The Top Musical Movies of All Time

Musical films used to be one of the most popular movie genres, especially during Hollywood’s “golden age.”

However, the genre experienced a lull from the 1970s through the 1980s as the film culture and changing demographics of moviegoers put greater emphasis on gritty realism, while traditional musical films were seen as old-fashioned. Nevertheless, musicals such as Cabaret and Grease, both released during the 1970s, became box-office successes, indicating that traditional musicals were not yet on the way out. And it would not be.

Nothing can match the glory of the musical films from the yesteryears, from the West Side Story to The Sound of Music. But contemporary musicals have become broader, more non-traditional, and more experimental since the genre was revived in the 21st century. They have been rejuvenated as dark musicals, musical biopics, comedy-drama musicals, or epic drama musicals.

Many musicals have been adapted from stage shows, some are original productions, while others are loosely based on literary works, including musicals from Disney animated musical films that enjoyed strong critical and commercial successes.

Musicals are films that people love or love to hate, but Hollywood can’t get enough of them. Here are the top musicals that have sung their way into the hearts of the moviegoers:

The Sound of Music (1965)

the sound of music

The Sound of Music is a film adaptation of a stage musical of the same name, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. In one of the best-loved musicals to date, Andrews plays a governess who wins the hearts of the von Trapp family in Nazi-era Austria. It contains some of the most iconic and memorable musical numbers of all time, including “Do Re Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and the title song.

La La Land (2016)

la la land

A true homage to Hollywood and the musical film’s genre, La La Land follows the romance of jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and their personal dreams in golden-age Los Angeles. La La Land is a stunning and wonderful movie that will leave you virtually breathless – particularly at the fantastic soundtrack and profound ending.

Grease (1978)

grease

Grease is a film adaptation of the 1971 musical of the same name, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Set in the late 1950s California, it follows the lives of greaser Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Aussie transfer student Sandy Olsson (Newton-John), who develop an attraction for each other. It boasts a legendary cast and lots of karaoke classics, such as “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Grease is one of the most enduringly popular musicals to date – and for plenty of good reasons!

Cabaret (1972)

cabaret

Director Bob Fosse, who was also a professional dancer, helmed and choreographed this magnificent musical film that put actress and singer Liza Minnelli on the map. She plays a cabaret singer in the Weimar Republic who romances a British academic and a German playboy, while the Nazi party rises to power around them. It won a total eight Academy Awards, including Best Director for Fosse and Best Actress for Minnelli. Interestingly, it is one of the few films that won the most Oscars without winning the Best Picture category.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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The 1970s may not be a good decade for musical movies, but it produced some of the most iconic and influential ones. Apart from Grease and Cabaret, there’s also Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It is the first of the handful celluloid adaptations of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story follows the adventures of a poor young boy, Charlie Bucket, who gets the rare chance of visiting a chocolate factory owned by the eccentric Willy Wonka. It is known for its eye-popping sets and, especially, the song “Pure Imagination.”

Another musical film version of Dahl’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), stars Johnny Depp. The movie was a critical and box-office success, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of 2005.

As of this writing, there is a third musical film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the works. The upcoming film, Wonka, is slated for release in 2023 and will star Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka.

West Side Story (1961)

west side story

West Side Story is a film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is undeniably a true classic, featuring impressive choreography, dazzling visuals, stirring performances, and a fantastic score. The film is more than just entertaining, as it also serves up some really powerful moments. It won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, becoming the record holder for the most Oscar wins for a musical.

A new film adaptation of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 2021, sixty years after the original movie was released.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin’ in the rain

Musicals had been a staple, especially in old Hollywood, since the introduction of the “talkies.” Singin’ in the Rain will take you back to that time where the film industry was in that transition. In this musical starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor, a silent film star falls in love with a chorus girl as he and his jealous and delusional screen partner adjust to the difficult transition to talkies in 1920s Hollywood. It was jointly directed and choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. While the film did only modestly in the box office when it was first released, over the years it has been accorded legendary status as one of the most beloved musical films of all time.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

meet me in st louis

Meet Me in St. Louis is not just a fantastic musical film. It’s also a must-see holiday movie. This MGM musical is a star-studded affair directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, and Mary Astor. A film adaptation of a series of stories by Sally Benson, it won the hearts of the American filmgoers when it was first released. 

The movie takes place over the span of the year, starting with the summer leading up to the World’s Fair in December. Despite that, Meet Me in St. Louis has often been associated as a Christmas movie. Most fans of the movie note the Christmas portion as their favorite part of the film. While there are loads of songs in Meet Me in St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has attained popularity on its own since it was first heard in the movie.

Side note: Minnelli and Garland were the parents of Liza Minnelli, the star of Cabaret that is mentioned earlier.

Mary Poppins (1964)

mary poppins

Before The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews previously starred in another musical film, Mary Poppins, which was also her feature big-screen debut. In this Walt Disney film, she plays a magical nanny, charming and captivating filmgoers with flying umbrellas and the reminder that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Andrews. It contains some memorable numbers, such as “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (which also won an Oscar), “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

A 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, stars Emily Blunt in the title role.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

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Set in 19th-century bohemian Paris, Moulin Rouge! follows the secret romance of Christian, a young English poet, and Satine, the star of the popular local cabaret Moulin Rouge. Director and choreographer Baz Luhrmann helmed this vibrant and eclectic musical, featuring popular music from modern artists such as Elton John, Madonna, and Nirvana. One of the songs in the movie soundtrack, “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle, was famously covered by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, and Li’l Kim and became a Top 10 Billboard singles hit.