With Mary Poppins Returns set to dominate the box office this holiday season, and Anna and the Apocalypse earning indie cred among theater geeks and gorehounds the world over, it’s fair to say that the musical is back and healthier than it has been in decades. We have written in the past about how the Disney Renaissance sowed the seeds for a new generation of millennials to embrace musicals after their parents largely rejected them, and the proof has never been more striking than in the last several years.
While the 21st century began with industry watchers and critics being slack-jawed that Broadway adaptations and jukebox musicals could do big business again—as well as be big awards contenders—it is now commonplace to see a handful of fantasies with original songs not only get released each year but then become major pop culture phenomena. Even the need of earlier musicals to use pop tunes or blur the use of non-diagetic sequences (where characters can randomly burst into song without logic or a sourced soundtrack behind them) have faded away. The genre is now simply a healthy alternative for studios that want to diversify portfolios beyond capes and reboots.
For that reason, we have assembled a list of what we humbly consider the best movie musicals in the 21st century. Unlike our list for classic Hollywood movie musicals, we’re including Broadway and theatrical adaptations on this list, however we are still going to exclude strictly animated films or those that rely only on diagetic music (i.e. no Disney animations or musical biopics focused around the stage, sorry). Also all entries need to have been big screen releases and not television movies or “live” TV productions. Now let’s get to toe-tappin’!
La La Land
Likely the most lauded film on this list, we’d also argue La La Land is the best in spite of some of the fierce backlash its popularity produced. It’s the film that former college roommates Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz always wanted to make, including when the respective writer-director and composer produced Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench in 2009. La La Land made good on the promise of that indie’s potential, achieving its vision by harkening back to the old school Hollywood musical in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and Arthur Freed mold. Modern day stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are certainly not as polished as Astaire-Rogers, or Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, but such imperfection underscores the brilliance of the film.
As one of the first major movie musicals of the century with a completely original book of songs and no IP support like, say, Disney, the picture soars on the bubbly romance and chemistry between Gosling and Stone whose sunset duets rekindle the simple joy of seeing stars of a previous generation dancing cheek to cheek. And yet, the complexities of life that cannot be solved by a ballad nevertheless encroach on the illusion. In the end, reality and artifice clash but also complement in their shared waltz, leading to a bitter, bittersweet ending that offers the Technicolor daydream of yore and something a little more adult, and true, as the final denouement. It’s a celebration of the need of dreams—including the fanciful ones that are never better in film than when they shimmy across a soundstage—even if they can only skip so far in the face of real world obstacles. Dreams and the life they sugarcoat make sweet harmony, a truism that’s no better realized than in Chazelle’s vibrant visuals and Hurwitz’s haunting music.
The one that started it all in the modern era, Moulin Rouge!’s translucent surrender to an absinthe-binge caught Hollywood by surprise as this experimental pop music collage turned out to be one of the surprise hits of 2001. The once deader-than-disco musical genre was again attracting a relatively large audience in live-action, a feat which was enabled by Baz Luhrmann’s canny choice to utilize most of the great Top 40 love songs from the previous 35 years. It certainly milks your familiarity with every artist from Sting and the Police to Madonna and the Beatles, but the brilliance of this masterwork extends beyond its surface level jukebox thrills.
Moulin Rouge! benefits tremendously from Luhrmann at the height of his craft and the peak of his “Red Curtain Trilogy.” Indulging in excess from production design to lavish costumes, Luhrmann’s incredibly anachronistic effort turns the cynicism of “MTV editing” into an art form by seeking to manipulate viewers into reaching a frenzied frustration and sensory overload during the first 20 minutes. In that time, the movie bounces from David Bowie to Julie Andrews, and then even Nirvana. Afterward, the filmmakers slowly strip away the decadence, layer by layer, until most viewers are involved in an operatic love story between the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and her penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) as they’re engulfed by sparse shadows.
A grandiose epic that gleefully blends 19th century melodrama and late 20th century music/popular filmmaking styles, including allusions to Bollywood, the movie is an acid trip in which the filmmakers are evidently high on their own supply. But it’s also infectious to most audiences who cannot deny the heightened tragedy or masterful juxtaposition of elevated “art” and populist commercialism. With no other film really like it, Moulin Rouge! more than walks a tightrope above potential disaster: it does cartwheels across it.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The most drastically reimagined Broadway adaptation in recent memory—or perhaps ever—Sweeney Todd’s bold liberties are also why it’s the best one in this century. Notably celebrated by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who enthusiastically approved Tim Burton’s transformation of his baroque dark comedy-drama into purely nihilistic horror-tragedy, Sweeney Todd is an ingenious work that Burton contemplated for decades. That’s also probably why it’s his last great film too. Leaning into the horrific conceit of a musical that is about a vengeful barber murdering any loner who steps into his shop, and letting the landlady downstairs, Mrs. Lovett, bake them into meat pies, the film version of Sweeney Todd more closely resembles 1930s Universal horror movies or ’40s Val Lewton chillers than it does traditional stagecraft.
Desaturated to the point of nigh black and white, the film is only punctuated by a gluttonous portion of red when Sweeney slices open throats. Minus the crimson gushes and nearly wall-to-wall singing, there is no reason that this iteration of Sweeney Todd couldn’t have been a star vehicle for Boris Karloff or Peter Lorre 70 years prior. As it is, the film becomes a highlight for Johnny Depp who, then at the peak of popularity, turns in an introverted and minimalist performance that nonetheless exudes rock star charisma. Featuring a flash of white hair in tribute to Bride of Frankenstein, this is the most gruesome creation the actor or Burton have ever made, taking back Sweeney’s agency from Mrs. Lovett. Meanwhile, the stage’s entrepreneurial ham becomes an unrequited waif as portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter. This change makes the fatalistic relationship between herself and Mr. Todd as grim as the red tears shed by Sweeney’s razor—and as strangely beautiful as that very same Grand Guignol artwork too.
The Muppets/Muppets Most Wanted
Obviously a hybrid of actors and puppeteers, the pair of Muppets movies produced by Disney between 2011 and 2014 are some of the most purely joyful family entertainments in recent memory. By creating a new Muppet named Walter (Peter Linz), the movie makes a savvy entry point into the well-worn Mupetting world with an outsider getting the band back together when he and his human brother Gary (Jason Segal) must travel across the country to recruit all of the Muppet favorites for a new stab at a TV show. The film is formulaic and fantastic thanks to director James Bobin and writer Nicholas Stoller’s unbowed optimism, plus a pair of winning performances from Segal and Amy Adams.
Yet, personally, I prefer the underrated sequel Muppets Most Wanted, because while Segal and Adams are gone, the Muppets get to run the show. Human performers like Ty Burrell and Tina Fey take on a much more supporting (and humorous) role to their felt friends, including in songs, but all of the above is enlivened further by an even better book of songs by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame. The tunes and Stoller’s wry sensibility shine through to an even greater degree as they mock the concepts of sequels, Disney’s basic commercialism, and even their audience. It’s that Conchords-esque edge that makes both films, especially the sequel, truly sing, even in the scenes where Kermit isn’t rocking a top hat and tails.
Likely the most glamorous film on this list, Chicago was the toast of Hollywood during its release, winning seven of its 15 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. That comes under more of a cloud today since a lot of those laurels were a product of the Harvey Weinstein awards campaign machine, but left to its own merits Rob Marshall’s film is still a superb musical movie in its own right. As the other movie credited with bringing the musical back for adults after Moulin Rouge!, Chicago is notably a product of that ambiguous time for the genre. Featuring nearly all of its songs as “dream sequences” or fantasies, it walks the edge of this list’s diagetic rule, particularly because the one purely non-diagetic sequence, “Class,” was cut from the final film.
Nevertheless, it is as pure a musical movie as Bob Fosse’s Cabaret masterpiece from 1972, even if Marshall’s effort is a little too coy about trying to have it both ways. It features fantastic Kander and Ebb musical numbers brought to glitzy and seedy life by Marshall’s own new dance choreography, a still wickedly accurate parable about celebrity and infamy being one in the same in American life, and a production design that is elegant to a brassy fault. Also buoyed by a deservedly Oscar winning performance by a hoofin’ Catherine Zeta-Jones and an even more affecting (and often overlooked) pitiful turn by John C. Reilly as the cuckolded husband who no one, including his murderous wife, can remember exists, Chicago is as shiny and chic as the awards it chased.
Yet if we can credit the dream sequences in Chicago as eligible musical extravaganzas, that means John Carney’s Sing Street should also sneak in due to a single similar moment (yes, I admit this is bordering on a cheat). An otherwise traditional coming of age tale about an Irish kid enamored with all ‘80s music—from punk rock to glam and pop—Sing Street isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. Yet it comes from a genuine emotional place for Carney, who depicts the utilitarian desire to form a high school band (to get a girl), and then the dawning awakening to musical creativity that follows, better than perhaps any filmmaker before him.
Sing Street’s focus on an instantly likable pairing of Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and more aptly a meticulous recreation of working class Dublin in the ‘80s, is a clear winner. When accentuated by original songs written by nine talents, including Carney himself, and Sing Street becomes a feel-good frolic down memory lane with one hell of a catchy hook.
As a film that was ahead of the second Disney Renaissance that began a few years later with Tangled, Enchanted is a Disney movie musical/romcom hybrid that is more fun than it probably has any right to be. This is in large part thanks to Amy Adams in her star-making rule. Living up to the title, Adams offers an earnest and sincerely sweet performance as a “Disney princess” that is devoid of self-awareness or any type of cloying irony that later would go on to bedevil many of Disney’s TV princess projects like Once Upon a Time. Enchanted’s premise, which begins with the animated soon-to-be princess Giselle (Adams) and a handsome prince (James Marsden) escaping into a flesh-and-blood New York City, is typical fish-out-of-water comedy that owes more than a little to Ron Howard’s Splash, albeit with a much less compelling male lead in place of Tom Hanks.
Even so, Enchanted has an endearing disposition because of Adams’ natural charm, as well as songs that are more than happy to mock themselves while Adams keeps things straight. Composed by Alan Menken—one-half of the teams behind the music of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and more—the tunes have that 1990s mixture of Broadway and Disney in their DNA, causing this to be one of the more overlooked but beguiling installments in both the movie musical and traditional Disney canons.
The Last Five Years
Perhaps more divisive than most movies on this list, I am in the camp that overall enjoyed this flawed but astute adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical. A major departure from the stage given that the characters of Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) never actually interact except for one duet in the show, this film about a doomed story between lovers certainly makes the piece its own. Jordan is broad but passionate in the role of a quickly successful author while his wife, who he married right out of college, struggles in search of artistic fulfillment. The songs by John Robert Brown are filled with poignant heartache and wistful melancholy—as well as a degree of self-rationalization as the story is infamously inspired, in part, by the creator’s own failed marriage. But the movie most comes alive when Kendrick dominates in her solos, be it in icy new lyrics that mock Russell Crowe’s performance in Les Misérables or in the devastating opening number where she comes home to find her husband has cowardly left her via note, Kendrick’s musicality has never been better utilized onscreen.
After writing the adaptation of one of the biggest musical hits of its decade, Bill Condon decided to follow it up with a writing-directorial effort that likewise saw box office and awards celebration. Here Condon moves from Kander and Ebb’s Chicago to an adaptation of Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s R&B infused and Motown inspired Dreamgirls. The finished film marked Beyoncé and Eddie Murphy’s biggest push yet for Oscar recognition, but now is better remembered for Jennifer Hudson’s soulful evisceration of the camera lens and audiences alike during “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” It’s a rightfully iconic moment in musical cinema that earned Hudson, a former American Idol contestant, instant star status and a deserved Oscar statuette. It’s also the highpoint of an otherwise pretty good movie musical.
Loosely inspired by the story of Motown acts like the Supremes and James Brown, Dreamgirls is a familiar rise-and-fall narrative that has been (melo)dramatized just enough to be an even juicier fiction, as seen when Jamie Foxx’s Curtis banishes Hudson’s Effie from her band, oblivious to the fact she’s carrying his child, all while romancing the more widely (i.e. whitely) appealing Deena Jones (Beyoncé). It’s a high note-rich environment for many songs that still have sting, all of which is presented in near-endless montages that may be too glossy by half, but remain ever so inviting.
Into the Woods
Rob Marshall’s first of what is appearing to be at least a trilogy of musicals for the Mouse House began with this Stephen Sondheim adaptation. Marking the second successful transfer of Sondheim musicality to the big screen, the picture ran into some early skepticism that Disney would downplay the moral ambiguity of his lyrics—and to be fair, Into the Woods does backpedal on some of the grimmest bits. Yet when it still features a wolfish Johnny Depp lusting after a little girl, it’s fair to say that the adaptation was able to find some fair amount of middle ground.
This movie, however, truly belongs to is Meryl Streep. Having previously appeared in several great quasi-musicals like A Prairie Home Companion, and one lousy but uber-successful straightforward one in Mamma Mia!, Streep visibly relished playing the purported wicked witch of the piece. Yet is it so wicked to point out to the film’s many protagonists that they’re not good people when they’re just pretending to act “nice?” With music that mirrors John Walter Bratton and Jimmy Kennedy’s “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” and an all-star cast enjoyably hamming it up, Into the Woods is a lavish production with pretty melodies and deceptively nuanced moral relativity. It is also the movie that brought to the public consciousness that Emily Blunt is a terrific singer. More on that later…
As Broadway increasingly chases safe bets with musical adaptations of already popular movies and preexisting properties, we’re likely to see more of these self-fulfilling feats of mutating IP. Mel Brooks famously turned his own classic comedy at Broadway’s expense, The Producers, into a great Broadway show (and then into a not-so-great musical movie remake), and Hairspray followed the pattern to surprisingly more effective results when its third phase of the triptych was complete. An adaptation of the Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman Broadway show, which was in turn an adaptation of a 1988 non-musical film by John Waters, 2007’s Hairspray is a remarkably effective teen comedy with some catchy earworms.
Set in 1960s Baltimore, the film is the story of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) learning self-acceptance by finding unanticipated success on a local dancing competition for teens. She also becomes an unlikely leader of a civil rights struggle in a white savior subplot that has aged incredibly poorly.
Still, the movie is likely better remembered for John Travolta’s campy and ingratiating turn as Tracy’s mother Edna. Given that he is stepping in for actual drag queen legend Divine from the original movie, there were some understandably raised eyebrows to Travolta’s casting in the LGBTQ community, but in the vacuum of the film, the former Grease star is in his element of cheese and a side of ham. He also plays well off Christopher Walken as Edna’s husband. Along with Michelle Pfeiffer, the older generation leaves very little of the scenery un-chewed for the ostensible stars of the piece, who also include Zac Efron, Brittany Snow, and Amanda Bynes. But it’s all fairly moot when the songs as irresistible as “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” It’s frivolous, but it’s damn fun frivolity.
Mary Poppins Returns
Ultimately less of a full-fledged sequel than it is a loose remake of the 1964 classic starring Julie Andrews, there isn’t too much original about this Mary. But hey, it worked for The Force Awakens, and it works here too. The biggest compliment we can give is that Emily Blunt does the seeming impossible and is able to step into Julie Andrews’ shoes with a slightly less impressive voice, but an equally disarming disposition. Her Mary is both vainer and friendlier than Andrews’, and she makes the screen her own, especially when in song—and even more so when that song is a duet with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack. The two are like a Vaudeville act onscreen, including during an actual Vaudevillian ditty, bringing a buoyancy that is so effervescent it’s impossible to not grin, even if your brain notes you’ve seen all of these story beats before, and with much better songs last time, at that.
The musical with one of the finest moments of its genre ever put on celluloid (alas, poor Fantine, we barely knew thee!) and some of the worst (oh, Javert, we know your singing too well!), Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables is definitely a mixed bag. Having the unenviable task of adapting a sprawling musical theater epic, which in turn is based on an even more sprawling and longwinded Victor Hugo novel, Hooper makes a Herculean effort of marrying the grit of that text with the grandeur of one of the richest songbooks in history.
And to be sure, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music still soars, particularly when Hooper’s stilted camerawork can get out of its way. The movie is thus a worthwhile investment because of the sweep of those melodies and Hugo’s own sordid tale about an ex-con named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) being pursued for decades by the law, embodied here by the absolutist Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Jackman is good as the noble and persecuted inmate who saw the light in unforgiving, post-Napoleonic France, and Crowe cuts a dashing figure as Javert when he isn’t singing… unfortunately for him, the film is nearly wall-to-wall singing. Its bigger problem, however, is that for all the verisimilitude Hooper impressively adds by insisting on “live-singing,” his direction often undercuts the momentous quality of the music and emotion, most notably during a diluted rendition of “One Day More,” the otherwise showstopper of the stage.
But his ace in the hole is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Whereas other long, uninterrupted close-ups can feel, well, stagey, Fantine’s big solo number—shrewdly moved to the lowest moment in her brief life after she’s sold her hair, teeth, and finally her body to find money for her child—is a tour de force of soul-crushing misery and defeat. Singing live, and with a camera practically touching her eyeball, Hathaway earns her Oscar by bringing any halfway open-minded viewer to tears. She also elevates one of this era’s many uneven Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers into something raw and special.
The Greatest Showman
To be honest, I am not a fan of this film, as I attest in my review. It’s saccharine, manipulative, and too distracted by vigorously waving its Woke flag to pursue any meaningful conflict. However, there are others on our site who are convinced of its charms, and it most definitely deserves recognition as it connected with a huge audience—bigger domestically than any other film on this list at the tune of $174 million. Its screenplay might brag that that’s because it is a celebration of humanity, but I suspect it might have to do with its simplistic (but well-meaning) take on inclusivity and some really slick Top 40-ready melodies.
With songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, the team behind Dear Evan Hansen, every verse feels engineered to be an anthem from the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or in the most soulful piece of the film (“Never Enough”), maybe Adele. And to be honest, the songs are better than much of the mainstream pop it emulates, and so is Hugh Jackman as a winning MC. His natural charm and charisma hold a story built on cliché and cardboard together, and the inescapably mesmerizing songs, as well as some spectacular dance choreography, have made this into a cultural touchstone for the next generation. It ain’t as inspired or visionary as the similarly anachronistic Moulin Rouge!—and it so wants to be—but it is a big musical hit not based on a preexisting Broadway show or a catalogue of beloved chart-toppers. It’s the final proof that the musical is back, and you don’t need IP or Oscar buzz to compete. That’s worthy of a tip of the hat off the ol’ elephant.
So there are the best musicals of the 21st century (so far). Did we miss any? Are there perhaps some phantom threads we’ve ignored, or some space up there left unrented? Let us know in the comment section below!