I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Hamilton in London last month. It was amazing – a mixture of singing, rapping and dancing, conveying a story I didn’t know with precision, clarity and humour. It got me thinking about musical films. At this time of year, the TV schedules often feature musical films as they tend to be family-friendly and joyous, with the odd exception. I’m looking at you, Les Mis.
The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron was released worldwide towards the end of 2017 and was still showing to mostly-full cinemas months later. It does seem to have really captured something that has huge appeal to all ages. And of course, I loved it. Discovering the astonishing voice of Loren Allred (the singing voice of Jenny Lind in the movie) has been a highlight of 2018. And the song, This is Me, so beautifully sung by the hugely talented Keala Settle, has become an anthem for all. The soundtrack, released at the same time as the film, spent months at number one on Amazon and the film itself has grossed more than most musical films. As of writing, those takings are well on their way to $435m worldwide. Not quite as high as Mamma Mia or La La Land but not far off.
I love lots of musical movies, too many to list here, before I even start on Disney or some of the wonderful old Busby Berkeley films, but here are my top modern picks:
I admit that I fell head over heels in love with this film from the moment I saw it. The music is catchy, the equality themes resonated with me, I love the traditions of the musical/ film, including using a completely unknown actress to play Tracy Turnblad and always using a male actor in drag to play Tracy’s mum. It’s funny and serious. It demonstrates the old favourite undertone of good overcoming evil, in this case, race relations (amongst other issues) in Baltimore in the 1960s. And the cast is amazing — John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Zac Efron (again) and the brilliant Alison Janney. The soundtrack is great too. There’s nothing not to love about this beautifully shot film.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
I was a teenager when this film was released and it spoke to every dream I had at the time – a beautiful man falling in love with an unlikely young woman, dancing, dresses, watermelons and a fabulous soundtrack of old and new music. I loved it then and still do now. If it’s ever on TV I am drawn back in all over again. As an interesting comparison, given the huge box office takings of The Greatest Showman, Dirty Dancing grossed a mere $1.9m when it was released in cinemas although it went onto gross $214m worldwide eventually. The past is a funny place…
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
I’m not a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, with a couple of exceptions. For me, Jesus Christ Superstar is something else. I have been fortunate enough to see a number of different stage versions, including a particularly memorable one in Russia where Jesus entered stage left on a motorbike. The music is amazing and evocative, even if the subject matter doesn’t really interest you. Mary Magdalene singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him is a favourite tune. It has certainly lasted the test of time and is now, remarkably, 45 years old, but still feels fresh.
My other Lloyd-Webber choice is the film version of this wonderful musical. Madonna has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, but in my humble opinion, she was massively underrated in this film. She stars alongside Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas in this whirlwind story of the life of Eva Peron, right through from her humble beginnings and rise to fame and fortune in Argentina, to her early death at the age of 33. For me, Madonna really brings the character to life, and vocally, her performance is exceptional. There are too many amazing songs to list favourites, including an Oscar-winning original song, You Must Love Me. The screenplay is by Oliver Stone and Alan Parker, so it’s slightly edgier than stage versions.
La La Land (2016)
Ok, you can stop booing now. I know this was massively over-hyped and lots of people felt they were promised the moon and stars and didn’t get it. And part of me understands why that is. But I really liked it. The first scene where Another Day of Sun was played out on a traffic-clogged Californian highway made me want to stand up and cheer. I was obsessed with the soundtrack for about a month and played it constantly, and it still gives me goosebumps when I hear it the music. And I love the colours of the film — beautiful use of primary colours in some scenes, pitched against a night sky. I’m not sure this film will ever be regarded as a classic, but it is a lovely film. And did I mention how good the music is?
Coincidentally, as I was writing this post, a series of programmes was being shown on BBC4 charting the history of musical movies. You can catch up on i-Player with The Sound of Movie Musicals with Neil Brand here.