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The 50 Greatest Musical Numbers in Movie History


It doesn’t really feel like we’re living in a golden age of movie musicals. The days of all singing, all dancing Technicolor spectacle are well behind us, the fantasy of emotion bursting into immaculately choreographed showstoppers almost exclusively replaced by the fantasy of men bursting into chaotically choreographed battles dressed as bats, spiders and aliens. While a recent resurgence of traditional musicals has given hope to fans of the genre, the films themselves have hardly made this a revival worth celebrating – “Chicago” is often regarded as a stain on the Academy Awards, “Mamma Mia!” introduced the world to Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice, and last year’s “Les Misérables” was less of a tribute to a Broadway classic than it was a studio gluing a camera onto a three-legged chair and having famous people shout at it until money came out.

Having said that, the cinema without songs would be like a novel without exclamation points. From the moment Al Jolson ushered the world into the era of synched sound, it was clear that movies and musical numbers were destined to have a very special relationship. When Hollywood began to deviate its attentions, independent and foreign filmmakers naturally picked up the slack, and movies as disparate as “Dancer in the Dark” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” have kept the tradition alive. Of course, the most globally beloved bearers of the flame were Disney musicals like “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”, and this week’s “Frozen” finds the Mouse House harkening back to that grand tradition, even if they’ve ditched lush 2D animation for a more rounded, sterile look.

But if “Frozen” – and “Black Nativity” – are the season’s only true musicals, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. An argument could easily be made that the Coen brothers’ pitch-perfect new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, is as much of a musical as anything else, its hero’s Homeric journey around the East Village folk scene of the 1960s peppered with moving performances that speak the truths he could otherwise never convey to the people around him.  There’s also Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”, which – like this summer’s “The Great Gatsby” – would be considered as musicals of the highest order if only they ever bothered to show the songs being sung. If anything, the decline of MUSICALS has allowed their spirit to take root in all sorts of unexpected places, making the genre – to the great benefit of movies as a whole – as difficult to classify as documentaries are. Most crucially, other types of films have turned to the musical for inspiration, and many of the most memorable song sequences pop up in stuff that would otherwise be thought of as simple “talkies.”

And so, with that overly long prelude out of the way, we present to you’s picks for the 50 Greatest Musical Numbers in Movie History. Our criteria was pretty simple: The sequence had to feature singing. That’s it. A full cast belting out an iconic Broadway song? Absolutely. A fading movie star warbling through an Elvis Costello classic in a karaoke booth? Why not.

Party time? Excellent.

50.) WAYNE’S WORLD – “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1992)

I don’t think anybody could have expected, before seeing “Wayne’s World”, that Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” would lend quite so well to film — it’s hard to imagine a track that garish and over the top to be slotted into a soundtrack to run without comment. Well, Penelope Spheeris found the workaround: she had her heroes go ahead and sing the song from start to finish, setting a precedent followed by “Wayne’s World” enthusiasts to this day. The film imposed upon the world an unspoken rule: if Queen comes on in the car, you have to sing. And rock that air guitar. – Calum Marsh

49.) BLAZING SADDLES – “Tired” (1974)

I can tell you why this scene is great in four simple words: the indispensable Madeline Kahn. As the Marlene Dietrich-inspired Old West showgirl Lili von Shtupp, Kahn commits all her energy to playing a character who’s singing about not having any energy. Her not-quite-on-pitch voice and perfunctory stage movement help sell the notion of a performer who’s sick of being onstage (which is all the funnier coming from an indefatigable trouper — and a fine singer — like Kahn). There’s also something deliciously subversive about Ms. von Shtupp openly declaring that she’s tired from having too much sex with too many random men. When Mel Brooks is involved, there’s no beating around the bush. – Eric D. Snider

48.) TROPICAL MALADY – “Wanasawat” (2004)

Apichatpong Weerasethaul’s “Tropical Malady” is staggeringly beautiful, almost by sleight of hand. It is a film cleaved in two, right down the middle. Most of the breathtaking and provocative images are to be found in the second act, a woodland tale of intimidating magic and spiritual confrontation. Yet it is the humbler first portion of the film that allows this finale to become such an apotheosis of love. “Tropical Malady” begins with a charming and unadorned romance between two young men, one that stays just to the left of saccharine. It’s almost imperceptibly seductive in its joy, in no moment more so than in this odd, almost false musical number. The entire scene is like an enormous smile, with bright purple lipstick. – Daniel Walber

47.) COPACABANA – “Go West, Young Man” (1947)

It’s very probable that “Go West, Young Man”, the comic centerpiece of the late-period Marx comedy “Copacabana”, was written for the film “Go West”, released nearly a decade earlier. But even if it’s a rehashed leftover, it hardly feels like it: to this context it seems ideally suited, with Groucho taking a moment away from his character’s managerial duties to do some of the musical heavy lifting on his own. – CM

46.) BEETLEJUICE – “Day-O” (1988)

How strangely fitting it is that a poltergeist would mess with a group of pretentious, nouveau-riche buffoons by ensnaring them to a work song, as if the true horror of the scenario being not the physical loss of their motor control but the more metaphoric loss of control in having to act out the part of someone below their social rung. Surrounded by the faux-exotic markers of their insipid décor, the characters are attacked by a song that has equally passed from a specific cultural context to an appropriated mainstream pop tune, an appropriate revenge. And then, as all great things must, the scene ends with shrimp hands, maybe the single most perversely delightful image in Tim Burton’s work. – Jake Cole

45.) THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN –  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (2005)

Perhaps we should have realized that the (literal) climax of Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” would feature something wacky and weird once newly married Andy (Steve Carell) and Trish (Catherine Keener) consummate their love, but we can’t say that a full-cast version of the “Hair” version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” ever seemed like a viable possibility. It’s certainly one way to celebrate the loss of one’s virginity (liberation!), but the best part of the whole sequence is the game spirit exhibited by the film’s cast, saucy headscarves and all. Also, the revelation that Paul Rudd can’t sing a note somehow only makes him seem more endearing.  – Kate Erbland

44.) LINDA LINDA LINDA – “Linda Linda” (2005)

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda” is one of the most infectiously fun films you’ve probably never seen. The “Citizen Kane” of the growing sub-genre of “empowerment stories about high school and / or grade school girls forming a band and coming of age in advance of a local talent show”, this under-seen 2005 gem is pure bubblegum joy, and a terrific star vehicle for “Cloud Atlas” actress Bae Doo-na. The story of some Japanese teenagers who impulsively enlist the new Korean foreign-exchange student into their band after their lead singer drops out, “Linda Linda Linda” is a movie about the little things that still manages to squeeze in some seriously big moments. Best of all, inevitably, is the climactic school concert, at which the girls band together, cover, and absolutely own The Blue Hearts’ classic Japanese karaoke rocker, “Linda Linda”. – David Ehrlich

43.) TOP GUN – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (1986)

The question is not “why do Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards and an entire bar filled with military men somewhat randomly break out into a Righteous Brothers song in the middle of their cult classic film about being in the goddamn Naval aviation academy?,” the question is “why didn’t they do it sooner?” In case the nuances of Cruise’s Maverick had otherwise escaped you, he’s kind of a smoothie, and his in-bar antics are all done to snag a lady – Kelly McGillis’ tough cookie Charlie Blackwood. Why this tactic works, we’ll never know, but damn if this whole sequence isn’t just plain ingrained in everyone’s culture consciousness – and for good reason, it’s a classic. – KE

42.) LILI MARLEEN – “Lili Marleen” (1981)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder gets at the soul of Nazi Germany with the tumultuous life of one-hit wonder “Lili Marleen,” a song that catapults struggling cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) into the most powerful circles of the Third Reich. Her discomfort with the regime, her ties to the resistance and her Jewish husband Robert (Giancarlo Giannini) are the backdrop to the ironic, conflicted concert scenes that Fassbinder builds around her. Bombs, gunshots and the regalia of the fascist empire are tossed across Schygulla’s almost viciously edited performance scenes. We are reminded of the war in the context of her success, all built from a single song beloved by soldiers all over a convulsing continent. – Daniel Walber

41.) NASHVILLE – “I’m Easy” (1975)

It’s tempting to call Keith Carradine’s spell-bindingly confessional the centerpiece of “Nashville”, but it’s tempting call every song in “Nashville” the centerpiece of “Nashville”. Robert Altman’s magnum opus is peppered with dozens of songs, the musical performances comprising more than an hour of the film’s 160-minute running time (and that’s just accounting for the scenes in which the film stops to watch and listen), but few of them are as emotionally loaded as Carradine’s ballad, which every girl in the audience thinks he’s singing directly to them. “I’m Easy”, which Carradine wrote himself and would eventually go on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, is the closest thing to an admission of guilt that womanizing musician Tom Frank will ever be able to muster. Nested in the gentle tune – a pointedly seductive description of Tom’s easy come, easy go lifestyle – is the aching heart of a man who often seems not to have one. His words say “No strings attached,” but his voice says “I’m incapable of meaningful human connection.” Tragically misinterpreted as a mating call, “I’m Easy” is a cry for help laced with a pretty melody. – DE


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: A Song is Born, A star is born, Almost famous, Best Musical Numbers, Black Nativity, Calum Marsh, Daniel Walber, David Ehrlich, Eric d. snider, Frozen, Jake Cole, Kate Erbland, List, Lost in translation, Moulin Rouge, Movie Musicals, Nashville, Singin' in the rain, Tiny Dancer, Top 50, Top hat

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