaptations of stage shows, either very faithful (like My Fair Lady) or very different (like Cabaret, which may as well be an entirely different thing).  Each of these is made with a great deal of care and attention and can take me away to a different world.  The music is used and performed in exciting ways – the barn-raising in Seven Brides… is one example of a movie moment that takes my breath away every time I see it.  As a fan of stage musicals, I’m supposed to hate On the Town, as it messes so much with the original version, but I think the changes make it a very effective film, and the casting of the three sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) is wonderful, each one playing to their strengths.

A film where Sinatra isn’t playing to his strengths is the movie version of Guys and Dolls, one of the greatest stage musicals ever written.  Both he and Marlon Brando are so miscast that it almost literally hurts, and the new songs don’t o much to enhance matters.  ‘Pet Me Poppa’ is enough to send me screaming from the room – what were they thinking with those cat costumes?  I also think that Funny Girl and (I’m sorry about this) The Sound of Music are over-rated.  Good, but not as good as they could be.  There are a few others on the list that I love, including Chicago, Mary Poppins and Moulin Rouge (which people either love or hate, you just cannot be indifferent to it).  I’m not sure that they should be counted in the 25 greatest musicals though – most enjoyable, or personal favourites perhaps, but I’m dubious about their claims to greatness.  Beauty and the Beast is a borderline case, and I think that other animated movies such as The Lion King, Snow White…, The Jungle Book, Prince of Egypt and arguably others would come just as close.  For the use of music alone, I rate both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Prince of Egypt very highly indeed.  I’m also fond of the music for Hercules, but I can’t see that getting anywhere near a top 25 list!

I haven’t seen Meet Me in St. Louis, All That Jazz, A Star is Born or Yankee Doodle Dandy, so I can’t really comment on them.  I hear they’re all excellent, though.  I really must rectify this oversight!

And then we come to the mysterious missing musicals.  I’m surprised to see only one Fred and Ginger film on the list, and would certainly include Swing Time.  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair should also be included.  The screen adaptation of The Music Man rates very highly with me as well, as does The Pajama Game, but I think I’m in a minority on that one.  If New York, New York counts as a musical, then I’d throw that in to the pot, and I am amazed that Gigi didn’t make the cut.  One of the most artistically applauded movie musicals, but we don’t rate it?  Maybe it’s because ‘Thank Heaven For Little Girls’ is pretty creepy to modern ears.

I also think that Evita deserves a place on the list.  I’m hardly one of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s greatest fans, but I think this is his superlative score, and it made a wonderful film.  Alan Parker made excellent use of the tools that cinema offers to open the story out, also creating some stunning production numbers (‘And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)’ is ludicrously exciting).  Antonio Banderas deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance, in my opinion.  And at the other extreme, I’d be very tempted to include White Christmas, which is quite possibly a guilty pleasure.  A blooming well-made guilty pleasure, though!

So what makes a great movie musical?  A solid script and a great score, of course, coupled with a director and performers who really know their stuff.  Contrary to what people might expect, I don’t want a movie version of a stage show to be a carbon copy of that show.  Cinema and theatre are completely different forms and can achieve vastly different things.  Likewise, I get very cross when I see a show in the theatre where it seems as though they’ve tried to copy every detail of a film.  Maybe that’s what some of the paying public want, but I see it as a pointless and rather lazy exercise.  If I want to see the film, I’ll watch the film!  As with any other work of art, it is hard to define what makes it great or otherwise.  A mysterious coming together of a whole range of ingredients will equal something special, something hideous or something merely so-so.

So what would be in my top 25?  In alphabetical order: Cabaret, Easter Parade, Evita, Fiddler on the Roof (slow, but very rewarding), 42nd Street, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gigi, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney), The King and I, The Lion King, Moulin Rouge, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, New York, New York, On the Town, The Pajama Game, Prince of Egypt, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin’ in the Rain, State Fair, Swing Time, Top Hat, West Side Story, White Christmas, and The Wizard of Oz.  That was harder to compile than I expected, and will probably change by tomorrow, but I felt it was important that this post answered at least one question that it raised.  Feel free to disagree vehemently…

  1. No! I’m so happy to find someone who loves Singin’ in the Rain as much as I do – to the extent of knowing it is a compilation musical! I used to make my students sing the songs from that musical, poor them. Throughout your post I was saying to myself: “But what about Evita?” then you said it! “When You Believe” from Prince of Egypt is a song which inspired me so much at a difficult time in my life (and yes, the students were made to sing that one too…) I don’t think I could do a top 25 of Greatest Musicals but here is my top five: Singin’ in the Rain would definitely be my number one, followed by Evita, Prince of Egypt, White Christmas, and Mary Poppins.

    • Lilian
    • September 8th, 2006

    I now feel like going home and watching lots of musicals on DVD! I haven’t seen all that many musicals on film (or at least not in their full versions), but all of the ones I’ve seen are in your top 25, apart from Meet Me In St Louis, which would be in my top 25, if I had one. Ok, I can do my top 5, in no particular order, West Side Story, Moulin Rouge, Meet Me In St Louis (possibly only because of ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’), The King and I, Carousel.

    If it was stage musicals I would have added Cabaret, but I’m not very keen on the film version, sorry. I think Singin’ in the Rain would be in my top whatever list if I’d seen it all the way through, but I haven’t, so I don’t feel qualified to place it. Ooh and Chicago (for music, not storyline) would be there if I was doing a top 6 (film or stage).

    Must watch more musicals…

    • Aria
    • September 8th, 2006

    What – White Christmas over Holiday Inn? And would Robin and the Seven Hoods count as a movie musical? Theres definately some personal favorites left off the list, but like you said – it is a matter of greatness, not our own personal favorites (and guilty pleasures)

    (of course I think The Wizard of Oz is overrated, but I’m odd like that) I do think Evita definately should be on the list – maybe even on the top in my book… (but then I do happen to be a bit of an ALW fan even if I love to make fun of him…but we won’t go into what he did to the score of Phantom for the movie, much less the casting – I don’t need to get my blood pressure up that high – the man’s an idiot)

    (but back to Robin and the Seven Hoods – all I can say for why it deserves more renown than it has is: “Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby singing “You’ve either got or you haven’t got Style” (otherwise known as the scene where Bing and Dean sing circles around Frank)

  2. Robin and the Seven Hoods is one of those movies I’ve never managed to watchy – I keep intending to, but it keeps eluding me. My favourite ridiculous guilty pleasure is The Court Jester with Danny Kaye. Complete nonsense, but lots of fun!

    Hmm, not sure why I picked White Christmas over Holiday Inn – that is a little odd, yes!

    And Carousel? That has got one of the greatest scores of any musical (if you ignore ‘This Was a Real Nice Clambake’ that is!) and has the power to move entire audiences to tears, but I find the film abit disappointing. But I get very excited just hearing one or two bars of the ‘Carousel Waltz’ or ‘If I Loved You’, and when sung properly ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is magnificent.

  3. Gosh, I’d be hard-pushed to compile a list like that – as you say, however, they’re always fun to watch and to criticise. We had the top 100 musicals on channel 4 last Christmas, which was screened over the course of a couple of nights, and my father and I had a whale of a time picking the list to pieces.

    I agree with many of your choices, but one which you haven’t mentioned, and which would certainly make my top 5, is Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Marvellous.

  4. An impressive list you have put together there Singing Librarian. I would always try and separate musical movies into those that were original movies and those that were musicals that then became movies. Often the transition from stage to screen is disappointing. Two movies that I might add to those suggested would be High Society (not just for Grace Kelly, but also some fabulous songs) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a great musical movie for all the family.

    • Aria
    • September 15th, 2006

    thank you Music Man for having me singing “Hey you pretty chitty bang bang, pretty chitty bang bang we love you…” all day long now… “bang bang chitty chitty bang bang-…”

  5. For me, the most ‘stick in the head’-able tune from Chitty is ‘Toot Sweets’ for some reason! ‘Hushabye Mountain’ is a gorgeous melody as well.

    Hmm, it has been too long since I saw High Society. ‘A Swell Party’ and ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’ are such fun. 🙂

    • KT
    • April 1st, 2007

    I think my #1 musical would have to be Moulin Rouge I love the mixing together of real songs. I LOVE the Elephant Love melody I can not get enough of that movie. I also LOVE the Phantom of the Opera (the new one) but that is just me so 🙂

  6. Bit late to join this discussion, but, for God’s sake, OLIVER! is, by any criteria, in a different and infinitely higher class than at least 20 of your 25.

    • patty
    • December 17th, 2007

    OMG! the best movies have to be dirty dancing and moulin rouge! they are the best and dirty dancing is even better on stage, i saw it and thought it was fabulous, outstanding!!!!!!!!!!!! i recommend it to all!

  7. hello….could anyone help me and write a list of compilation musicals in and after 1960…im really struggeling and haven’t found anything on the net!!! thanks x

  8. If you’re thinking about film musicals, the most likely is in biopics like the Cole Porter ‘De-Lovely’.

    The stage had absolutely oodles – think of We Will Rock You (Queen), Mamma Mia (Abba), Tonight’s the Night (Rod Swewart), Our House (Madness), Smokey Joe’s Cafe (songwriters Lieber and Stoller), Good Vibrations (Beach Boys), The Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons) and Movin’ Out (Billy Joel).

    Then there are other musicals which compile songs from different songwriters and put them into a plot. Return to the Forbidden Planet is an example from the stage and Moulin Rouge from film.

    All of these are post-1960.

  9. Does anyone know where I can get a list of Christmas Songs from Movies…i.e. White Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas…

    Thanks.

    • Meril B.
    • September 13th, 2009

    Good day all!

    To commence, there are so many great unforgettable musical movies; however I rate the top 12 in no particular order
    1. Singing in the rain. 2. The sound of music 3. What’s love got to do with it 4.Ray 5.August Rush 6. The King and I 7. Dream Girls
    8. Evita 9. Take the lead 10. Dirty Dancing 11. Saturday night fever 12. Save the last dance. I consider Prince of Egypt and Lion King (Disney animation)

  10. I think musicals such as Sound Of Music, Wizard Of Oz, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Grease, Mary Poppins, and a couple of the great Disney Films should all be up there. However, there is one musical that every time it comes on a given station I can’t seem to turn it off-and end up watching it all the way through–Seven Brides For Seven Brothers: Starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. I don’t know if it’s the combination of humor and those memorable fighting scenes, but to me this is just a tremendous entertainment-with some great dance sequences, as well.

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