The best musical films of all time, from Mary Poppins to Grease | London Evening Standard


ince the Golden Age of Hollywood, musical films have been the pinnacle of popular entertainment.

There’s nothing better to express yourself than suddenly bursting into song, turning chores into masterpieces, and a heated discussion into potpourri.

To make us smile (and sing along) through the tough times, we’re revisiting some of our all-time favorites. We’ve made the decision not to include Disney animations in this list because there are way too many of them and almost all of them are fabulous (but anyone in their right mind can agree that Tangled beats Frozen every day).

So, in no particular order, here are the best movie musicals:

The Wizard of Oz

Even with all the CGI you can muster these days, nothing beats that moment when the Wizard of Oz goes from black and white to technicolor. Judy Garland’s Dorothy sets out on a long journey down the yellow brick road to find her way home, picking up unlikely friends along the way. Each – the Cowardly Lion, the Heartless Tin Man, and the Brainless Scarecrow – show how you are in control of your own destiny.


Chicago was the first musical to win Best Picture at the Oscars since Oliver! in 1968 – for good reason, and that reason is its fidelity to Bob Fosse’s original. It might be a huge Hollywood picture, but it feels like watching it on stage. Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are powerhouses, both selling the infectious glamor of 1920s celebrity criminal life in their own ways, while Queen Latifah and Richard Gere perfectly satirize the corruption of the justice system. If you and your friends didn’t play Cell Block Tango during recess at school, why are you even here?

my lovely lady

Audrey Hepburn is arguably an unconvincing choice to play a poor Edwardian bridesmaid in the musical adaptation of Pygmalion (“the rine in the spine is mined in the pline”), but it never seemed to matter. ‘importance. Alongside Rex Harrison who portrays an utterly unlikable character in almost every way she can hold her own and give him all he deserves, with the help of Marni Nixon’s vocals (Hepburn couldn’t hold a tune ). Plus, Eliza Doolittle’s outfit for Ascot is iconic enough to make it a classic for years.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It shows how critics don’t always get it right. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with all its cheeky sexuality and gender fluidity, was criticized upon its release in 1975 (“tasteless, plotless, purposeless” according to Newsweek in 1978), but thanks to a loyal following, it has become more than a cult hit. American viewers dressed up and responded to the screen; one theater even had people in full costume performing the whole show in mime in front of the auditorium. It’s now a worldwide phenomenon and has remained in limited release for four decades, making it the longest running theatrical release in movie history.

The sound of music

The Sound of Music is still one of the most successful films of all time with its perfect formula of Julie Andrews, child musicians and Nazi-defying nuns. Inspired by the true story of the von Trapp family, who really fled Austria (but had 10 children, phew), the story of a family playing music in the face of mortal peril is a story as old as time. Maria, making clothes from curtains and defying the Captain’s military control over her children, showed us how optimism can get you out of a lot of scrapes – although it’s true that it works more effectively for a thunderstorm than for a fascist dictatorship.


Grease’s message may seem questionable by today’s standards (change everything about yourself for a dude), but there’s more to it. At the time of its release, teenagers talking explicitly about sex — especially young women who exercised their right to dress as they saw fit — were showing a sort of rebellion against the constraints of American society rarely seen. Not to mention, it’s impossible not to sing along with the great songs, and Stockard Channing gives an unbeatable performance as Rizzo when she sings There Are Worse Things I Could Do.

The genius

Diana Ross as Dorothy? No way this one is going through the net. Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz is set in an alternate reality in New York and is told through the eyes of a kindergarten teacher who chases her dog through a snowstorm. It’s fantastically new if you’ve never seen it: there’s a particularly creepy sequence where a subway station comes to life, and the Wicked Witch of the West is a tyrant of misery. When it was released, The Wiz was the most expensive musical ever made. Just look at the huge number of Emerald City, which includes 400 dancers with multiple costume changes, and you’ll see why. Worth it? Absolutely.

fiddler on the roof

Fiddler on the Roof, written by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, hits so hard because you know it’s based on real life. It tells the story of a milkman, his family and the devout Jewish community of the village in which they live. Tevye has five daughters, three of whom are approaching marriageable age. Against the backdrop of rumors of violence in neighboring villages, the family tries to negotiate a way forward while maintaining the old traditions that have protected them in the past. Cheerful songs like If I Were A Rich Man and To Life alongside heartbreak from Far from the Home I Love ensure you’ll cry in silence as the credits start rolling.

Sing in the rain

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor really worked hard on this one. Kelly filmed the title number with a fever, Reynolds had never danced before and, well, just watch O’Connor in the grueling Make Em Laugh, which remains the benchmark for physical comedy. It’s a Hollywood movie about Hollywood that manages to share its excitement with audiences – something some failed to do (cough, La La Land, cough). It is absolute bliss.

Cinderella by Rodgers and Hammerstein

Is there a movie as criminally underrated as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1997 version of Cinderella? As far as princess musicals go, it’s on top thanks to its wonderful cast. Whitney Houston plays the role she was born for as Fairy Godmother, with Bernadette Peters equally well cast as Stepmother and Whoopi Goldberg as Queen – all revolving around Brandy Norwood’s Cinderella charm. Originally written in the 1950s for Julie Andrews, there have been two remakes after that – but 1997’s is the best.

dream girls

A career-defining performance by Jennifer Hudson as Effie White makes Dreamgirls a must-watch. With a barely less stratospheric Beyoncé playing Deena, this was Hudson’s film, taking her from American Idol contestant to household name thanks to her rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. The musical, drawing heavily on the history of the Motown label and one of its acts, The Supremes, was written in 1981 and was a hit at the time, but only with the film in 2006 that she really became a musical reference.

Mama Mia!

It’s the one that never fails to make you smile. It’s all beaches and blue seas, and a suspicious amount of nimble young men for a remote Greek island. And, of course, ABBA. Saucy’s daughter Meryl Streep is getting married and wants her dad to be there but realizes it could be one of three guys: Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth or Stellan Skarsgard. No, men may not be able to sing particularly well, but who cares? They all really try, really tough (especially Pierce) and that’s what matters. And any movie that makes room for Christine Baranski’s kicks should get its due.

Mary Poppins

PL Travers might not have cared, but Mary Poppins is the country’s favorite classic musical movie. Again, Julie Andrews brings all the warmth and efficiency you want in a nanny to her role – after all, she’s practically perfect in every way. It’s wonderful to watch a movie about the magic you see around you every day as a child and remember it as an adult. It’s a testament to the power of the imagination and a legacy that Emily Blunt has gracefully continued in the recent sequel.


We already love Amy Adams’ Altar, but Enchanted is such an underrated classic Disney movie. Adams plays Giselle, a young woman who is tricked from leaving the perfect animated world where she is about to marry a prince for the harsh and distant kingdom of New York. She meets a cynical businessman and single father and, through the power of music, kindness and optimism, shows him just how great his life could be. Not only does it have some truly fantastic group numbers, but it clearly shows why the musicals themselves are so wonderful.


Nobody walked into the cinema when this Elton John biopic came out expecting this. You think it’s going to be a serious biopic about the musician’s life, albeit with outrageous costumes, and then suddenly everyone’s dancing in a funfair and it’s a musical in its own right. His songs intertwine throughout the story to magnify the manic highs and catastrophic lows of his journey to global stardom, and Taron Egerton’s performance is eerie down to the last note.

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