Movies ask us to suspend disbelief and accept fantasy, never more so than when characters suddenly break into song. What we've learned to expect on Broadway or at the opera house still feels weird in the supposedly more realistic medium of film.
Still, some movies pull it off better than others. It helps if, like in Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Broadway's "Jersey Boys" (opening June 20), the characters are showbiz professionals who have good reason to sing. But even if the characters aren't performers, their songs can express their innermost longings in a way that other elements of visual storytelling cannot.
The theme of the great musicals, whether from Broadway, Hollywood, or locations far flung, is the search for identity. It's something we can all relate to and, if the music is transporting enough, something in which we can happily lose ourselves for a couple hours.
Here, then, are 50 of the greatest films in which only music can fill those empty spaces in our hearts.
Gallery | The Best Movie Musicals of All Time
- 50. 'Annie' (1982)
- 49. 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957)
No one cranked out musicals faster than Elvis Presley, but before the King's movie career became an assembly line manufacturing pure cheese, he unleashed this snarling cautionary tale of a convict-turned-star, complete with the still-stunning choreographed riot that is the title number.
- 48. 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' (1954)
Michael Kidd's athletic choreography transforms this from creepy backwoods tale into a charming, reeling fantasy.
- 47. 'White Christmas' (1954)
- 46. '42nd Street' (1933)
Busby Berkeley proved himself the first mastermind of movie musicals by recognizing that the camera can go anywhere and film the dancers from any angle, as demonstrated here, in the backstage musical that set the template for all chorus-girl-becomes-a-star musicals ever after.
- 45. 'Carmen Jones' (1954)
- 44. 'Hair' (1979)
Milos Forman's plot-heavy adaptation of the hippie musical doesn't match the anarchic spirit of the original, but the passion of the Age of Aquarius is all there in the songs.
- 43. 'Tommy' (1975)
The Who's rock opera about an autistic boy turned cult leader gets an all-star treatment in Ken Russell's typically bonkers movie, with Ann-Margret literally hurling herself into the role of the lad's sexpot mother.
- 42. 'Dreamgirls' (2008).
- 41. 'Walk the Line' (2005)
- 40. 'Les Miserables' (2012)
Director Tom Hooper's innovation was to have the actors actually sing during the shoot instead of lip-synching and dubbing in their vocal parts later. So you can tell that they're really emoting their little hearts out, which is how Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for singing "I Dreamed a Dream." Of course, Russell Crowe singing in character remains an acquired taste.
- 39. 'Funny Face' (1957)
Years before "My Fair Lady," Audrey Hepburn made another musical where she played a woman made over by a man who then falls for his creation. This time, the Svengali is a Richard Avedon-like fashion photographer played by Fred Astaire with his usual elegance.
- 38. 'On the Town' (1949)
- 37. 'Top Hat' (1934)
Of all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, this one gets the highest marks for beautiful music (thanks to an Irving Berlin score), deft comedy, and ballroom-floor romance.
- 36. 'Yentl' (1983)
There are a lot of reasons why Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's drag Jewish folk tale shouldn't have worked, but she pulls it off.
- 35. 'Gigi' (1958)
Without music, this adaptation of Colette's novel about a Paris gamine groomed for a life as a kept woman would be thoroughly creepy, but with Lerner & Loewe's score, Vincente Minnelli's direction, and performances by the absurdly charismatic Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier made this a Best Picture Oscar winner.
- 34. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1954)
Forget Madonna; Marilyn Monroe's golddigger Lorelei Lee is the original Material Girl in this sparkling musical.
- 33. 'The King and I' (1956)
Yul Brynner gleams in his signature role in this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.
- 32. 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' (1967)
A lifetime before he was "Mad Men"'s crooning executive Bert Cooper, Robert Morse was a young man singing and dancing his way up the corporate ladder in a Manhattan office full of bouffanted secretaries and grey-flannel-suited men in this corporate satire.
- 31. 'Frozen' (2013)
Because your kid sister and her girlfriends aren't going to stop singing "Let It Go" any time soon.
- 30. 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' (1975)
Without meaning to, transvestite mad scientist Tim Curry not only invented a man in a laboratory but also the midnight movie and the audience participation musical.
- 29. 'Show Boat' (1936)
James Whale's adaptation of Edna Ferber's steamboat saga, featuring Paul Robeson's unforgettable rendition of "Ol' Man River," reveals why songwriter Jerome Kern was the father of the American musical.
- 28. 'Chicago' (2002)
There's not much of Bob Fosse's original staging left in Rob Marshall's movie, but he pulls off the it's-all-in-Roxy's-head conceit that makes the play's abstractions work. He also makes Renee Zellweger into a convincing song-and-dance woman and coaxes an Oscar-winning performance from Catherine Zeta-Jones as her fellow fame-hungry felon.
- 27. 'Hairspray' (2007)
This Broadway adaptation, featuring a surprisingly touching drag performance by John Travolta, makes up in exuberance what it sacrifices in gleeful bad taste from John Waters's original 1988 satire on racial integration and early-1960s dance fads.
- 26. 'Kiss Me Kate' (1953)
The first musical ever made in 3D. Howard Keel, Ann Millar, and the rest are too darn hot in this reimagining of "The Taming of the Shrew" as a backstage musical with a Cole Porter score.
- 25. 'Funny Girl' (1968)
Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for her first film role with this musical about vaudeville-era comedy star Fanny Brice. "Hello, gorgeous," indeed.
- 24. 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (1943)
Vincente Minnelli's look at turn-of-the-century life in small-town America features a number of still-popular standards, including Judy Garland's tear-jerking version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
- 23. 'All That Jazz' (1979)
In Bob Fosse's surreal meta-musical, the producer/director/choreographer takes stock of his own life through song (and through Roy Scheider's lead performance) and the results ain't pretty. Exhilarating, but not pretty.
- 22. 'The Music Man' (1962)
- 21. 'Moulin Rouge' (2001)
With his Bollywood-style jukebox musical, director Baz Lurhmann goes way over the top (emotionally, sonically) and then just keeps going. The tale of star-crossed romance is pretty standard, but Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor play the ill-fated lovers with bone-deep conviction.
- 20. 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971)
Made by the Quaker Oats company, this musical didn't quite help them sell candy, but it became a huge cult hit over the years, to the point where Gene Wilder is now best known for playing the mischievous confectioner.
- 19. 'Little Shop of Horrors' (1986)
Before they helped revitalize Disney cartoons with their scores to "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman lent their talents to this cheeky version of Roger Corman's exploitation classic about a dweeb (Rick Moranis in this version, perfectly cast) who makes a Faustian bargain with a talking, man-eating plant.
- 18. 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (1968)
Dick Van Dyke reteams with Richard and Robert Sherman (the songwriters behind "Mary Poppins") for this classic kiddie musical about a crackpot inventor and a flying car. A sharply pointed script co-written by Roald Dahl (and covering some of the same ground as his "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" screenplay) gives the protean Van Dyke plenty to do. Bonus points to ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, whose prancing Child Catcher probably still haunts your nightmares.
- 17. 'The Sound of Music' (1965)
If you've ever seen Mad Magazine's classic parody of this as "The Sound of Money," it's hard not to see the film version of the von Trapp family saga as corny, manipulative, and shameless. Still, this remains many people's favorite musical, thanks to Julie Andrews's irrepressible singing governess, all those adorable moppets, and one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most memorable scores.
- 16. 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' (1964)
Everything about Jacques Demy's through-sung musical (there's no spoken dialogue at all) is swoon-worthy, from the eye-popping colors to Michel Legrand's lushly romantic and wistful score, to the star-making performance by the impossibly lovely young Catherine Deneuve.
- 15. 'A Star Is Born' (1954)
For many Judy Garland fans, the cult of devotion begins not with "The Wizard of Oz" but with this movie, where she pulls out all the emotional stops and brings to bear a lifetime of showbiz experience ("Born in a Trunk" indeed) on the role of rising starlet Vicki Lester. Butchered by the studio upon its release, even the truncated version of the movie (for some lost scenes, only stills and sketches survive) is a treasure.
- 14. 'South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut' (1998)
Before they stormed Broadway with "The Book of Mormon," Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought their foul-mouthed cartoon kids from Comedy Central to the big screen in this often profane but unexpectedly tuneful animated satire.
- 13. 'The Band Wagon' (1953)
Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse steam up the screen in what happens to be the wittiest backstage musical ever.
- 12. 'Cabaret' (1972)
Liza Minnelli won an Oscar -- and proved herself the movie-musical heir to both her parents (Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli) -- in Bob Fosse's kinky take on Germany between the World Wars.
- 11. 'An American in Paris' (1951)
It takes a long time for Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron to find true love with each other (climaxing in that epic ballet at the end), but there's all that gorgeous Gershwin music to enjoy along the way.
- 10. 'A Hard Day's Night' (1964)
The Beatles proved themselves surprisingly adept comics in Richard Lester's inventively staged pop spectacle that all but invented music video as we know it.
- 9. 'Fiddler on the Roof' (1971)
Topol gives an epic performance as literature's most philosophical milkman in Norman Jewison's loving recreation of a vanished way of life.
- 8. 'My Fair Lady' (1964)
Impeccable, from the Lerner and Loewe score to Rex Harrison's talk-sung performance as linguist Henry Higgins, even down to Audrey Hepburn's unlikely turn as a Cockney ragamuffin. (Yes, Marni Nixon dubbed her singing. So what?)
- 7. 'Beauty and the Beast' (1992)
Disney's Broadway-ready cartoon, with a lush score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was so good that it was the first animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture.
- 6. 'Mary Poppins' (1964)
P.L. Travers may not have liked the spoonful of sugar that Disney added to her mysterious nanny, but Julie Andrews (singing the unforgettable songs by the Sherman brothers) was practically perfect in every way, winning an Oscar for her film debut.
- 5. 'Grease' (1978)
You loved it as a kid, even though all the sex jokes went over your head. Today, watching John Travolta harmonize with Olivia Newton-John, you can finally grasp the nostalgia that, back in the 1970s, inspired "Grease's" creators to pay homage to (and poke fun at) the 1950s. The film itself is a relic of a time that, like its version of the '50s, was both more innocent and raunchier than our own.
- 4. 'Once' (2007)
The Swell Season's Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, falling in love on and off the screen while playing lost souls in Dublin, is a stirring and innovative gloss on the musical, one whose inventiveness suggests a new direction for the genre in the 21st century.
- 3. 'West Side Story' (1961)
With its use of real street locations, its Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score, and Jerome Robbins's surprisingly apt balletic choreography, this street-gang gloss on "Romeo and Juliet" may be the most urbane musical ever made.
- 2. 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939)
Dorothy's quest (and those of her fantasy-world friends) is what made most of us fall in love with musicals (and with Judy Garland) as children in the first place.
- 1. 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952)
The pinnacle of achievement for MGM's Freed Unit (the movie-musical division run by songwriter/producer Arthur Freed), for Gene Kelly (and gravity-defying Donald O'Connor, and lovable Debbie Reynolds), for comic screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green ("On the Town," "The Band Wagon"), and for movie musicals in general. Between the songs (composed by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown), the choreography, and the satiric portrait of Hollywood's transition from silence to sound, the movie is pure joy.