It's a great time to be a fan of movie musicals. Since the year 2000, theaters across the country have been filled with movies built to inspire audiences to gleefully sing along. Some disasters have come along the way -- Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Rock of Ages among others -- but there have been plenty of real gems, too. The trend continues this year with not just one, but three adaptations that could prove to be gems on film.
There's the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons jukebox musical Jersey Boys, opening this Friday. And off in the distance are the Quvenzhané Wallis-starring adaptation of Annie, along with Rob Marshall's Into the Woods. Each has its positives and negatives, but if you're a lover of the genre, it's impossible to not have some kind of hope in them.
But in light of Jersey Boys' release this weekeknd, we're looking at the recent history of stage musical adaptations. From the stage to the screen (which is the only reason I'm not including the magnificent filming of Sondheim's Company starring Raúl Esparza), here are the best of the best.
5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I'll be the first person to jump aboard the "Tim Burton's gotta get some better material in his life soon" train, but if we're talking (mostly) live-action films, Sweeney Todd was easily his last greatest hit. Some people think Burton went too far into his own aesthetic in this film, but the narrative of Sweeney Todd is perfectly suited for his darkly comic, fantastical style. The macabre musical has enough humor shoved into it to mesh well with a couple of over the top performances, and Depp matches the pitch black darkness of it with every bit of broodiness he can muster up. It's flawed, no doubt, but no one's ever made a perfect Sondheim adaptation; this one comes about as close as you can get.
4. Mamma Mia
Smack talk Mamma Mia! all you want, but I'll be damned if I don't spend the rest of my life defending this one. If the intent of a musical is to deliver nothing but a good time, this is the one that hits that goal better than the rest. I saw it four times in theaters. Half of those were the sing-along editions. But seriously, critics' complaints about this film's singers not being the most professionally trained human beings alive get so tiresome after a while. It's practically impossible to listen to an ABBA song and not want to get up and dance (or sob with Meryl Streep if it's "The Winner Takes It All"), so stop bashing it and just go become the "Dancing Queen."
From film to stage and right back to film again, it's rather amazing just how well Adam Shankman and Leslie Dixon maintain the spirit of both John Waters' original Hairspray and the musical production it's mostly based on. You've got John Travolta in drag, Queen Latifah sassing it up, Michelle Pfeiffer at her cattiest since Batman Returns, James Marsden (and plenty of other men) making audiences swoon, and a cast of youths led by the delightful Nikki Blonsky that brings the whole film together. It's the kind of film that's as much a bundle of joy as it is a well-handled social commentary on American society and racism in the '60s. Considering Waters himself appears to flash Tracy Turnblad in the opening number, I'm sure he'd agree.
Before Rob Marshall decided to chop out everything important from Nine and throw it on the big screen in some weird unfinished form, there came another, much better, musical adaptation: the Best Picture winning film Chicago. Now, Marshall's no Bob Fosse, but I'll be damned if this isn't one interestingly staged production with some fine visuals to boot. It's got a stellar ensemble, each of its actors charming the audience as much as possible -- just as the roles demand; with Catherine Zeta-Jones exuding sexual confidence more than ever before while Renée Zellweger practically revives Marilyn Monroe's way of drawing the world in. There's a lot of razzle dazzle to it, but if I had to choose any women to get trapped in jail in (and we weren't including the gals of Orange is the New Black), the Chicago gang would be the absolute ideal.
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And I am tellin' you, this film's awesome, and surprisingly underrated compared to other musicals of its decade. Listen up everybody: Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles & Anika Noni Rose are absolutely your Dreamgirls. All three of these gals can knock your socks off with their commanding voices, and as much flack as people are willing to give Bill Condon for some of the projects he's chosen over the years, it's impossible to deny that Dreamgirls (along with his screenplay for Chicago) is among his best. It's a film as lively and engaging as the women that populate it, and if the costumes and musical numbers don't dazzle you, pretty much nothing will.
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