After helping create the basis of cinema in its early years musicals have seen a resurgence in modern movie culture with at least one or two such films released yearly it seems and even becoming worthy award season contenders. Whether using original music or the works of specific artists, modern musicals have captured the hearts of a new generation offering stories told through melody and song like never before. A new musical will hit theaters this weekend, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again”, and I felt it was the perfect time to look through modern musicals from the year 2000 to today that have proven that the genre is here to stay. These are my picks for the Top 10 Modern Movie Musicals.
For this list I looked at any film that uses music as a significant storytelling tool. These aren’t movies that simply include one or two songs however. To make things fair I considered a musical any films with enough music to make an album of songs incorporated into the actual narrative. These could be musicals based on stage plays, original material, or adapted versions of a previous story with new musical material worked in.
I did NOT consider animated musicals however because those are for a list some other time. Also biographical musicals that were inspired by the real-life story of a particular artist were also not considered which is why you won’t see movies like “8 Mile” or “Ray” on this list. As stated previously, these movies had to be released from the year 2000 to today to be considered “modern musicals”.
What is your favorite modern movie musical? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list! Also look for my review of “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” this weekend.
10. “Mamma Mia!”
While not the best musical film by far to come out of the 2000s I couldn’t have a list like this and not include 2008’s “Mamma Mia!”. Based on the 1999 musical of the same name and utilizing music from ABBA this popular film whose sequel inspired this list tells the story of a young bride-to-be’s attempt to determine which of three men her mother dated in her past is her true father so she can be given away at her wedding. While the acting and singing performances (particularly an infamous performance by Pierce Brosnan) leave a lot to be desired “Mamma Mia!” nonetheless has become a popular modern musical hit. It earned a hefty $615 million at the box office becoming one of the highest grossing films of 2008. Up until 2017 it was the highest grossing live action musical film ever and still sits in the top five in terms of musical films overall, animated or live action. Even after ten years “Mamma Mia!” still holds a devoted fan base who have fallen in love with the characters and soundtrack to make it a new classic. There’s a reason it got a sequel and while it may not be the best movie on this list its popularity and legacy alone warrant it respect.
9. “The Greatest Showman”
Appearing on big screens at the end of 2017, “The Greatest Showman” is far from a fine example of accuracy in historical drama but it is a fine example of how original musicals still have a place in modern cinema. Inspired by the story of legendary showman P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” controversially shines a more positive light on the entertainer who in real life was known more for being an even more ruthless conman and not the best of hosts to his many real-life attractions. Still this film finds joy and inspiration in the story with songs written by the dynamic duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that focus on the plights of dreamers as well as the issues of racism and individuality. While it may present a less than accurate look at one of history’s most famous entertainment figures, “The Greatest Showman” features spectacular vocal performances from the likes of Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Loran Allred among others and rode a wave of great word of mouth from musical lovers to $434 million at the box office making it the fifth highest grossing live action musical film of all time. If you take the film as pure fantasy “The Greatest Showman” certainly has its merits and the soundtrack alone is worth experiencing time and time again.
8. “Dream Girls”
A 2007 awards season contender, “Dream Girls” made a splash in 2006 after it was adapted from the 1981 Broadway musical of the same name. Inspired heavily by the history of Motown Records as well as the career of The Supremes, the story follows the evolution of a American R&B music in the 60s and 70s through a girls trio called the Dreams portrayed by notable black female singers Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson as well as Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose. With names like that it’s no wonder the cast alone drew interest from fans who may not have turned out in droves but still made “Dream Girls” a box office hit. The film earned the award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the 64th Golden Globes and took home two Oscars, including a Best Supporting Actress Award for Hudson. In the years since it has been a bit overshadowed by more mainstream musical films but it’s a project that should not be ignored. Exploring an important era in American music with catchy and fitting original songs composed and written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen respectively, “Dream Girls” set a new standard for the modern movie musical that still resonates to this day and it won’t be the last on this list to receive that compliment.
7. “Into the Woods”
Ever wonder what the true stories were behind your favorite fairytales? Disney answered that question with this 2014 musical adapted from the work of the great Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. With an all-star cast of musically inclined performers that includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp “Into the Woods” takes many of our favorite fairytale classics like Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk and brings them together in an intertwining story that explores the storylines we’ve come to know and what happened in the aftermath to challenge the happy ending trope. Theatrical music litters this film as characters lament on their past and failures and pray for better futures before finally dealing with issues like leaving a legacy and the pain of loss. There’s a lot of personal messages associated with this film that resonated enough with audiences to cash in $213 at the box office and earn several Oscar nominations and three Golden Globe nominations. Great acting and spectacular vocal performances layer this story with real consequences that challenge some of Disney’s own stereotypes and give viewers something a little darker, depressing and thought provoking to appreciate.
6. “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
From one Sondheim adaptation to another, this 2007 Tim Burton directed version of the play Stephen Sondheim wrote with Hugh Wheeler takes an even darker turn than “Into the Woods”. The titular Todd is played by Johnny Depp who, at the time, was not exactly well known as a vocalist by fans but was in his prime as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. The story follows a barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker who, after years of wrongful imprisonment, returns to London with plans of revenge against a judge for his lost years and the death of his wife. Filled with bloody visuals and a fittingly dark and immersive atmosphere “Sweeney Todd” shows off the best of its performers with even Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman getting in on the melodic action. For me personally this was one of the first modern musicals I fell in love with as I was introduced to Sondheim’s work in college, but I wasn’t the only one. “Sweeney Todd” frightened audiences to a $152 million gross and won two Golden Globes including a Best Actor award for Depp. It also earned Depp an Oscar nomination. While not a great success in the United States it was much more respected overseas and over time has filled a niche among musical fans as one of the most respected horror musicals this side of “Phantom of the Opera”.
5. “Moulin Rouge”
One of the first modern musicals, “Moulin Rouge” popularized the idea of a jukebox musical for a modern audience by incorporating takes on numerous popular tunes into the story including versions of Elton John’s “Your Song”, Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. Its dependence on previously released tracks helped sell the film which tells the story of an English writer who falls for the star of the titular Moulin Rouge in Paris. This film was directly responsible for the rebirth of the musical as an awards season staple genre becoming the first such film since 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Considered one of the greatest films of the 2000s in some poles, audiences flocked to this film earning is $179 million at the box office and making it an immediate classic that paved the way for many of the films on this very list. To put it bluntly it made the musical cool again. For the first time a new generation saw the value of music in the story etching “Moulin Rouge” a place in the zeitgeist where it remains 17 years later.
4. “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)
One of the most anticipated movies of 2017, Disney went full on musical in its 2017 version of its 1991 animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” which broke the bank in a big way earning over a billion dollars to surpass “Mamma Mia!” as the highest grossing live action musical of all time. Sporting great vocal renditions of classics from the original movie as well as some new tracks to add more depth to the tale as old as time “Beauty and the Beast” became appointment viewing mixing styles from the animated feature with Broadway flair to give viewers possibly the best cinematic mix of stage and screen in years. Add to that the allure of seeing a classic tale told anew and you have a film that was probably one of the most mainstream musicals to ever appear on the big screen regardless of the era. While it didn’t receive any awards and only garnered two Oscar nominations “Beauty and the Best” served a different purpose than earning trophies. It earned respect from fans who may have never turned out for a musical otherwise and, likely, earned the genre a whole new audience that may or may not have helped “The Greatest Showman” shine months later.
3. “La La Land”
Most probably know this movie more for being on the wrong end of the infamous 2017 Best Picture fiasco. Considered one of the best films of 2016, “La La Land” found an audience almost immediately to earn $446 million at the box office putting it in good company as the fourth highest grossing live action musical ever. The film takes a look at two lovers from different worlds with different interests and dreams who bond in modern day Hollywood as they seek to make their dreams a reality while also juggling the complications of love. While it didn’t earn Best Picture it did score six other Oscars including Best Director for Damien Chazelle, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Emma Stone and Best Original Song for “City of Stars” which, along with much of the music, was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul in their second appearance on this list. It also earned a win in every category it was nominated in during the Golden Globes that year with a record breaking seven trophies overall from 11 nominations. “La La Land” was a certified hit both critically and commercially that showed that original musicals still have a place in Hollywood in the 2010s. “La La Land” is a musical gem that set the bar pretty high for the future of the genre.
2. “Les Miserables”
Admittedly one of the most divisive films on this list, the 2012 adaptation of the famed musical “Les Miserables” is among the most legendary stage-to-screen adaptations in modern movie history with an ensemble cast of characters bringing to life intertwining stories set in France during the 19th century primarily focusing on the struggles of reformed convict Jean Valjean. Director Tom Hooper made an interesting decision by filming and recording the singing live rather than using a track which gives each vocal performance a raw feel, for better or worse. While not every performance is spot on this approach adds legitimate emotion and personality to each song especially Anne Hathaway’s show stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that helped earn her an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The film as a whole earned a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and a Golden Globe for Hugh Jackman and went on to receive eight Academy Award nominations including the first Best Picture nomination for a musical since a certain other film which happens to sit at the top of this list.
It might not be the highest grossing live action musical of all time, but 2002’s “Chicago” earns the top spot for it’s legacy alone as it singlehandedly revitalized the genre not only in the eyes of viewers but awards voters as well. Grossing $306 million worldwide and $170 million domestically it sits comfortably in the top ten highest grossing live action genre films in worldwide box office gross and is the fourth highest grossing live action musical domestically. Most impressively however, this story about a pair of jazz singers in Chicago awaiting trial for their murderous crimes was an awards season darling. Along with “Moulin Rouge!” and “8 Mile” “Chicago” is credited with making the musical relevant again in the 2000s but this film did something no other musical has accomplished since. “Chicago” not only dominated the 75th Academy Awards with six wins, but one of those wins was for “Best Picture” which made “Chicago” the first musical since 1968’s “Oliver!” to claim that honor. Add to that seven other Oscar nominations and three Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and you have not only one of the best musical films of the modern era, but a highly decorated movie whose legacy holds strong today as a trailblazer for the modern musical.