The Best Movie Ever: Musicals


They said the movie musical was dead. They’ve said that about of lots of things. We desperately need to stop listening to “they,” because if Hollywood did, we might never have seen the release of this weekend’s The Last Five Years, an exceptional romance that is easily the best Valentine’s Day movie of 2015.

But speaking of musicals, we started wondering: what’s the best movie musical ever? There was only one solution, to force CraveOnline’s film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – about the task of picking just one movie a piece that, to them, represents the pinnacle of the genre. The films they chose range from the classic to the obscure to the very, very French.

What’s your favorite movie musical? Let us know in the comments, and come back next week for another installment of CraveOnline’s The Best Movie Ever!


Related: ‘The Last Five Years’ Director Richard LaGravenese Guest Stars on The B-Movies Podcast


Witney Seibold’s Pick: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

This one is easy: The Wizard of Oz. Victor Fleming’s (and King Vidor’s and George Cukor’s and Norman Tourog’s and Mervyn LeRoy’s) 1939 classic is not only one of the best of all movie musicals, but perhaps one of the best of all movies. In terms of American cinematic theatricality, of studio glamor, of Golden Age magic, of sheet iconography, The Wizard of Oz looms larger than most feature films. It’s hard to talk about without sounding contrived, so familiar is Oz in the public consciousness. In this critic’s mind, no film has surpassed The Wizard of Oz in terms of cinematic wonderment. 

Consider “Over the Rainbow,” one of the sweetest and most optimistic ballads ever recorded. And, better yet, we have Judy Garland’s surprisingly womanly voice to lilt us off, way above the chimneytops. Consider the “If I Only Had a…” triptych, which are sweet songs of simple longing, but also catchy little ditties that feel strangely eternal. Consider “If I Were King of the Forest,” a truly surreal operatic declaration of power. No other song has been sung quite the way that Burt Lahr growls it. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “Optimistic Voices,” and “The Merry Old Land of Oz.” These are all catchy, hummable, dear songs from a legitimate titan of the movie world. There is no way I can pick any other film as the best musical of all time. 

Although I came close to A Hard Day’s Night.


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Brian Formo’s Pick: The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)

Not your standard break-out-into-a-song-and-dance musical, The Girl Can’t Help It is a different type of musical: one that recognizes that there’s a new sound. The Girl Can’t Help It is a sudsy comedy from Frank Tashlin, a director who began his career with Looney Tunes animations. And, delightfully, it shows. 

In one of the best openings ever, leading man Tom Ewell introduces the movie by announcing that it is in Cinemascope. He pushes the screen from black and white (and inside a square box), to a wide frame with bars below; bright pop colors light up a soundstage full of classical instruments. Those floating instruments will soon be brushed aside as well. Because, although Ewell tells us that the movie we’re about to watch is about “music,” what it’s really about is sex appeal. Sex via the blonde bombshell (Jayne Mansfield) that makes milk bottles explode in a ejaculating excitement merely by sashaying down the street (adult Looney Tunes!). But more importantly, sex via rock ‘n roll. That teenage rebellion that exploded the underground led — in this film — by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and Eddie Cochran.
The Girl Can’t Help It is lightning in a bottle. It’s a culture shift. It takes a standard 40s screwball plot: a gambling gangster (Edmund O’Brien) hires a publicist (Ewell) to make his bosomy girlfriend (Mansfield) a pop star and throws modern curves (and curveballs) at it. You see, jukeboxes aren’t much different than slot machines: it’s the teenage vice, and you gotta hook ’em on slot addiction at a young age. The gangster pens a jailhouse rock song (previous to Elvis’ own jailhouse rock song) for his lady, and as it begins to get popular, his rivals want him assassinated. 
The flick is super fun, but don’t confuse it for cheeseball — it’s pop! The ultimate cheese! The Girl Can’t Help It skates by with numerous sexual visual metaphors and swingin’ live performances by the aforementioned performers. And it actually inspired future performances by Presely and The Beatles (Paul McCartney played Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” with the same mannerisms that Cochran did in this film, in an audition to get hired by John Lennon). The Girl Can’t Help It is both formative for rock and roll, and subversively fun. Skip Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, andWest Side Story and go start a band and get laid. 


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William Bibbiani’s Pick: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I know I’m supposed to pick The Wizard of Oz (I like it just fine) or Singin’ in the Rain (which I love, except for the extended dance sequence that has nothing to do with anything), but for me the best movie musical ever made is one that is a little bit more of an opera than a proper song and dance showcase. It’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a lovely and haunting romance with perhaps the most unforgettable melodies in the history of the genre… if only because it’s repeated over and over again.

But it never gets old, because the lilting tunes of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg manage to express joy and sadness, innocence and hard-earned wisdom in equal measure. Jacques Demy directed this heart aching concoction, about young lovers who are separated when Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is shipped off to war. Meanwhile, Genevieve (Catherine DeNeuve) toils away at her mother’s umbrella shop, pregnant and reaching a breaking point where she must at least consider a marriage proposal from a suitor who is perfectly decent… but no Guy.

Most musicals seem to take place in a world of heightened emotion. But in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the love story is almost unbearably realistic, filled with hopes and compromises, little tragedies and minor victories at best. And yet, thanks to the enchanting score (written by Michel LeGrand), and colorful production design by Bernard Evein, this film manages to carefully walk the line between two worlds. The grand and the pitiful, the romantic and the sorrowful. Bring your hanky. And get ready to hum that love theme for the rest of your life.



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