My Personal List of Musicals on Film
Compiled by Kenneth Lyen
I'm not sure if Hollywood invented the film musical, referring to musicals written specifically for film, but it certainly popularized the form. Indeed the term "Hollywood Musical" has been virtually synonymous with film musicals. Stage shows or musicals that originated on the live stage, and were subsequently transferred to film, are technically speaking, not "Hollywood Musicals". However, here, I want to make a list of DVDs of musicals on film, and am therefore not restricting my choice to the "Hollywood Musical". My list is not comprehensive, and is rather idiosyncratic. I have included some films that you may not consider a musical, but in which song and dance feature prominently.
First let me list those movies I consider to have been most successful in their transference from stage to film. These include My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Cabaret, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Guys and Dolls, Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, Camelot, Gigi, Gypsy, Grease, Tommy, The Music Man, Funny Girl, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Hair, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Annie Get Your Gun, 42nd Street, Showboat, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and most Rogers and Hammerstein musicals (eg Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music).
Unfortunately many successful stage musicals did not translate too well into the film medium. Examples include A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity, The Pajama Game, Annie, 1776, Passion, Jekyll and Hyde, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Man of La Mancha, Finian's Rainbow, and (in my opinion) many Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals including Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar (the Norman Jewison version). Here I must confess that I have not watched all the stage versions of these films. Remakes of musicals, including South Pacific starring Glenn Close, Oklahoma starring Hugh Jackman, and The Music Man starring Matthew Broderick have been disappointing. Andrew Lloyd Webbers Phantom of the Opera (2004) has fallen right into an abyss between two opposing camps, one praising it, and the other slamming it.
Some movies are merely a film of a stage performance. These include the newest version of Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Godspell, Pippin, Into The Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Victor/Victoria, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and The Wiz. Nevertheless, they are worth watching. Not worth watching is the French stage musical, Notre Dame (not to be confused with the Disney cartoon).
Musicals made for movies, the true Hollywood Musical, include Singin' In the Rain, High Society, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Silk Stockings, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend, The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Everyone Says I Love You, An American in Paris, Fame, Saturday Night Fever, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, Dr Doolittle (with Rex Harrison), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. One must not forget the delightful French musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Musicals that started off life as a cartoon, has been largely dominated by Disney, and my favourites include Hunchback of the Notre Dame, Pocahontas, Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Jungle Book, Winnie The Pooh, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Hercules, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins. For a non-Disney musical animation, check out Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, and South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. The latter is wonderfully subversive and well worth watching! I also like the musical The Prince of Egypt with songs by Stephen Schwartz, and to a lesser extent, Polar Express, and Shark Tale. The cartoon version of Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I is unexpectedly bad.
Puppet musicals have fared better, and the Muppets have made a series of musical films which are delightful to watch. My favorites are The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppet Movie. Television series that venture into musicals include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More With Feeling, but the attempt is simply awful.
Several musicals are merely concert versions, with costumed singers, but minimal acting and no sets. These include Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, Follies In Concert, and Chess (sung in Swedish). They are better appreciated if you have already watched the stage version.
I know that many people classify Moulin Rouge as a musical, and yes, there are a lot of songs. But what bothers me is that it is a mish mash of songs borrowed from several composers of different time periods. This offends my purist sensibilities, and I would subconsciously suppress this as a musical. Other films that do not fit comfortably in the classification of a musical are the Elvis Presley, Beatles, and Cliff Richards films, which are merely vehicles for their songs. And while on this subject, I would exclude O Brother as a musical. Are there any other musicals that I don't care for too much for? Yes, these include Dancer In the Dark (I'm not a Bjork fan), Cannibal, On The Town, Newsies, Bugsy Malone, Barnum, Xanadu, and The Magic Show.
Biographies of famous musical writers using their own songs have also made it to film. One such example is Topsy-Turvy, about the collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Buddy Holly Story is a film biography of his life using his actual songs, and similarly the life of Richie Valens is told through La Bamba. The life of Cole Porter was first told in the 1946 film Night and Day starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith, but this was a sanitized version. More recently (2004), using his own songs, Cole Porters life has been told with warts and all in a film called De-Lovely. I enjoyed it very much and was amazed how he could write a happy song tinged with a deep underlying sadness. Oh, I nearly forgot about Ray, the biography of Ray Charles brilliantly played by Jamie Foxx.
Nowadays, film musicals integrate the music into film so well that you are not aware they are actually musicals. These include Coyote Ugly starring Piper Perabo, Honey starring Jessica Alba, and The School of Rock starring Jack Black. Unfortunately several of these teenage films with pop songs are somewhat dumb. Examples abound, including Josie and the Pussycats, Spice World starring the Spice Girls, and Crossroads starring Britney Spears (apologies to fans). Films with a lot of songs and may at a pinch be called a musical include The Commitments, High Fidelity, Empire Records, That Thing You Do. Dance films like Footloose, Dirty Dancing, The Mambo Kings, Lambada, The Forbidden Dance, Save the Last Dance, are also candidates to be classed as musicals. All of them integrate the dance and music very well into the film. However, a less successful integration of music into film, is Camp, which has a cameo appearance of Stephen Sondheim. The French film, Les Choristes is salvaged by beautiful singing.
Which musicals should you watch? Well, this is an impossible question to answer. It all depends on your musical and film preferences! My own top choices are West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Oliver, and Disney's Hunchback of the Notre Dame.
25 January 2005