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The Sound of Movie Musicals: Cinema's sing-songy show-stoppers

Once upon a time, musicals were the bread and butter of Hollywood filmmaking. With massive box-office figures and sturdy critical appeal, song-and-dance spectacles such as Anchors Aweigh and Kiss Me Kate lit up the big screen throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s.

That said, when rock-and-roll music took over the airwaves and the so-called “New Hollywood era” of the late 1960s and ‘70s began, traditional movie musicals seemed outmoded and irrelevant. Rather than resort to escapist fantasies a la The Wizard of Oz, audiences elected to confront unpleasant realities at the Cineplex. Once the domain of singing priests and dancing pirates, the musical genre began to take on tough topics like addiction, abuse, mental illness and murder in such dark classics as Tommy (1975) and All That Jazz (1979).

But even these sorts of gems became a rarity before long, and by the time A Chorus Line (1985) and Newsies (1992) crashed and burned on the big screen, it was clear that the golden age of the movie musical had passed.

Even so, the Hollywood machine has dished out at least a small handful of solid musical films in the past few decades and the magic of Netflix has brought some old standouts to the fore once again. Last year’s Les Miserables is by all counts a disaster, but in honor of the musical frenzy that the film has inspired in audiences across America, A&E offers up its list of the five finest musical films to grace the silver screen in cinematic history.

5. Evita (1996)
In some ways, this bombastic Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza-turned-Madonna star vehicle makes for an uncomfortable movie-watching experience. The film’s lack of spoken dialogue and its overwhelmingly opulent production design make most of the characters seem distant and unrelatable, and the two-hours-plus runtime borders on oppressive. But Madonna’s ferociously energetic turn as the frighteningly ambitious Eva Perón brings the entire project to life and provides enough intimacy and nuance to engage the audience, even during the movie’s slow stretches. In addition, Webber’s score is a revelation; running the gamut from soft lullaby to strident military march, the music both enhances Eva’s emotional arc and mirrors her historical rise and fall. For a film that focuses largely on the shallow fragility and artifice behind so-called icons and heroes, Evita offers up a surprising level of depth and sensitivity.

4. Going My Way (1944)
Though some audiences and critics have been quick to commend Tom Hooper for his allegedly daring decision to have his actors sing live on camera for Les Mis, this strategy was, by virtue of necessity if nothing else, common practice until very recently. The difference, of course, is that unlike Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, et al, old-school actors could actually perform well without digital polishing and the like. With a wonderful ‘old way v. new way’ story and a handful of terrific tunes sung stunningly by the incomparable Bing Crosby, Going My Way marks the pinnacle of the so-called ‘live-singing’ practice. Moreover, this Oscar-winner proves that sincerity and emotional exploitation, if played appealingly, can make for a magnificent film.

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Adapting Broadway musicals to the big screen can prove problematic, in large part because sprawling ensemble pieces and wide-but-not-deep plots tend to play much better on stage than they do at the cinema. In the case of Sweeney Todd, however, Tim Burton has resolved these issues with ease, stripping down the score and story line to cast his gaze aptly on the play’s emotional core: the demon barber’s vengeful quest and the tragic Mrs. Lovett’s undying passion for Todd. Thanks to Burton’s focused direction, outstanding performances across the board and a haunting visual style, the clever stage satire has become a cinematic masterpiece.

2. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
As the saying goes, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” The unbridled optimism and earnest good nature of this uproariously funny classic may be absent from mainstream filmmaking today, but nothing about Singin’ in the Rain feels remotely dated. From start to finish, this film is a breath of fresh air, and to call its famed ballet sequence one for the ages is an understatement.

1. The Sound of Music (1965)
The prevailing cynicism of the day may have made it fashionable to mock Rodgers and Hammerstein for their allegedly “cheesy” and “unrealistically upbeat” musical output, but a quick look at this 1965 masterwork should set even the nastiest critic straight. Taking on such weighty themes and topics as nationalist fervor, conflicts of loyalty, interclass relationships, the uncertainty of the ideal Christian life and the value of family, this Broadway adaptation features one of the most moving and well-acted love stories in film history, but also moves boldly and fearlessly into messy, controversial territory. The Sound of Music is what every movie musical should aspire to be, and we can only hope that the future will bring more films of this sort — and fewer ‘miserable’ Tom Hooper train wrecks.