Movie Musicals Are Alive and Well

For a quick thirty seconds at the Oscars this year, we all thought the movie musical had officially returned, with La La Land garnering top honors; the first time for a musical since Chicago in 2002. Then, you know, that twist ending.

I’ve been a fan of movie musicals since…well, since forever. One of my earliest memories is watching The Wizard of Oz on repeat (on VHS). In high school, I was falling for Gene Kelly while my friends crushed on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Last week, several headlines popped up in my feed recognizing the 20th anniversary of the release of Selena, the biopic about the rising Tejano star [spoiler alert] murdered by the woman who ran her fan club. Selena was on the brink of English-language stardom in the mid-nineties when her life was cut short and, in a bittersweet turn of events, the film about her life brought both her career – and Jennifer Lopez – into the mainstream.

I loved Selena in 1997. I still love Selena. I’d never heard of her, but between the film and her posthumous album, she was as much a part of my early high school playlists as No Doubt and Alanis Morissette. And the film is good. Not great, but good; twenty years later, I’d consider it a solid biopic, and a decent musical film.

All of this got me thinking: is it that that the movie musical has gone away and is in dire need of a resurgence? Or is it just that it looks different than it did in Fred and Ginger’s day? As I mulled the idea (which I have a lot of time on my hands to do lately), I started jotting down various musicals of the last few decades that, I think, prove its a genre as healthy as ever.

(If that’s not the most Carrie-Bradshaw-esque paragraph I’ve ever written, I don’t know what is.)

Sure, these aren’t all the technicolor productions of days gone by, and I get that’s a lot of what folks liked about La La Land. But La La Land wasn’t exactly a flawless film itself, and really, there’s a lot that can be defined as a movie musical.

It didn’t take me long to come up with a list of 20 great films (in no particular order) from the 1970s on that prove once and for all that movie musicals are so a thing, and we’re all the better for it. Chances are more than one of these gems isn’t on your radar – yet.

  1. Selena (1997) – starring Jennifer Lopez, filled with crowd-pleasing tracks infused with the energy and culture of Mexico/south Texas.
  2. Dirty Dancing (1987) – Nobody puts Baby – or this iconic soundtrack – in a corner.
  3. Footloose (1984) – See above, only this time with Kevin Bacon.
  4. Grease (1978) – so kitschy it’s cool, in 1959, 1978 or 2017
  5. Moulin Rouge (2001) – Baz Lurhman does things big and bold, and it pays off. Big.
  6. Beaches (1988) – Bette Midler’s iconic theme song (Wind Beneath My Wings) isn’t the only lyrical moment in the story of a lifelong friendship.
  7. The Bodyguard (1992) – Whitney Houston was already a major star; Bodyguard made her meteoric, and made girls like me, singing into our hairbrushes, dream bigger than ever.
  8. Newsies (1992) – Disney wasn’t doing much in the live-action realm around this time, but Newsies remains a cult favorite.
  9. Evita (1996) – Madonna got her movie musical moment in the sun, adapting the Andrew Lloyd Webber story for the big screen. I still put the film soundtrack on repeat from time to time.
  10. Anastasia (1997) – the rare princess story not by Disney, I’m seriously considering snagging a ticket to the new Broadway adaptation.
  11. Annie (1982) – Carol Burnett > Cameron Diaz. Always.
  12. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) – Every now and then, I find myself humming “Sunrise, sunset…quickly go the days…” in the evening.
  13. Enchanted (2007) – Equal parts spoof and sincerity, it’s entirely winning.
  14. Mama Mia (2008) – Like probably most films in this list, this disco-dream has its detractors. But I bet even they still turn up the volume on Dancing Queen.
  15. Phantom of the Opera (2004) – The Gerard Butler / Patrick Wilson casting is truly questionable, but Emmy Rossum can sing.
  16. Once (2007) – There’s a serious case to be made that this film kicked off the indie musical scene, and I’d be first in line to make it.
  17. De-Lovely (2004) – A lovely medley of Cole Porter greats in a slick, vintage package.
  18. That Thing You Do! (1996) – Just try to not enjoy the hell out of this flick.
  19. The Last Five Years (2014) – Did you know Anna Kendrick was a Broadway star years before she broke into films? Yeah, she’s the real deal, and this film adapt of the two-person show is solid.
  20. Sing Street (2015) – I’ve made no bones about my love for this one, the most recent addition to this list. See it on Netflix now. No, really. Right now.

And that’s just the first twenty I came up with. I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s Almost Famous and Dreamgirls; Hairspray, Across the Universe, Nine and Sweeney Todd. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Begin Again; all of the Disney animated hits (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Moana…); Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Pitch Perfect (and Pitch Perfect 2 and I’d imagine Pitch Perfect 3). There’s the adaptations gone awry that I wouldn’t recommend but, you know, still exist, namely Les Miserables and Rent. Billy Elliot and on and on and on…

And they’re not going anywhere, either. Musical movies in production include an update on the classic A Star is Born (with Lady Gaga starring, no less); a film version of Wicked and Mary Poppins Returns with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Those are just the ones we know about; who knows what the next Damien Chazelle or John Carney is cooking up?