From My Fair Lady to Grease 2: Guardian writers on their favourite movie musicals – The Guardian

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Musicals

To celebrate the release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s upbeat musical In the Heights, Guardian writers have picked their favourite examples of the genre

The Gold Diggers of 1933

The Gold Diggers of 1933 is a film of quarters, and not just the giant coins that cover the chorus line’s modesty. Four wisecracking kids are dying to make it on Broadway: Joan Blondell is a singer, Ginger Rogers a sex kitten, Ruby Keeler a sweetheart and Aline MacMahon has the jokes. But the shows they hustle into close before they open. As Rogers snarls, it’s “the depression, dearie”. But then Dick Powell changes their luck with catchy tunes and deep pockets. This is a bona fide pre-Code musical, so the talkie scenes burst with prohibition-busting backstage antics and a little Park Avenue farce, but the curtains open wide on four of the most outlandish numbers ever filmed, courtesy the kaleidoscopic visions of Busby Berkeley and what deadpan Ned Sparks calls: “The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression!” Vivacious economic optimism in We’re in the Money and heartbreaking social commentary for the postwar generation in My Forgotten Man (blues vocals by Etta Moten) bookend the film. In between, the dazzling neon-lit magic of the Shadow Waltz competes with the cheerily vulgar surrealism of Pettin’ in the Park to stop the show. Pamela Hutchinson

Singin’ in the Rain

So much has been written about Singin’ in the Rain that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just about the birth of the talkies. Talking is the least of it. It’s about the birth of music on screen, the birth of the movie musical. Gene Kelly famously plays 1920s silent movie star Don Lockwood who falls hard for smart, pretty wannabe actor Cathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds. He gets her a job dubbing his conceited co-star, Lina Lamont, who turns out to have a terribly squeaky voice, but they have an even bigger and more revolutionary idea. Why not put music into these newfangled sound pictures? The musical is born. Cinema itself is reborn. Don’s pal Cosmo, wonderfully played by Donald O’Connor, gets a job as musical director and the cliches are true: the whole picture erupts with joy, and with wonderful songs like All I Do Is Dream Of You, Moses Supposes, Make ’Em Laugh and of course the indomitably romantic Singin’ in the Rain itself. Peter Bradshaw

Grease 2

Three years after the 1978 classic Grease, audiences returned to Rydell high for the yearnings and hijinks of a new class of seniors. The plot is a gender-swapped (and many say feminist) reprise of the original, with Michelle Pfeiffer in her first starring role as a cool-girl tough chick and Maxwell Caulfield as an egghead British exchange student. A critical and commercial flop upon its release, it’s since become a cult classic, with standout numbers like the 80s-rock-tinged Cool Rider and the infectious, none-too-subtle Score Tonight (set in – what else? – a bowling alley) living rent free in my head for decades. Directed by Patricia Birch, choreographer of the original Broadway and film versions, the ensemble dancing is exuberantly impeccable, and the costumes pitch perfect, particularly in the talent show. Sure, no one looks like an actual teen, but Grease 2 accurately captures the mercurial nature of adolescence, along with its strict hierarchies and codes and unrestrained horniness. With its 40th anniversary coming up next year, here’s hoping that this under-recognized gem will finally get its due as the rare sequel that’s superior to the original. Lisa Wong Macabasco

My Fair Lady

It’s remarkable a film as luxy as My Fair Lady – in 1964 the most expensive movie ever made – feels so weirdly authentic. Top frocks, yes, and dazzling design, but also smog you can taste and the genuine sense at least two of the characters sleep in their tweeds. In some ways, this could be a bit of a downer. Our leading man is – cor! – a misanthropic phonetics professor in late middle age. His love rival is a wimpy stalker. The most appealing fella here is probably Wilfred Hyde-White, and he’s pushing 400. Either him or Stanley Holloway’s alcoholic binman. But the film understands the problem. Viewed from today, the plot – snobbish codger moulds spunky woman to his tastes; she melts – looks dodgy. But it isn’t. George Cukor always took his leading lady’s side, and this is no exception. Rex Harrison’s Higgins is indulged, but almost every lyric lampoons him. There’s two transformations here: the one in which a woman has a wash and learns to enunciate about Andalucia. And then one in which a man realises he’s a nightmare. Eliza stays the same inside; Higgins is changed forever. That’s why the final scene feels like a rescue, not a coffin closing. Catherine Shoard

Cabaret

Bob Fosse brought a writhing, sweaty, bowler-hatted eroticism to the Hollywood movie-musical, but sex was only one part of the darkening, maturing influence he exerted over the genre. His opulent direction embraced the script’s literary origins in Christopher Isherwoood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, placing the film in a lineage dating back to War and Peace, another maximalist melodrama tracking a few individuals while history crashes down all around them. As Nazism threatens to crash the whooping, hedonism-numbed party of Weimar Germany – lorded over by impish Joel Grey as the trickster-demon emcee – the incandescent Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli, her performance earning one of eight Oscars total) shares a dalliance with British writer Brian Roberts (Michael York) that ends in tragedy, both for them and for Europe. Beyond the jagged modernist perfection of the sets, cinematography, costuming, choreography and acting, there’s a canny intelligence undergirding the spectacle. It’s all far too horny to be branded the thinking person’s musical, but Fosse masterfully splits the difference between the two. Charles Bramesco

Nashville

There’s music in the voices and ambient noises interrupting or screaming over each other in Nashville, the Sistine Chapel of ensemble movies. Robert Altman’s grand old tapestry is about country musicians and the promoters, fans and wannabes who orbit them during concert celebrations for America’s bicentennial. The film is brimming with soulful ditties like Keith Carradine’s I’m Easy and Ronee Blakely’s My Idaho Home. But Nashville’s famously dense and democratic soundscape finds its melody in the hum of traffic and crowds and the carefully amplified flirting, bickering, scheming, yearning, hollering and political campaigning between them. Resonating just as loudly today as it did in 1975, Nashville is a comic and melancholic soundtrack to a nation divided between jingoistic patriotism and malaise. The 24 characters on its principal ensemble cast are like musical notes that complement and compete with each other. And throughout Nashville’s epic runtime, Altman patiently waits and searches for a way to get them all in tune. Radheyan Simonpillai

High School Musical

My strong feelings for High School Musical, a groundbreaking cable TV event if not technically stellar movie (the lip syncing? It’s off), owe mostly to timing: I was 12 years old when it premiered in January 2006, the prime age to fall hard for its classic fitting in v being yourself stakes and even harder for Zac Efron’s hair swoop. It was a pleasure to get absolutely steamrolled by Disney’s correct calculation that hot jock + beautiful nerd + the plot of Grease + lunchroom choreography = generation-defining, inescapable hit. Watching HSM in its wave felt gravitational, enjoyably ridiculous; the first movie was earnest without being too sentimental, your unhinged scream at a rollercoaster drop turned into the ethos of a whole franchise (whose endearment is evergreen – see: the very Gen Z meta HSM: The Musical: The Series starring one Olivia Rodrigo). But HSM is most beloved by me for its durability – I’ve seen it dozens of times, the soundtrack’s familiar beats of teenage melodrama slicking every rewatch, each one solidifying that you can’t take yourself too seriously when growing up (or bopping to the top). Adrian Horton

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

There are so many alluring entry-points into Mel Stuart’s glorious adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – a deranged Gene Wilder going for broke, endlessly appealing, if disgustingly unhygienic, scenes of sweet things, a plot structure that resembles a chillingly casual slasher movie but for annoying children – that it’s easy to imagine it working without also being a musical (it was after all a captivating novel without telegraphed song breaks). But the delicate tonal balance of the story, from deliciously sweet to stingingly sour, works so well because of the music, a sprightly way of dishing up spoonfuls of salt to younger viewers. Dahl obviously hated the end product (he had a similar distaste for Nicolas Roeg’s equally thrillingly perverse take on The Witches) but it remains a wildly engaging and trippy adventure that manages, quite deftly, to combine awful kids enduring cruel and unusual, if arguably deserved, “deaths” (theories have since populated that compare Wonka to a deranged and inventive moralistic killer a la Jigsaw) with lively yet sparsely scattered musical numbers. Singin’ in the Rain could never. Benjamin Lee

New York, New York

Rarely has the title song from a musical eclipsed its source quite as cruelly as New York, New York. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese on the back of his Taxi Driver success, was a costly, grudgingly reviewed flop; the song, composed by Cabaret geniuses Kander and Ebb, worked its way swiftly into the American canon, made universally recognizable via Liza Minnelli’s original interpretation and Frank Sinatra’s subsequent cover. But the film, one of Scorsese’s greatest and gutsiest, deserved equal elevation. In 1977, audiences and critics weren’t sure what to make of a musical that married iridescent 1940s showmanship with ugly post-Cassavetes relationship drama, exquisitely acted by Minnelli and Robert De Niro as a warring musician couple who were never meant to be. But the tension between those two modes is the point, capturing the disconnect between glistening onstage chemistry and abrasive backstage turmoil. It’s a shame the film’s failure dissuaded Scorsese from ever attempting the genre again: too long dismissed, it sings, swings and slings shots with the best of them. Guy Lodge

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

There is some debate as to whether the Coen brothers’ Homeric prison-escape comedy from 2000 is a musical at all, despite its T Bone Burnett-curated soundtrack of period-specific American folk, spirituals and bluegrass. Well I say: if jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia can get away with a load of Abba cuts, or or indeed Across the Universe can chuck in random Beatles songs, then I rest my case. O Brother, of course, benefits from the Coens at the top of their game: a ridiculously convoluted concept (reimagining the briefly mentioned film project from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels); a terrifically charismatic performance from George Clooney (also at the top of his game) pulling the whole thing along; and of course the music, central to the plot, wonderful to listen to, and organised with scholarly rectitude. The 1913 tune Man of Constant Sorrow, keened through those hilarious beards, is the showstopper; but I really like the baptismal sequence built around Down in the River to Pray – I don’t think any other film-makers could have pulled that off. Andrew Pulver

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