In all honesty, musicals are the cheesiest form of film but they are also one of the most creative forms and quite a few of the early 50s musicals had directors who broke new ground for films of all genres. Back then musicals were very popular because they mimicked what you would see on a stage performance but over time, directors like Gene Kelly, wanted to use film in a way that would give something that could never be done on stage and so he took his films on-location, used his choreography skills and even developed his own equipment to capture tricky types of shots. Soon other directors began to take their films on-location and with these new developments, film genres began to develop and things other than musicals became popular. This development had a major influence on the industry and has given us what we call film today. Musicals are then, in a way, very important.
I am unashamed to admit that I love musicals and I’m not talking Disney (that’s a whole other discussion) but musicals from the 50’s and onwards, the ones where heart and soul were put into the compositions and choreography and where the shots were captured based on the choreography and not the other way around. It was about the athleticism and vocals of the actors and actresses and they actually had to dance; they weren’t given big backdrops and props to take the attention away from them but rather they were always centre stage.
Moving into modern day where we’ve been given musicals like Mamma Mia and the High School Musicals I feel as though the artistry has been taken out of the filmmaking to give, and to quote Singin’ in the Rain, ‘just a lot of dumb show’. That isn’t denying that those musicals are a lot of fun and as a kid I thought High School Musical was the business (watching it now I realise how wrong I was). I think that the reason musicals today are not what they were in the 50s is because now we don’t have actors that are dancers and singers as well (bar a few), we just have actors and if a big feat like ‘An American in Paris’ was made today, it just wouldn’t be the same. I am however, very thankful for the 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables, which is a fantastic example of a good modern musical.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It seems almost clichéd to kick of the list with Singin’ in the Rain but it was given the title of most popular musical and rightly so. It paints such a great picture of the silent to talkie film transition, including comedy, romance, drama and a full song and dance cast. It features the man who is most associated with the musical genre, Gene Kelly, the man who innovated cinema and left a legacy for the generations to come. This film has the most memorable scene of him dancing in the rain and swinging on the side of a lamppost. The film gained a high rating and has such a wide following of fans that it deserves its place at the top and it is continually regarded as the most lovingly enduring musical of all time.
John Travolta, baby! Grease is a typical high-school film centred around all the different cliques. Featuring Olivia-Newton John and John Travolta, it’s one of those musicals that everyone seems to roll their eyes at because of how cheesy it is. But it’s one of those feel-good films and you can’t help but laugh at the idiocies of the characters and the bad acting that comes out of it. The songs are what make this film so popular and the soundtrack ‘Grease’ by Franki Valli became number one in 1978 because of the film. The only regret is that this film was probably the height of Travolta’s good looks.
Bugsy Malone (1976)
This one makes the list for the complete genius of the idea. Casting children to play the roles of adults means that children will identify with the film and adults will be able to find comedy in it. It’s one of those classic musicals that everyone remembers because of the all-child cast and because of how well they all acted in roles that were years out of their league. Although some of the singing was not their own, you can forgive it because of the huge food fight! There’s not a single actor who does not shine in this film and Scott Baio and Jodie Foster as lead roles were fantastic. Though not as popular or as high in ratings as other musicals, Bugsy Malone is one that will not be easily forgotten.
West Side Story (1961)
This film is basically the musical version of Romeo and Juliet but set in 1960s New York. The 60s was a time of immigration and racism, the formation and attacking of gangs. While this is a story of love between Tony and Maria, each of them from rival gangs, it is also about the ways in which a society reacts to change and comes to terms with the damage that it has done. This is an example of how a film can be improved and made more emotional with the inclusion of singing and dancing and while it would have been very unlikely to see gang members break out in ballet in the street, you don’t seem to notice that it’s out of place. This is such a wonderfully told story and even though you can see through the editing techniques, I really like that aspect because it gives a sense of the simplicity of storytelling and hints that it doesn’t have to be complex in order to be successful.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
While most musicals are serious, dramatic and romantic, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a complete parody of the story with tons of modern references thrown in to create a postmodern film of stupid proportions. With the comic/ironic Cary Elwes, the musical numbers include a rap from the only black guy in Sherwood Forest, a song dedicated to tights and a gloriously terrible serenade to Maid Marion by Robin Himself. This is an example of how cheesy a musical can be but also how fun filmmaking can be. It’s filled with cringey humour and actors who over-act on purpose. It is silly but funny and has an almost two hour run-time that you’ll be constantly entertained for.
Les Misérables (2012)
Just because it’s last on the list doesn’t make it the least! Despite this story being written for the stage, it does exceptionally well when adapted for film. It has actors that gave this film their all and even though not all of them can sing THAT well, you find that it doesn’t really matter when you look at the grand scheme of things. What makes this film work is that all the musical numbers were recorded and filmed at the same time, on location, raw. Because of this, all the emotion that was felt in the scene was put into the singing as well and the only time any audio was replaced was if there were any defaults in the recording. This film really did have everything; drama, romance, violence, action, humour and tragedy. The cast was stellar and I couldn’t ask any more from a film and the fact that it was a musical just proves the point that musicals should have a place in our hearts.