Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movie Musicals

Musicals may have fallen out of favor with modern movie audiences quite some time ago. Nevertheless, filmmakers periodically attempt to revive the genre, usually to mixed success. As Clint Eastwood gives it a try with this week’s adaption of the Broadway smash ‘Jersey Boys’, we’ll use today’s Roundtable to look at some of our favorite musicals.

Daniel Hirshleifer

A few years back, a friend of mine told me she was watching the best musical ever made. Without pause, I replied, “Yeah, I also love Singin’ in the Rain.” She was shocked and asked how I could have known that was the movie she meant. I said, “It’s simple. Singin’ in the Rain IS the best musical ever made!”

It’s not hard to see why. Gene Kelly is at his best in a smart and imaginative story that relives the transition of the film industry from silent to sound. That period made and broke a lot of huge careers, but ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘ plays them all for laughs and every joke hits right on target. The music is drawn from popular songs of the day, but instead of making an awkward plot to fit the catalogue of an artist whose work should never have been mentioned in the same breath as a musical, these songs are carefully chosen to maximize their effectiveness and entertainment value.

‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is the best musical ever made, and if anyone says different, well, I can’t stand ’em!

Mike Attebery

I basically hate musicals, but I love Woody Allen, and in 1996 he made a pretty fun musical called ‘Everyone Says I Love You‘. The performances were deliberately muted (to say the least). Stars like Julia Roberts, who are not known for their vocal skills, were required to sing (though Drew Barrymore got a pass). Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Woody himself, dozens of dancing Grouchos, and a bunch of other Allen regulars joined the fun. It all wraps up with one of the most truly magical film moments I’ve ever seen – a floating, soaring midnight dance by the Seine. Woody Allen fans, if you haven’t seen this, check it out.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

I guess I’m an old softie, but I still love ‘The Sound of Music‘. When the kids are solemnly singing “My Favorite Things” outside in the garden, and Maria’s (Julie Andrews) voice joins in and they see that she has returned from the abbey, I melt into a little puddle. Also, when the Captain (Christopher Plummer) sings “Edelweiss” in the house while strumming a guitar, and hits Maria with that meaningful stare at the end, it sets me all atingle. His little shrug at the end doesn’t fool anyone, least of all the Baroness. The film is a classic, in every sense of the word.

By the way, I never realized this, but Christopher Plummer’s voice for that song is actually dubbed in the film. You can see a clip with his original vocal track here:

On the other end of the spectrum, I really enjoyed ‘Moulin Rouge!‘. It was the first Baz Luhrmann film I had seen, and from the previews, I wasn’t expecting much. 19th Century French characters singing The Police, Elton John, Nirvana and Madonna? You can’t be serious. But they were, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. And it works really well. Who knew that Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor could sing? There are even a few lines from ‘Sound of Music’ sprinkled in. My favorite parts are McGregor’s rendition of “Your Song” and his mash-up medley of pop love songs, sung with Kidman. It’s a very cool use of music in place of spoken dialogue to further the story.

Shannon Nutt

I was completely wowed a few years back when I watched ‘Dreamgirls‘ for the first time. Not only is Director Bill Condon’s movie filled with wonderful tunes, but it was a reminder to everyone of just how talented Eddie Murphy can be when he’s attached to the right project. His portrayal of James “Thunder” Early is a cross between James Brown and Jackie Wilson, and it’s simply brilliant.

If you haven’t seen the film, trust me when I say that Eddie Murphy not winning a Best Supporting Actor for this role is one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history. Of course, Murphy isn’t the only reason to check out this movie. With Jamie Foxx, Beyonce, Danny Glover and Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Hudson rounding out the cast, ‘Dreamgirls’ is simply a dream come true. It was and continues to be my favorite film of 2006.

M. Enois Duarte

This is a tough choice because I love musicals, and if I really needed to, I’d be torn between ‘Grease‘ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘. I grew up with both films, watching them repeatedly throughout my life. And still do! I’ve also owned them on various home video formats and a variety of special editions, even a couple of imports.

Each has its collection of amazing, memorable music, but when push comes to shove, I’ll give ‘Rocky Horror’ the edge simply because it celebrates my favorite genre: the sci-fi horror B-movie from the 1940s through to the late ’60s. Of course, Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry are the cat’s meow!

Junie Ray

Gigi‘ – I get sucked into this mawkish Vincent Minnelli movie every time it’s shown on TCM. If you aren’t a musical fan, this probably isn’t the movie for you because it has all the hallmarks that can irritate (though for me they’re part of the musical experience). It has prattling women, a long boring number with the man (Louis Jourdan) wandering around the streets at night realizing he’s in love, and a big ol’ moral message all tied in a bow. (Don’t be a whore. Get married.)

However, it also has Leslie Caron, who radiates youthful beauty from the screen and delivers on the transformation from girl to young woman. It has a great veteran supporting cast, including the grandmother played by Hermione Gingold. My favorite song in the movie is her duet “I Remember It Well” with Maurice Chevalier. And there are the lovely stylized art nouveau sets and beautiful costumes. Caron’s evening gown made by Cecil Beaton is absolutely divine, probably my all-time favorite gown in any movie. For me, ‘Gigi’ is a great classic musical, and one I’ll watch every time I spot it on TV.

If you’re not a movie musical fan, perhaps I can persuade you to the genre with ‘Once‘. This indie film has received heaps of accolades, and rightly so. It’s a gently bittersweet story about a Dublin street musician and an immigrant girl who connect and write some songs. It’s particularly appealing if you’ve ever played in a band, had a creative moment where things just clicked, or had a star-crossed romance. I didn’t realize that I’d just watched a musical until I read about the movie afterwards!

Tom Landy

I’ll probably get booed for this, but I am not a musical lover. One might think I’d like them since I like both movies and music, but putting the two together usually doesn’t mesh for me. There’s just something about people breaking into song every 5-10 minutes that rubs me the wrong way. That being said, if I had to choose something, then I’d have to go with ‘The Wizard of Oz‘. It’s probably the definitive musical and was highly innovative for the time.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Cannibal! The Musical‘ addresses one of my long-standing complaints about movie musicals: the general lack of people eating one another. Shot on a shoestring several years before ‘South Park’ steamrolled its way onto television, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s ‘Cannibal!’ clues the rest of the world in on the grisly story of Alfred Packer. In the 1870s, Packer led a group of miners westward in search of fame and fortune. Turns out that Packer doesn’t really know where he’s going, though. Winter bares its icy fangs, provisions run low, and there’s no hope of salvation in sight. So, yeah: ‘Cannibal! The Musical’!

The movie is every bit as ridiculous and demented as its title suggests. Its songs are catchy enough, and ‘Cannibal!’ delivers the highest body count of pretty much any musical I’ve ever come across.

Luke Hickman

I didn’t think that I was much of a fan of musicals until I started putting thought into this topic. I hated ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Hairspray’ and the few moments of ‘High School Musical’ that I watched with my wife’s kid sister, but I think those are the only ones that I truly despised (not including the new movie version of ‘Jersey Boys’). Because I recently watched their Blu-rays and because they’re fresh on my mind, my favorite has to be a toss-up between ‘Once’ and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis‘. With ‘Once’, you get pure indie movie magic. Two little-known performers who’ve never acted deliver brilliant performances through their many beautiful duets. If you haven’t seen it, ‘Once’ is a must-see for anyone who appreciates original raw music and the lowest of low-budget movies. On the other hand, with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, you get a perfectly polished tale of a grade-A selfish folk-singing prick whose pride and arrogance keep him repeating a never-ending loop of failure. He possesses the talent needed to be a star in the world of music, but being his own worst enemy, he himself is the obstacle standing in the way. The combination of Oscar Isaac’s hearty musical performances with the Coen brothers’ sharp writing and directing, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is perfect little picture.

Josh Zyber

Musicals are a genre that I’ve had to force myself to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. I grew up with a strong aversion to them, instilled in me by everyone in my family and pretty much everyone I knew. My grandmother tells me that ‘The Sound of Music’ was the last movie she went to see in a theater – because if that’s what movies were going to be like, she didn’t have any use for them anymore.

Of course, animated and family musicals from Disney and the like were tolerable, to a point. (I still maintain that ‘The Lion King’ would be a much better movie if you could excise the pointless, time-wasting musical numbers.) As far as that goes, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ is my favorite. Danny Elfman’s clever songs and Tim Burton’s delirious, demented visuals (before either of them would later grow so tired and stale) are an ideal pairing in that film.

As I’ve tried to expand my cinematic horizons, I’ve watched a fair number of classic musicals. While I can appreciate the artistry in a movie like ‘West Side Story‘, something still holds me back from ever loving it.

For live action musicals, my pick would be ‘All That Jazz‘ (due on Blu-ray from Criterion in August), Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical tale of a famed theater choreographer spiraling through a nervous breakdown in the middle of his latest production. The film has a very dark edge, and a lot more depth and psychological complexity than I’ve seen in other musicals, which usually tend to be sing-songy romances built around rather simplistic stories. ‘All That Jazz’ is high in both style and substance.

What are your favorite musicals? Tell us in the Comments.

21 comments

  1. Ryan

    Moulin Rouge is one of my all time favorite movies in general, so it’s also my favorite musical by a large margin.
    Once is also a fantastic movie and musical.
    My favorite Disney musical is Tangled. It angers me that that movie never received the audience that the vastly inferior Frozen won.

    • Elizabeth

      The problem with Tangled is the music just isn’t all that memorable. The story might be better than Frozen, but Frozen like other great Disney movies has songs that get stuck in your head. I bet there are very few people who could even name a song from Tangled (I could but the iPad I’m typing this on is nicknamed Adriana after the voice of Snow White.). But then you’ve got Frozen with the now-overplayed “Let it Go,” the hysterical “in Summer” and the simultaneously cute and heart-wrenching “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?”

      Where’s the Tangled song that compares to Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” or The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss The Girl?”

      • Hmm. I disagree. I bought the ‘Tangled’ soundtrack, and songs like ‘I See The Light’, ‘Mother Knows Best’ and especially ‘I’ve Got A Dream’ are brilliant and on near-endless repeat in my playlist. I even quote ‘Surrrrounded by enormous piles of money’ in daily conversations.

        Oh, and Ryan: ‘Tangled’ made almost 600 million dollars. Sure, that’s not up to Frozen’s boffo box office results … but it’s still a very impressive result. It’s also a funnier, and arguably better, movie than ‘Frozen’.

        • Ryan

          Oh, I know Tangled made some pretty good money….but it’s just not the sensation that Frozen is. And I just don’t understand why…especially when the story is SOOOO much stronger (and the music equal or greater than…IMO)
          So, I agree with you…those three songs are are fantastic.
          As for the songs in Frozen. “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman”, I feel this is the best song in the movie by far. “Let It Go”…while a decent melody, I can’t stand the nasally and overally broadway style of Idina Menzel. Say what you want about Mandy Moore’s music career….but Idina can’t come close to Mandy in “I See The Light”.

        • Elizabeth

          Those aren’t songs most people are going to be singing to themselves. And certainly not kids. That’s where Frozen is stronger than Tangled, in having music that gets stuck in your head. That’s why Tangled didn’t achieve the same success.

          It doesn’t hurt that Frozen’s main characters are essentially bulletproof to criticism. You’ve got Anna who starts off written like your typical Disney princess falling for the first guy she meets. Then you’ve got Elsa who is sort of a misunderstood villain. But Anna (like Brave’s Merida) doesn’t get saved by the man like the typical Princess. Rapunzel was ultimately saved by a man like most Disney princesses. It’s essentially the same thing Brave tried to do, to redefine the Disney Princess as a strong independent woman. So you’ve got two main characters that are hard for parents to object to beyond some lunatic right-wing fringe complaints about the movie promoting witchcraft and lesbianism.

          Added to that, you’ve got several very catchy songs, great visuals, a positive message for young kids, a fairly strong story and some fun secondary characters.

          Now contrast that with Tangled, which could very easily be classified as your typical Disney Princess movie. Like you, I think Tangled was a better movie but I can also easily see why it was left in the cold by Frozen.

      • William Henley

        Actually, I think Frozen’s story is better as well. Tangled had a better script (better script does not equal better story, though). However, i must agree, I didn’t even realize Tangled was a musical and I have probably seen it four times. I can’t name a single song from it.

  2. shawn

    My favorite is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The scene where they build the barn is fantastic, great choreography during the dance numbers.

    I also really like Top Hat and 42nd Street.

  3. Paul J Anderson

    Can’t believe nobody has mentioned “My Fair Lady” yet. Absolutely love this film. Also, chalk up another vote for “Moulin Rouge”, which runs a close second to the Lady.

  4. I enjoy animated movies as musicals such as the Disney classics, but live action, not so much. However, I’ve always enjoyed the live action Popeye musical that most others don’t seem to. Maybe it’s nostalgia. I think I’ll dust off the old dvd and give it another spin in the next few weeks to see how it holds up. I enjoyed Sweeney Todd, but probably would of liked it more if it wasn’t a musical. I respect musicals, and most of them have at least one song or segment that I genuinely enjoy, but it’s definitely not my thing.

  5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is my favorite musical and one of my all-time favorite movies in general. It has a great soundtrack and is the only musical I know of where every word of dialogue is sung. It is also amazing visually, particularly in its use of color throughout the film. Catherine Deneuve had her breakout role in Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

  6. Helen

    For me “Fiddler on the Roof” wins by a hair with “Sound of Music” close behind and “My Fair Lady” also very close. I also love “Evita”.

  7. Chris B

    South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. With honorable mentions to Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors (which has one of my favorite Bill Murray roles of all time) “You are something special!!”. Makes me laugh every time.

  8. Hard to pick one, because similar to non-musical movies, the intent can be so different. West Side Story, Singin in the rain, and My Fair Lady have to be my top 3.

    I will also embarrassingly admit that I think ‘Evita” was unfairly maligned, that the Che character played by Banderas was brilliant, and that Madonna held her own. The real problem was the scene writing, odd considering that 90% of the movie is sung, which actually makes it closer to being an opera than musical.

  9. William Henley

    I am way late to this party as I have been sick the past few days, and just now catching up.

    Most of mine have already been said.

    Without a doubt, Singing In The Rain is the best musical ever made. But I just love musicals in general. Here are my favorites:
    South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
    The Sound of Music
    Lion King
    Little Mermaid
    Aladdin
    Beauty And The Beast
    Fiddler On The Roof
    Rent
    Dreamgirls
    Moulin Rouge (probably my favorite musical ever)
    Little Shop of Horrors
    Annie
    Mary Poppins
    My Fair Lady
    The Music Man
    Viva Las Vegas
    Bye Bye Birdie
    Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (btw, the UK Blu-Ray of this movie is hands down the worst looking Blu-Ray ever created. Read my review here: http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/Joseph-and-the-Amazing-Technicolor-Dreamcoat-Blu-ray/105579/#UserReviews )

    I could go on, but I think I need to stop somewhere. I just love musicals!

  10. Guido

    I’m not a big fan of musicals. Everytime the characters break into song and dance for no reason at all, the 4th wall crashes down for me. So if the writers find a way to work the musical numbers into the plot, it’s fine with me. I like he “Butffy” episode mentioned above for hanging lanterns on those tropes.

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