In 1927, the first musical movie was made: The Jazz Singer, one of the most important classic movies to shape Hollywood. Since then, we've seen many memorable musicals invade the film industry.
Musicals are truly underrated by society. They serve as a way to lift our spirits and tell stories in a deeply human way through song and dance. They're fun to watch, they're great as escapes from reality, and they require lots of talent to pull off.
As we inch closer to the 100th anniversary of the first-ever movie musical, let's look back at the best of the best. Here are my picks for the greatest musical movies ever made!
20. Tick, Tick... Boom! (2021)
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus
Biography, Comedy, Drama (2h)
Every artist knows that feeling of racing the clock, running out of time, trying to juggle creativity with earning enough money to survive and make ends meet.
Jonathan Larson was the picture of this stereotype in the early 1990s, dashing between his job at a diner and his passion project Superbia, all while promising himself that he'd be famous by 30.
In this film, that big milestone is just over a week away, but Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) still hasn't got his musical up on the stage. Describing it like the ticking noise of a bomb in his brain, Larson desperately takes a crowbar to the door of the theater industry.
Tick, Tick... Boom! is the name of Larson's eventual stage musical, which is semi-autobiographical of his early career days. Andrew Garfield gets his campy musical socks on as the theater legend in the midst of the AIDS crisis, singing his way into our hearts.
19. Hairspray (2007)
Directed by Adam Shankman
Starring John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky
Comedy, Drama, Musical (1h 57m)
The version of Hairspray from 2007 features the great talents of Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes, Elijah Kelley, and Nikki Blonsky.
The story follows Tracy Turnblad (played by Nikki Blonsky), who auditions for The Corny Collins Show, a white-washed teen dance show that only accepts skinny, white dancers.
Tracy stands against both of these things in 1960s Baltimore, where the Civil Rights Movement is given a poppy musical polish but still carries an important message at heart.
18. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo
Drama, Musical, Romance (2h 7m)
Released in 2001, Moulin Rouge! is one of the most famous musicals in modern history. It stars Nicole Kidman as Satine and Ewan McGregor as Christian, who fall into a doomed love affair.
Satine is a courtesan who must charm a duke to get him to fund their show. Christian is just a poor writer who can't give Satine what she (thinks) she wants (i.e., to be a famous actress).
The final installment of Baz Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy, you can expect all the glamour and tragedy found in his other grand movies like Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, and Elvis.
17. A Star Is Born (2018)
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott
Drama, Music, Romance (2h 16m)
No one can deny that Lady Gaga has a great set of pipes, but she's always been more of a performer than a singer. A Star Is Born strips it all back to reveal the raw essence of Gaga's talent as she plays the Los Angeles waitress Ally in her most famous acting role.
She's been in the backdrops of The Sopranos and Men in Black, and she even made the poster for American Horror Story: Hotel. But in A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga proves herself a jack-of-all-trades as she takes on the role previously held by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.
Bradley Cooper directs and co-stars with Lady Gaga as the alcoholic country singer who makes Ally famous. A Star Is Born is more heartbreaking than toe-tapping, but it's still an excellent musical remake for today's generation of moviegoers.
16. White Christmas (1954)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney
Comedy, Musical, Romance (2h)
White Christmas has all the components of a classic musical film, including the top-dog singers of the day: Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. The 1954 classic continues to be a staple for many families during the Christmas season, and for good reason!
White Christmas follows war veterans Bob (played by Bing Crosby) and Phil (played by Danny Kaye) as they find success in show business.
Along with them, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney star as the singing sisters they meet along the way, and all of them come together to boost the sales of a Vermont hotel that's on the verge of bankruptcy.
15. Mary Poppins (1964)
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson
Comedy, Fantasy, Musical (2h 19m)
Mary Poppins is another shining example of an impressive musical put to film, even if author P. L. Travers initially refused a movie adaptation (which you can learn more about in the biopic Saving Mr. Banks).
Mr. Banks (played by David Tomlinson), who's based on Travers's real-life alcoholic father, who passed away when she was only seven years old—needs saving because he's stressed to the eyeballs with work and misbehaving kids.
Luckily for him, a strict-but-fair, magical English nanny (played by Julie Andrews) comes to save the day.
With the talents of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, Mary Poppins is a mixed-media classic that's packed with amazing songs, humor, energy, and tap dancing cartoon animals.
14. My Fair Lady (1964)
Directed by George Cukor
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway
Drama, Family, Musical (2h 50m)
What's the only thing more iconic than the bold, monochromatic outfit that Eliza Doolittle wears to the races? The actress who wears it, of course! I'm talking about the legendary Audrey Hepburn.
In My Fair Lady, Hepburn plays the poor Cockney flower seller Eliza in one of her many musical roles, who's trained by a phonetics professor to play the part of a socialite.
Originally a stage play called Pygmalion before it was turned into a stage musical by Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady is emblematic of British cinema and culture, taking place in the staunchly class-divided city of Edwardian London.
Alongside Hepburn, there's also Rex Harrison who stars as Professor Henry Higgins (in both the stage and movie versions) and managed to win Best Actor in the sea of My Fair Lady's Oscar victories.
13. Chicago (2002)
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere
Comedy, Crime, Musical (1h 53m)
Although it's been almost 20 years since it was released, Chicago is remembered for ushering in a small resurgence of the musical movie. The film revolves around two death-row murderesses who compete for publicity and a chance at release and stardom.
Chicago not only showed us the vocal talents of both Catherine Zeta-Jones (who plays Velma Kelly) and Renée Zellweger (who plays Roxie Hart), but also gave us Richard Gere singing and dancing for once (despite playing a seedy lawyer). It's all a lot of fun!
Chicago takes the stage from the original 1975 musical and drops it into the film diegesis as characters dance in the spotlight of a 1920s nightclub. It's the perfect period musical for any man-hater or jazz-lover!
12. Oliver! (1968)
Directed by Carol Reed
Starring Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis
Drama, Family, Musical (2h 33m)
There's something about the grit and grain of 1960s film stock that suits the story of Oliver Twist, the Charles Dickens novel that condemns the treatment of the poor in mid-19th century London.
Workhouses and violent murderers aren't the usual makeup of a flash mob musical, but Carol Reed really made it work. In fact, he didn't just make it work! Because Oliver! was so beloved that it became just as famous as Dickens's original Bildungsroman.
The Oscar-sweeping period musical is near-epic in scope and length as it follows a young boy's transition from workhouse to apprentice to pickpocket to robber to adopted son.
11. An American in Paris (1951)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Drama, Musical, Romance (1h 54m)
Second only to his performance in Singin' in the Rain, Gene Kelly puts in an incredible showing in An American in Paris.
Here he stars as a struggling artist in Paris, who soon finds himself caught in the middle of a love triangle between his sponsor (played by the wonderful Nina Foch) and the fiancée of his new friend (played by Leslie Caron in her debut).
This 1951 Best Picture-winning film also took home Oscars for Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Music.
Packed with fun and impressive musical numbers, An American in Paris is sure to delight any musical fan. It's a true feast for the eyes, inspired by the symphonic (orchestral) poem by George Gershwin.
10. Mamma Mia! (2008)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Comedy, Musical, Romance (1h 48m)
Unlike Oliver! and A Star Is Born and other musicals that lean heavy on the drama, Mamma Mia! doesn't have a single depressing note beneath its merry musical exterior. Instead, it's set on a luxurious Greek island where Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried) is engaged to be married.
The closest thing these characters have to tragedy is trying to pay the hotel bills and figuring out who Sophie's father is. To do this, Sophie invites three of her mom's former lovers to her upcoming wedding.
Sophie's mom (played by Meryl Streep) is thrown into her past as the three men (played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård) re-enter her life in this ABBA homage.
9. Les Misérables (2012)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Drama, Musical, Romance (2h 38m)
Not to be confused with the 2019 crime thriller by Ladj Ly, Tom Hooper's epic adaptation of Les Misérables is just as dreary as it sounds (with a title that literally translates to "The Miserable Ones").
The infamous West End play and master novel by Victor Hugo meant a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable for Les Misérables.
Not only does Les Misérables capture the mood and texture of 19th century France, it also boasts A-listers like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen!
Most people assume it's about the French Revolution, but it's actually about the June Rebellion that took place 43 years after citizens stormed the Bastille prison. Same vibes, though.
8. West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Starring Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer
Crime, Drama, Musical (2h 33m)
A take on Romeo and Juliet minus all the Shakespeare jargon, West Side Story is about two rival gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City, 1957. Maria and Tony (played by Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) are caught in the middle of it all, madly in love but loyal to their sides.
Beymer's performance is the only downside to this critically acclaimed drama that kicked the 1960s off to a cracking start. Thankfully, the clean direction, taut screenplay, relatable themes, and cinematic execution make up for his lackluster acting.
West Side Story is a 10-time Oscar-winning romance musical that's so close to perfect that even Steven Spielberg couldn't improve on it when he attempted a remake in 2021.
7. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger
Adventure, Family, Fantasy (1h 42m)
The Wizard of Oz launched a young Judy Garland to fame after capturing so many of our hearts when we were kids (even if the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys may have terrified us).
The technological feat of cinema follows Dorothy Gale as she ventures through the magical land of Oz in pursuit of a way to get back home. The songs are fun, catchy, and moving, and the nostalgia is even stronger thanks to its bookended use of sepia.
Despite the numerous accidents and mishaps that occurred during production—including toxic makeup, fires, and explosive directors—the film is still a masterpiece and a joy to watch.
6. Grease (1978)
Directed by Randal Kleiser
Starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing
Comedy, Musical, Romance (1h 50m)
While John Travolta had a handful of movie roles before this one, Grease was truly his big break in Hollywood. It was, after all, the highest-grossing film of 1978 for crying out loud!
Grease centers on a summer fling between Danny (played by John Travolta) and Sandy (played by Olivia Newton-John). Unfortunately, this fling becomes somewhat complicated when they find themselves at the same high school but in different cliques.
Not many musical films were made in the 1970s—apart from a handful of weird ones like Hair, Phantom of the Paradise, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—so Grease was practically the only "normal" and mainstream musical film, likely adding to its popularity.
5. The Sound of Music (1965)
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
Biography, Musical, Romance (2h 52m)
There's no doubt that 1965's The Sound of Music is one of the best musical movies ever made. It's also pretty long, so get some snacks ready to crunch through the loud singing parts!
Julie Andrews stars as the nun-to-be Maria, who's thrown into a new world when she's asked to be a governess to seven children. Not only does she grow to love them, but she also falls in love with their father (played by Christopher Plummer).
Watching the chemistry of these two as they fall in love, combined with the iconic songs, is what makes this a magnificent musical film for the ages. But it's not all sunshine and green meadows because the second half is interrupted by Nazi invasions.
4. High Society (1956)
Directed by Charles Walters
Starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra
Comedy, Musical, Romance (1h 51m)
High Society is a 1956 musical adaptation of the classic film The Philadelphia Story. This time around, it features musical heavyweights Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong.
Add in Grace Kelly and Celeste Holm and you can see why High Society is a pure delight to watch. (It was also Grace Kelly's last film before she retired and married the Prince of Monaco, making it even more special.)
The plot centers on the impending wedding of Tracy Lord (played by Grace Kelly), whose ex-husband is still in love with her. A charming writer and some blackmail later, things get even more complicated.
3. La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Comedy, Drama, Music (2h 8m)
Musicals aren't for everyone because it's more of a love-it-or-hate it genre. But La La Land? This is one of the few musical films that will please most audiences.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone bring back their dazzling chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love for this dazzling musical by Damien Chazelle.
It's subtle, funny, clever, and gorgeously filmed, with likable protagonists and lovely songs that are more melodic than annoyingly catchy, more somber jazz piano than poppy advertisement jingle.
La La Land is a hopeless romantic in movie form, inspiring us to chase our dreams without all the clichéd speeches. I could talk for days about the color palette and the red herring finale, but I won't. Suffice it to say, it deserves all the award wins and nominations it got.
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Directed by Jim Sharman
Starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
Comedy, Horror, Musical (1h 40m)
You can't have a list of musical movies without including Tim Curry and his fantastic performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show where he plays the trans alien scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
His songs and attitude are enchanting to watch, and most women are impressed by how easily he runs in high heels.
Brimming with sexual innuendoes, strange creatures, and Gothic imagery, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an emblem of the 1970s, the decade that was populated by glam rock, punk, and New Romantics.
Beginning life as a stage production that's still popular to this day, Jim Sharman does Richard O'Brien's comedy-horror justice with this film adaptation. Not just an ode to B-movie sci-fi, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is also central to the LGBTQ+ community.
1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Comedy, Musical, Romance (1h 43m)
More than 70 years after it first came out, Singin' in the Rain is still widely considered to be the best musical film of all time.
It expertly combines a love story with comedy, with the trio of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds at its core. The extremely talented cast, who bring unparalleled precision to their dance numbers, are what make this a musical without equal.
The plot revolves around a team of actors in the 1920s who must adapt to the new era of "talkies" (i.e., films with sound).
You've probably seen the scene—or at least know about it—where Gene Kelly swings around a lamppost in the rain. But if you haven't seen the rest of the film yet, you really should!