Movies and musicals take our normal, ho-hum human experiences and turn them into ginormous explosions of emotion. We shoot and edit footage, we write and sing music when mere words can no longer suffice. On their own, these forms provide tons of catharsis. But when you combine those suckers? Buckle your culture-lovin’ seatbelts, baby.
Movie musicals have been around since the very beginning of film history, a history that begins with the borrowing of devices and talent from the creators of stage musicals. With the ability to finesse and craft set pieces you simply could not in a real-life time-and-space theatrical setting, movie musicals like The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg became the symbols of filmic creativity, ingenuity, prestige, and good old-fashioned popcorn fun.
But as we’ve made our way into this 21st century, beginning with the year 2000, the movie musical has become something of an exception rather than a rule of cinematic expectations and impulses. In other words, when a contemporary movie musical comes out, it “means something.” So, with the 2021 release of a certain “heightened” movie musical, we thought it time to analyze these 21st-century exceptions, these celebrations of just about every art form and craft you can throw into something, and list out the best movie musicals of the 21st century. Start those toes-a-tappin’!
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Anna and the Apocalypse
Image via Orion Pictures
There are two types of people in the world: Those who read the words “Scottish zombie Christmas high-school musical horror comedy” and shake their head in disappointment or embarrassment, and those with hearts and souls. Anna and the Apocalypse manages not only to be a funny and gory horror-comedy that’s perfect for Halloween and a heartfelt and sweet movie that’s perfect for Christmas, but is also a delightfully catchy and energetic musical that will make you laugh, cry, and sing along in holiday glee.
Dickinson’s Ella Hunt gives a star-making performance as the titular Anna, a high schooler with relatable high schooler problems that feel like the end of the world even if they may be relatively small. Of course, that changes when the literal end of the world happens, and she finds herself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse forced to fight, kill, and sing her way through a zombie-infested Scottish town to save her dad. Director John McPhail injects the film with equal parts George A. Romero and John Hughes, and you really feel for these teenagers and their problems even as you’re jollily singing along to the music and relishing in the zombie-horror goodness. – Rafael Motamayor
Burlesque is a heavy favorite for me on this list and might be my pick for the most underrated musical movie of the 21st Century so far. It’s campy in excess and silly in spades, but that’s what I love about it. That and watching two all-time pop divas tear up the stage. Christina Aguilera stars as the archetypal small-town girl who makes her move to the big city with dreams of stardom. That leads her to the local burlesque, run by none other than Cher, and if you can’t already tell how decadently fabulous this is going to get, maybe this one isn’t for you. The supporting cast is also a doozy, with Stanley Tucci professing the powers of wigs and Kristen Bell serving up scathing stage rival for Aguilera. With a soundtrack comprised mostly of beloved jazz, pop, and rock favorites, Burlesque‘s costumes are glittering, the quips are cheeky – actually, the costumes are quite cheeky too, it’s Burlesque after all – but perhaps most importantly, the singing and stage productions are genuinely good. Of course they are, because we’re talking about Christina Aguilera and freaking Cher. – Haleigh Foutch
Carmen: A Hip Hopera
Image via MTV
Carmen: A Hip Hopera, a made-for-MTV movie from 2001, may play with a level of superficial datedness or nostalgia. But by tracking both its narrative and many of its musical motifs over one of our great pieces of artwork — Georges Bizet, Ludovic Halévy, and Henri Meilhac’s stupendous opera Carmen — director Robert Townsend ensures a level of interior timelessness, even classicism that subtly punches this piece well above its weight class.
But as for that nostalgic level of enjoyment? I mean, this is ’90s/2000s hip-hop culture on a silver platter, and for those who love that era (I raise my hand and immediately start rocking it to the beat), this will give you everything you want and more. Startling talents like Beyoncé Knowles, Rah Digga, Mos Def, Da Brat, Jermaine Dupri, and Mekhi “Surprisingly Very Good at Rapping” Phifer pounce all over this material, giving it a purposeful sense of emotional commitment, spitting and singing their bars with panache and brio (and to hear these folks rap over interpolations of Bizet’s perfect music is just, wow). Townsend’s visual constructions of these sequences are cheeky and formally experimental, messing with color correction, frame rate, and split screens to mimic the language of the channel he’s creating for — all bolstered, again, with one of our most classic plots to hang it all up.
I’m just gonna say it… Carmen: A Hip Hopera > Hamilton. – Gregory Lawrence
Image via Miramax
The 75th Academy Awards recognized Chicago as the best film of 2002, and there’s a strong case to be made for Rob Marshall’s stunning adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical. For years, an adaptation had vexed various screenwriters until Bill Condon managed to crack it and Marshall gave it a dazzling visual look that he’s been chasing (but never quite matching) with his subsequent musicals like Nine, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns. The story of the fame-seeking Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) who lands in jail for the murder of her lover (Dominic West) still speaks to our crime-as-entertainment culture despite the 1920s setting. The most impressive aspect of Chicago is how it’s able to take its lineup of terrific tunes, like the “Cell Block Tango” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” and craft stunning sequences around them. Given the distance from awards chatter, Chicago has lost none of its edge. – Matt Goldberg
Dancer in the Dark
Image via Fine Line Features
Dancer in the Dark, like many of Lars von Trier’s films, can feel overly, even unfairly punitive. Björk’s leading character, a poor factory worker with an eye condition and a desire to help her son, does not deserve the horrible things that happen to her as a result of vile circumstances and, more tellingly, vile human nature. But happen to her they do, in unsparing, grimly constructed detail; one of von Trier’s more smeary Dogme 95 works shot on gnarly DV tape.
But if you stare amid this path toward human annihilation, you will find a ton of beauty, a ton of escape, and one of the wildest usages of the musical form you’ll ever see. When the banal evils of Björk’s life become too much to bear, she subsumes herself into a musical fantasy world. Suddenly the colors brighten, the cameras become more intentionally composed, and the world turns into a song-and-dance fantasia where things dip their toes into the pool of “making sense.” This dichotomy in styles, in truth versus fantasy makes for a gripping, gritty watch, a film that retains a blunt power of efficacy in all kinds of emotional directions. – Gregory Lawrence
Image via Paramount Pictures
A crowdpleaser, a whirlwind, an absolute force of a film. Dreamgirls is translated to the screen by writer/director Bill Condon, who packs the runtime with so much music, emotion, broad efficacy, and pained nuance. The powerful cast members — including Beyoncé Knowles, an Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Foxx — arrive at this material hungry and eager, giving these songs (by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen) a sense of drive and passion you must pay attention to. And yet, skillfully and subtly, Condon plays with whether or not the film’s language pays attention to them, somewhat ruthlessly sliding the show-stopper, Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” directly into the next song, representing a greedy world eager to move on if it’s advantageous for those leading the charge. Astonishing on a scene-to-scene level and neatly constructed as an overall statement, Dreamgirls continues to clobber. – Gregory Lawrence
Image via Disney
Musicals went hand-in-hand with Disney for decades until the early 2000s, when the Mouse House started to move away from films that were so song-oriented. But Disney’s 2007 film Enchanted brilliantly brought musicals back in a smart way, as it bridged the gap between Shrek and The Little Mermaid by taking a self-referential approach to their Disney brand. The plot of Enchanted is basically: What if an animated Disney princess came to life and had to navigate real-world Manhattan? Amy Adams is perfectly cast here as Giselle, nailing the wide-eyed wonderment that permeates through most Disney animated films, but also making the character feel real and dimensional. That’s no small feat, and it’s a testament to Kevin Lima’s direction and catchy songs by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken that the movie strikes the perfect balance between snark and earnestness. – Adam Chitwood
Image via Disney
Frozen is clearly one of Disney’s most popular and most successful films in the 21st century, but it’s also one of their best. The movie feels like an adaptation of a Broadway musical, even though it’s really a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen. The songs drive the story, and songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez expertly weave a tale of rejection, familial love, and acceptance throughout this phenomenal soundtrack. “Let It Go” was a years-long earworm for a reason, but the childlike wonder of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and the silly hilarity of “In Summer” solidify this as one of the best musicals and musical soundtracks of the 21st century. – Adam Chitwood
Image via Disney
As you just read, Frozen is one of Disney’s best, and most smoothly professional musical films of recent. It’s tight, efficient, and crafted for success.
Frozen II, conversely, is a mess. And thank God for that, as this sequel is given free rein to roam in all kinds of strange discursions, emotionally complicated avenues (sometimes physicalized in ice caves of regret!), and sequences that feel abjectly uninterested in catering to its ostensibly youthful target audiences. “You all look a little bit older,” tells Olaf (Josh Gad) to us directly in the cheerfully melodic opening number “Some Things Never Change,” an ironically titled piece given just how much sloppy, jagged change is a-coming for all of our characters. I’ll go so far as to say the songs in Frozen II, again from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, go harder than their predecessor; I love the genre parodies of tunes like “When I Am Older” and “Lost in the Woods,” think “Show Yourself” is one of Disney’s all-time moments of beauty, and “Into the Unknown” just goes, baby.
Frozen II finds status quos getting mucked up and characters getting musical soliloquies and hard self-aware jokes careening into blunt sorrow; all the time, I’m sitting there wondering, “How did Disney let this weird art-musical get released to the masses as a popcorn sequel to one of their biggest, safest hits?” Thank God they did. – Gregory Lawrence
The Greatest Showman
Image via 20th Century Fox
The one requirement for The Greatest Showman is to simply accept that it is not (nor does it really attempt to be) a truthful account of P.T. Barnum’s life, which is oddly fitting given its main character. Instead, The Greatest Showman constantly shoots for uplift and joy with a terrific litany of songs from Benj Pasek & Justin Paul constructed with some really artful and impressive direction from Michael Gracey, making his feature debut. You also have a terrific cast leaning into this version of Barnum’s story with Hugh Jackman perfectly endearing as the sweet-if-misguided showman. Like any good musical, these songs are bound to get stuck in your head, but you’re not going to mind when you’re fist-pumping to “This Is Me” for the 400th time. – Matt Goldberg
Image via New Line Cinema
Hairspray is one of John Waters’ most beloved and accessible comedies, and the 2002 musical was arguably even more beloved, and definitely more accessible. Composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Whitman’s songs sparked a sensation for musical theater nerds (roasting myself here), with the production taking home eight Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Score. So when the film adaptation came along in 2007, it courted one hell of an ensemble cast of A-list stars and musical favorites, including John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Elijah Kelley, and Allison Janney.
But the secret ingredient is the discovery and casting of Nikki Blonsky, starring in her film debut as Tracy Turnblad, the relentlessly bright-spirited teenager who just loves dancing and determines to make it on her beloved Corny Collins Show. Set during the movement for integration during the 60s, Hairspray is a pure-spirited story about acceptance, not just of others but of yourself. Tracy Turnblad beat the body-pos movement to the punch by decades, but it never gets old watching her dance her heart out for pure love of dancing, a statement that’s as true of Waters’ film as it is of Adam Shankman’s vibrant, vivacious musical remake. – Haleigh Foutch
Image via Warner Bros.
George Miller’s odd, dark, and often fun animated look at the lives of singing and dancing penguins belongs on this list if for no other reason than this: When Prince was screened the film to get his approval to use his song “Kiss,” he ended up liking it so much that he wrote an original song for it. Beyond the Prince of it all, though, the concept of a movie musical is baked into the core DNA of Happy Feet, as we learn an important fact about penguins previously unknown to the human world — when adult penguins are trying to find their perfect mates, they sing their “heartsongs” to find out what songs might be compatible. The mash-ups of pop/rock favorites like “Boogie Wonderland,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Somebody to Love,” “I Wish,” and more are very solid (with the added bonus of the great voice cast lending their vocal talents — never knew how badly I wanted to see Hugh Jackman do an Elvis biopic until now). While some slight emotional scarring may occur after viewing (those seals were fucking scary), Miller remains a master of the slightly disturbing but ultimately charming family film. – Liz Shannon Miller
High School Musical 2
Image via Disney Channel
In many ways, you could say that High School Musical 2 is The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back of the High School Musical trilogy. It’s bigger, louder, better made, and it’s got a darker edge to it as the franchise finally realizes that it’s got the perfect villain in Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). Free from the constraints of a high school, the sequel moves the action to a country club, which gives the film more freedom in terms of setting and look for the musical numbers so they don’t “Stick to the Status Quo.” The film is full of wonderful set pieces, from beach-side singing and dancing to a number set in the club’s kitchen to a jazz dance-off that’s also a baseball game. And of course, there’s what may very well be the single greatest musical number of our time — “Bet on It,” also known as Zac Efron’s take on Kevin Bacon’s angry warehouse dance in Footloose.
The fact that there hasn’t been an entire oral history about that song is a crime against music and journalism, but I digress. “Bet on It” is the emotional crux of the film, as Troy contemplates whether he should turn to the dark side (he’s wearing all black during the scene!) by embracing capitalism and befriending a bunch of rich country club members. The first movie is all well and good, but this song also represents Efron’s big solo debut in the franchise after having had his voice secretly redubbed in post-production for the first HSM. When Troy is singing that you should bet everything on him and that he’s taking the reins of his life, you’re also listening to Efron taking the reins of his career and fighting to get his voice out to the masses, and for that, we are very grateful. – Rafael Motamayor
In the Heights
Image via Warner Bros.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s best-known musical may now be Hamilton, but that doesn’t make his first Tony-winning musical a slouch. If anything, In the Heights feels like a more personal story about the immigrant experience and what it’s like to wrestle with expectations of what kind of life you should have. With its ensemble cast, the story wrestles with the tension of whether you should leave to pursue individual goals or if it’s better to stay in your community and invest in your home. The screen version takes on an entirely new life thanks to Jon M. Chu’s excellent direction that brings a fresh energy to Miranda’s catchy tunes while never losing the emotional core that made this breakout work so endearing in the first place. – Matt Goldberg
Inside Llewyn Davis
Image via CBS Films
The Coen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhat divisive among fans of these distinct directors. Some find it to be a minor work in their varied filmography, while others hail it as one of their masterpieces. I’m in the latter camp, as I find Inside Llewyn Davis to be a heartbreakingly personal film about artistic struggle, and the lives so many artists who don’t become Bob Dylan live. Oscar Isaac breathes Llewyn Davis to life with such passion and anger and jealous rage, and when he picks up that guitar he bares his broken soul to the world even more. The folk-inspired soundtrack is equal parts gut-wrenching and beautiful, with hilarious ditties like “Please, Mr. Kennedy” thrown in for good measure (just because the film is dramatic doesn’t mean it’s devoid of the Coens’ distinct sense of humor). That the Coen Brothers can just toss off a brilliant musical ode to artists and the folk scene of the ’60s in between an epic Western (True Grit) and an old Hollywood comedy (Hail, Caesar!) is a testament to their range and talent as two of our greatest living filmmakers. – Adam Chitwood
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Image via Netflix
It only came out in November 2020 so it’s a bit early to declare this one to be a Christmas classic, but the Netflix holiday film written and directed by David E. Talbert will definitely be worth revisiting when ’tis the season again this year. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey stars Forest Whitaker as an inventor and toymaker who completely shuts down after a series of personal tragedies, only to be reawakened by his adorable granddaughter (Madalen Mills) when she comes for a visit and reveals her own talents for invention. The film’s outstanding cast, which also includes Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Davina Phillip, and Ricky Martin, gets to perform some truly great original musical numbers, with songs written by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, and John Legend. It’s both a very old-school flashback to the days of lavish theatrical musicals (including big group dance numbers!) with a number of modern flourishes and some great family-friendly action. Also, it’s a beautiful film, rich with colors and some of the best costumes of 2020. If this one flew under your radar last year, make a point of checking it out — though maybe wait until closer to the holidays, because if you celebrate, it’s a great way to amp up your own Christmas spirit. – Liz Shannon Miller
Josie and the Pussycats
Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Thanks to its recent 20th anniversary, Josie and the Pussycats is finally getting the reappraisal it deserves and some long-overdue recognition as one of the best, most slept-on satires of its generation. In other words, Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever, join the army! It’s also unequivocally one of the best soundtracks of the early 2000s, jam-packed with incredible original songs, with Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley providing Josie’s vocals.
Written and directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, Josie and the Pussycats stars Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson as the iconic trio of cat-eared musicians, and their giddy energy is as infectious as the songs. But it’s not just the music or the cast that makes Josie such a slept-on gem, it’s the genuinely brilliant and incisive commentary on consumer culture, the fearlessly over-the-top aesthetic, and the purity of the film’s belief in the power of friendship, even in the face of evil megacorporations, subliminal messages, and nefarious multi-industry capitalistic schemes. It’s an understatement to say that Josie was ahead of the conversation, but even if the film’s sweetness and sense of humor didn’t hold up so well, I would have had to insist it had a spot on this list in honor of the countless hours I drained into this soundtrack as a kid. – Haleigh Foutch
La La Land
Image via Lionsgate
“City of Stars, are you shining just for me?”
Watching this magical Hollywood musical, it sure felt like the answer was “yes,” even though I’m sure millions of others could relate just as easily to Damien Chazelle’s impassioned ode to the fools who dream. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both fantastic as ill-fated lovers Seb and Mia, one a jazz musician, the other an aspiring actress. The two have excellent chemistry together, whether they’re singing and dancing in the moonlight (oof, don’t mention that word!) or arguing like most normal couples.
This film is full of stylistic flights of fancy, but it’s also grounded in a timeless kind of realism; in the real world, things don’t always work out, and not everyone gets a happy ending. Though La La Land la-la-lost Best Picture in dramatic fashion, it remains a beautiful movie about love, loss, and the things we sacrifice for the sake of art. Plus, it deserves credit for helping to put the now-formidable songwriting duo of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul on the map along with Dear Evan Hansen, which could very well wind up on this list before the end of the year. – Jeff Sneider
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Image via Universal Pictures
There are classic sequels that are regarded as vast improvements over their predecessors. The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, High School Musical 2. Then, there’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a movie that takes the Godfather Part II approach of being both a sequel and a prequel to the first film.
Where the first film was a cute, charming movie that basically felt like a group of great actors just going on vacation to Greece and doing an epic week of drinking, dancing, and karaoke singing while someone brought a camera along, Here We Go Again actually feels like a proper movie. The story has some nuance to it, the characters have depth and arcs to them, and the actors actually look like they give a shit and are putting some effort into their craft. And even if you lose one Meryl Streep, you win Lily James, Andy Garcia, and freaking Cher — and Cher makes everything better. This as close as you get to a contemporary take on a classic Hollywood musical-turned-summer blockbuster. The musical numbers actually move the story along through visual storytelling while the choreography is shot like classic MGM musicals, and there are some visually impressive camera movements and editing tricks done to merge timelines and story threads.
As for the songs themselves, out is the feeling of watching your parents singing casually drunk on a Saturday night; in is the feeling of a proper Broadway production with bombastic numbers and fantastic (and funny) singing. The summer of 2018 may have given us Mission: Impossible — Fallout, but the true pinnacle of cinema came with Here We Go Again’s set-piece where we see all the wedding guests arriving at a European beach in a fleet of boats like the climax to a Christopher Nolan war movie — but instead, everyone is singing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” – Rafael Motamayor
Mary Poppins Returns
Image via Disney
Emily Blunt is a star, the Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman songs are stupendous, and the production design is simply astonishing in Mary Poppins Returns, an underrated return to live-action splendor from Disney. Offering a wheelbarrow full of whimsy while welcomely undercutting it all with a sense of melancholy and maturity (Ben Whishaw’s solo elegy “A Conversation” will always reduce me to tears), Rob Marshall’s film has something for everyone. Or, rather, everything for everyone; the film takes a bit of a Fast Five approach to the Mary Poppins universe by packing the runtime with as many surreal set-pieces, flights of fancy, and choices made to produce joy over “a logical appreciation.” When Mary Poppins returns, so too does my childlike smile. – Gregory Lawrence
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