The 50 Essential Movie Musicals


The movie musical was once a Hollywood staple; now it’s a divisive genre that gets a somber and borderline-disastrous revival every few years. But for every failed movie musical (The Phantom of the Opera, Nine, Rent, to name a few), there are a few substantial submissions to the movie musical canon. Here are the ones most worth watching.

All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s autobiographical anti-musical is a dark, cynical take on the famed director and choreographer’s life, work, and mortality.

An American in Paris (1951)

Gene Kelly stars as an American expat in post-World War II France who falls in love with a lovely waitress in this film inspired by a George Gershwin orchestral piece.

Annie (1982)

Carol Burnett delivers her most entertaining performance as the fiendish Miss Hannigan in the rags-to-riches story of the precocious comic-strip orphan.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Perhaps Disney’s best animated feature, it has the look of an old-school movie musical, with the over-the-top “Be Our Guest” serving as its musical centerpiece.

Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s version of the stage musical was perhaps the first adaptation to contextualize the musical numbers in a performative space, delivering a surprisingly fresh take on a genre that was in danger of becoming stodgy, dull, and repetitive.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

The musical biopic about country star Loretta Lynn might be the perfect jukebox musical, with Sissy Spacek delivering both an effortless and an affecting portrayal of the singer-songwriter while performing her classic hits herself.

Damn Yankees! (1958)

This retelling of Faust in the setting of Major League Baseball features Tab Hunter as a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to become a successful baseball player and lead his favorite team, the Washington Senators, to the World Series.

Easter Parade (1948)

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland co-star in this tale of a Broadway performer who, in an attempt to make his former dancing partner and sweetheart jealous, snaps up a naïve chorus girl and tries to make her a star. All that, set around Easter!

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Woody Allen’s love letter to the movie musical is one part parody and one part homage, and it features an all-star cast of non-singers delivering surprisingly rousing musical performances.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Norman Jewison’s beautiful adaptation of the stage musical was gorgeously shot on location rather than in a studio space, expanding the musical’s epic scope.

42nd Street (1933)

The original backstage musical features the prototypical movie musical plot and the dazzling and groundbreaking choreography of Busby Berkeley. It later inspired a Broadway production (and revival).

Funny Face (1957)

Audrey Hepburn plays a Greenwich Village bohemian who begrudgingly accepts a modeling gig despite her philosophical reservations. Then she falls in love with Fred Astaire, as one is wont to do.

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand revived her star-making Broadway performance for the big screen in this musical biopic about famed vaudeville performer Fanny Brice.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe’s classic rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” has seen its share of mimicry and parodies, all thanks to the stylistic staging in this musical film.

Gigi (1958)

This lovely Best Picture winner stars Leslie Caron as the titular Parisian girl who is groomed to become a courtesan and falls in love with the man who plans to make her his mistress.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Set in the world of London high fashion, this musical comedy mystery features Kermit the Frog as a daft newspaper reporter on the hunt for a jewel thief, while Miss Piggy finds herself framed for the theft (by Charles Grodin, no less).

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Who knew Marlon Brando could sing? Although it’s a bit unfair to pit him against Frank Sinatra.

Gypsy (1993)

Often considered the greatest American musical, this TV adaptation is far superior to the 1962 feature-film effort solely for the inclusion of Bette Midler as Rose, the domineering stage mother to the infamous Gypsy Rose Lee.

Hairspray (2007)

A musical movie based on a Broadway musical based on a movie! While the bad taste is toned down compared to John Waters’ original film, the musical version is charming, cheerful, and everything a modern movie musical should be: fun.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell directed and starred in this adaptation of his award-winning off-Broadway musical, which fleshes out the story of the titular transgender East German rock ‘n’ roll star’s trek across America.

Hello, Dolly! (1969)

Despite the totally offensive move in which Barbra Streisand got the role that only Carol Channing should have played on film, this grand adaptation of the stage musical features a stellar cast that includes Walter Matthau, Louis Armstrong, and a young Michael Crawford.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

A young Robert Morse (best known as Mad Men‘s Bertram Cooper) reprises his Tony-winning performance as a young go-getter climbing the corporate ladder in this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

The King and I (1956)

Yul Brynner won an Oscar for his portrayal of the King of Siam in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical about Anna Leonowens.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera following the last week of Jesus’ life is brought to glorious life on film in an adaptation that stays faithful to the original show’s irreverent, hippie aesthetic.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

The off-Broadway musical based on the campy B-movie of the same name was seamlessly turned into a hilarious musical comedy film featuring the brilliant Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, and a massive man-eating plant.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her portrayal of the terrifyingly sweet nanny, but one should not underestimate the underrated majesty of Glynis Johns as the feisty suffragette Mrs. Banks.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Judy Garland stars in this film about a close-knit St. Louis family coming to terms with the possibility of being uprooted from their friends and loved ones and moving to New York City. It also introduced us to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

This divisive film (it is a Baz Luhrmann picture, after all) is a movie musical for people who hate movie musicals, taking Broadway’s predilection for repurposing pop songs in a musical context.

Oliver! (1968)

Charles Dickens’ tale of one unlucky London orphan got the Broadway treatment, and its epic film adaptation is a solid example of the big-budget movie musical mentality of embracing a much-beloved spectacle.

Purple Rain (1984)

Prince basically plays himself (known in the film as “The Kid”) in this sexy rock ‘n’ roll film about a troubled, yet incredibly gifted, Minneapolis musician.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

Kermit and the gang set out to achieve fame and success in the Big Apple. The usual obstacles — money woes, amnesia, etc — only complicate their path to Broadway stardom.

The Music Man (1962)

Robert Preston’s pitch-perfect portrayal of con artist Harold Hill only pales in comparison to Shirley Jones’ glorious voice.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn star in this romantic musical based on Pygmalion, about a pretentious London professor who sets out to soften the edges of a lower-class Cockney girl, only to fall in love with her in the process.

Nashville (1976)

Robert Altman’s comedic look at the world of country music is actually an examination of American values at the historic bicentennial. More importantly, it features a stellar ensemble cast of actors and musicians who contributed their own songs, some to hilarious ends (Henry Gibson’s opening tune is a work of parodic genius) and, in the case of Ronee Blakely, heartfelt poignancy.

On the Town (1949)

Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin star as sailors who spend their leave in New York City, searching for love (and finding it in the form of Ann Miller, Vera-Allen, and Betty Garrett).

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The cult classic about an extraterrestrial transvestite and his attempts to build the perfect man / love slave is a hysterical send-up of classic sci-fi flops, and its soundtrack features some of the catchiest musical numbers ever recorded.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

In arguably the greatest movie musical, the saccharine-sweet charm of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor adds sunshine to a comedy about the transition from silent movies to talkies.

The Sound of Music (1965)

Perhaps the grandest movie musical of all time, The Sound of Music is a glowing example of how a middling stage show can be turned into a gigantic and gorgeous musical epic. It doesn’t hurt that Julie Andrew’s otherworldly pipes are hitting those alp-high notes.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

Long before The Book of Mormon established Trey Parker and Matt Stone as musical theatre geniuses, the controversial duo brought their TV comedy to the big screen in a feature-length animated film that, with the help of composer Marc Shaiman, brilliantly parodies Disney’s big-screen appropriation of musical theatre sensibilities.

A Star Is Born (1954)

The second of three attempts at this story of an older man who nurtures a young female performer, only to find himself falling in love with her while her fame eclipses his own, this version with James Mason and Judy Garland is considered to be the best.

Summer Stock (1950)

Judy Garland stars as a farmer (!!!) whose actress sister comes home and brings along her acting troupe, which conveniently includes the handsome Gene Kelly, with whom Garland falls in love.

Sweet Charity (1969)

Bob Fosse’s feature-film directorial debut is a groovy musical retelling of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, starring Shirley MacLaine as a hapless taxi dancer searching in vain to better her life by falling in and out of love.

Tommy (1975)

The Who’s rock opera gets the ’70s movie musical treatment (meaning, it’s batshit insane), and an all-star cast including Who member Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, and Tina Turner.

Top Hat (1935)

I’d bet that there has never been another pair quite as charming and with such perfect chemistry as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Top Hat is the greatest of their collaborations.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

This charming and heartbreaking French film features dialogue that is completely sung throughout, and it has the added bonus of the beautiful Catherine Deneuve in the starring role.

West Side Story (1961)

This glorious musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet in the city streets of New York was one of the first experiments in telling a dramatic tale through musical theatre, and its success as a stage show is only eclipsed by the over-the-top brilliance of the Oscar-winning film adaptation.

White Christmas (1954)

Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen star in this perennial holiday classic about a Vermont inn teeming with the most talented performers in the world.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

The big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel didn’t have to be a musical, but thank goodness it was.

The Wiz (1978)

Diana Ross and Michael Jackson starred in Sidney Lumet’s urban retelling of The Wizard of Oz. While it wasn’t as successful as the Tony-winning musical on which it’s based, The Wiz is still an enjoyable weirdo ’70s movie musical.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Of all of Judy Garland’s musical roles (and as this list proves, there are many standouts), it’s this one that is probably the most affecting and recognizable.