With the release of Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights” and a revitalization of the movie musical, it is worth looking at the history of musicals and some of the best that Hollywood has offered over the decades.
“The Jazz Singer” (1927): Movie musicals had to start somewhere, so it wouldn’t be a complete list without the first musical. Many film studios turned away “The Jazz Singer” because producers believed that no one would want to see a talking picture. While the film certainly hasn’t aged well with its use of blackface, its placement in the history of cinema has been cemented.
“Swing Time” (1936): In the 1930s, musicals became glamorous and extravagant to uplift the downed spirits of film audiences during the Great Depression. But during this decade, no two stars hit harder than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While they made 10 movies together, “Swing Time” is the pinnacle of their careers, with some of their most iconic song-and-dance numbers, including “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944): During the Golden age of Hollywood, this was also the decade when Judy Garland shined brightest. Out of the dozens of musicals she made in the 1940s, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is her most well-put-together piece, detailing a year of troubles and triumphs for a large family, with Garland leading the way with her best performance.
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1951): The 1950s allowed films to become even more elaborate as a way to compete with Broadway musicals. Sometimes it would pay off with arguably the greatest musical made, “Singin’ in the Rain.” Even though the film is 70 years old, it feels as fresh today and could compete with any major release with its infectious charm and being the perfect blend of comedy and complex musical numbers.
“West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965): By the 1960s, movie musicals were starting to go out of favor. The films were becoming more expensive to make, and audiences weren’t going to see them, though television made that more difficult. But there were several exceptions, namely the two pinnacles of musical epics, “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” both directed by Robert Wise. Both films have become iconic musicals, “West Side Story” for its urban update to “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Sound of Music” for its lovable charm in the face of insurmountable odds and challenges.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971): During the 1970s, musicals started to take a different approach, becoming campier and wackier, like “Grease” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But the one that captured the essence of a great musical while still creating its own identity was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Gene Wilder’s performance as the chocolate master is probably one of the most unforgettable performances of all time. This film oozes with whimsy and imagination.
“This Is Spinal Tap!” (1984): By the 1980s, musicals had finally lost to big-budget blockbusters but gained new life in musical subgenres. The best of those being the mockumentary, poking fun at the serious nature of documentaries. None did it better than Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap!” While it does spoof rock bands in every capacity, it also accurately portrays the inner workings of why bands love to perform.
“Beauty and the Beast” (1991): The 1990s saw few releases of musicals, though there was one continuous exception – the many Disney animated movies. This was arguably Disney at its animated best with the likes of “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” But if I had to pick just one as the best, I’d go with “Beauty and the Beast” with its gorgeous animation and the best romance Disney has pulled off.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000): The new millennium brought a resurgence of musicals, with the likes of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Almost Famous” leading the way. But the one that has always stuck with me is the Coen Brothers’ modern update on “The Odyssey” with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” With one of the greatest bluegrass soundtracks put together and a trio of great leading performances, it’s probably the most underrated musical made.
“La La Land” (2016): In the last decade, musicals have been scarce but have often been stunning in their realistic extravagance. When one is released, it is often worthy of being just as good as any Astaire-Rogers movies. While films like “Whiplash” and “Sing Street” are wonderful, there was nothing quite as fun as “La La Land.” There are times when it feels like a golden age musical, but other moments where it captures that sense of realism, molding those two moments together into something truly special.
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