Two years ago, La La Land opened and subsequently received 14 Oscar nominations. Last year, The Greatest Showman made $174 million dollars domestically. And this summer, a Mamma Mia sequel no one was really asking for — but is still extremely enjoyable — lands in theaters. The movie musical is back in a big way. But for those paying attention, it never really went away.
Over the last 20 years, there have been a plethora of outstanding movies with song-and-dance sequences. Some are animated and wholesome (all the Disney fare) some are animated and not (the contributions of Matt Stone and Trey Parker). Others wouldn’t necessarily count as musicals if you’re being technical — like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping — but are certainly musicals in spirit. All, however, have sequences that make us want to stand up and applaud, brilliant mixes of cinematic flourish and sonic pleasure. While cinema from around the world features plenty of outstanding musicals, for the purposes of this story we’re focusing on the films with a release in the United States. On that note, here are the numbers that in our estimation are the cream of the crop.
Can you actually call yourself a Disney fan if you don’t know all the words to this song? No. The answer is no. Though the song from Mulan isn’t sung by the beloved Disney princess herself, the stunning training montage that accompanies the upbeat tune in the film, paired with how impossible it is to not sing along with Donny Osmond (who voices Shang) from start to finish as he belts out the anthem’s hyper-masculine lyrics, are what make it an unforgettable Disney classic.
When people think of South Park musical moments, “Blame Canada,” the Bigger, Longer & Uncut movie’s winking, Oscar-nominated anthem about our neighbors to the north, is probably the first that comes to mind. It’s silly, iconic, and to this day remains a convenient jab to throw at a Canadian. However, it’s not the movie’s best. No, that would have to be “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” Written by Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman, the song does so much in so little time, its title a spoof of the Christian moral question (and popular bracelet), “What Would Jesus Do?” and its subject one of America’s most heroic ice skaters with earnest affection. It’s that “heroic” aspect that becomes more and more literal, and more and more absurd (e.g., fighting grizzly bears in the Alps with magical fire breath), as the less-than-two-minute song gets underway.
The power of the song is rooted in its randomness, and the brief cutaway gags that illustrate the lyrics add to the surreal character of it all, as the South Park kids turn their question into a rousing rallying cry. Like many things the animated sitcom did in the ’90s, “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” took on a life of its own, namely, reviving its subject and cementing the skater’s place in pop culture history. Critically, it’s also pretty catchy!
For those who aren’t too familiar with the work of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, “I’ve Seen It All” might be most recognizable as the song Björk performed at the Oscars in her infamous swan dress. But in the context of the film, it’s a blissfully sad declaration, both haunting and affirming. The Icelandic singer plays a Czech woman named Selma who loves movie musicals and is losing her eyesight due to a hereditary condition. After being fired from her job, she sings about how she accepts her fate without fear, even as the man who loves her (Peter Stormare) counters. As Björk wails, von Trier’s bare-bones style becomes a full-on ballet.
The music by star John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask from Hedwig and the Angry Inch is uniformly terrific, but “The Origin of Love” arguably posed the biggest challenge. How to dramatize a retelling of Plato’s Symposium? Director Mitchell intercuts simple, but weirdly beautiful, animation with a straightforwardly powerful performance from himself as Hedwig — the East German rocker who has a mishap during gender reassignment surgery that lends the film its title. In Hedwig’s signature platinum-blonde wig — with flips on each side — Mitchell is glamorous and heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the drawings do the work of illustrating the gods playing with humans and their desires.
The pop-music mashup of Moulin Rouge! reaches its pinnacle in the gushy, silly “Elephant Love Medley.” Hopelessly smitten writer Christian proclaims his love for the resistant sex worker Satine by cribbing from The Beatles, Elton John and more. It would be so darn cheesy — and, frankly, it still kind of is — if Ewan McGregor didn’t sell it with such unabashed earnestness. But “Elephant Love Medley” isn’t just a chance for McGregor and Nicole Kidman to trot out their top-notch chemistry; it’s also a showcase for Baz Luhrmann’s insane production design. By the time Christian is launching into his Whitney Houston impersonation, the director adds a garish fireworks effect meant to make you clutch your heart. It works.
Chicago has a large catalog of timeless hits from both the 2002 film and the Broadway production, but the most show-stopping one of them all is the “Cell Block Tango,” in which the ladies of Murderess’ Row take a moment to speak on (read: justify) their “alleged” crimes of passion. The women, accused and convicted, make a stage out of their prison cells while singing and dancing their way through a busy number complete with more “splits, spread eagles” and aggressive high kicks than you could ever imagine to drive home the point that there are two sides to every story — though murdering the other side is probably not the best idea.
Before winning multiple Tony Awards for their work on Broadway’s satirical comedy The Book of Mormon, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote a musical for an even more uptight cast: a group of actual wooden marionettes. Riffing on Thunderbirds, Michael Bay blockbusters, and American imperialism, Team America: World Police was thrilling and exhausting — not all the songs exactly hold up — but the theme, a gleefully stupid parody of unchecked jingoism in the form of a ’80s buttrock anthem, remains as ridiculous and sublime as ever. It may not have won its creators shiny statues, but it earned its reputation as an irony-drenched, profanity-laced national battle cry. We salute it.
Jennifer Hudson rightfully made off with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar not too long after she left audiences speechless from her mesmerizing performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls. As Effie White, the lead singer of a trio known as the Dreams, Hudson belts out a woeful, vocally ambitious rendition of the song that was originally sung by Jennifer Holliday. The pain that can so easily be heard in her voice paired with the stunning way that the American Idol alum delivers the performance on screen makes the entire scene an iconic movie musical moment for the ages.
“Bet On It” — High School Musical 2 (2007)
Zac Efron singing! Zac Efron dancing! Zac Efron dramatically plunging into a sandpit! The entire High School Musical franchise saw no greater a moment than that of a frustrated Troy Bolton (Efron) angrily parading around a golf course moments after finding out that the Wildcats had been banned from performing in Sharpay’s (Ashley Tisdale) Midsummer Night’s Talent Show. Sure, it’s a little over-the-top, but that’s exactly what we love about it. And when you think about how hard Efron had to fight to have his own vocals used in the latter two films, it’s easier to understand how and why this musical number ended up being one of the film’s most iconic.
Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s Beatles jukebox musical, was always going to be a kind of weird undertaking. That said, many of its highlights were destined to become weird in a good way. One of the undeniable winners is the movie’s rendition of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” performed by the inimitable Eddie Izzard. The comedian’s take on the titular character is bonkers in all the ways you want it to be, the wonderful visuals are a tasty (and psychedelic) cherry on top, and together it’s an impressive vignette that doesn’t tire after multiple rewatches. We can happily say it does the song, and the band, justice.
The princess genre was moribund when Disney released Enchanted, a clever deconstruction of tropes that also played right into them. While “Happy Working Song” found our heroine Giselle (Amy Adams) — plopped in New York from a cartoon fairytale land — doing her Cinderella schtick with some less-than-cute vermin friends, “That’s How You Know” is the film’s true triumph. Giselle magically turns Central Park into her stage and its denizens into her chorus as she sings about declarations of romance. It’s a gloriously over-the-top production number that utilizes the park’s natural scenery as a backdrop for dancing elderly folks and a mariachi band. Adams’ ebullience is the driving force behind its irrepressible energy.
“Let’s Duet” — Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Walk Hard doesn’t parody musicals, but rather rockstar biopics like Ray and Walk the Line. In doing so, though, it becomes something of a musical itself with hilarious original songs that riff on Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and more. They’re all funny, but the double entendres of “Let’s Duet” — sound that out really quickly — are side-splitting, as are the images of Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) and his new lover Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer) engaging in all kinds of ostensibly platonic but extremely suggestive activities.
Before Once was Broadway’s hit musical, it was Hollywood’s. The movie version, from writer-director John Carney, introduced the world to two struggling musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, aka folk rock duo The Swell Season) who would quickly captivate audiences with their songwriting skills and love story. Of all the songs in Once, “Falling Slowly” is easily the most memorable. The duet sets the couple’s doomed relationship in motion with heart-tugging lyrics and the kind of lush harmonies that might as well be the aural equivalent of umami. Adding to the emotional oomph of the song is the fact that, behind the scenes, life was beginning to imitate art. If you aren’t a puddle after the first minute, you should get your head (and soul) checked. “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and, yeah, we get it. Good choice, Academy.
It’s hard to think of any role Elijah Kelley has played that didn’t end in his stealing the entire show. As Seaweed J. Stubbs in the 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray, he serenades Nikki Blonsky’s Tracy Turnblad and effortlessly seduces Amanda Bynes’ Penny Pingleton with his smooth dance moves during “Run and Tell That,” one of the film’s more under-appreciated musical numbers. Kelley’s smooth-as-silk vocals, the number’s hard-to-nail choreography, and the use of some pretty racy double entendres about dark chocolate and sweet berries all solidify it as one of the most memorable performances in the entire film.
Mamma Mia, the star-studded big-screen adaptation of the long-running ABBA jukebox musical has its passionate defenders, but long sections of the film have a stiff, wooden quality that doesn’t exactly do justice to the wall-to-wall Swedish pop hits. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is the big exception, a sexy, frothy, and carefree duet between Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie and Dominic Cooper’s Sky. It starts with the two young lovers flirting on the beach, trading goofy lines and come-hither looks, and climaxes with a chorus line of buff guys in swim trunks and diving fins dancing on a dock. (There are even jet skis at the end!) It’s a proto-Magic Mike surf fantasy come to life.
“Almost There” — The Princess and The Frog (2009)
The stunning animation that accompanies Anika Noni Rose’s gorgeous vocals in Randy Newman’s “Almost There,” The Princess and the Frog‘s “I Want” song, is one of the reasons it finds a place on this list. Tiana’s fantasy is rendered in a style that brings to mind paintings of the Harlem Renaissance. The film may represent one of Disney’s last hand-drawn productions, but “Almost There” highlights the beauty and potential of the form in a way that should make the House of Mouse think twice about abandoning it forever.
There’s always been a melancholy soul to the Muppets’ felt-and-gag-drive comedy. This song from Jason Segel’s franchise reboot, The Muppets, understands that tricky, irreconcilable duality — are they humans or puppets? — by wringing tears and giggles in equal measure. It’s a worthy spiritual sequel to the “Rainbow Connection,” the emotional highpoint of the original Muppet Movie. Penned by Bret McKenzie, one of the New Zealand masterminds behind HBO’s cult hit Flight of the Conchords, the soaring ballad gets at the heart of what makes the Muppets so compelling after all these years.
Director Tom Hooper’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of the iconic stage musical, which itself was adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel of the same name, was controversial on its release for how closely the director kept his camera trained on the faces of his actors. The film’s songs were also recorded live on set — as opposed to the more traditional approach of using pre-recording music and having actors lip-synch — and the results could be a little off-putting. (Russell Crowe as Javert: Yikes!) But Anne Hathaway’s emotionally draining, one-take performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” is a great example of how the method can pay off creatively. It also paid off for the actress, who won a Best Supporting Actress award for her no-frills, tear-soaked take on the song.
Yeah, yeah, we get it. You’ve had your fill of “Let it Go.” We all have. But watch the original sequence from the movie again, and you might just find yourself getting some, ahem, chills. It’s rare to get a musical number — on screen or stage, for that matter — that truly feels like a showstopper. But by ceding the floor to the misunderstood ice witch and Idina Menzel’s towering voice, Disney animators created a moment worthy of mid-movie applause.
“Agony” — Into The Woods (2014)
The musicals of legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim are notoriously tricky to adapt for the screen: They’re wordy, intricate, and inherently theatrical in concept. Tim Burton rendered Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd humorless when throwing his Hot Topic sheen onto it. Rob Marshall fared better, however, with Into The Woods, a saga about the moral dilemmas of storybook characters. The song that got a truly inspired cinematic translation ended up being “Agony,” in which Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princely suitors try to one up each other’s lovesick misery. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are perfect douchebags, and Marshall keeps doubling down on their peacocking, shooting them like they’re in a fashion spread and creating a memorable moment that delights in, well, agony.
This tale of a doomed marriage is entirely made up of its songs. The two members of the central couple — Cathy and Jamie — sing in alternating monologues. She starts at the end of their relationship; he at the beginning. Somewhere around the middle, she’s off doing regional theater in Ohio. As she describes her miserable summer, she seamlessly transitions between Facetiming Jamie, her rehearsal, and a Sound of Music homage. Anna Kendrick was nominated for a Tony as a kid and proved her musical chops as an adult in Pitch Perfect. But Cathy was her most ambitious musical role, and her mix of cynicism, warmth, and impressive pipes are on display as she rolls her eyes over a snake named “Wayne.”
Yes, “Musician Please Take Heed” is indeed twee, as is to be expected from a movie directed by the man behind Scottish band Belle & Sebastian (Stuart Murdoch). At one point, God Help The Girl‘s heroine, Eve, cartwheels and ends up in a Smiths t-shirt and oversized glasses. Still, what’s more intriguing is how Murdoch builds Eve’s breakdown, which lands her back in rehab, into the quirky choreography and secretly desperate lyrics.
“Shiny” — Moana (2016)
The Disney villain song has a storied history, and the canon got a hilariously glitzy addition from Lin-Manuel Miranda with Moana‘s “Shiny.” Imagine the bawdy glamor of The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula with a dash of Bowie, and you’ve got Tamatoa, a giant, gem-hoarding crab who menaces Moana and Maui as they try to retrieve the latter’s hook. Jemaine Clement luxuriates in Miranda’s lyrics, which rhyme “demigod” with “decapod.”
John Carney of Once fame put another spin on scrappy Irish musicians with Sing Street. Here he transplants the action to the ’80s and centers on Conor, a teen struggling at a strict Catholic school, who decides to start a band to impress a girl. The whole production is loaded with charm thanks to the cast of youngsters trying on different pop styles based on the ups and downs of adolescence, but the most thrilling musical scene comes when Conor imagines a 1950s dance party to their song “Drive It Like You Stole It.” His Back to the Future-inspired dream for a video is flush with hope — his warring parents and underachieving brother show up — and an infectious quality that makes it linger in your mind long after the music stops.
To be completely honest, it was hard to pick which of the ridiculous musical moments from The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping to include. The “equal rights” ballad where Conner4Real keeps insisting he’s not gay? The sexy Bin Laden jam? All winners. But instead we went for “Incredible Thoughts,” the spectacular climax during which the Style Boyz, the fake quasi-Beastie Boys type group, reunite. The song itself is ludicrous, a collection of nonsensically profound “thoughts” like “a Milk Dud sitting in the acid rain/ a house cat addicted to the cocaine.” The production tops the lyrics as the stage gets filled with Michael Bolton, ballerinas, Justin Timberlake in a fish costume, and Usher doing a dance known as the Donkey Roll.
La La Land‘s opening number doesn’t feature its miscast leads, and maybe… that’s why it’s the best part of the movie? Kidding. Kind of. As we swoop into Damien Chazelle’s vision of Los Angeles, we see rush hour: Cars inching along the city’s vast stretches of highways, and soon, the drivers of said cars leaping out and explaining their reasons for enduring this special form of standstill torture. The song and dance of “Another Day of Sun” are part old-school Hollywood homage (pulled from Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, among other classics), part stirring celebration of what L.A. has become (a sun-kissed maze of highways, filled with people whose dreams are often as big as their personalities). It’s a kickoff fit for the city, and it functions essentially as one massive establishing shot, introducing you to the setting, the movie’s storytelling format, and, eventually, the main characters. Its only flaw is it sets the bar unfairly high for the rest of the movie.
“No Dames” — Hail, Caesar (2016)
The Coen brothers’ comedy about the Hollywood studio system and communism is not technically a musical, but it does feature a number that harkens back to the genre’s history — and is in fact one of best of the past 20 years. The directors staged a singing-and-tap-dancing extravaganza for Channing Tatum’s matinee idol Burt Gurney, playing a lovelorn sailor. Tatum, known for body rolling to “Pony” in the Magic Mike movies, channels Gene Kelly (with a big dose of homoeroticism) here as he thinks wistfully about his time at sea without any women present. His performance showcases what’s become a surprising range, and “No Dames” makes us hope he uses these particular skills in the future.
The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczynska and Robert Bolesto’s Polish musical about killer mermaids who exchange their hunting duties for a brief spell of night club singing, is an intoxicating blend of genres — equal parts horror, drama, comedy, fairytale, and then some. “You Were the Beat of My Heart” functions as a miniature version of the movie as a whole. As the first song to feature the mermaids, Gold and Silver, being exploited as part of the club’s musical act, it’s also a bit horror, drama, comedy, fairytale. Moments of the song portend the heartbreak and bloodshed to come; others, like the spectacle of the two women transforming in their giant water glass, simply make you say, “What the.” It’s beautiful, entrancing, and unnerving all at the same time, just like the movie.
Unexpectedly, last year’s big musical gamble The Greatest Showman turned out to be a massive hit. And while its anthem “This Is Me” might have been ubiquitous, “Rewrite The Stars” was a triumphant match of visuals and music. The duet between Zac Efron’s circus entrepreneur and Zendaya’s aerialist is a high-flying event with acrobatics matching the romantic tension.
“Fernando” — Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
There was one major reason to be excited about the Mamma Mia! sequel, and that reason was the goddess that is Cher. The Oscar-winner breezes in toward the end of the movie as Meryl Streep’s mother Ruby Sheridan, a Vegas entertainer. No, the age difference does not make any sense (Cher is 72; Streep is 69). No, it does not matter one bit. Without much preamble, we discover that her trip to Greece has prompted a reunion with her long lost love, Andy Garcia’s suave, mysterious Fernando Cienfuegos. Soon the two are dueting to ABBA’s “Fernando,” moving toward each other like animals in heat.
Editor: Anthony Schneck
Copy Editor: Danielle Jackson
Editorial Assistant: Danielle Jackson
Graphics: Megan Chong
Contributors: Sean Fitz-Gerald, Dan Jackson, Danielle Jackson, and Esther Zuckerman