Movie musicals can be a divisive genre — generally you either love them or hate them — but there are few things as magical as seeing a story play out on screen through mesmerizing dance moves and catchy tunes.
A great movie musical is some combination of fantastic songs, visually stunning dance numbers and a story that belts out big emotions or sings softly truly touching moments.
But what movie musicals do this the best? Even though it meant whittling out the likes of The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Sweeney Todd, A Star Is Born (1954), Dreamgirls and Fiddler on the Roof, here are What to Watch’s top 10 of the best movie musicals.
10. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
If you think musicals are just pretty couples singing out-of-date songs and dancing in the streets, then you clearly haven’t seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This rock opera features the cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-Furter (the iconic Tim Curry), an all-time thumper tune in the “Time Warp” and even a special appearance by Meat Loaf. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a cult classic and is a popular late night sing-along screening at many theaters.
9. Grease (1978)
As Frankie Valli sang in the movie’s opening credits, Grease is the word. Starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John the Grease soundtrack features so many classic songs — from “Summer Nights” to “Grease Lightning” to “You’re the One That I Want” — that are instantly recognizable. The movie is a fun, energetic story people still love to watch, as evidenced by the live production Fox did of Grease back in 2016.
8. All That Jazz (1979)
In addition to being a song from the award-winning musical Chicago, All That Jazz is also the title of Bob Fosse’s autobiographical musical. Fosse, fittingly, brought Chicago to Broadway in 1975. He had already mastered the musical genre with 1972’s Cabaret, but All That Jazz is his masterpiece. It breaks the mold from the traditional musical format while still honoring the genre with spectacular sequences — including a dance number between Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon’s daughter and girlfriend — and a surreal preview of Gideon’s death (Fosse died just nine years after All That Jazz came out).
7. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
If nothing else, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be iconic for Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” — that has inspired films from Moulin Rouge! to Margot Robbie’s Birds of Prey — but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has so much more to offer. Not only is the film one of Monroe’s best, it also features an incredible performance from Jane Russell and was directed by the legendary Howard Hawks. The 1950s were a hotbed for musicals, with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes one of the era’s best achievements.
6. Once (2007)
Not all musicals have to feature elaborate dance numbers or see their characters transported to fantastical, dreamlike places where their emotions can only be sung. Sometimes they can be fully centered in the real-world. Such is the case with Once from John Carney. Set in Dublin, Once follows two musicians who connect and write songs that depict their brief but beautiful love story. The performance of “Falling Slowly” is easily one of the best musical movie moments of the 21st century so far.
5. La La Land (2016)
Unfortunately, La La Land may always be remembered for being the Best Picture winner for all of two minutes, but the film is an incredible throwback to classic musicals that captured audiences all over the world. Right from the opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” to the wonderfully sad ending, director Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and composer Justin Hurwitz brought a modern day sensibility to the movie while also infusing it with the magic and grandeur of a 1950s musical. La La Land deserves to be defined by much more than a mistake that it didn’t even make.
4. West Side Story (1961)
A reimagining of Romeo & Juliet, the original West Side Story’s tale of Maria and Tony’s love amid the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets won 10 Oscars (including Best Picture) and is one of the most well choreographed, lavishly produced movie musicals ever. West Side Story is so iconic even one of the greatest directors of all time, Steven Spielberg, was questioned on the wisdom of remaking it. But no matter how good Spielberg’s 2021 West Side Story version is, the original will always be one of the best movie musicals ever made.
3. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
If musicals divide movie fans into love them or hate them camps, then Moulin Rouge! manages to do that even with people who like movie musicals. That’s thanks to director Baz Luhrman, who crafted Moulin Rouge! as a colorful, whimsical, break-neck speed jukebox musical with the musical elements cranked up to 11. Covering iconic songs from popular bands and musicians, the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack sounds like few other musicals out there, while also adding its own iconic entry into the musical song catalogue with “Come What May.” Divisive as it may be, for originality and sheer inventiveness, Moulin Rouge! belongs in the pantheon of movie musicals.
2. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
A list of the greatest movie musicals of all time could not be complete without Singin’ in the Rain. Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain is an impeccably-made movie from top to bottom, with scene after show-stopping scene from “Make ‘em Laugh,” “Good Morning” to “You Were Meant for Me.” The titular number “Singin’ in the Rain” has not only become one of the most iconic songs in Hollywood history but it showcases one of the most incredible feats of tap dancing put to film by Kelly — who was said to have a fever between 101-103 degrees, at one point, while filming the scene.
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Perhaps no other movie musical has had the legacy of The Wizard of Oz, one of the most beloved movies of all time of any genre. This marvelous fairy tale proved magical for audiences — from its early use of color (particularly the scene where Dorothy arrives in Oz), to the star-making performance from Judy Garland, to memorable musical numbers like “If I Only Had a Brain” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The Wizard of Oz has ingrained itself into popular culture like few films ever have, so it’s nearly impossible to rank anything ahead of it when you’re discussing the best movie musicals of all time.
Michael Balderston is a D.C.-based entertainment writer and content producer for What to Watch. He previously has written for TV Technology and Awards Circuit.
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