23. God Help the Girl (2014)
God Help the Girl is a mostly delightful, subtly dark, and definitely messy musical. That latter fact sometimes works for it, and sometimes it works against it. Its flaws were enough to keep God Help the Girl from finding an audience, but there’s still plenty to love in the score by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch and the absurdly charming cast (Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray), which take it to another level.
22. Hairspray (2007)
Let’s get this out of the way first: The egregious miscasting of John Travolta, who refuses to play Edna as a drag queen but rather as a “real woman” in horrific prosthetics, almost dooms the whole movie. That’s why the Hairspray reboot, widely regarded as one of the best modern movie musicals, isn’t higher on the list. Overall, it’s a very well-done adaptation of one of the most relentlessly enjoyable musicals. The cast (Travolta aside) is charismatic and peppy, which would be grating elsewhere but is absolutely essential here.
21. Burlesque (2010)
Burlesque is not good; Burlesque is great. OK, it’s like a sanitized Showgirls that’s only slightly more competent, but it’s a big, dumb, sequin-heavy musical starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, and if that doesn’t appeal to you, you’re on the wrong side of history. Burlesque is the story of a small-town girl — referred to as “some slut with mutant lungs” by Kristen Bell — who moves to Los Angeles and learns how to do the Wagon Wheel Watusi, along with a valuable lesson about air rights. It’s preposterous. Enjoy!
20. Tangled (2010)
Tangled isn’t quite up there with some of Disney’s other recent offerings. It is, however, a playful riff on the Rapunzel story that includes a few solid additions to the Disney music canon: the standard “I Want” song, “When Will My Life Begin”; the sweet duet, “I See the Light”; and the standout (because it’s a villain song and it’s sung by Donna Murphy), “Mother Knows Best.” Tangled doesn’t hew as closely to the movie musical formula as the ’90s Disney Renaissance movies, but it’s close enough to qualify.
19. Mamma Mia! (2008)
Much like the musical its based on, the ABBA jukebox extravaganza Mamma Mia! is aggressively, relentlessly silly. It is best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously and leans in to the fact that, yes, that’s Meryl Streep belting “The Winner Takes It All” to Pierce Brosnan. (The less said about his singing, the better.) It’s difficult to determine the right place for Mamma Mia! on a ranking of modern movie musicals, because it’s both kind of terrible and the absolute best. I’ll put it this way: If you’re drinking on a plane, there’s no better viewing choice.
18. Pitch Perfect (2012)
Forget about Pitch Perfect the mega-successful franchise. Forget about the seemingly endless number of “Cup Song” covers you’ve suffered through. Forget about “aca-scuse” me. Go back to the first time you witnessed that magical riff-off, the sparks between Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin, Ben Platt’s breakout moment singing “Magic“… Pitch Perfect was and still is a thoroughly enjoyable and unconventional movie musical grounded in female friendship and (quite literally) strong voices.
17. Frozen (2013)
The overexposure of Pitch Perfect is nothing compared to Frozen, which became so unbearably popular that it’s easy to forget what a solid addition to the Disney lineup it is. It’s not without its flaws, largely when it comes to pacing — a fact you’ll likely realize if your kids have forced you to sit through it 37 times in a row — but it has a wonderful score, including the legitimately great “Let It Go,” “Love Is an Open Door,” and “For the First Time in Forever.” (It also has “Fixer Upper,” but hey, nobody’s perfect.)
16. La La Land (2016)
And here we arrive at the most talked-about movie musical in years, a film so popular that people seem to have forgotten that other movie musicals have been made over the past two decades. That’s not La La Land’s fault — and in its defense, much of the criticism lobbed against it has more to do with the praise it’s earned (and the Oscar it likely will) than anything else. On its own, it’s a fairly straightforward but admirably poignant homage to classic movie musicals. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is worth the price of admission.
15. High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
Hi, haters! Before you accuse me of trolling, do some research: I have a well-documented history of proclaiming High School Musical 3: Senior Year to be one of the finest movie musicals of our time. Yes, really. High School Musical was a fun diversion and High School Musical 2 is a forgettable follow-up (minus “Bet on It,” obv), but High School Musical 3 stands out as being legitimately good. It’s a cavalcade of certifiable bops performed by actual talent, and most importantly, it knows exactly what it is, leaning into its Disney Channel Original Movie status with admirable self-awareness.
14. Across the Universe (2007)
In order to appreciate Across the Universe, you have to appreciate Julie Taymor, the film’s visionary and divisive director. That is not always easy for some, which is probably why Across the Universe has at least as many vocal detractors as diehard fans. And, to be fair, the movie does at times indulge itself a little too much. (The LSD-infused Doctor Robert sequence could be excised entirely.) Still, it’s great performance after great performance of Beatles classics, with gorgeous visuals and a distinct Taymor sensibility. Give in.
13. Les Misérables (2012)
At times, Tom Hooper’s adaptation feels a little too grounded given its source material — having the actors sing it all live and hiring some actors who can’t really sing took away from the grandeur associated with the lavish stage production. But when it soars, it feels overwhelming in the best way. And for anyone who fell in love with the spectacle of Les Misérables the musical, that’s exactly what the movie needed to be. Anne Hathaway’s visceral “I Dreamed a Dream” is a truly stirring moment, and while her awards season campaigning may have turned people off, she deserved that Oscar.
12. Moana (2016)
Disney showed its commitment to making more true musicals in the style of its ’90s classics when it hired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the songs for Moana. His distinctive voice, which helped turn Hamilton into a worldwide phenomenon, is on full display here: “How Far I’ll Go” is a song that feels both 100% Lin-Manuel Miranda and 100% Disney “I Want” song. The film overall is a nice departure from the traditional Disney princess story — hello, no love interest. But it’s the music that makes it magic.
11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Tim Burton’s recent output hasn’t inspired much confidence, but he was the perfect choice to adapt Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical about a homicidal barber seeking revenge for the injustice done to him and his family with some very close shaves. There are, again, downsides to casting celebrities instead of singers — Johnny Depp is fine, but Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t really have the voice to do the material justice — and yet, it’s a film that manages to be both a pretty faithful adaptation and also a solid work in its own right.
10. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
If you like your movie musicals with happy endings, you’ll want to avoid the relentlessly bleak Dancer in the Dark entirely. It’s easily one of the most depressing films ever made, and there are full-on song and dance sequences! Björk stars as Czech immigrant Selma, and the artist-turned-actor’s open, youthful face just makes the horror inflicted on her character that much harder to witness. Catherine Deneuve co-stars, which is a good reminder that even The Umbrellas of Cherbourg didn’t make you cry this hard.
9. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Princess and the Frog is both one of Disney’s best films and one of its most tragically underappreciated. Aside from the fact that Tiana is the greatest Disney Princess — happy to debate this elsewhere, but it’s correct — the film as a whole captures the feel of the Disney Renaissance better than any other recent offerings. That’s a credit to the traditional animation, but also to Randy Newman’s wonderful score, including the standard “I Want” song, the excellent “Almost There,” and a great villain song, “Friends on the Other Side.”
8. Sing Street (2016)
If you can watch Sing Street and not fall instantly in love, you might be dead inside. The story itself — a boy who forms a band to woo a girl — isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. But that doesn’t matter. It’s an infectiously joyful ode to self-expression, a tale of growing up and of first love, featuring some incredible music. (Side note: It’s a travesty that standout song “Drive It Like You Stole It,” which features in the best sequence in the film, was denied an Oscar nomination.) Sing Street knows what it wants to be, and hits every note flawlessly.
7. The Last Five Years (2014)
Not everyone loves Richard LaGravenese’s take on Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, and that’s fair. He makes some choices that might not be in line with what fans of the musical were hoping for. At the same time, how could he not? This was a nearly impossible musical to adapt, and given that, it’s impressive that the film manages to retain the spirit of the show — and be just as stunning and devastating as the stage musical can be. Anna Kendrick is very good, but it’s Jeremy Jordan who really proves himself as a star.
6. Love Songs (2007)
La La Land was clearly influenced by Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but Love Songs did it first (and better). Mercifully, it has a happier ending than the classic French film, although it does include a surprise death that adds a somber feel to the whole thing. The music by Christophe Honoré is filled with gorgeous melodies and relentless earworms, and the story takes surprising turns, revealing itself to be a progressive and thoughtful exploration of nonmonogamy and the spectrum of sexual identity. Fall in love with this hidden gem.
5. Into the Woods (2014)
Into the Woods, another very difficult musical to bring to the screen, finally got the film adaptation it deserved with a screenplay by original book writer James Lapine and direction by movie musical pro Rob Marshall. Sondheim purists may scoff at some of the changes, but it’s as streamlined as it can be without losing the moral complexity that makes the fairy tale mashup so enjoyable for adults as well as children. And while the cast does include plenty of names, they’re mostly names who can sing quite well, so there’s little cause for complaint.
4. Dreamgirls (2006)
Sorry, Beyoncé — it’s all about Jennifer Hudson here. “Listen” is a fine addition to the score, but Dreamgirls has always been about Effie, and not just because she gets the greatest showstopper of all time, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Effie is the emotional center of the film, and Hudson — who was known only as a failed American Idol contestant when the film was released — slays her iconic song, along with “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only.” Everyone else is great, and the musical translates to film seamlessly. But it’s Hudson’s show.
3. Once (2007)
Spoiler alert: Once is a love story, in which the love is completely unconsummated. It is, at times, shockingly sad, and the ending leaves you with such a profound sense of melancholy and loss that you might need a moment. Also there’s singing! Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová use their real-life chemistry to the film’s advantage as they meet and fall for each other, however subtly, and sing Hansard’s exceptional score. Once found new life as a Broadway musical, but the original film is impossible to beat.
2. Chicago (2002)
Chicago always tops lists of the best modern-day movie musicals, and that’s reasonable. It’s close to perfect. It isn’t singlehandedly responsible for the resurgence of the genre, but it did have a huge impact, namely in showing the industry how financially successful and critically adored movie musicals could be. Chicago still holds up, both as a nearly flawless adaptation and as a recent classic on its own. By recontextualizing the musical numbers, it also outlines a new, more realistic approach to on-screen musicals.
1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
You can’t overstate the number of people whose sexual and gender awakenings were brought on by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, including the original off-Broadway musical, the movie, and the Broadway revival. The film is an excellent encapsulation of what made John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s musical such a profound work. In the title role, Mitchell emerges as a queer icon for the 21st century, and the score is glam-rock perfection. That it all lives on in film form for future young people to discover is a blessing.