Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Top Film Musicals of All Time

Catherine Zeta-Jones dances the Cell Block Tango in the
Oscar-winning production of Chicago.
Musicals are one of the chief joys of my cinematic and theatrical experience, so of course I'm very particular in judging their merit. I could go on for a while about what Aristotle said about music and its effect on the soul, but we'll suffice to say that the power of music was extremely evident thousands of years ago. Even before it was possible to reproduce stage musicals for the silver screen, the power of music in tandem with motion pictures was obvious. Once the talking picture was invented, wonderful screen musicals became inevitable. In fact the first talking picture ever was a musical, The Jazz Singer.

While there are plenty of wonderful stage musicals, many of them have either never been adapted for the silver screen (Les Mis) or have been the victims of horrendous cinematic treatment (Camelot, and Guys and Dolls come to mind). At the same time, there have been some absolutely stellar works that never saw the footlights of Broadway or West End theater, but were made specifically for film. I'm here today to honor the musicals that made the best contributions to the motion picture industry, regardless of their origins or stage record.

Honorable Mention:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
This one gets an honorable mention despite being, like The Wizard of Oz, a bit too scary to be really good children's fare. This is due almost entirely to the music, which I absolutely love. "Pure Imagination," "Golden Ticket," and "Candy Man" are particularly good tunes, and the "Oompa Loompa" refrain just gets stuck in your head. I also feel that despite the liberties taking with the novel--including the title--the chocolate factory is a spectacular feat of fancy, truly a magical place for which kids long to be real.

The List:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
I know this is a controversial call because the film took a lot of liberties with the stage show, but I really like the vision they created for it. The original show was easily one of the best productions of the late 20th century. It's also the only Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical which I can embrace with complete adoration. In fact the music is so good that it makes this list almost purely on that strength. I liked all the performances in this film except Patrick Wilson as Raoul. I thought both his acting and signing lacked conviction, and his wig made him look effeminate. Gerrard Butler got a bad rap for his portrayal of the Phantom, but I adore his performance. I think he injected so much depth into the role, and even though his voice isn't classically trained, it has both a power and breathiness to it that fit with the Phantom's passion and madness. I also really like the slightly surreal, Gothic-fairytale feel of the sets and costumes. It does a perfect job of evoking the feeling of late-Victorian Paris while having scenes that feel universal instead of period.

9. The Band Wagon (1953)
While this film doesn't get as much attention as Singin' in the Rain, it still has tremendous merit. The year after that aforementioned smash, producer Arthur Freed and writers Betty Comden and Adolf Green again teemed up to do a musical. For the final time they did a compilation of hit songs by a single composer, and once again the dancing was superb in the hands of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Aside from being quite funny, the plot serves as a sort of ars poetica for the musical genre. At the time the industry seemed to be floundering, unsure of where to go with itself. During the Great Depression and the war years, people wanted light, happy fare to take their minds off the dismal and dangerous reality. Now that peace and prosperity reigned, more dramatic musicals were beginning to be popular. Roger's and Hammerstein would have a whole series of hit melodramas from the later '40s through the '50s, and in just a few years, Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story would revolutionize the industry. But are dramatic musicals really superior to light-hearted ones? This film will delve that question.
Fred Astaire plays an aging film star--which he was at the time--whose musical comedy career seems to be fading. His friends all tell him that his song-and-dance routine has become stale and that he needs to reinvent himself. With the help of a pretentious director who's a thinly veiled portrait of Jose Ferrer, the musical comedy for which Fred Astaire signed up to do is about to be transformed into a modern version of Faust. But neither Fred or the writers have ever done a tragedy before, and their leading lady is a ballerina who's never acted before. So yes, it's a very bad idea. The effort is a bust, and even the director realizes that it's better to do a really good comedy than a half-baked drama. The show is converted back to its original format, and everybody lives happily ever after. "That's Entertainment!"

8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I pretty much put this on because of it's iconic status. I have to admit that the music is pretty good, and Judy Garland does give us that lovely rendition of "Over the Rainbow," but I never liked the film as a kid, so it holds no appeal for me as an adult. Honestly, the Wicked Witch of the West scared me half to death, and it got no better as I got older. I couldn't stomach it until I was a teenager, and by then the magic was gone. The sepia coloring at the beginning and the end, however, is the source of this blog's name, so it's noteworthy for that. I also love singing the different verses of "If I Only Had a Brain," at appropriate moments.

7. Chicago (2002)
I think it's the imaginary musical numbers that wins me over for this one. Maybe that or the great jazz-age sound of the score. I mean, how can you help humming tunes like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," "Mr. Cellophane," and "Razzle Dazzle"? It's odd for me to like a movie in which we root for the protagonist to get away with murder, but it's so slick that it becomes a pleasure to watch just like the caper in Ocean's 11. Had the characters been likable, this film probably would have ranked higher on this list, but I can only stand to watch these depraved characters for so long before it becomes tiresome.

6. The Blues Brothers (1980) 
"We're on a mission from God." Supposedly that's to save an orphanage, but I think the real mission is to be one of the most entertaining films of all time. It has a record number of car crashes; Carrie Fisher wielding bazookas, flame-throwers, bombs, and machine guns; a bunch of Neo-Nazis trying to kill them; and celebrity musical numbers by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, and James Brown, along with the fabulous Blues Brothers themselves. I think my favorite scene still has to be when they accidentally end up at a cowboy bar with people throwing beer bottles at them through a chicken wire cage, and they improvise by playing any country song they can think of, including "Rawhide," and "Stand by Your Man." Really, this movie just has to be seen to be believed because it's just that insane. And that good.

5. My Fair Lady (1964)
Lerner and Lowe's masterpiece gets a lavish treatment in the hands of producer Jack Warner and director George Cukor. One thing I really appreciate is that the set for the opening scene did such a good job copying the real Covent Garden that when I visited London for the first time, I felt like I had been there before. Really the only fault I can find with this movie--and it's a very serious one--is that Jack Warner famously snubbed Julie Andrews for the role in favor of the better-known Audrey Hepburn. Big mistake. Hepburn's music all had to be dubbed, and she would lose the Best Picture Oscar to Andrews for her work in Mary Poppins. Julie has my permission to sing Gershwin's immortal "They All Laughed" now. I must say however, that despite it's not having Ms. Andrews, I actually prefer the renditions of "Get Me to the Church" and "On the Street Where You Live" in this film to the original London cast recording.

4. The Astaire/Rogers collection (1933-1948)
The entire oeuvre of America's Dancing Sweethearts deserves a mention here because while the individual works are great movies, they would not make the list on their own. Viewed collectively, however, their accomplishment is truly staggering. No fewer than nineteen jazz standards were introduced in their films, and some of the most iconic couples dances of all time include "Night and Day" and "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta, "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat, all three dances from Swing Time, "Let's Face the Music (and Dance)," from Follow the Fleet, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance, and "Change Partners" from Carefree. Not only were these films wildly popular, but they also changed the way that dance sequences were filmed, with Fred Astaire insisting that the footage be shot from one camera and in one take so as to give the audience the feeling of watching a great dance performance on the stage instead of on film. On a lighter note, their partnership was so iconic that during the feminist movement the expression was coined that "Everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers had to do backwards and in high heels."

3. The Sound of Music (1965)
Do I really even need to justify this one? I know it suffers from a lot of overexposure, but that's because it's so good. Fresh from her success in Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews got recruited to play with kids again for the screen version of this Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Perhaps one of the reasons that this film works so well is because many of the scenes were shot on location in Salzburg, Austria. Since I've purchased a widescreen DVD of this movie, I can 't help sometimes just staring in awe at the lovely scenery of that country. But of course scenery and Julie Andrews don't guarantee a good film. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote their magnum opus with this score. Only two of the songs didn't go on to be classics, and those two are still pretty good in themselves.

Not only was Mary Poppins a great musical, but also one
of the greatest Disney movies of all time.
2. Mary Poppins (1964)
Walt Disney's swansong is--like the title character--"practically perfect in every way." We all know the story about Julie Andrews' snubbing for the part of Eliza Doolittle which led her to take the title role for this movie and in doing so beat out Audrey Hepburn's non-singing Eliza for the Best Actress Oscar that year. That makes her performance here particularly sweet, of course, but it's only a drop in the bucket of what makes this film great. There's so much to admire in this movie apart from Dick Van Dyke's inconsistent cockney accent. We even forgive him that because he's just so lovable and entertaining as Bert the chimney sweep and jack-of-all-trades. Of course this movie would not have made the list if the music had been bad. What needs to be said about this movie, however, is that the composers had done no previous work of this kind. Yes, it was their first production--stage or screen, and it's just perfect. Drawing on inspiration from English folk songs, rag-time marches, music hall, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the polio vaccine, the Sherman brothers not only created a score with no bad numbers, but the songs they pitched and were rejected got recycled into Disney movies for the next ten years. The most memorable songs are probably "Feed the Birds," the Oscar-winning "Chim-chim Cheerie," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Jolly Holiday." I personally love the "Fidelity Fiduciary" number mostly because I was completely oblivious to it's meaning and merit as a child. This movie is just so imaginative and whimsical that I can't help loving it for that too. I mean who doesn't want to hop into chalk pavement paintings, ride merry-go-round horses in the derby, and have tea parties on the ceiling? To say nothing of the dancing chimney sweeps.

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
You know a musical must be good when I rate it #1 despite absolutely despising all the women's fashions of the era in which it's set. I think this movie works so well because it's corny, and purposely and unashamedly so. Really, this movie is the distilled essence of what it means to be a musical comedy. It has a light but well-crafted script with great comedic lines and situations; it has a score of hit songs from the '20s and '30s, so all of the songs are memorable; and it has the visual spectacle and escapism we expect from a musical. Technically dancing isn't necessary for a musical, but this one has it in spades, with some of the best dance routines ever committed to film. Had Gene Kelly never made this movie--he choreographed it and co-directed it with Stanley Donen--his name would never be mentioned with Fred Astaire as vying for the best male dancer of the silver screen. Donald O'Connor definately deserves a ton of credit for the "Make 'Em Laugh" number, which was written into the show purely to display his incredible comedic  talents. Perhaps the greatest travesty committed against this film is not that it failed to garner the Best Picture Oscar that year but rather that Jean Hagen did not receive a Best Supporting Actress nod for portraying Lina Lamont, the dim-witted, selfish blonde bombshell with the voice that could shatter glass. Seriously, though, this film is the most fun you could ever have with a 2-hour musical film.


  1. I have to say, I wasn't that impressed by "The Band Wagon." I didn't like the songs all that much, and the plot frankly didn't interest me. You being an Astaire aficionado, I doubt that will change your evaluation. But I still have to ask about some of the missing musicals. You reference "West Side Story" as a game-changer, but not even an honorable mention on the list? And what about "Fiddler on the Roof" -- one of my personal favorites?

    My only other complain would be that I'd have ranked "Phantom of the Opera" a bit higher, just because I love the score. As for the rest, well... "Singing in the Rain" is so fun I find it exhausting to find fault with anything associated with it. Enjoyed the list!

  2. I really wanted to put "Phantom" higher too because I'm absolutely in love with the score as well. As musical, moreover, it has a huge influence, but as an adaptation? Not so much. Even though I love the adaptation.
    I must admit that I absolutely revile "West Side Story" which is why it's not up there at all. I love "Fiddler" and I love "Hello, Dolly!" but I just couldn't omit the others in order to add them. Maybe I'll include them as honorable mentions.