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26/04/2020 07:00 BST | Updated 26/04/2020 13:24 BST

From La La Land To Chicago: 20 Best Movie Musicals Of The 21st Century

It was supposed to have been a great year for new musical films in 2020, but at least we still have these modern classics.

A few months ago, one of the things we were most looking forward to this year was the influx of big-screen musicals we were going to be treated to, with the likes of In The Heights, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story all slated for release.

Well, it turns out our excitement may have been a little bit misplaced.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit many industries hard, with cinema being one of the most affected with a number of films having their release dates pushed back by several months.

Yes, that’s a long old wait, but one positive of being stuck indoors is that we now have the time to revisit some classics.

Here are our top 20 big-screen musicals of the last 20 years. And spoiler alert, Cats has not made the cut...

20. High School Musical (2006) 

Disney Channel/Photofest

Dismissed by many as thoughtless Disney fluff upon its original release, High School Musical has ended up standing the test of time, despite what many critics would have anticipated back in 2006.

The film focuses on teenage basketball captain Troy, his relationship with transfer student Gabriella, and his hidden desire to *gasp* sing in his school’s winter musical. All of that is interspersed with your usual teenage drama, high-camp sabotage attempts and, obviously, a mandatory dance sequence set in the school gym.

High School Musical was a mammoth success, bringing in the most viewers for an original Disney Channel film ever and spawning two sequels – not to mention shooting cast members like Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron to global stardom.

Stand-out numbers: Get’cha Head In The Game, Breaking Free, We’re All In This Together

Watch High School Musical and its two sequels now on Disney+.

19. Music And Lyrics (2007)

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Listen, we’re not actually sure whether this film constitutes a traditional “movie musical”, but it’s a romantic comedy with several full-on musical numbers in it, so we’re including it on this list.

Admittedly, Music And Lyrics will probably not be going down in history as a game-changing piece of cinema, but it’s a sweet enough film, with a lot of laughs (mostly at the expense of the music industry and fame).

It’s the songs that really shine though, from the 80s pastiche of Pop Goes My Heart to the show-stopping ballad Way Back Into Love (even if we do prefer the demo version, performed by a sweetly sincere Drew Barrymore).

Stand-out numbers: Pop Goes My Heart, Way Back Into Love (Demo Mix), Don’t Write Me Off 

18. Been So Long (2018) 

Netflix

A hidden gem on Netflix, the British musical Been So Long didn’t quite get the fanfare it deserved when it debuted in 2018.

While plenty of major cities have been given the musical treatment in recent years, contemporary London has long gone overlooked. However, Been So Long focusses on a modern day love story set in Camden, and it’s amazing to see the capital looking so shiny and beautiful on screen.

Michaela Coel is obviously a star whatever she does, but the scene-stealer in this film is Ronke Adekoluejo, playing the protagonist’s best mate, Yvonne.

Stand-out numbers: Love Is, I Want A Fella, Fire

Watch Been So Long on Netflix now. 

17. Mamma Mia! (2008)

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We’re obviously well aware of Mamma Mia!’s shortcomings. True, it’s a bit all over the place, and it’s saccharine sweet to the point it’s worth visiting a dentist after watching. But by the same token, there’s a lot to love about Mamma Mia!.

As if Christine Baranski’s performance of Does Your Mother Know, Meryl Streep jumping into the splits for no reason other than she can, and a guitar ballad performed by Colin Firth wasn’t enough, Mamma Mia! is also a reminder that Abba’s music is even more incredible than you remembered (even if it is being covered by Pierce Brosnan).

And more to the point, has there ever been a more appropriate moment than right now to bring a bit of Mamma Mia!-shaped joy into your home?

Stand-out numbers: Dancing Queen, Does Your Mother Know, Slipping Through My Fingers

16. Into The Woods (2014)

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The film version of Into The Woods falls short in many areas (Disney’s involvement means it’s considerably more tame than the stage show it’s inspired by), but one way it excels is in the individual performances.

Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are fantastic as the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella, Meryl Streep earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as The Witch, and child stars Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone do justice to Sondheim staples I Know Things Now and Giants In The Sky. Even James Corden manages a touching version of No One Is Alone as the finale nears.

Ultimately, it’s not necessarily a must-watch, but for fans of musical theatre, and in particular fans of Stephen Sondheim, there’s a lot to enjoy. 

Stand-out numbers: Prologue (Into The Woods), I Know Things Now, Last Midnight

Watch Into The Woods on Disney+ now. 

15. Rent (2005)

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A film that’s essentially more for existing fans of Rent than your average cinema-goer, which is the main reason it’s fairly low down on this list.

Some critics took issue with certain aspects of the film at the time, namely the way certain songs from the stage how had been adapted into dialogue (meaning spoken words randomly rhymed). The choice to have most of the original cast join the film almost a decade after their Broadway debut was also criticised, as a lot of the actors were noticeably older than their characters.

But for die-hard fans of the show, it was a treat to have the gang back together and finally have a version to watch and enjoy at home – and there are so many great songs, it’s still worth a watch even if you’re a Rent novice.

Stand-out numbers: Seasons Of Love, La Vie Boheme, Without You

14. Les Misérables (2012)

Moviestore/Shutterstock

On one hand, Les Misérables was hugely successful, winning three Oscars (and earning Hugh Jackman his first, and only, nomination), four Baftas and three Golden Globes, as well as having the biggest ever opening weekend for a musical here in the UK.

Film critics largely enjoyed it too, but for us, given the source material, this big-screen version fell a little short.

Certain performances are obvious stand-outs, including Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks in her first ever big-screen role, and with such well-crafted musical numbers as shown in the original stage music, there’s only so wrong you can go,. But we can’t help but feel a little of the magic was lost in the transition from stage to screen on Les Mis.

Stand-out numbers: I Dreamed A Dream, One Day More, Bring Him Home

13. The Greatest Showman (2017)

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The musical that was years in the making and pretty much defined 2017, when songs like This Is Me and Rewrite The Stars were absolutely everywhere.

Considering its success both at the box office and in the music charts all over the world, The Greatest Showman is obviously a crowd-pleaser, but for us its truly great moments aren’t the over-the-top productions or Hugh Jackman giving it his all as PT Barnum. It’s the quieter, more understated moments, like Michelle Williams’ much-underrated rendition of Tightrope or the first performance of Never Enough.

That said, we’ve never quite made it through the full This Is Me number without tearing up, either.

Stand-out numbers: This Is Me, Tightrope, From Now On

12. A Star Is Born (2018)

Warner Bros

When we first saw the trailer for A Star Is Born, we had absolutely no idea what to expect from the film itself. Would it be yet another hammy attempt for a musician to make their way into acting, or a genuine star vehicle for one of the most famous women in the world? As it turned out, it was a little of column A and column B.

If nothing else, A Star Is Born finally proved to mainstream critics what Lady Gaga’s fans have known for a decade now: there’s a lot more to this pop star than just funny outfits and colourful wigs.

Yes, there’s a lot of scenery-chewing going on, Gaga at her earnest is always going to be the tiniest bit annoying and it could probably do with being about 25 minutes shorter, but we defy you not to be moved by those final moments. 

Stand-out numbers: Shallow, Why Did You Do That?, I’ll Never Love Again 

Watch A Star Is Born on Now TV now.

11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007) 

Leah Gallo/Dreamworks/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

An oft-underrated offering from film director Tim Burton that mixes his loves of the macabre and the musical. Johnny Depp obviously takes on the lead role of the barber who kills his customers and has them baked into meat pies, but it’s Helena Bonham-Carter who truly steals the show in our eyes.

As Mrs Lovett, she’s charming but also nuanced, to the point you can’t help but feel a little sorry for her when you see the lengths she’ll go to in order to escape her desperate life and be with the man she loved. Murdering and forcing people into inadvertent cannibalism probably isn’t the most ethical way to go about it though, we should stress.

Stand-out numbers: The Worst Pies In London, By The Sea, Not While I’m Around

10. Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)

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Certainly one of the most bizarre big-screen musicals of the last 20 years, Hedwig And The Angry Inch – like the stage show it’s inspired by – gained cult status upon its release in 2001, thanks to its glam rock-inspired numbers and its unusual premise. The film follows the titular rock singer Hedwig and her back-up band, the Angry Inch, as she tours fish restaurants around the US, telling her life story and generally making a show of herself.

It’s definitely not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s definitely one fans of musical theatre, and cinema in general, should watch at least once. 

Stand-out numbers: The Origin Of Love, Wicked Little Town, Midnight Radio

9. Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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Considering it’s the sequel to one of the most enduring family films of the 20th century, Mary Poppins Returns has been kind of overlooked since its release in late 2018, which is a shame because it’s actually a worthy successor to the Disney classic.

Many rolled their eyes at Disney churning out yet another sequel to go with their ever-growing catalogue of live-action remakes, particularly to a film that’s so revered and came out such a long time ago.

However, Mary Poppins Returns should be applauded for retaining the magic of the original, but also offering something new. The same can be said for Emily Blunt as the world’s most famous nanny, who made plenty of nods to Julie Andrews’ interpretation of the character, without necessarily making hers an impersonation. And the songs are just marvellous too (if you can overlook that dodgy rhyming slang in Trip A Little Light Fantastic, that is). 

Stand-out numbers: Can You Imagine That?, A Cover Is Not The Book, Nowhere To Go But Up

Watch Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns on Disney+ now.

8. Dreamgirls (2006)

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There’s a lot we could write about Dreamgirls – the film based on a Broadway musical with allusions to the birth of Motown and the career of the Supreme – but Beyoncé belting out Listen and, oh yes, Jennifer Hudson’s literal Oscar win probably say it all for us.

Dreamgirls is an unusual one in that starts off as a film with performances in it before switching it up to full-blown musical halfway through, when the characters start singing to each other right before J-Hud launches into her iconic rendition of And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.

This performance is justifiably often held up as the emotional highpoint of the film, but there are moving moments scattered throughout, culminating in that touching final scene when the Dreams reunite for their final stage appearance. 

Stand-out numbers: And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going, One Night Only, Listen

7. Moana (2016)

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Those post-renaissance years of Treasure Planet, Chicken Little and Home On The Range will not be remembered as high points for Disney, but they slowly started a return to form in the late 2000s, first with the mostly live-action Enchanted and later with The Princess And The Frog and Tangled.

Of course, the mammoth success of Frozen came next, which was followed by Moana. This unique CGI offering has everything you’d want in a Disney film – it’s beautiful to look at, it has an empowering message and the songs are just fantastic. Oh, and not only are they written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame, who also has a brilliant part in the aforementioned Mary Poppins Returns) but one of them is a Hakuna Matata-esque buddy song performed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

Stand-out numbers: How Far I’ll Go, You’re Welcome, Shiny

Watch Moana on Disney+ now.

6. Pitch Perfect (2012) 

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The so-so Pitch Perfect 2 and genuinely-very-bad Pitch Perfect 3 have somewhat watered this film’s legacy down, which is a shame as it’s actually a subversive, completely unique and absolutely hilarious modern addition to the world of big-screen musicals.

Unlike most of the other offerings on this list, the songs in Pitch Perfect are actually lifted straight from the charts and redone as acapella numbers, performed first as restrained earworms by the Bellas and then as everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mash-ups.

True, numbers like Pitbull’s Give Me Everything and Nelly’s Just A Dream might date Pitch Perfect a little, but actually adds to the charm. The film is really as much about the laughs as it is the music though, making anyone want to join the Bellas by the time it’s all over. 

Stand-out numbers: Cups, Bellas Regionals, Bellas Finals

5. La La Land (2016)

REX/Shutterstock

Probably best remembered for that unfortunate faux pas at the Oscars, La La Land is a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, paying tribute to the likes of Top Hat and Singin’ In The Rain, but with a modern twist.

Obviously, we’re never going to complain about seeing Ryan Gosling up on the big screen, but the film belongs to Emma Stone, who was awarded Best Actress at the Oscars for her role as Mia. In particular, her final audition scene is a triumph.

On top of everything else, La La Land does a brilliant job of making Los Angeles look absolutely stunning, and escapism doesn’t come much better than that very first number. 

Stand-out numbers: Another Day Of Sun, Someone In The Crowd, Audition (The Fools Who Dream), City Of Stars

Watch La La Land on Netflix now. 

4. Hairspray (2007)

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An all-star cast, huge song and dance numbers and a string of absolutely iconic characters, Hairspray has all the ingredients for a perfect family musical.

Right from the first minute, Hairspray is tonnes of fun, but it packs an emotional punch too. Songs like You Can’t Stop The Beat and Big, Blonde And Beautiful might be obvious toe-tappers, but Queen Latifah’s character Motormouth Maybelle belting out I Know Where I’ve Been as she fights against racial segregation is a truly powerful moment too.

And on top of all that, if the thought of John Travolta spending an entire film in drag playing a middle-aged 1960s housewife doesn’t entice you, we don’t know what will.

Stand-out numbers: Good Morning Baltimore, Welcome To The 60s, You Can’t Stop The Beat

3. Frozen (2013)

Moviestore/Shutterstock

Considering the whole thing is a CGI animation, Frozen gives you the full Broadway experience – thanks in no small part to some excellent songwriting and stunning voice performances from theatre legend Idina Menzel and The Good Place’s Kristen Bell.

In many ways, Frozen is your typical Disney film. It’s adapted from a classic fairytale, it centres around royals on an adventure, with a cute sidekick and hints of romance throughout.

Where it really stands on its own though, is the way the traditional is turned on its head, and we discover the real love in Anna’s life is for her sister, Elsa.

And we don’t need to tell you what a massive tune Let It Go is, do we?

Stand-out numbers: Love Is An Open Door, Let It Go, For The First Time In Forever (Reprise)

Watch Frozen and Frozen II on Disney+ now. 

2. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Moviestore/Shutterstock

A tragic love story, a celebration of all things excessive, and an ode to the Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love, Moulin Rouge! is all of this and so much more.

The jewel in acclaimed director Baz Luhrmann’s crown (and potentially a career high for Nicole Kidman too), Moulin Rouge! is a fast-paced, colourful and completely unpredictable journey that takes you to the most exciting and thrilling of highs, before then breaking your heart with its devastating final minutes.

Every single thing about Moulin Rouge! is completely ridiculous and over-the-top – the swerving zooms and camera angles, the lightning-speed dialogue, literally every song choice – but that’s, of course, why we love it so much.

Stand-out numbers: Sparkling Diamonds, Come What May, El Tango De Roxanne

1. Chicago (2002)

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Come on, it had to be, didn’t it? 

Following its release in 2002, Chicago scooped six Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones and the first Best Picture win for a musical since Oliver! over 30 years earlier. And there’s a reason for that.

Chicago has everything you want in a big-screen musical: an incredible cast, stunning choreo (throwing it right back to the Fosse moves of old), and a dark sense of humour running throughout. It’s also beautiful to look at, with the elaborate fantasy sequences for each of the songs providing a stark contrast from the humdrum reality of life in Cook County.

And can we please just talk about the songs? All That Jazz is potentially one of the most famous showtunes of all time, but then there’s the undeniably iconic Cell Block Tango, Queen Latifah’s perfect rendition of When You’re Good To Mama and the actually-quite-chilling We Both Reached For The Gun.

All this culminates in that stunning last sequence with CZJ and Renée Zellweger, and by the time they’re done, we inevitably want to get on our feet... even if we are watching in our living room in our pyjamas.

Stand-out numbers: All That Jazz, When You’re Good To Mama, Cell Black Tango

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