When it came to selecting the ‘Top 10 Movie Musicals’ for this blog entry, I found myself somewhat torn over the contributing factors and precisely what this list what promoting - so diverse, eclectic and expansive is this sub genre that I was tossing about questions of quality, personal nostalgia and bias, legacy and cultural impact. Was this my 20 favourite musicals of all time or a more objective ranking of what I felt were the 20 most accomplished motion pictures in musical form? Did the very few original movie musicals (mostly Disney’s offerings) deserve greater credit, or was there more cinematic clout and accomplishment in so successfully translating an offering such as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd from their stage-bound confines to the expansive, sumptuous cinematic treats they became?
Ultimately I like to think this final list is something of a mix of all those things, tossing both film knowledge, training and academia in with a liberal amount of gut instinct to come up with my final rankings. Naturally they are limited to those films I have actually seen, but fortunately when it comes to movie musicals that’s a fairly lengthy back catalogue indeed.
Whether you agree or disagree, want to vent fury at my stupidity or join along with my celebration of this joyful yet oft-maligned of movie wonders (in song if you so wish), feel free to share your opinions through the usual means!
DAY 1: Greatest Movie Musical Numbers 20-16
20: Little Shop of Horrors
Director: Frank Oz
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin
A wonderfully post-modern and self-aware black comedy, Frank Oz brought off-Broadway Little Shop to the screen with his trademark quirk and kitsch. Whilst there were some (including the director and cast) who naysayed the adapting of the original ending, which saw the main protagonists eaten and the villainous Audrey II plant go on to take over America, and the whole thing is suitably ludicrous, this remains a lively, jazzy and thoroughly entertaining musical oddity with a sharp, upbeat soundtrack notable for being the first collaboration between Disney musical progedies Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.
Encore! (best musical tracks/sequences): “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Suddenly, Seymour”
Steals the Show: Ellen Greene as the ditzy, endearing and surprising vocal powerhouse Audrey (special mention to Steve Martin’s sadomasochistic dentist though!)
19: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Director: Jim Sharman
Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Quinn
As morbid and post-modern as Little Shop of Horrors could be, it had nothing on Richard O’Brien’s retro-inspired The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The films truly bizarre and harebrained plot and sexual overtones will deter many, and some write it off as tasteless shlock, as they also did when it initially tanked at the box office upon release. However, since then it has become almost the definitive example of a ‘cult hit’ and continues to play out in packed screenings worldwide, always complete with fully fancy-dressed fans who sing, dance and thrust their way along to O’Brien and Richard Hartley’s bonkers yet irrepressible soundtrack and have given it the longest running release in motion picture history. There is something to be admired in the confidence of it’s daringness, and some of its characters and music have unexpectedly found themselves engrained in the iconography of cinematic history.
Encore!: “The Time Warp”, “Hot Patootie - Bless My Soul”, and “Floor Show Medley”
Steals the Show: Tim Curry’s iconic central performance as Dr Frank N. Furter - a mass of neuroses, crackling sexual energy and showmanship.
18: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman
First, let me declare that as a stage musical, Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is one of the very finest - an operatic, haunting and vicious tour-de-force featuring some of the illustrious writers finest tracks. Much of this does translate into the 2007 release, and Tim Burton’s signature aesthetic style was a perfect fit for the gothic, violent stylings of the original play. However, as competent as leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are (the latter being particularly entertaining in her erratic, nervous interpretation of Miss Lovett) neither possess the vocal range or strength to truly do justice to the sweeping, tragic and raw soundtrack. Seek out the likes of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury performing the original on stage and the shortcomings in Burton’s adaptation become increasingly apparent.
Encore!: “The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest” and “Not While I’m Around”
Steals the Show: Sacha Baron Cohen as Sweeney’s rival barber (and charlatan) Monsieur Pirelli.
Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy
It remains surprising that it took over 25 years for Dreamgirls to make the journey from stage to screen, especially considering the success the original Broadway hit enjoyed and the terrific cast of characters and soundtrack it had at its core, not to mention its notable similarities to the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes. Whilst the eventual release was not the most accomplished motion picture on this list by any means, the assembled cast did terrific jobs with the source material and the production team breathed new life into the story with original songs such as Love You I Do and Listen, two ballads which gave extra emphasis to the arcs of lead characters Deena and Effie. For all of the show-stopping numbers and great supporting turns (including oft-overlooked Anika Noni Rose who as the third ‘Dreamette’ Lorrell), as was the case in 1981 when Jennifer Holliday stormed to attention in the stage version, it is Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning debuts performance (both as a vocal artist and an actress) as Effie White which really elevates the film into such a high-ranking position.
Encore!: “Love You I Do”, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”
Steals the Show: Eddie Murphy as the raucous and troubled James “Thunder” Early (an amalgamation of the likes of James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye) threatens to, but this is Jennifer Hudson’s show.
Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey
The progenitor of the likes of All That Jazz and Chicago, as a film Cabaret is a strangely restricted affair - the majority of musical numbers are confined to the stage which, whilst befitting the plot and environ, are almost exclusively diegetic and do not make for the most ambitious of cinematic endeavours. Nonetheless, the performances and music are already legendary and as mentioned have paved the way for many imitators that followed. Liza Minnelli secured her spot in musical history with a captivating, Oscar-winning iconic performance, assisted as she was with a soundtrack that features a real breadth of show-stopping classics and anthems of the world of musical theatre. That so many of its songs remain engrained in our cultural consciousness to this day is a testimony to the legacy and impact of Cabaret.
Encore!: “Maybe This Time”, “The Money Song”, “Mein Herr” and “Cabaret”
Steals the Show: Everything about Liza Minelli’s performance is captivating, iconic and brilliant, but Joel Grey deserves credit in his also-Oscar-winning turn as the outlandish, bizarre and inimitable Emcee.
NEXT BLOG: Greatest Movie Musicals Numbers 15-11