While some stories simply play out better in front of a live audience, when executed well, the best movie musicals leave you wishing life was a series of song and dance numbers.
Initially, these films were the perfect vehicle to showcase the glamour and romance of mid-20th century old Hollywood, but increasingly modern musicals have become bolder and more subversive, even while still achieving huge mainstream success (like La La Land and Once). And while there are plenty of great original musicals stemming from Broadway, the catalogs of superstar artists like The Beatles, Elton John, and ABBA have been turned into beloved films as well.
And besides the iconic musicals on this list that you can stream now, there are plenty to come, including Steven Spielberg’s eagerly anticipated West Side Story remake, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the Broadway show The Prom which will be out on Netflix this year, and Dear Evan Hansen. The historic success of Hamilton and its film version prove that musicals can still be pop culture phenomenons today.
Whether you’re looking for timeless, family-friendly Broadway hits or something more modern, this list of the best movie musicals will guarantee you get a great tune or two stuck in your head.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
While it’s not an adaptation, the fact that this movie was released in 1939 and people still quote it (and sing the songs) is a testament to how timeless it truly is. It’s basically the definition of classic cinema. Dorothy’s adventure in Oz and the battle against The Wicked Witch of the West is one of those movies that you have to stop and watch whenever it’s on. And we’re sure we’ll feel similarly when the Wicked movie is released.
Grease will always be the word. The story of Sandy and Danny’s attempt to make their summer romance continue into the school year despite high school social politics getting in the way is as popular as ever over 40 years after its release. Sure, the plot has its issues when it comes to the whole “changing yourself for a guy/girl” premise, but those frustrations tend to melt away once songs like “Beauty School Dropout” and “We Go Together” come on.
West Side Story (1961)
How can you improve Shakespeare? Throw in some musical numbers and move the action to 1950s New York City…that’s how. This retelling of Romeo and Juliet about two people associated with rival gangs who fall in love in the midst of a turf war won 10 Oscars (including Best Picture) and now a remake is underway.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
A horror musical comedy is a lot of genres rolled into one film, but it works. It’s the cast (including Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin) that makes this story about a man-eating plant so much fun to watch. Go to any piano bar and request “Suddenly Seymour” and you’ll see everyone’s faces light up.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Julie Andrews as Maria running through the meadow singing “The Hills are Alive” is just one of those movie scenes that will forever be in the pop culture zeitgeist. This movie about a nun who takes a job as governess for the children of a stern captain is a Best Picture winner and impossible not to sing along to.
The Wiz (1978)
If there’s anyone who can slip into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, it’s Diana Ross. Some people might think trying to do a new spin on The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t work, but those people could go ease on down the road outta town. Watching Ms. Ross put all of her emotion into “Home” is all the convincing you need that The Wiz stands on its own. Emma Stone,
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
While it’s not typically considered a “musical,” Gene Wilder’s kooky candy inventor is one of the most beloved characters of all time and technically… there is music. Willy Wonka is a movie that parents share with their kids and it keeps getting passed down from generation to generation. It’s hard not to get choked up whenever “Pure Imagination” starts or get immediately brought back to your childhood when you see an Oompa Loompa on-screen. Even if it is a bit… dark.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
There are some dedicated RHPS fans out there who may be ready to argue that this should’ve been at the top of the list. Over 30 years since it’s initial release, audiences still pack theaters for midnight screenings across the country. Folks can’t get enough of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter putting Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) through a night of insanity when all they needed was a tow truck. It may be fun to watch from the comfort of your couch, but it’s an experience to see it in a theater with people who can act out every scene.
With all due respect to Destiny’s Child, the Dreamgirls (Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose) really need to put out an actual album together. This musical drama following a 1960s girl group on their rise to fame earned Hudson an Oscar and blessed the world with a soundtrack that will leave you belting.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Where’s all my soul sisters? “Lady Marmalade” (one of the soundtrack’s most memorable tracks) never fails to get people dancing. Baz Luhrmann’s movie about a poet (Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with a courtesan (Nicole Kidman) will bring out the romantic in you.
Though this movie has been made several times, an Annie production is only as good as its Miss Hannigan. Carol Burnett’s portrayal in the 1982 version sets the bar pretty high.
Chicago is a prime example of how to do a stage-to-screen adaptation flawlessly. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger co-star as two lounge singers who get more fame than they ever had before when they’re put on trial for murder. Richard Gere’s Billy Flynn is the lawyer hired to defend them and the man responsible for turning the whole thing into a media frenzy. Three words: Cell Block Tango.
Some musicals are all about the glitz and glamour. This one explores the dark side of the entertainment industry as experienced by a group of students at a performing arts high school in New York City. Not to mention Irene Cara’s title track is still an irresistible toe-tapper decades after its release.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
They just don’t make ’em like this anymore. It’s the story of a film studio struggling to make the leap from silent films to talkies. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds have the on-screen chemistry that all other actors should aim for. You’ll grin from ear to ear until the credits roll.
Bob Fosse directed Liza Minnelli in this story of a club entertainer living in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party. Minnelli won one of the films eight Oscars for her iconic portrayal of Sally Bowles.
A Chorus Line (1985)
Musicals about life in show business are a dime a dozen, but this one is a singular sensation. (Sorry, had to do it!) The story explores the struggles of dancers during the audition process. It’s a must-see for anyone looking to get their feet wet in the world of movie musicals.
The original John Waters 1988 Hairspray, starring Ricki Lake, was a fantastic film, but this adaptation of the Broadway musical takes the cake. A Baltimore high schooler (Nikki Blonsky) in the ’60s fights for integration while auditioning to be a dancer on her favorite local TV show. It’s best to just assume at this point that any musical involving Queen Latifah is going to be amazing. And we’re never mad at a Zac Efron movie.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
The story of how P.T. Barnum got his start in the circus business is told through some spectacular song and dance numbers starring Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, Zac Efron, and more. You’ll run to give the soundtrack another listen within minutes of the movie ending.
Mary Poppins (1964)
If you like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, you’ll love what she does when paired with Dick Van Dyke. This beloved story of a nanny in England with magical powers is still so popular, they made a sequel over 50 years later.
La La Land (2016)
Looking at the entertainment industry through a lens both romantic and cynical, La La Land offered a new spin on the classic meta-Hollywood musical. The numbers, which were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen) and composed by Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash) had a timeless, old school glamour. Plus, adding John Legend to the cast of an already stacked movie musical is an easy way to put yourself over the top.
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Did you really think Barbra Streisand wouldn’t make this list? It was tough to choose just one of her many musical film roles, but her turn as conniving matchmaker Dolly Levi had to be it. The moment Dolly makes her entrance to Harmonia Gardens will make your jaw drop to the floor.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s retelling of the story of Jesus in his final days set to a rock score is admittedly not an easy sell. You’ll probably change your tune sometime in the middle of “Heaven on Their Minds,” however.
Madonna starring in the real-life story of Eva Peron, former First Lady of Argentina, was a pop culture event back in 1996. It may have only taken home an Oscar for Best Original Song (“You Must Love Me”), but it solidified Madge as a force to be reckoned with in the film world.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
John Cameron Mitchell’s tale of a trans Berliner living in a trailer in Kansas with fantasies of becoming a rock diva has a cult following. It’s a darker story than your typical musical, which is one of the reasons people tend to love it so much. Plus the songs are undeniable moving.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Clearly the 70s were the Golden Age of movie musicals and this story of a Jewish peasant trying to marry off his daughters is no exception. Songs like “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” will get stuck in your head for weeks after viewing.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
The songs are fantastic, but it’s actually Ann-Margret’s dancing that grabs your attention in every scene she’s in. She plays a teen whose small town life is turned upside down when she’s chosen to help send off her favorite singer, Conrad Birdie, to the army. Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh also star.
Rosalind Russell’s monologue and then performance of “Rose’s Turn” is just straight up iconic. Rose is the ultimate stage mom trying to push her daughters into the entertainment industry in this musical based on the life of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, starring Natalie Wood. The costumes are something to behold as well.
Wild Rose (2018)
This under-the-radar British flick told the story of an aspiring Irish country singer trying to achieve her dreams after a stint in prison. It’s a classic underdog story, but the music and Jessie Buckley’s raw performance made it feel like something completely new. Blending both country classics by John Prine, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin with original numbers like the poignant “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” Wild Rose is one of the best movie musicals of the last decade.
The King and I (1956)
Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us gems like The Sound of Music, Carousel, and this story about a woman hired to be the governess (Deborah Kerr) and English tutor for the children of the King of Siam (Yul Brynner). Things get off to a rough start but you could probably imagine what happens next (if you haven’t already seen it.) It’s the musical you should queue up when you need a little romance in your life.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
This colorful French import starring Catherine Deneuve is about a woman left alone and pregnant when the man she falls in love with gets drafted into the Algerian War. It’s important to stress the “colorful” part of that last sentence…the cinematography alone will leave you stunned.
The Music Man (1962)
Trouble in River City means pure entertainment for everyone watching. Robert Preston plays a con man who convinces an entire town to buy supplies from him to start a music program through fear that the local kids are losing their way. It’ll make you want to join a marching band and walk in a parade.
Sweet Charity (1969)
Legendary Bob Fosse brings his beloved Broadway show to the screen, starring Shirley MacLaine as a dancer named Charity looking for love. MacLaine is as lovable and charming as ever singing and dancing alongside Chita Rivera, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ricardo Montalban.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Casting Icelandic experimentalist Björk as the lead in a movie musical ensures you won’t be getting a traditional film, and that’s certainly true of Lars von Trier’s Dancing in the Dark. Though the numbers feature modern avant-garde production that sets it apart from the musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, songs like “I’ve Seen It All” still pack an emotional wallop, and the film actually pays homage to The Sound of Music.
Working with the music of Elton John gave Rocketman an unfair advantage, but Dexter Fletcher’s film still had to live up to the madcap creativity and infectiousness of John’s best work. Thanks in large part to a committed Taron Egerton performance, it does. The must-see moments include “Your Song,” and, naturally, “Rocket Man.”
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
The music in Anna and the Apocalypse, written by Scottish singer-songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, skews pop. What sets the 2017 musical apart is its plot and Frankenstein-level mix of genres. It’s a small-town British coming of age movie wrapped inside a zombie film that just so happens to be a musical. And if that makes you expect ho-hum horror, just know that Anna is dark and surprisingly subversive in its twists and turns.
With music written by its charming lead, Glen Hansard, Once is the rare musical film that holds up as both a compelling drama and an outstanding album. Hansard and Markéta Irglovà sing their hearts out through searing ballad after searing ballad, with the opener and closer–”Falling Slowly” and “Into the Mystic,” respectively–standing apart for candid lyrics and soaring hooks. Musicals can feel fanciful, but this story of two struggling musicians in Dublin, is gritty and realistic without losing the joy that makes it escapism.
Love Songs (2007)
This narratively daring French musical about romance and grief has shades of classics like Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Composer Alex Beaupain, who has also worked on Beloved and Making Plans for Lena, penned a number of airy, witty love songs which are sung with oomph by Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
When you’re making a movie starring the world’s most popular band, the formula is pretty easy: shut up and play the hits. In less than 90 minutes, Beatles classics from “Can’t Buy Me Love” to “She Loves You” to “I Wanna Be Your Man” are reeled off, along with a dozen others. The acting is serviceable, and a sharp, endearingly goofy script make sure that A Hard Day’s Night holds up as well as some of the Beatles’ great pop hits.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Those who enjoy the intricate harmonies of A cappella music will find a lot to love with Pitch Perfect. The movie launched a franchise, and great supporting turns from Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, and Adam DeVine keep the jokes flying between renditions of “Since U Been Gone” and “Party in the U.S.A.” The most impressive music moment of Pitch Perfect is easily the Riff Off, which features a dizzying array of songs by artists like Madonna, Boyz II Men, and Rihanna blended into one shapeshifting number.
Mamma Mia! (2008)
Using the work of ABBA is not that different from building a musical out of The Beatles or Elton John tracks–they all start out already on third base. The song renditions don’t have to do anything more than live up to the greatness of the originals, and for the most part they do on records like “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Waterloo.” It helps that everyone in Mamma Mia, especially Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Christine Baranski are all clearly having a blast.
Sing Street (2016)
Adapting songs by The Cure, Hall & Oates and Duran Duran would give any musical a bit of a leg up, but Sing Street’s original songs charm and its small-scale story of Irish adolescence ultimately tugs on the heartstrings. Set in 1985, the movie tells the story of middle school misfits who form a rock band, mostly covering classics of the era, but also performing a few spirited originals. “Drive It Like You Stole It” is pure synth rock schmaltz, while “Up” is power pop at its most earnest.
A Star is Born (1976)
Each version of A Star is Born has its merits and could easily make this list, but we’ll go with the 1976 freewheeling folk take starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The soundtrack, which shows off Streisand’s pop star bona fides, is buoyed by songs like the Academy Award-winning “Evergreen” and the chugging rock duet “Watch Closely Now.” Whichever version of A Star is Born you opt for, each deserves praise for presenting the darker side of the film and music industry dreams.
Into the Woods (2014)
It’s hard to find a movie musical more star-studded than Into the Woods, which features musical vets Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick among its leads. The film version is a bit more staid than Stephen Sondheim’s quirky original stage version, but songs like “It Takes Two” and “Giants in the Sky” adapt beautifully to Rob Marshall’s sweeping direction.
Been So Long (2018)
The film adaptation of Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill’s funk musical of the same name, is a gaudy urban romance anchored by a compelling lead performance from Michaela Coel. The songs are far from cookie-cutter musical fare, including the glitchy tarp song “What U Sayin,” neo soul of “I Want a Fella,” and high-stakes R&B balladry of “Fire.” Coel, and her co-star Arinzé Kene prove to be surprisingly gifted, chameleonic musicians, and Been So Long injects some old Hollywood whirlwind romance into this modern tale.