Hollywood Musicals: Grand Crescendos & False Notes

In 1952, a spritely Gene Kelly shook up the world by telling us to do one valuable thing. His smash-hit musical Singin’ in the Rain sold its immense power and good-natured humour with two words: “Gotta dance”. Sung throughout one musical number in this extraordinary musical, these two words could make love and stop war. Overlooked as silly and jarring by the masses, musicals remain cognitive parts of such industries as Broadway and the West End. Creating momentous universes, musicals sing, dance, and cheer their way into pop-culture and the record books. Every so often, Hollywood tries to take certain productions and throw them onto the big screen. Some of them work wonders, while others stumble over two left feet. Aiming for Oscar glory, each production’s ambition and attention to detail (no matter what the overall quality may be) can make for stellar sequences. With Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Jersey Boys about to jive into theatres, I looked back on several big-budget musical movies. It’s not simply a case of entertaining a crowd, it’s about how they have been adapted for the screen. So, what separates the great musical adaptations from the laughable ones? Here, I’ve analysed them in two ways – how they honour the original material and how they stack up as individual efforts. For this toe-tapping list, I’ve looked, for the most part, toward musical adaptations from the past decade or two. In doing so, I can connect to those with little to no interest in musical movies. Hopefully, and necessarily, a younger crowd can track down these options and look to preceding musicals with greater interest. Of course, one musical stands head and shoulders above the rest. However, musicals like The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Cabaret might play your tune in the future. By comparing my number one to some of the biggest musical adaptations of this decade, this list compares the genre’s highest note to those below it.

Terrible: Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages (2012)Set in the 1980s, Rock of Ages covers a controversial and influential period of music history. Honouring the Rock ‘n’ Roll era of sweat-fuelled Los Angeles, the musical used satire and slapstick to deliver a memorable musical triumph. Unfortunately, these subversive traits didn’t cross over into the 2012 adaptation. Director Adam Shankman, coming off the success of his boisterous Hairspray adaptation, seemed like the perfect choice to tell this tale of rebellion, sex, and pop-culture. However, the movie predictably became a shrill, laughable, and irritating mess. This cynical effort, pushing the audience to the brink of tedium, clearly wasn’t made by people who love rock ‘n’ roll. Judging by the slick visuals, Shankman and co. have thoroughly misunderstood the genre’s most notable idiosyncrasies. The movie’s brightly coloured settings and costumes, dousing its A-list cast in an outlandish universe, misses the thematic relevance of the genre. Random sub-plots, giving Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta Jones, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand something to do, are jettisoned by a dull love story between the two pretty lead characters. This inept production, developing silly musical numbers and inane performances, is a prime example of studio interference. Stripping the premise of danger, thrills, and originality, this adaptation comes off as dated, embarrassing, and confused. However, Tom Cruise rescues his role by delving into the genre’s immeasurable awe factor. Singing his own hits, all eyes turn to Cruise to liven up this otherwise cheap and disgraceful effort.

Bad: Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge (2001) Certainly, Baz Luhrmann’s directorial flair isn’t for the faint-hearted. His direction, drowning each frame in eye-catching visuals and over-the-top personalities, makes some people ecstatic and others furious. Taking on famous stories, Luhrmann’s versions, more often than not, misjudge the original’s narratorial and thematic purpose. This is true of his overbearing musical-farce Moulin Rouge. Mixing a bubbly 1900s mis-en-scene with modern pop hits, this smash hit misses the mark tonally and visually. Luhrmann, relentlessly pushing his style into our faces within the first fifteen minutes, uses a harsh and cumbersome style to express his love of Paris. Fuelled by sex, seduction, and romance, the story has the right idea. Powered by the Montmartre region’s immense prowess, the premise has the power to draw people in. However, the beauty is overshadowed by a cliched love story. Defined by modern music, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor’s chemistry is hindered by the jarring tonal shifts. Sadly, ‘Children of the Revolution’, ‘Lady Marmalade’, and ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ are blared through their plain vocals. The contrast between expansive Parisian settings and modern tunes, though noble, hurls us out of the narrative. Luhrmann’s direction, wanting us to notice his style, becomes tedious once this romance reaches its breaking point. Here, we see several good elements thrown into a relentless, frustrating, and messy production. However, the ‘Roxanne’ number is a rare highlight in this otherwise forgettable effort.

Average: Nine

Nine (2009) Italy – one of the most beautiful and rich countries on Earth. Rightfully so, the birthplace of some of history’s greatest historical achievements has been gifted many odes and homages. Most recently, Rob Marshall’s second musical movie, Nine, seeks to honour Italy’s enviable landscapes and artists. However, despite the commendable intentions, this musical wildly misses the mark and throws several careers off-kilter. We begin with Guido (Daniel Day Lewis) suffering from writer’s block. Pointedly, this is where the cliches begin. Not only does he have his ‘horrific’ affliction, but this ladies man struggles to maintain key relationships with some of the world’s hottest women. Beyond the main character’s irritating woes, this musical is separated into two parts – music and drama. Whenever a musical number kicks in, the tension is sucked out of this already dreary picture. The musical numbers, despite sporting an epic scope and impressive production designs, come off like music videos awkwardly forced into important dramatic moments. Distorting this homage to Italian genius Federico Fellini, these weightless musical numbers are ruined by unoriginal choreography and hit-and-miss vocals from the impressive ensemble. Judi Dench’s number, in particular, comes off like a forgettable and tedious interlude. Unfortunately, this effort fails as both a slice-of-life drama and a lively, music-fuelled piece of raw escapism.

Good: Les Miserables

Les Miserables (2012) Forcing theatre critics and fanatics into heated debates, the big-budget adaptation of Les Miserables has to be seen to be believed. Unlike most musical adaptations, this extravaganza revels in cinema’s most impressive and transcendent conceits. From the opening musical number, ‘Look Down’, the movie establishes a momentously epic scope and heartbreaking character-based journey. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), running from prison time and Javert (Russell Crowe), is presented as a noble saviour. Hoping to elevate itself above its musical-theatre roots, this adaptation takes on a well-known cast and crew. Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) tackles directing duties by utilising unexplored techniques. In fact, this ambitious filmmaker achieves the near impossible. Using organic sound recording equipment, the live performances lend an aura of grit and heartache to this already moody narrative. However, when it stumbles, it falls face-first into the Parisian mud. Though Jackman and Anne Hathaway excel in vital roles, the supporting cast is shockingly hit and miss. Crowe, causing controversy for his croaky vocals and stilted mannerisms, keeps his role from becoming an intrinsic part of this spirited adaptation. In addition, the love triangle is hindered by average performances from Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks. This adaptation, redder than the blood of angry men and bluer than the movie’s stark colour scheme, soars but stumbles slightly during the emotionally-charged second half.

Great: Chicago

Chicago (2002) Prohibition-era Chicago was a treacherous time for most of America’s citizens. Many people had to kill to survive, and those who didn’t were manipulated beyond belief. However, for the upper class, it was an advantageous time fuelled by excess, greed, and cruel intentions. This musical movie, mixing rousing musical numbers and burlesque-style choreography, presents this piece of history as sexy, cool, and powerful. The movie adaptation, Rob Marshall’s first musical, revels in the original production’s seductive slinkiness and tangibility. Featuring a talented cast and stellar visuals, the musical was brought to life by Marshall’s purposeful direction and Bill Condon’s pitch-perfect screenwriting chops. Translating Bob Fosse’s stand-out numbers to the big screen, Marshall and co. were aided by an extraordinary ensemble. Renee Zellweger, playing against type, delivers a remarkable leading-lady performance as a lowly housewife sent to prison. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta Jones steams up the screen as the feisty and dexterous antagonist. Throw in Richard Gere and you have a timely musical adaptation that stands the test of time some twelve years later. Graciously, the musical numbers elevate this adaptation from commendable to outstanding. One sequence, comparing Gere’s character’s methods to a rousing tap dance, is one of modern cinema’s most inspired set pieces. In addition, the Cabaret-inspired ‘Cell-block Tango’ and John C. Reilly’s ‘Mr. Cellophane’ are enthralling sights to behold against the bright lights and sultry sounds of the windy city.

Momentous: Singin’ in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain (1952)Of course, Singin’ in the Rain sits at the very top of this list. This is not just the greatest musical of its time, its one of the most profound and inventive films ever created. Developed in the golden ages of Broadway and Hollywood, the movie delves into the transition between silent pictures and the modern entertainment era. Sound, introduced to the big screen during this glorious time, destroyed several silent-era actors’ careers and livelihoods. Singin’ in the Rain features Kelly in his most valuable and transcendent role as a charming A-lister. After falling for Debbie Reynolds’ character, this talented icon looks beyond Tinseltown’s bright lights to find love in a revolutionary era. This musical, peppered with glorious musical numbers and heartfelt moments, is an emotional roller-coaster ride. With ‘Gotta Dance’ breaking up this gripping narrative, several musical numbers have placed themselves into the annals of cinema history. Open for discussion, this musical fuses cinema and theatre tropes with flawless technical and thematic precision. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Good Morning’, and ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ are catchy tunes that continually worm their way into our minds. Thanks to its lead actors’ significant chemistry, this phenomenal Hollywood musical looks beyond the gimmicky reflexivity to deliver a meaningful, intelligent, and bubbly ode to this popular entertainment medium.

Beyond the theatricality and bombastic motifs, the musical genre overcomes major cultural preconceptions by delivering enthralling productions. With Jersey Boys soon to be picked apart by the masses, theatre gurus and moviegoers carefully track all upcoming adaptations. Eastwood’s latest feature needs to be slick, catchy, and memorable – like the original theatre production – to succeed. The best musicals, though occasionally dated and ethically questionable, deliver impressive musical numbers, invigorating narratives, and mind-bending performances.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hi, I'm Tom Munday. I'm a Journalism graduate from Perth's Curtin University who's passionate about film, TV, music, theatre, and sport. Happy reading, folks!

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  1. This is a good list. There have been over a hundred movie musicals that people have loved since sound was introduced in 1927, many are better, but I understand this is only newer productions.

  2. Sandra Norton

    Love the Disney musicals:
    -Beauty and the Beast
    -Lady and the Tramp
    -The Lion King

    If I ever saw Fox & the Hound I must have been very little, and I haven’t seen Frozen.

  3. Cinderella is my favorite musical, and I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve either listened to the score or watched the various TV productions. I think it’s the loveliest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein scores. It has such a beautiful simplicity to it, and I never get tired of it! I’m listening to the 2013 Broadway recording as I type this, and it makes me wish I could see the production! These new orchestrations and arrangements are exquisite, the chorus sounds heavenly, and Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana sound amazing, both in their duets and solos.

    • LeahMyers

      Oh, I love Cinderella, too, but when I need a lift there’s nothing that gets me going like Rent. Plus I have 4 choices! I have the Original Cast CD, the movie CD, the movie on DVD, and also the LIVE version of the last performance on Broadway. Sometimes it’s hard to choose – but I manage.

  4. kerrie coon

    i’ve seen rock of ages and it was great! all the people saying negative things havent seen it and are refusing to do so. It was so not “humourless” and while the two main characters are a bit soppy (much prefer the west end actor than the guy theyve got in the film who seems to be wearing lipstick all the time) tom cruise was so funny and made the film for me.

    It’s just a fun film, everyone leaves it laughing and happier than when they started!

  5. I loved Rock of ages it shouldn’t be taken seriously its just a fun little film. I laughed every single moment. Plus Baldwin and Brand singing together with romantic montage PRICELESS

  6. Sean Buckley

    I’m not exactly a connoisseur of musicals, and I’m not even sure if this counts as a musical, but the best one I ever saw was American Idiot. The performance was so emotional and raw that it really touched on what the album was supposed to be about. It’s a rock opera in style but it’s heart is still a punk rock record. Even the choice in vocals, performers who were rougher and rawer than nearly any other group I’d seen. Just for that, it has a high place in my hierarchy; though to be fair, in my experience most people who saw it either absolutely loved it or loathed it.

  7. knudsen

    The ones I would watch and rewatch:
    Murder at the Vanities (1934)

    Born to Dance (1936)

    In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

    Lili (1953)

    Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

    The Sound of Music (1965)

  8. Rena Kellogg

    Gigi- I love everything about Paris whether in film, music, literature the actual place itself. It’s such a light show even if the subject matter when you really look into it isn’t all sunshine and roses yet it’s handled in such a classy way that you can’t help but fall for it.

  9. Clarice

    No classics like Singing in the Rain?! It’s just joy pure tap dancing, jazz hand rocking joy.

  10. Interesting list! Although it is very hard to compare musicals from today to musicals in the 1950s as the style has changed so much. Gene Kelly’s films for instance were original creations, not based on an already existing stage musical like les Mis or Chicago (great film and great musical!) So it is important to bear in mind that film musicals are ALWAYS very different from stage production (and often less powerful).
    I agree with most of your list except for Moulin Rouge, which I find great! As you said, the visuals are amazing, but you have to like Baz Luhrmann’s style. In terms of the acting/singing, I agree with your views on Kidman although she is absolutely gorgeous in the film, her physical appearance being the main characteristic of her character story-wise, but McGregor is really good in this, and his voice is very powerful. In terms of the plot, it is true that the love story is simplistic, but that is often the case in musicals as the focus is placed on musical numbers and visuals rather than the story itself, and this is true even of Kelly’s best musicals.

  11. I love the movie version of Newsies with Christian Bale, and just got a great Blu-Ray edition recently. It flopped at movie theatres – but now it’s a long running stage musical on Broadway that everyone seems to love!

  12. mccartyj

    This is a really interesting list! I’d be curious to see how you chose which musicals. I always think of West Side Story in this kind of list, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  13. Kiss Me Kate: Howard Keel and Tommy Rall were my favorites!

  14. Helen Parshall

    This is an excellent list, even if I find myself disagreeing a bit here and there with some of your analyses. Perhaps it’s also because I have a soft spot in my heart for Moulin Rouge. I’d be curious to see more of what you have to say about other such musicals – it’s such a diverse genre and your work here is fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  15. I feel like it’s a good list, but not comprehensive — of course, for people who are only interested in what is perhaps the “best” of the movie musical genre, it’s relatively decent. The only thing I’d add is that I feel Les Mis and Moulin Rouge should be switched. While you can forgive a movie for not particularly liking the aesthetic, or even the directorial choices with regards to tone, lackluster acting (and singing!) are what make or break a musical, in my opinion. Considering it’s what people expect out of musicals, I’d say it’s certainly important.

    On the other hand, I’ve never seen the musical movie of Singing in the Rain. It’s definitely on my to-watch list now! Thank you for sharing.

  16. Alice Bishop

    I’ve watched a lot of musicals over the years despite not liking them very much. My favourites are still the ones with nostalgic value (Calamity Jane feels like a perfect film when I watch it just because it reminds me of my childhood).

    One thing that often puts me off is the ‘stagey’ aesthetic – Guys & Dolls, My Fair Lady etc. just feel so ‘fake’ that I am aware of their construction. I understand people liking musicals I just don’t find them as absorbing as others.

    Singin’ in the Rain and Les Mis are both fantastic though 🙂

  17. I have seen a lot of musicals in my life, whether that be on a Broadway stage or in the theaters. From my experience, every person has different tastes in what they find amazing and what they find horrible. I personally fell asleep in the first 20 minutes of Chicago and never felt the urge or want to go back and watch the rest. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. The people are saw it with though thought it was the best musical ever. My personal favorite would most definitely be Rent. Now the movie was decent (stage version was a million times better) but it still tops my list for personal preference.

  18. I loved this article! I grew up watching the classic movie musicals, such as Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris, Anchors Aweigh, and many more. As I grew older, I began to appreciate some of the more modern Broadway submissions, but these classic musicals will always hold a place in my heart. I particularly agree with you on Nine – while the music was good, it totally interrupted the flow of the story, as well as not necessarily being all that good at times.

  19. Moulin Rouge was also a remake and the original (non-musical) Moulin Rouge film was actually fairly decent. If the musical was bad, what a shame!

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