These are not the greatest musicals of all time, or even my favorites. These are more just really interesting ones I think more people should see and which aren’t that famous. And be warned, it is a loooooooooooooooong list. And there’s lots more I am going to remember and wish I could add, but won’t, because it already too long.
Golddiggers of 1933
This is the first movie I remember watching that gave me that shivery “seeing the face of God” feeling. The “Forgotten Man” number is angry and sad and strong and powerful and takes you out of yourself somehow.
Follow the Fleet
This is a less famous Fred and Ginger movie, which is why I like it. They were just having fun and doing kooky things in this one, because they were the supporting couple and not the lead. Also, the “Let Yourself Go” dance number is maybe the most joyful I have ever seen.
I realized when I put this list together that their are a surprising number of WWII musicals. WWII musicals are fascinating, because it’s song and dance, but it’s also a lot of fear and feeling and sort of urgency in it. This one has Kelly’s angry dancing with himself song, plus some pretty things with Rita Hayworth, and fun Phil Silvers. It’s really interesting and more people should watch it.
The Sky’s the Limit
Same thing as Cover Girl really. This is a sad dark angry film from a sad dark angry time. Fred’s “One for My Baby and One More For the Road” is so destructive and angry it grabs at your heart, and of course it also introduced “This Will Be My Shining Hour”, which is one of the most heartwrenching war songs of all time.
The Gang’s All Here
Fun wartime!!!! This is more about how WWII caused everything to sort of shake up on the homefront. You have rich folks mixing with stage folks and everyone falling in love with each other, and also Carmen Miranda. It’s great! You will love it!
Meet Me in St. Louis
Vincent Minelli and Judy Garland and just pure loveliness, all over. There’s no big dance numbers, but there’s a lot of big song numbers, giving you what the characters are feeling and getting right into your head.
Gene Kelly’s love letter to Judy Garland. When he was starting out in films, she helped him feel comfortable in his first few roles. And now he was on top and she was struggling and he made this lovely movie that is all about how Judy is an awesome wonderful woman. Also, it has Gene’s “Newspaper Dance”, and Judy’s “Get Happy” number.
It’s Always Fair Weather
Angry ugly WWII, The Aftermath. Boy is this an interesting film! It’s about 3 wartime buddies who reunite years later and have nothing in common and are forced to confront the disappointments of their life. And it was made while Gene Kelly and his best friend Stanley Donen were in the middle of a very messy wife swap personal situation. It has the roller skate song, which is fun. And it has Cyd Charrise. And a more or less happy ending, but it is also DARK as all get out!
Nancy Goes to Rio
I just like this one because it is so silly, and treads right up to being scandalous before falling back. A famous actress’ daughter is traveling alone on a ship to Rio to meet back up with her mother. Along the way she is studying for her big break role in a play (which she is going to surprise her mother with), and a nice older man on board ship overhears her rehearse and thinks she is pregnant without a husband. Many complications ensue, the best part of which is that while everyone (including her family) believe this teenager to be pregnant, she never figures out what is happening and keeps saying things like “how odd, why is everyone giving me yarn? What am I supposed to be knitting?”
Bells Are Ringing
This is a great mature musical romance, and we don’t have enough of those. Mature musicals, or mature romances. Our heroine is a telephone operator who falls in love with the playboy composer she takes messages for. They meet in real life, she pretends it is a coincidence, this aging playboy and spinster working class woman (I mean, they are both young and attractive, but they are clearly supposed to be in their 30s and past the age of shy romance) fall in love. Songs are great, performances are great, script is hilarious, more people should watch it.
Bye Bye Birdie
Dick Van Dyke! From the same town as my Grandma! Ann-Margaret! From the same high school as my Dad! Also, fabulous soundtrack, great casting all around (except for Janet Leigh playing Spanish, ignore that), and really fun cynical plot that cuts right through the usual saccharine musical theater plotting. While still believing in love and kindness and so on.
Beach Blanket Bingo
If you are only going to watch one Beach Party movie, this is the movie to watch. Surprisingly good soundtrack, has Eric Von Zipper in it (the best character), and the plot involves sky diving and also a mermaid. Really, it’s perfect.
Now we enter the post-Cabaret era when there are loads of Margaret Musicals, but the veer increasingly away from Commonly Known Musicals. Dirty Dancing, IT’S A MUSICAL!!! The major relationship/emotional/plot points take place during songs, it had a hit soundtrack, it has dancing. People don’t think of it as a “movie musical” because it doesn’t fit the template of Sound of Music, but that is because they are dumb.
Streets of Fire
This movie is really indescribable. It’s a post-apocalyptic 1950s with Willem Dafoe as a leather motorcycle gang leader, and also big band huge rock shows. And it inspired Tezaab. And was has Diane Lane. Really, you gotta see it! Oh, also Rick Moranis is there.
The Wedding Singer
I really like this movie. It’s just so sweet. This is one where the music isn’t used to express deep transgressive emotions, it’s used to express soft romantic things that are hard to say out loud.
Woot, Step Up! Greatest dance musicals of the modern era. Although I haven’t seen Idlewild, that might be better. Anyway, a film in which dance is a major plot point, and actual trained talented young dancers were cast all around, and the dance numbers are real technical choreography and dance filming, not just some dude doing a throwback nostalgia picture.
High School Musical
This is the biggest hit cable movie EVER. Think about that for a second. Every TV movie you have seen/liked, comes second to this. Disney knew what they were doing, they knew that combining youth and songs and dance will give a certain kind of joy to the audience that nothing else does, especially the kid audience.
I think this is the only “traditional” movie musical I am including? Meaning a stage play/score turned into a film? Anyway, I love it. And it’s a film turned into a stage show turned back into a film, so it really sort of belonged in film all along. Plus the director did a really good joy, and they got an EXCELLENT cast top to bottom (except maybe Travolta), and the stage soundtrack (for once) is actually good enough to stand on its own instead of making people go “eh, really? I mean that one song is good, but the rest of them?” (can you name any song from Funny Girl besides “People”?)
Step Up: All In
Having seen every Step Up movie, this is the best one after the first one. It’s just pure dancing. The plot is almost not there at all (some kind of dance contest in Vegas), but they have so much fun with the dance sequences!!!! Watch it just for that.
Straight Outta Compton
YES IT’S A MUSICAL!!!! It’s a total throwback musical. There are sooooooooooooo many composer biography musicals from Hollywood in the 30s through 50s. It’s an excuse to get all the composers old hit songs and re-record them and sell the soundtrack and also let people be a little nostalgic for the past and when they were growing up and listening to those songs. Sound familiar?
Disney strikes again! This is just a massive MASSIVE hit for the Disney channel, I can’t describe how big. And it’s a brilliant idea too, the children of Disney villains and Heroes all have to attend the same high school together. It mixes together hits from past Disney films in new ways, and it has original songs too. It looks really cheap if you compare it with big budget musicals of the past, but it has heart, and it has some really great songs.