Movie musicals have been popping up with great frequency lately, so what better time to take stock of the best movie musicals of the 21st century? We’ve been out of the Golden Age for a while now, and some new classics should be recognized.
There are two kinds of movie musicals, based on the two ways that musical numbers can appear in a film: diegetic vs. non-diegetic. Diegetic means that the song is being performed as a part of the plot, like most of the songs in Sound of Music, and all of the characters know that a song is being sung. Non-diegetic musical numbers are the more traditional, in which a character bursts into song and isn’t necessarily aware that they are singing in the real world — like a Disney movie or “West Side Story.”
Some films combine the two or take a more meta approach. Musical numbers in a musical can be non-diegetic or diegetic, but in order to be considered a musical the musical numbers, plural, should advance the plot or character development in some way.
This list is limited to theatrically released movie musicals, though there have been some excellent made-for-television musicals and specials recently, from “Teen Beach Movie” to “Grease Live.” Without further ado, here are the best from the last 10 years:
1. Into The Woods (2014)
The film version of Into The Woods falls short in many areas, but one way it excels is in the individual performances. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are fantastic as the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella, Meryl Streep earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as The Witch, and child stars Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone do justice to Sondheim staples I Know Things Now and Giants In The Sky. Even James Corden manages a touching version of No One Is Alone as the finale nears.
Ultimately, it’s not necessarily a must-watch, but for fans of musical theatre, and in particular fans of Stephen Sondheim, there’s a lot to enjoy.
2. Les Misérables (2012)
On one hand, Les Misérables was hugely successful, winning three Oscars (and earning Hugh Jackman his first, and only, nomination), four BAFTAs and three Golden Globes, as well as having the biggest ever opening weekend for a musical in the UK.
Film critics largely enjoyed it too, but given the source material, this big-screen version fell a little short. Certain performances are obvious stand-outs, including Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks in her first ever big-screen role, and with such well-crafted musical numbers as shown in the original stage music, there’s only so wrong you can go,. But we can’t help but feel a little of the magic was lost in the transition from stage to screen on Les Mis.
3. The Greatest Showman (2017)
The musical that was years in the making and pretty much defined 2017, when songs like This Is Me and Rewrite The Stars were absolutely everywhere.
Considering its success both at the box office and in the music charts all over the world, The Greatest Showman is obviously a crowd-pleaser, but for us, its truly great moments aren’t the over-the-top productions or Hugh Jackman giving it his all as PT Barnum. It’s the quieter, more understated moments, like Michelle Williams’ much-underrated rendition of Tightrope or the first performance of Never Enough.
4. A Star Is Born (2018)
When we first saw the trailer for A Star Is Born, we had absolutely no idea what to expect from the film itself. Would it be yet another hammy attempt for a musician to make their way into acting, or a genuine star vehicle for one of the most famous women in the world? As it turned out, it was a little of column A and column B.
If nothing else, A Star Is Born finally proved to mainstream critics what Lady Gaga’s fans have known for a decade now: there’s a lot more to this pop star than just funny outfits and colourful wigs. Yes, there’s a lot of scenery-chewing going on, Gaga at her earnest is always going to be the tiniest bit annoying and it could probably do with being about 25 minutes shorter, but we defy you not to be moved by those final moments.
5. Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Considering it’s the sequel to one of the most enduring family films of the 20th century, Mary Poppins Returns has been kind of overlooked since its release in late 2018, which is a shame because it’s actually a worthy successor to the Disney classic.
Many rolled their eyes at Disney churning out yet another sequel to go with their ever-growing catalogue of live-action remakes, particularly to a film that’s so revered and came out such a long time ago.
However, Mary Poppins Returns should be applauded for retaining the magic of the original, but also offering something new. The same can be said for Emily Blunt as the world’s most famous nanny, who made plenty of nods to Julie Andrews’ interpretation of the character, without necessarily making hers an impersonation. And the songs are just marvellous too (if you can overlook that dodgy rhyming slang in Trip A Little Light Fantastic, that is).
6. Pitch Perfect (2012)
The so-so Pitch Perfect 2 and genuinely-very-bad Pitch Perfect 3 have somewhat watered this film’s legacy down, which is a shame as it’s actually a subversive, completely unique and absolutely hilarious modern addition to the world of big-screen musicals.
Unlike most of the other offerings on this list, the songs in Pitch Perfect are actually lifted straight from the charts and redone as acapella numbers, performed first as restrained earworms by the Bellas and then as everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mash-ups.
True, numbers like Pitbull’s Give Me Everything and Nelly’s Just A Dream might date Pitch Perfect a little, but actually adds to the charm. The film is really as much about the laughs as it is the music though, making anyone want to join the Bellas by the time it’s all over.
7. La La Land (2016)
Probably best remembered for that unfortunate faux pas at the Oscars, La La Land is a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, paying tribute to the likes of Top Hat and Singin’ In The Rain, but with a modern twist.
Obviously, we’re never going to complain about seeing Ryan Gosling up on the big screen, but the film belongs to Emma Stone, who was awarded Best Actress at the Oscars for her role as Mia. In particular, her final audition scene is a triumph.
On top of everything else, La La Land does a brilliant job of making Los Angeles look absolutely stunning, and escapism doesn’t come much better than that very first number.
Are there any other classics that we’ve missed off the list? Share them in the comments below and we might make a part two!