In cinemas on Boxing Day is the musical extravaganze The Greatest Showman. The film stars Hugh Jackman alongside an all-star cast, including Michelle Williams, Zendaya, and Zac Efron. To celebrate the release, we take a look back at the top ten musicals of the last 17 years.
- Chi-Raq (2015)
By no means a traditional musical and at the same time proof of just how much musicals have evolved. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, which simultaneously manages to weave in a progressive commentary regarding domestic gun violence in the United States. Though set in the present day, what is most interesting about Chi-Raq is how faithfully it adapts its source material, maintaining the original Greek names, the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as the chorus, and dialogue that rhymes almost all the way throughout. Not since Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet has Classical theater been given a treatment like this, and although it contains few direct musical numbers, its original soundtrack and the rhythm of its rhyming dialogue certainly qualifies it as a groundbreaking postmodern achievement.
- Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier’s divisive and heartbreaking tragedy can be described as nothing other than an anti-musical, subverting every expectation the genre has established from traditional happy endings to colorful aesthetics. In her first and only film, Bjork stars as an impoverished factory worker who is saving money to ensure that her son does not befall the same genetic blindness she herself is experiencing. The musical numbers take place within the protagonist’s mind, as she transforms the dull and laborious sounds of the industry that surrounds her into song and dance so as to escape her own painstaking struggle. Lars von Trier holds back no punches, his scathing critique on American hypocrisy and the empty hope that Hollywood musicals inspire as ruthless as ever. Though absolutely not the feel-good sing-a-long that many expect when selecting their musicals, it is undeniably a bold and emotional statement made by one of cinema’s most daring auteurs.
- Sing Street (2016)
Vastly unlike this list’s previous entry, John Carney’s Sing Street is pure uninhibited fun and joy through and through. Erupting from a simple premise, a teenage boy starts a band to impress an older girl in 1980s Ireland, the film proves that musicals can rely on the most clichéd themes of unrequited love or friendship and still be enjoyable when done right. What Carney does best in this completely original production is fuse the nostalgic pop music of the 80s with a strong sense of social realism. The film never forgets the characters’ economic struggles, the wasted potential of their lives, and the abuse they take from the authorities, but additionally never forgets how much fun musicals can be. With a soundtrack that takes everything lovable about the 80s and an inspiringly hopeful narrative, Sing Street is a perfect account of the escapism that music provides, a sentiment that is fully actualized within the film’s final moments.
- Hairspray (2007)
Hairspray is why audiences love musicals. Boasting a colorful cast, an upbeat soundtrack, a significant social message, and a simply outrageous amount of fun, the film accomplishes what every traditional musical sets out to, and leaves its audience with its songs stuck in their heads for years to come. With acting veterans John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken, musical legend Queen Latifah and newcomers Nikki Blonsky and Zac Efron, so much of the film’s joy can be found in its ensemble alone. Not a single tired moment exists, as each member of the cast fully embraces their respective roles with such excitement and energy that is so easy to mimic while watching. Hairspray is an uproarious celebration of shameless song, dance and personal expression that is difficult to leave behind without an energetic smile. Plus, even in a 30-pound fat suit and heels, John Travolta proves he can still command a dance floor.
- Once (2007)
Another John Carney film that doesn’t feature musical numbers in the strictest sense but rather revolves around an unchallengeable love for music itself. The film stars real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as two struggling musicians in Dublin. In terms of its presentation Once hardly feels like a musical, as Carney frames it within a gritty documentary-like aesthetic complete with unsaturated colors and shaky camerawork. It is a film that looks, at first, bleak and refuses to abide to the clichés found within most works of the genre. Rather, it explores just how powerful music can be in bringing people together, whether it is the protagonists themselves or their originally bitter studio engineer. Once is a film not for cinephiles, but for music lovers first and foremost; as any band can relate to the rush of recording music until the early hours of the morning and just how heartwarming bonding over any song or instrumentation can be.
- Les Misérables (2012)
If there were ever one stage musical that demanded a cinematic adaptation, it’s Les Mis. Though the novel has been adapted to film numerous times, Tom Hooper is the first director to bring its iconic musical anthems to the big screen and it is epic in every sense of the word. With a fantastic ensemble ranging from Anne Hathaway to Sacha Baron Cohen, each cast member settles into their character so completely not only in their acting but in voice as well. The fact that all songs were recorded live alongside the actors’ performances as opposed to within a studio makes it all the more impressive, particularly for Anne Hathaway who delivers what is possibly the definitive rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” as Fantine. And though it is true that Russell Crowe lacks the vocal stamina and experience to portray Javert, as an actor he still manages to perfectly embody the ruthless authoritarian prison guard true to the source material. Les Misérables may not be the best musical, but it is certainly the most epic.
- Dreamgirls (2006)
Dreamgirls is possibly the best musical on this list when comparing the soundtracks alone, and it is no surprise given that it is based on the relationship between historical music giant Motown and the Supremes. The casting of established R&B singers Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé, with none other than Eddie Murphy in a dramatic role to round it all out, does wonders in capturing a sound that does justice to its time period whilst simultaneously appealing to modern music tastes. The narrative is engaging on its own, but it’s the way director Bill Condon uses his camera to maintain such a riveting style and pacing that sets the film apart. The film’s framing and colors absolutely dazzle as the camera dances around its performers which, when coupled with the astounding music, offers emotions that only cinema can. Also, Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is acoustically stunning to say the least.
- La La Land (2016)
Musicals came back in a big way with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an emotional rollercoaster that ambitiously acts as a tribute to every major movie musical that came before it within a narrative constructed to preach the importance of originality. Though its songs may vary in quality, the film is a technical tour de force through a phenomenal color palette and wildly ambitious cinematography. Almost every musical number sang is cut to look like a single take, mimicking the momentum of a live production, while its intentionally amateur choreography makes it one of the most relatable and imitable musicals there is. The most memorable aspect of La La Land is not even its vocals, but its score, with a finale that offers not a single sung word, but rather beautiful instrumentals coupled with a marvelous tribute to the fantasy that musical films inspire. Just like in the sequence in the planetarium, it is the way that the music chooses to project these emotions rather than have its performers sing about them that makes it such a wonder.
- Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall’s Chicago is the perfect intermediate between film and stage, taking advantage of the tools that cinema offers while paying the utmost respect towards the theatrical aspect of its source material. A brilliantly written satire of the Jazz Age and the crime and corruption that came with it, Marshall compliments this with an effortful cast and mesmerizingly surreal musical numbers. Chicago’s merit lies not in the fact that it is overly flashing or colorful, but rather in that its visual aesthetic perfectly supports the narrative. It’s hard to forget Richard Gere’s literal playing of the reporters like puppets in “We Both Reached for the Gun” or the remarkable use of shadow in John C. Reilly’s “Mister Cellophane”. The film is edited so that even the diegetic dialogue and scene transitions feel musical in and of themselves, perfectly reflecting the frenetic pace of life as a jazz singer in the Roaring Twenties. Topping all that is a dedicated cast that is full of surprises, from Renée Zellweger to Queen Latifah. Chicago earns its place as the only musical winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture since the 1960s.
- Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Just as Chicago is the perfect intermediate between stage and film, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is the perfect purely cinematic musical, as its hard to envision it being done in any other medium. Though the film is designed to reach the widest audience it can with a soundtrack that ranges from covers of Christina Aguilera to Nirvana, it is remarkable that the film even feels like its own work of art with the amount of music lifted from previously recorded materials. And yet, Baz Luhrmann crafts a spellbinding postmodern masterpiece that phenomenally manages to be tragic and heartbreaking in one scene, only to shamelessly parody the musical genre itself in the next. What’s even more incredible is that within its soundtrack of all the hit songs that essentially defined several eras of the late 20th century, Luhrmann manages to find a clear and distinct purpose for every one within its story, as not a single songs feels out of place or done for the sake of its inclusion alone. Peaking with its “Elephant Love Medley,” a dialogue of several iconic love songs between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge! earns its exclamation point, as it magically shifts to encompass such an eclectic range of tones, whilst celebrating not only popular music but the ideals of truth, love and beauty that its characters so desire.
The Greatest Showman is in UK cinemas from Boxing Day.