The emotional high point of our three-week trip to Verona, Venice and Florence came when I (re-)watched Jersey Boys on the airplane flight home. Seeing Christopher Walken do his old-man dance during the credits finale was as good as anticipated, the characters were individually memorable, and each Four Seasons song packed the power of personal nostalgia from its opening downbeat. And the experience inspired me to think, as I have before, what are my favorite movie musicals of all time? Note that I define this list as “favorite,” not “best.” My choices have little in common with the Best Movie Musicals lists you will find with a Google search. It is also impossible to rate them against each other, as they are mostly on my list for different reasons. Also, although I pretend there is a category of “movie musicals,” they represent entirely different genres. Some are film versions of stage musicals; some are documentaries about musicians. In some, songs are presented as songs; in others we have to suspend disbelief and pretend that characters break into song to express their feelings. But all of the following struck a personal chord.
Rocky Horror Picture Show Not just the only musical, but the only movie I have watched a half-dozen times (as well as seeing it on stage in London), its appeal has been long-lasting as well as personal. The actors are delicious (Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Meat Loaf!), the plot outrageous, and the cult around it empowering, but its lasting strength is the music: Richard O’Brien’s score is the only soundtrack, not counting HMS Pinafore, that I keep on my iPod, and there’s not a dud in the mix.
Nashville This has been my favorite film of the ’70s (and maybe more), forget the musicals category. Unlike RHPS, the songs here are all integral to the plot as songs, greatly facilitated by the Nashville setting. Robert Altman was the film director of the ’70s zeitgeist, and this is his masterpiece. That the pale imitation La La Land almost won an Oscar is a reminder of how great was this wholly original ensemble piece.
Wizard of Oz This is the Citizen Kane of musicals, a universally acknowledged treasure that contends as the best movie ever, certainly the one most loved and remembered. The wicked witch, the flying monkeys, the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man, the Munchkins, the “wizard” behind the curtain and, of course, Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” are all a part of America’s collective consciousness. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Bohemian Rhapsody I was not a fan of Queen, but this all-out, hard-living story made me appreciate their appeal. Every film cliche was here: misfit kid makes good, boys buck the industry for success on their own terms, success brings drugs and division, hero hits rock bottom, then whoof!, one of the great reunion concerts of all time.
Jersey Boys The movie was just as good as the Broadway show (unlike, say, Mamma Mia!). The fact that the Four Seasons were my favorite ’60s group (forget the Beatles) undoubtedly colored my response. The characters were differentiated and all given meaningful roles and we got to see how the music was made. The story arc was formulaic (see Bohemian Rhapsody), but there’s a reason it’s a formula: it works!
Once A simply charming romance that came from nowhere, with unknown, average-looking actors in a low-budget vehicle and a heartrending song, “Falling Slowly.” Here the normal path was reversed, as the suprise hit movie moved to the stage. I’ve give Once the nod here over the equally compelling Rent, only because the latter started, and was better, onstage.
End of the Century/No One Said It Would Be Easy/I Am Trying to Break Your Heart Documentaries about rock groups are as good as the groups they document, so it’s not fair to single one out as a movie, per se. No One Said introduced me in a big way to Cloud Cult; Break Your Heart memorialized the unconventional Wilco mid-career; Century was more a postmortem of the Ramones. For all three, it was their music that mattered.
This Is Spinal Tap
The Harder They Come I barely understood a word anyone was saying, but this not only introduced me to reggae music, it turned me into a lifelong fan. Its authenticity had a power that was hard to shake, and its songs have remained staples.
My Fair Lady I will let this stand in, also, for Guys and Dolls and Music Man, faithful translations of classic Broadway musicals to film, and not just because MFL is my favorite stage musical. Audrey Hepburn is a wonderful addition to the cast (even if Marni Nixon does her singing), and the ambiguous ending keeps my memory guessing. Rex Harrison, Robert Preston, Marlon Brando are three commanding presences, but Lady‘s songs are a notch above.