Today I'm discussing a topic that is, dare I say, not really near and dear to my heart, the movie musical. By and large I'm not much of an enthusiast of the musical. The idea of a narrative that's constantly being interrupted by its characters spontaneously breaking out into song & dance numbers has always struck me as such a strange concept. Why does a character need a four-minute song to convey a simple thought or feeling when two lines of dialogue will do? Why does a film's running time need to be inflated to three hours when there's only 90 minutes of story to tell (Sound of Music, I'm looking in your general direction....)?
That said, there are movie musicals I value quite a lot, either because the story and performances resonate with me, or because the songwriting is so strong, or some combination thereof. A great musical number can add emotional depth to a scene that wouldn't even be emotionally engaging, simply because of the artistry on display. I've found myself getting unexpectedly choked up during certain numbers due to the execution being so spectacular.
One thing I should note about this list: I have not included any Disney films because the list would be almost exclusively Disney, and that would be kinda boring. So I've left those movies out.
Anyway, here we go.....
10. Little Shop of Horrors
This one's been a favorite since I was eleven years old. In the mid 80s my parents picked up a cheap VHS copy of the original Roger Corman cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors, a grisly horror-comedy about a man-eating plant. I instantly became a fan of this cheesy B-film and was delighted when it was adapted as a Broadway musical (which my parents took me to see in 1986), and again as an all-star film version of said musical. The comedy elements were dialed up and the evil plant given a much more colorful personality, via a sophisticated puppet; the puppetry effects in the film version are quite amazing, even today. Starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene (reprising her role from the stage version) with supporting and cameo appearances by Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Jim Belushi, plus the voice of Levi Stubbs (of The Four Tops), LSOH is a fun, colorful, self-aware romp with memorable musical set pieces and hooky, early 60s-influenced tunes. For a film based on a musical based on another film, this one holds up tremendously well.
9. A Hard Day's Night
The first of two Beatles films on this list, A Hard Day's Night is generally the venerated one, a simple "day in the life" story about the world's biggest pop group that involves them traveling by train to a theater where they'll perform for a TV special. Storyline-wise that's about all that happens. But this film's charm is in the interaction of the four leads (plus their road managers and Paul's crotchety grandfather). The Beatles, despite not being trained actors, were pretty natural comedians in front of the camera, particularly the witty, sarcastic John Lennon. Directed by Richard Lester, AHDN is often revered as Britain's answer to the Marx Brothers, with zany misadventures and hilarious one-liners abound. But the music of course takes center stage; the band released this film in tandem with their third album of the same name, and seven brand new tracks were featured. This film was such a hit that the group and their director reunited a year later with a second (and in my opinion even better) followup.
8. Jesus Christ Superstar
Originally written, recorded and released as a double concept album, Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece was so successful that it was fleshed out into a Broadway musical/rock opera about the final days of Christ, portraying him as the world's first celebrity who has become a danger to the political and religious establishment. Then in 1973 director Norman Jewison brought the show to the big screen, as a visually lavish but aesthetically minimalistic film shot almost entirely in the Israeli desert, where a cast of actors recreate the show with a mix of historical and contemporary elements. The music drives the narrative, and the principle actors all deliver fantastic performances, in particular Carl Anderson in a soulful, athletic take on Judas, and Bob Bingham as the imposing, villainous Caiaphas. This gritty, austere adaptation captures the mood of both the 1970s and the story's biblical era, achieving a strange balance between the two that works better than it has any right to. And of course Webber's music is spectacular; perhaps the definitive example of rock opera.