13 February 2013

Top 10 (Movie) Musicals

I finally got around to seeing "Les Misérables" at the cinema on my Monday off.

For one reason or another, these are the musicals that I have enjoyed the most.

I should point out that for as is the case for every one of my top 10 lists of movies, they are movies I've seen. There are probably awesome musicals out there that I haven't seen (yet), but they won't appear on my lists just by virtue of being critically acclaimed, or Oscar-winning.

This list features:
  • 3 movies that are original film musicals
  • 4 movies adapted from stage musicals
  • 3 movies with plots arranged around a selection of previously written songs
  • 2 movies featuring both Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen

So without further ado...


Say "musical", and I'm sure a lot of people immediately think of "The Sound Of Music". The Alpine scenery is just as memorable as the songs - I once turned on the TV, in the days before on-screen show information, just in time for a sweeping helicopter shot of mountains and meadows. No sooner had I thought "Whatever this is, it looks like Sound of Music" than the camera dove closer to show Julie Andrews dancing among the wildflowers.

The Oscar-winning film was adapted from the Broadway Musical (which, yes, I've never seen) which in turn was based on the true story of Maria (Julie Andrews), the novice turned nanny to the seven children of widowed Navy commander Captain Von Trapp (a stern Christopher Plummer). In a plot twist that sounds like it could have been written in Hollywood, Maria ends up marrying the Captain. Then the Captain's beloved native Austria is annexed by the Nazis, and the film takes a last-minute serious turn.

I won't say much more than that about this film - you've probably already seen it, or have been made to see it. Although I do know someone who proudly proclaimed on his 18th birthday that he'd made it thus far without ever having seen The Sound Of Music.

It's not for everyone. I don't mind this film. My wife can't stand it.


This is the closest thing you'll find to an anti-musical - no bright sunny plot, no heroic love interest, no happy ending. It's certainly the most depressing musical I've ever seen, but don't let that put you off. Selma is an Eastern European immigrant in 1960s America who is in love with the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age. She works long hours in a factory, trying to save money for her son's eye operation.

In addition to playing the lead role of Selma, Icelandic singer Björk also composed all the songs in the film (available as the album "Selmasongs"). There is good support from Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare (whose singing voice is actually provided by Radiohead's Thom Yorke) and David Morse.

"Dancer In The Dark" in graph form.
Whenever life gets tough, Selma retreats into a fantasy world imagining that she is in one of her beloved Hollywood musicals. In addition to the songs themselves, this is conveyed to great effect with the lighting and camera work.

To begin with, the boredom and monotony of factory work inspires a simple percussion-based song-and-dance using the sounds of the machinery. As the plot develops, and Selma's problems keep piling on, things get steadily worse and worse. As Selma relies more and more on her fantasies, the song-and-dance routines get bigger and brighter, culminating in an almost full-cast singalong dancing in a courtroom where she is about to put on trial for murder.

While the film can be quite depressing (don't watch it alone if you can help it), the songs create a fascinating juxtaposition.


I love the Muppets. I have most of their feature films. This, their first silver-screen outing after appearing on television for years in "The Muppet Show", is the best.

Part road movie, part musical, it has puppets and humans, talking animals, and all those other things that get taken for granted in Muppet reality. Kermit's legs are shown on-screen, as the frog rides a bicycle down a street - movie magic! The plot is all about Kermit's attempt to get to Hollywood after seeing a newspaper ad for singing frogs. Along the way he meets a host of now-familiar characters, as well as a large selection of celebrity actor/comedian cameos (some of them in rather villainous roles).

The plot, which culminates in the Muppets' attempts to make the very film we've been watching, is self-referential in a way that has also continued throughout future Muppet films. While camped by the roadside, Kermit and his friends are joined by Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, who have read ahead in the screenplay so know where to find them. In the Muppet's retelling of A Christmas Carol, Gonzo and Rizzo the rat are both characters in a Dickensian London, but remain aware of their being in a movie. It's odd, but it's also funny, and it works.

This is a post about musicals, though, so I'd better talk about the songs. Fun and catchy as Muppet songs are, they also deal with a variety of serious themes. "The Rainbow Connection" shows Kermit's wishes for more from his life - you will believe a frog can play the banjo. "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along", Kermit's duet with Rowlf, deals with the problems associated with womenfolk. Gonzo sings a song longing for the past and for home, somewhere out there in space.

Adults will get just as much (if not more) out of this movie than children - it really is a movie for all ages.

Side note: Bret McKenzie's songs for the recent film "The Muppets" (2012) score it an Honourable Mention, almost-but-not-quite making it into this Top 10.


I'll start off by saying I've never seen the stage version of "Phantom". But I did enjoy this movie.  I still don't know how it measures up to the stage version, but the sets and costumes seen here look great.

Gerard Butler (playing the masked Phantom) copped some flack for his singing when the film first came out, but I thought his performance was more realistic because his singing wasn't stage-perfect. If I was an evil musical genius with a hideously disfigured face, I doubt that I would have a perfect singing voice. This is why he needs Christine to perform the opera he is writing. In this version, the scarring comes through in Butler's voice as well as in the makeup.

Emmy Rossum (18 at the time) is a believable Christine, the young opera singer who dreams of a lead role. Minnie Driver is beautifully over-the-top as the diva Carlotta. Patrick Wilson as Raoul isn't all that memorable a character - I will think of him as "that guy from Watchmen" way before I think "that guy from Phantom".

Another plus is that this is one of those film musicals where the actors do all their own singing. Unlike, say, Disney movies where you'll often see credits for a character's "singing voice" following the more famous voice actor.

6. MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)

The musical goes "post-modern" in the hands of Australian director Baz Luhrmann.

Take a boy-meets-girl, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of story set against a backdrop of 19th Century Paris. Add in a medley of pop and rock songs - covering Elton John, T-Rex, Nirvana, and David Bowie among others - that are sung as if the characters are naturally making the lyrics up as they go along. When Ewan McGregor's writer character meets his bohemian friends for the first time, they are even attempting to write lyrics to a song that with help from him turns into "The Sound Of Music". 10 years on, this idea of hanging a plot on popular cover songs sounds familiar...

"[Glee co-creator] Ryan Murphy has been very nice about acknowledging that it was Moulin Rouge! that inspired him. But 10 years ago... if I had a dollar for everyone that said 'The musical will never be popular in America'..."
- Baz Luhrmann, in an interview with UK newspaper "The Independent"

Once again, this is a film where the cast do their own singing. Ewan McGregor has an amazing voice, and after this film went on to star in "Guys And Dolls" in London's West End for several years. Nicole Kidman, Richard Roxburgh and Jim Broadbent also act and sing their roles with gusto. John Leguizamo is hilarious as famous painter Toulouse Lautrec, and there is even a cameo from Kylie Minogue in one absinthe-fuelled sequence.

Sure, we've heard all these songs before. But never like this. Ewan and Nicole sing a duet medley featuring line after line from love song after love song. Songs cross genres - The Police's "Roxanne" gets the full Argentine tango treatment. Songs are mashed together - "Lady Marmalade" overlaps with "The Can Can" as the tie-and-tails gentlemen patrons at the nightclub sing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Each song has been chosen with care to suit the mood of each scene, so that what sounds at first like an odd experiment results in a rather charming whole.


Yet again, another film based on a stage musical I haven't seen. I was already familiar with the plot, however, having seen the 1998 adaptation of the novel (starring Liam Neeson) several times.

I was not familiar with any of the songs, however. (Except for that one song that most people know.) I might have enjoyed the songs a bit more if I knew them already, but even so nothing here was making me rush out and buy the soundtrack album. Having said that, I thought the actual performances by the actors and singers were brilliant. Recording the vocals "live" while the actors were moving/fighting/running/etc on set was a great move. Sure, you don't always get the most polished vocal performance, but I found the songs fit the emotions and physical actions well - there was no lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs here.

I'm not surprised Hugh Jackman won a Golden Globe. He has the lion's share of screen time and singing time, and by the end I was struggling to remember Liam Neeson's version. Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and so is Anne Hathaway, but the standouts for me were the two main child actors in the film: Isabelle Allen as young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (a role he has already played in the stage production).

Then there was the (for me) unexpected appearance of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, reunited in another musical having both appeared in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" (see the next entry in this list). They enter the story partway in, playing the inn-keeping couple charged with the care of young Cosette. Having made an entertaining entrance, they continue popping up throughout the rest of the film as a comic relief to the more serious goings-on in post-Revolution France.


Who else but Tim Burton would bring to the big screen an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical about a murdering London barber and his pie-making accomplice? And who else but Johnny Depp (star of 8 Burton films to date) to portray the title character, and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's partner, appearing in 7 of his films to date) as Mrs Miggins, the pie-maker?

Full marks once again for the cast doing their own singing. From Jeremy Irons as a judge, to Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival Italian barber, all the supporting cast are excellent choices for both their acting as well as their singing abilities.

The film relies heavily on black, grey and white tones, in a muted historic London Town, which then makes the garish bright blood stand out so much more. And it's not a realistic screen blood - it's as bright as the red splashes on the poster image above. Bloody. Macabre. But certainly visually stunning, and with great songs to match.

"Sweeney Todd" shares a similar historical and socio-economic background to "Les Mis", and again it was a filmed version of a stage musical with which I had little familiarity. Unlike "Les Mis", however, this was a soundtrack album I went straight out and bought.

3. ENCHANTED (2007)

My wife and I are Disney fans, having been brought up on a childhood of the studio's animated features. This live-action feature, which does begin in a fairytale animated world like that of the first full-length Disney movie, 1937's "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs". The princess Giselle is transported to modern Manhattan, where she is confronted with a confusing world where animals can't talk (yet still respond to her calling them in song), and people don't marry their true loves after meeting the day before.

The songs that appear throughout the movie manage to do two things at once. They are all original, with clever lyrics. But just like the film itself, they contain references to past Disney efforts - several of the songs are built on specific note sequences or chord progressions from Disney songs of yesteryear. In the wrong hands, this could come across as trite and clichéd. Instead, I found it just as enchanting as the title would suggest.

The Blu-Ray even includes a "Spot the Disney reference" trivia game as part of its special features.

Three of the five nominees for "Best Original Song" at the 2008 Academy Awards were from this film. Even with that 60% chance, it lost out to "Once" (see my yet-to-be-written Top 10 Music Films).

Now, before I continue on to the top 2 spots on my list, I will warn you. I am a huge Beatles fan. Not an "I own every album on vinyl, 8-track, cassette AND compact disc" huge fan, but a fan. So I may be a tad biased in my enjoyment of the following...


Where "Moulin Rouge!" arranged a bunch of pop songs into a workable plot, "Across The Universe" goes a step further, and uses songs by a single artist. (Yes, "Mamma Mia" did it first on stage. No, I haven't seen it.) In this case, the Beatles.

Setting out from 1960s Liverpool, working-class artist Jude (can you guess what song might be coming up later?) travels to America to track down his unknown GI father. Here he meets upper-class girl Lucy (can you guess what other song might be sung later?), and thus begins a love story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Other supporting characters are named Sadie, Prudence, and Jo-Jo.

Like "Moulin Rouge!", all the songs are re-recorded (and in some cases arranged slightly differently) and sung in character by the cast members. There is a cameo by U2's Bono as a hippie guru Dr Robert, singing "I Am The Walrus". Jude's American friend Max (Joe Anderson) gets drafted into the Army, leading into a surreal choreographed nightmare rendition of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun".

A few songs do feel like they've been included just because they can, the same way that minor character names are major clues as to what songs might be coming up in the next hour and a half. But overlooking that, I was drawn into the film and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.


Prior to Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy hitting cinemas, this was one of my favourite films of all time. I was introduced to it in high school. Already a Beatles and Monty Python fan, I fell in love with the nonsensical plot, the psychedelic colours, the puns, and the various animation techniques on display.

(Personally, I wonder how many times Terry Gilliam has seen this film.)

Now, this doesn't actually feature the Beatles' voices for their animated counterparts, but it does feature a selection of songs from previous Beatles albums, and a number of "new" Beatles songs - some they had just lying around unreleased, and two songs specifically recorded for the film.

Sit back and enjoy the ride to Pepperland.

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