Movie musicals have been an integral part of the industry for decades since the release of The Jazz Singer back in 1927 and with good reason: they make viewers feel good. The acting, the absurdity of breaking into a song-and-dance number at the most random of times, all allow viewers to free themselves from the confines of reality and enter fantasy.
Film History professor Nancy West expands on this in an interview on REWIRE, saying that historically, “musicals presented an ideal genre for the escape because it made people leave the gloom and doom of poverty behind and see films that depicted people in joyous movement but had very lavish surroundings.”
With the first peek of the upcoming film version of cult favorite musical CATS, as well as the recent release of films like Rocketman, Teen Spirit, A Star Is Born, Yesterday, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Vox Lux, it’s tempting to say that movie musicals have come back — except, they haven’t, since they never really went away in the first place.
Here are some of the best movie musicals — and music-heavy films — in recent film history:
Sing Street (2016)
A film that revolves around a boy who starts a band to impress a girl in 1980s Ireland, Sing Street is a feel-good musical that masterfully blends heart, charm, and optimism with ’80s pop and punk hits. Oh, and it has a pretty rockin’ cast — Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aidan Gillen, Jack Reynor, and Kelly Thornton are the main characters — as well.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Though not a musical film in the strictest sense, Straight Outta Compton is a powerful film detailing the genesis of the gangsta rap group N.W.A and the lives of its members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre.
Gritty, poignant, and provocative, Straight Outta Compton earned praise during its release, with online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes describing it as “a biopic that’s built to last.”
Across The Universe (2007)
Best described perhaps as director Julie Taymor’s love letter to The Beatles, Across The Universe revolves around young a British worker who, after setting sail for the United States in search of his father, ends up falling in with a cast of eccentric characters forced to navigate the colorful —if somewhat turbulent— decade that is the 1960s.
Impressive in its wholehearted embrace of psychedelic imagery, politics, and its masterful use of 33 (!) of The Fab Four’s songs — never mind its admittedly flimsy plot — Across The Universe is an entertaining, nostalgia-filled musical romp tailor-made for devotees of the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
Walk The Line (2005)
A dramatization of the life and career of American music legend Johnny Cash, James Mangold’s Walk The Line is a stirring musical drama whose strength lies in its refusal to sugarcoat even the most messy aspects of Cash’s life.
Brilliantly acted by its leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the film is a sublime and transcendent piece that dares to humanize an icon many have deemed a god.
Trivia: James Mangold used Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt in the trailer for his 2017 superhero film Logan.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
A musical about a young English poet who falls in love with the star of the titular cabaret, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is a riff on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice — if Orpheus opted to serenade his captive audience with anachronistic pop and rock tunes complete with bombastic theatricality.
Watch it for the camp, kitsch, and excess; stay for the romance.
TRIVIA: Hole vocalist Courtney Love auditioned for the role of Satine, and while she didn’t get the role, she assisted in clearing licensing rights for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to be used in the film.