This story originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
The world has gone gaga for La La Land and it’s not difficult to see why. We love a good musical number. Sometimes there’s nothing more uplifting than a catchy tune with some fun choreography and other times music is the best, if only, way to depict a character’s despair, fear or hope. Music taps into something very primal in us all and can often extract laughter and tears easier than two hours’ worth of dialogue.
Numerous classic musicals have graced the big screen since cinema began (including our 10 favorite classic movie musicals), but the 21st century alone has seen some fantastic songs in film. Some considered “musical films” and others “films with music,” here are my top picks for this century’s best on-screen musical sequences.
School Of Rock (2003): The Legend Of The Rent (You’re Not Hardcore)
Jack Black is at his finest in Richard Linklater’s School Of Rock. Masquerading as his friend, substitute teacher Ned Schneebly, Dewey Finn takes over a class’ entire curriculum with lessons in rock n’ roll in an attempt to form a band fit to compete against his old outfit. In this early sequence, “Mr. Schneebly” introduces the young students to a song he has been working on that not-so-subtly alludes to his financial problems and his anger towards his former band No Vacancy for kicking him to the curb.
Dewey manages to conjure the image of an entire stage performance from the bland environs of a private school classroom. It is mesmerising to watch; clearly Linklater just set up the camera and let Jack Black go mad and the results are fantastic. The character – and let’s be honest, the actor – is clearly passionate about rock music and we can but watch on with awe and amusement as he pieces together the different sections of the band. Fans like myself will undoubtedly be word-perfect on his spiel, too, which just enhances the fun. “Chimes… Freddy.”
Enchanted (2007): That’s How You Know
Kevin Lima’s musical comprises live action and animation to tell the story of Giselle, a Disney princess thrown from her idyllic cartoon kingdom Andalasia and into real, present-day New York City. The film is like a warm fuzzy hug with all of the humor that comes from a self-parody and the not-so-new formula of having a wide-eyed believer come face to face with a cynical New Yorker.
In this bright and beautifully choreographed musical number in Central Park, Amy Adams’ Giselle tries to explain the importance of letting a woman know you love her through song. Patrick Dempsey’s Robert, suitably mortified, is incredulous that every passer-by knows the song too. Not only that but, in true musical fashion, all of the strangers know the choreography in full and are brightly dressed in appropriate costume. Lucky, huh? It doesn’t get more toe-tappingly heart-warming than this.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007): Finale
This Tim Burton adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical is a gloriously dark and gothic gore-fest. Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, the former barber who has returned to London to wreak his revenge on the man who falsely convicted and transported him from his home, his wife and baby daughter. Setting up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop, Barker assumes the alias “Sweeney Todd” and practices his revenge on customers by slitting their throats and having their meat ground for the pies on sale below.
*Do not read on if you want to avoid Sweeney Todd spoilers*.
Sondheim is little short of a musical genius. With so many tremendous songs to choose from, the finale seems appropriate as it revisits several previous musical themes with some heart-breaking lyrics. The score is irresistibly eerie in the build-up to the heart wrenching discovery that Todd’s wife, whom he presumed dead, was the latest victim of his murderous spree. The dance that ensues between Todd and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) is frenzied and, frankly, terrifying and his hurling her into the fire utterly horrifying. The music continues in the sudden quiet of the cellar and Sweeney Todd has his throat slit by young Toby over the body of his dead wife in a perfectly tragic tableau.
High School Musical 2 (2007): Bet On It
The second instalment of Kenny Ortega’s High School Musical series takes places during the summer vacation at the Evans’ family country club, Lava Springs. With the cost of college on Troy’s mind, he looks for a job and has it handed to him on a silver platter by Sharpay, who has her own romantic agenda. With his relationship with Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) falling apart and an upcoming talent show in ruins, Troy decides to take action.
Not only is the song unbelievably catchy, it is immensely cheesy in the best possible way. Zac Efron’s Troy epitomises the angsty performing arts student in this sequence that is full of wistful looks, air punches, and dramatic leg and arm movements set amongst the rolling fairway of a golf course. What more could you want? The moment when he sings to his reflection and splashes the water has become iconic in itself and there’s nothing wrong with some self-belief through song. You’d be hard pushed to find a more entertaining musical number, bet on it.
500 Days Of Summer (2009): The Post-Sex Dance
The film where many found their lasting love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marc Webb’s anti-romance follows Tom Hansen, a love-sick writer of greeting cards whose 500-day long relationship-of-sorts with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) is shown through highlights of the highs and lows. In this dance sequence, Tom heads to work to the unfailingly feel-good melody of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True.”
Tom has been hopelessly falling for Summer and finally something has happened; today is going to be a good day. The music kicks in as he walks towards the naked Summer and cuts to his journey to work on the following gloriously sunny morning. Once again, it’s one of those occasions where everyone on the street knows the choreography. Tom checks himself out in a car window and Harrison Ford winks back, the fountains come to life as he strolls by and a lovable cartoon bird even lands on his shoulder as the brass band march past. The joy is infectious but to make this scene more in keeping with the film’s philosophy, a dose of cold hard reality crashes through the idyllic scene at the end; a fantastic transition from a fantastic sequence.
Les Misérables (2013): Empty Chairs At Empty Tables
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables showcases some exquisite performances of Alain Boublil and Claud-Michel Schönberg’s original songs. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the musical centers on the failed student rebellion of 1832 and depicts the desperate lives of its characters living in Paris at a time of political and social turmoil. In this sequence, Eddie Redmayne’s Marius Pontmercy awakens after his fellow student rebels have all been slaughtered at the barricade they built together.
Eddie Redmayne’s performance is as beautiful as it is painful. Beginning the famous song a cappella, the grief of the character is present in every breath and every nuance of his expression. With the camera trained in an extreme close-up of his face, we see a man consumed with guilt and beyond consolation.
As the camera cuts back to a mid-shot we are offered a view of a building that used to be a hub of excitement and the absence is choking. Marius bears his soul in this incredible solo and as the orchestra surges and he sings “oh my friends… my friends don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for” you will likely be in tears also.
*Editor’s Note: But arguably the best scene in the film is when the same stripped down, extreme closeup photography was used to even more haunting effect in Fantine’s lament, “I Dreamed a Dream.” It was such a raw moment for Anne Hathaway, that the single moment propelled her to an Oscar win.
Frozen (2013): Let It Go
Disney had a runaway hit on its hands for a reason; Frozen is a beautifully rendered, warm-hearted princess story with a strong plot, brilliant songs and a winning message. We’ve heard Idina Menzel in all of her glory in another story of courage and sisterly love, the West-End smash Wicked, and her power-house voice delivers the same chills down the spine in Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s film.
Elsa’s ability to create and manipulate ice had endangered her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) as a child and so, afraid of what she is capable of, Elsa distances herself from the people of her soon-to-be kingdom Arendelle. When she loses control of her powers in front of her people at her coronation, she flees for the North Mountain. The setting of the mountain is one of isolation and freedom for Elsa and her song is one of empowerment, accepting one’s weaknesses and turning them into strengths. The creation of the ice castle is a visual treat and Menzel’s voice as astounding as always. It became an over-played ear-worm of a song following the film’s success but I would urge you to watch it again in its original context; accompanied by the truly breath-taking computer animation.
Hail, Caesar! (2016): No Dames
This Coen Brothers comedy film set in 1950s Hollywood centers on Capitol Pictures, a studio filming a big production named Hail, Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ featuring George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock as the impressively bad leading man. Amongst a series of hilarious on-set blunders and with the help of numerous famous cameos, Hail, Caesar! makes a lot of in-jokes and jabs at the Hollywood studio system whilst revelling in all of its campness and scandal.
Enter Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, star of a sailor musical that is as camp as it gets. Showing off his dancing prowess to the full, Tatum taps and table-top dances Gene Kelly-style with a chorus of identically dressed sailors wearing their caps at a jaunty angle.
The choreography is pitch-perfect and very impressive, with table clothes being pulled from beneath dancers and beer bottles being removed from the path of dancing in the nick of time. The real highlight, however, are the limited but hilarious lyrics to this gem of a song. As the sailors romp about in a gloriously homoerotic manner, they lament their 8 months at sea without any dames, “No dames… we might see some octopuses… no dames… or a half a dozen clams…”
Moana (2016): How Far I’ll Go
Disney’s latest animated hit from Ron Clements and John Musker follows the story of young Moana, the chief’s daughter who lives on the small Polynesian island of Motunui. Advised to stay on the island for her safety, Moana realizes she must disobey her father and set sail beyond the reef when food on the island becomes scarce. Moana’s song comes before she leaves the island and she sings in anticipation of what she might find out on the big, wide ocean.
Auli’i Cravalho’s beautiful voice carries this inspiring sequence as the young Moana wrestles between her duty and who she believes she truly is. The song is a love song to the ocean, to adventure, and to finding one’s purpose. There are number of refrains throughout the film in which the song is used by Moana to drive her forward in her quest. Not only is the song catchy with an empowering message, but it is also used by the central character to transform fear and grief into strength and there will be very few dry eyes when “How Far I’ll Go“ is repeated as Moana makes a quiet farewell to her home before embarking on her adventure.
Sing Street (2016): Drive It Like You Stole It
It’s 1985 Dublin and teenager Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is moved by his parents from a fee-paying school to a Catholic state school when the family begin to struggle financially. Conor is thrown into a world of rough bullies, strict religious figureheads and, to top it off, no friends. That is until he meets a beautiful girl called Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who stands outside the school gates and, in an attempt to impress her, he decides he must form a band.
John Carney’s film is full of fantastic music and accompanying outfits as Conor’s band Sing Street experiment with their musical influences. In this number, Conor’s vision for his American prom-themed music video is not coming together; the few extras he’s been able to get hold of cannot dance to save their lives, the set still looks very much like a school hall in Ireland and his love interest Raphina has failed to turn up. However, as the band begin to play their song, Conor’s imagination takes over.
Raphina walks through the door in a 1950s-style dress and into a vibrantly decorated American school hall under the large twinkly banner “Senior Prom.” His band play before a packed dance-floor and among the guests he sees his family, united and happy, and his brother saving the day as a cool jock-type. Everything he wishes for his life plays out before him in a glitzy fantasy until the song comes to a close and he is brought back to reality. It’s beautifully idealistic and the song is as fun as it is touching.
*Second Editor’s Note: Also HIGHLY worth mentioning (and your time) are “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the “Tango Roxanne” scene in Moulin Rouge, “The Cell Block Tango” in Chicago, and “Someone in the Crowd” in La La Land.