Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has earned no small amount of awards. It’s also earned an honor not given out by any academy or guild: the distinction of being one the best movie musicals of the 21st century. Now, the genre may not be in its Gene Kelly glory days anymore, but the last 16 years haven’t been short on great song-and-dance films that will keep La La Land company. Here then, in our humble opinion, are the ten best other live-action movie musicals of the 21st century. (It’s worth noting that we’ve stuck to English-language films for this list, but — as Vulture pointed out — there are also many amazing foreign-language musicals you (and we) should check out.)
Across the Universe (2007)
Few directors have Julie Taymor’s vision. Whether she’s tackling William Shakespeare (Titus) or Frida Kahlo (Frida), her films present the quality of museum paintings come to life. Across the Universe brings that quality to a kaleidoscopic narrative based on the music of the Beatles. Certainly, the initial appeal of the film is the inventive interpretations of the Fab Four’s indelible music, but what lingers most is the visual feast that the staging of the songs provides. It not only captures the life of the Beatles’ work, but often complements it with added meaning – whether it’s a song recast to be about unrequited love (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) or being drafted to go to Vietnam (“I Want You”).
Anything musical legend Bob Fosse touches is bound for greatness, and while the choreographer and director didn’t get the chance to direct a movie version of Chicago himself as intended, Rob Marshall’s adaptation is no slouch. It’s smart enough to be as Fosse-like as possible, using its big budget to go full “razzle dazzle” with its staging —from the elaborate “We Both Reached for the Gun” marionette extravaganza to the wall of lights in the show-stopping final number, “Nowadays.” The result is a film that does Fosse justice — arguably a greater accomplishment than its Best Picture win.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Emotional, real, depressing, and strange, Dancer in the Dark is a movie musical only Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac) could make. Anchored by Icelandic superstar Björk’s entrancing (acting and musical) performance, the film stands out for the least uplifting of reasons – it’s a heart-wrenching tragedy. But it’s also especially remarkable because, for all its bleakness, it’s paradoxically one of the genre’s greatest love letters to the escapist power of the musical (for both characters and the audience). It’s precisely that kind of juggling act that makes for a complex entry in a genre sometimes unwilling to go that deep.
Even if Dreamgirls weren’t loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, its narrative could be faulted for steering too close to movie-musical cliché. So why introduce an entry on this “best of” list by calling it unimaginative? Because great musicals, frankly, don’t always have great stories, but some can transcend narrative limitations by the sheer quality of their music, staging, and performance. Dreamgirls is that kind of musical. Any time either Beyonce or Jennifer Hudson throws her singing voice into the tremendous songs, the story doesn’t even matter anymore.
As a movie about a cartoon Disney Princess who enters the real world, told without an ounce of irony or cynicism, Enchanted should never have worked. But the very thing that could have spelled its doom is the exact reason it charms. It’s a pitch-perfect transfer of animated Disney-musical sensibilities into a live-action film with utmost sincerity (no wink-winking, “Isn’t this all silly?” at the audience here). It captures the magical and good-hearted fairytales and burst-into-song joys of the Disney classics, and the quality and sincerity of Amy Adams’ performance can’t be undersold – it powers every scene, musical number, and heart-fluttering moment.
Nostalgia for the early 1960s can be enjoyable, but often risks sugarcoating history with shallow “it was a simpler time” narratives. What’s so admirable about Hairspray —aside from its catchy music and poptastic numbers — is how it balances nostalgia with reality. A movie based on a stage show based on another movie, on the one hand, it gives the audience the pleasure of the primary-color-saturated and hairsprayed 1960s we’ve all mythologized in our minds. On the other hand, it’s a sobering reminder that these times were far more complicated than we pretend. The result is a bubble-gum burst of nostalgia, tempered with a welcome progressive message, that goes down as easy as a root-beer float.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig possesses the intimacy of an off-off-off Broadway show, although it never feels small. How could it, with the grandiosity of its music, its rock-glam chutzpah, and the welcome inclusivity of its LGBT narrative (something we don’t see enough of in movie musicals)? It’s also an example of a narrative staple of musicals done really well: the story of someone becoming who they were born to be, and the journey they undergo to get there. Plus, “Origin of Love” is one of the greatest movie-musical songs the decade has produced.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann doesn’t make movies so much as visual piñatas, full of color and excess, that he smashes open onto the screen with all the energy of a kid on a sugar high at a birthday party. That’s precisely the quality that makes Moulin Rouge! such an infectious powder keg of an experience. It’s the musical taken to its limits — hyperactive, hyperbolic, and unapologetically capital-lettered in its Emotion and Melodrama. There’s also, of course, its irresistible use of pop songs (Ewan McGregor’s heartfelt take on “Your Song,” in particular, remains hard to forget) and the rousingly romantic original “Come What May.”
The Muppets (2011)
If there’s one thing that stands out most about The Muppets, it’s that it’s made with a lot of love. Not unlike La La Land, the film has a heart-on-its-sleeve affection for the cinematic predecessors its channeling, and that affection begets the pointed understanding of what makes both the Muppets and musicals so beloved. Boosted by the inimitable music and lyrics of Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie, the prerequisite Muppets humor, and the joy of seeing the furry gang reunited, The Muppets‘ greatest accomplishment is that it can stand proudly next to timeless predecessors like The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.
The first installment in John Carney’s unofficial music trilogy (see also: Begin Again and Sing Street), Once almost doesn’t even feel like a musical; it often feels more like what would happen if Before Sunrise featured two indie musicians who occasionally pick up a guitar and sing a song. And it’s precisely that organic integration of music into the film via the nature of the characters’ professions that makes for such an appealing approach to the genre. While some songs are performed with little song-and-dance, it doesn’t take away in the slightest from how Once embodies the spirit of the musical — specifically, how it nails the trope of musical numbers springing to life from the inner worlds and unspoken emotions of its characters. This is never more apparent than with “Falling Slowly,” an unforgettably beautiful use of musical harmonizing as a metaphor for two people quietly falling in love.
Those are our picks — now it’s your turn! What are your favorite live-action movie musicals of the 21st century that didn’t make our list?
Top Image: Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted, courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures