The American Film Institute exists to come up with groovy movie related lists to argue over. They've just put out their list of the 25 greatest movie musicals. Here's their list:

1 SINGIN' IN THE RAIN 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
2 WEST SIDE STORY 1961 United Artists
3 WIZARD OF OZ, THE 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
4 SOUND OF MUSIC, THE 1965 Twentieth Century-Fox
5 CABARET 1972 Allied Artists
6 MARY POPPINS 1964 Disney
7 STAR IS BORN, A 1954 Warner Bros.
8 MY FAIR LADY 1964 Warner Bros.
9 AMERICAN IN PARIS, AN 1951 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
10 MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
11 KING AND I, THE 1956 Twentieth Century-Fox
12 CHICAGO 2002 Miramax
13 42ND STREET 1933 Warner Bros.
14 ALL THAT JAZZ 1979 Twentieth Century-Fox, Columbia
15 TOP HAT 1935 RKO
16 FUNNY GIRL 1968 Columbia
17 BAND WAGON, THE 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
18 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942 Warner Bros.
19 ON THE TOWN 1949 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
20 GREASE 1978 Paramount
23 GUYS AND DOLLS 1955 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
24 SHOW BOAT 1936 Universal
25 MOULIN ROUGE! 2001 Twentieth Century Fox

Some of these you just couldn't argue against, but some of these newer ones just aren't making it in in terms of songs. Chicago was a nice glamorous movie, but I can't remember more than one or two of the songs at all - and none of them seem to me like any kind of classics. Beauty and the Beast was a pretty good Disney movie, but not because of these largely mediocre songs. Plus, they need knocked up side the head for including Grease.

Now we get to the good part: my alternative list. I'm prone to concocting things like "the true and objective list of the best..." I won't presume to do that here, mostly because I have very limited knowledge of movies from the real prime era of proper Broadway musicals. This would be in the 1930s and 40s, prime time for Irving Berlin and the Gershwins among others. Note that this time frame is barely represented in the AFI list. Anyway, I'll just humbly call this list from Al's Film Institute

Oklahoma! (1955) - I guess you don't get any extra cool points for picking the obvious, but this is THE gold standard for classic musicals on every level. You just don't have a legitimate list without it. It's the Sgt Pepper of traditional Broadway musicals.

For one thing, it was the exemplar trend setter in the idea of the "integrated" musical, in which the story is not just a coat rack on which to hang random, unrelated songs. The songs are not breaks from the story, but they really establish the characters and advance the story.

Besides the bigger story though, all of these Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are individually classics in their own right. "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" is flatly one of the most beautiful melodies ever to grace a pop song. "I Can't Say No" is a particular favorite of mine, and you can't pass by without some props for "People Will Say We're in Love."

The dance element is exemplary, with special note for "The Farmer and the Cowman" sequence. That song actually sets up the broad theme of the story, how the West was settled and integrated into the national fabric. In short, the cowboys married the farmer's daughters and settled down.

The greatest thing in the movie though was the villain's classic song of self-pity, "Poor Jud Is Daid." The vision of Rod Steiger earnestly singing along in sympathy as Curly leads him on with visions of all the women folk what wouldn't let on to liking him in life, and how they'd be crying over his body after he kills himself - well, that's just a totally unique dark and beautiful moment in the history of cinema.

Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger as Curly McLain and Jud Fry in Oklahom!

Stormy Weather (1943) - We all lost out on a lot because black folk in the classic era of jazz and musicals got very limited opportunity to make films. This all-black WWII era classic makes up for some of that, though. For such a rare thing, they had the services of Lena Horne, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway and my hero Fats Waller.

As a story, it was somewhat marginal- though probably better than the average Hollywood musical even there, but a lot of the scenes work quite nicely as little set pieces. Bill Robinson's hammy sabotage of the boss's big stage performance leaping from drum to drum was priceless.

In song and dance, this is unsurpassed in the history of cinema. Prime 27 year old Lena Horne was in full effect on the title song, and the jungle dance sequence for "Digga Digga Do" was just brutal.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller had one of the best ever battle-of-the-sexes duets with Ada Brown. Study his closing image of comic contempt, "Suffer, Excess Baggage, suffer." I capitalize "excess baggage" because he makes it sound like her name. Then he gives what I'd consider the definitive musical performance of "Ain't Misbehavin." Man, that was some kind of band. Besides being a great movie, I'd highly recommend a soundtrack CD.

All that builds up to the great grooviness of Cab Calloway, who was a highly visual artist jiving and sliding across the stage in his tux and tails. Most amazing of all, for the climax he slams some "Jumpin' Jive" and then calls out Harold and Fayard Nicholas for what I consider the most amazing dance sequence ever put on film. I go through this part sometimes frame by frame. It totally blows my mind just in terms of athleticism, and then it's expressive and artful all on top of that.

Fayard and Harold Nicholas fly through the air with the greatest of ease

The Blues Brothers (1980) - This may be the greatest rock oriented musical in cinema history.  This actually had more story and character than most musicals, with that perfect inspired animating note of pious sacrilege - "We're on a mission from God."  Also, the millions of dollars of gratuitous destruction of cars, malls, and all kinds of stuff was simply glorious.

But of course the real attraction was the various set pieces by r&b legends, including Ray Charles, James Brown and Cab Calloway.  My personal favorite is the diner scene with Aretha Franklin giving a man something to "Think" about.

Ray Charles and the Blues Brothers

Annie Get Your Gun (1950) - This story based on Annie Oakley was the great late period swansong for Irving Berlin, the first and biggest mainstay of the Broadway composers. This was the original source for "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do." This latter strikes me as particularly endearingly Jewish, especially the boast "Anything you can buy, I can buy cheaper."

But heck, those aren't even my favorite songs from this, which would probably be Annie's autobiographical background sketch "Doin' What Comes Naturally" and her romantic theme "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun."

Besides which, this was a particularly well made movie, with the supporting characters and costumes and outstanding dance sequences, especially for the most delightful and innocently un-PC "I'm an Indian Too."

West Side Story (1961) - For starters, this is one of the best musical movies in terms of having a serious storyline. But also it had some of the most memorable pop songs of the era, including stone classics like "I Feel Pretty" "Cool" and "Maria." This is also considered to be some of the best, fullest and most expressive choreography ever put on film.

Decades later, Paul Simon wrote a flop musical The Capeman about a Puerto Rican gang killing in New York, which was a true contemporary story to West Side Story. I like mixing the soundtracks together, especially to the point of putting the immigrant songs "America" and "I Was Born in Puerto Rico" back to back for very nice contrast, as well as putting the gang songs "Jet" and "The Vampires" together. Those two are not nearly so emotional disparate.

But the cool special gem for right wingers is the gang's mockery of society's concern and attempts to improve them, a special display of classic comic disrespect, "Gee Officer Krupke."

Sign O the Times (1987) - This is a glorified Prince concert movie. There's very little time wasted in dialogue, just enough bits of scene to set up the live French performances of the new album. But those individual songs were choreographed extensively enough to make real set pieces and drama moves out of each individual song. I really like the simple martial drum line marching across the end of the title song. Also, many of the songs are significantly and interestingly re-arranged from the studio versions. Purple Rain was the big hit that made his name, but this was an even more fulfilling movie experience, partly just on grounds of less talk, more music. Let Sheila E and that band do the talking.

The Little Mermaid (1989) - The main problem with modern Disney animated features is inferior music. I don't care how many damned fools bought the Lion King album, "Circle of Life" ain't all that. The AFI selection of Beauty and the Beast strikes me as incredibly mediocre.

Then there's the exception that proved the rule. The first big hit of the modern Disney era had a set of songs worthy of classic Disney. "Under the Sea" is just a beauty of joyful melody and gettin' down on the ocean floor. "Kiss the Girl" is a pop confection for the ages. The exquisite animated choreography is just gravy.

Also, it has two of my favorite Disney characters, including my guy Sebastian the crab. But most of all, Ursula is perhaps the greatest villain character ever in a Disney flick, with the baddest, and most memorable evil theme song, "Poor Unfortunate Souls."

Top Hat (1935) - Dance specifically is the point of this entry. The Astaire-Rogers movies were all horribly lacking in plot interest, to put it mildly. But you can't very well account for great movie musicals without Fred and Ginger. Here's "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails."

Finian's Rainbow (1968) - Actually, the Fred Astaire movie that's made the biggest impression on me was his very last starring musical, Finian's Rainbow. He was quite competent to do the simple jigs the style of this production called for, but was not even intending to compete with the pure athleticism of his prime work.

However, this had much more story than his classics. He's got a much more interesting character, and other characters and dancers around him. There's a real interesting actual story, tied to beautiful cinematography and first time big director Francis Coppola.

Most of all, they have classic new songs, including Yip Harburg's other big rainbow song, "Look to the Rainbow." I'll take it as equal to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Also, Harburg gets some groovy pinko mojo going with stuff like "That Great Come and Get It Day."

Clinching the deal, this was the original source of "Old Devil Moon."

Guys and Dolls (1955) - I just love every single thing about this movie, starting with the faux hipster lingo. There's a much better than average story, though the epic tragic ending of a double wedding does make it bittersweet. Still, this has "Paul Revere" "Luck Be a Lady" and Marlon Brando wooing Jean Simmons in the Cuban moonlight.

On top of which you get Frank Sinatra. Music aside, this was one of his best acting performances for my money.

The Jungle Book (1967) - The top selling point of classic era Disney movies was music.  They produced some of the best pop songs going, whether you consider them kiddie songs or otherwise.  This was the last film produced by Walt Disney, who died during production.  It's my favorite set of Disney songs, swinging across the jungle in the hippest of style.  Louis Prima as the ambitious orangutan King Louis rocked the jungle with "I Wanna Be Like You."  Then there's my personal philosophical statement "The Bare Necessities."

Special under appreciated points for Kaa's seductive "Trust in Me."  

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in A Mighty WindA Mighty Wind (2003) - This movie comes from Christopher Guest et al, responsible for numerous classic mockumentaries, the most popular of which has been Spinal Tap.  That's a fondly remembered classic, but A Mighty Wind is artistically superior on multiple levels.  It's got a lot more heart - real, legitimately earned pathos for numerous of these old and fading folk singers reunited for a tribute to their late record label head.

Especially though, this has much better songs than Spinal Tap.  Those were witty parodies of the work of idiot rock singers, but there's only so far you're getting artistically with dumb shtick like "Sex Farm."  Whereas, A Mighty Wind has much more melodic material, and considerably more depth of wit to the lyrics of their idea of a cheesy pandering folkie hit single like "Old Joe's Place."   My favorite bit of wit is the insanely catchy "Good Book Song," which is so perfectly cheesy in the descriptions of the imagined consequences of defying God.  For example, if David hadn't stood up to Goliath like he was told, we'd all be slaves of Philistine knaves, "and sleep in the cracks between their toes."  Yet I could just almost imagine the dumber end of Christian youth ministers thinking that this would be a good song for vacation Bible school or something.

The centerpiece and climax of the film was "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow."  Just as a stand-alone recording, I consider it the record of the year.  But in the context of the film and the long since disillusioned romantic kids singing it again decades later, it's one of the most tender and heartbreaking moments in film history.  

Jailhouse Rock (1957) - It was one or two classic early movies such as this that bought Elvis Presley license for the quicky walk-through movies he eventually did a bunch of. But this movie had a real story about the temptations of stardom. Plus, it had the iconic choreography of Elvis dancing to the title song.

Team America (2004) - You want a patriotic movie musical? I'll take Team America over Yankee Doodle Dandy any old day - with due respect to James Cagney.

These foul-mouthed marionette puppets made, among other things, a classic musical. These songs certainly constitute an "integrated" musical, in the myriad ways the songs advance the plot and characters. The theme song alone really captures the whole gist of the movie in one quick catchy tune.

Consider this for having a particularly classic villain song. They so savagely mock Kim Jong Il with the cheap accent that you might miss how very serious an idea this is of how the guy might likely be thinking. Take it to heart when he sings, "It's kind of sirry, but not rirry, cause it's filling my body with rage."

Kim Jong Il singing "I'm So Ronery" in Team America

Bob Roberts (1988) - In the spirit of being fair and balanced like Fox News, let's conclude with Tim Robbins paranoid left-wing comic masterpiece Bob Roberts. Tim Robbins was deservedly graphically executed for treason by Team America, but he does have talent. He pretty much wrote, directed and starred in this story about an evil right wing folk singer/US Senate candidate.

The central honey nectar selling all this crazy conspiracy stuff was a set of songs expressing his evil rightwing viewpoint. Tim Robbins was probably not entirely dumb to be concerned with how these songs might be taken out of context, not that this should stop you. But "Complain" and "Don't Vote" are modern folk classics, with outstanding social messages that I of course endorse entirely.

Holla Back!

Music Sustains the Soul

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