20 Spectacular Movie Musicals From the Last 50 Years

This list has a little of everything, from gritty ’70s classics to upbeat jukebox musicals.
Liza Minnelli in 'Cabaret.'
Liza Minnelli in 'Cabaret.' / United Archives/GettyImages

The Golden Age of Hollywood gifted us with The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Sound of Music (1965), and countless other iconic movie musicals. But the genre didn’t disappear once Gene Kelly and company took off their tap shoes for good. From the politically charged to the positively campy, here are 20 movie musicals from the last 50 years or so that will surely have you singing along from your couch seat.

1. Cabaret (1972)

The ultimate source material for Bob Fosse’s gritty-yet-glittery film adaptation of Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 Broadway musical was Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book Goodbye to Berlin—a lightly fictionalized retelling of his experiences of Berlin life during the Weimar Republic. A few of the film’s most iconic songs, including “Mein Herr,” “Money, Money,” and “Maybe This Time,” weren’t in the stage production. (Neither was Liza Minnelli, though she did audition for it.)

2. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Unsurprisingly, many religious organizations disapproved of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hippie-ish rock opera about the days leading up to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. But Pope Paul VI, for one, supposedly enjoyed Moonstruck director Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version. After a private screening, as Ted Neeley (who played Jesus) remembered it, the pope called it a “beautiful” movie that would help promote Christianity.

3. Tommy (1975)

While the pinball prodigy at the heart of The Who’s 1969 rock opera album Tommy is born during World War I, Ken Russell’s 1975 silver-screen reimagining moves the setting forward by about 30 years. This way, Tommy’s (played by The Who front man Roger Daltrey) ascent to fame and enlightenment mostly takes place during the ’70s—a better match for the soundtrack and also a good excuse to feature some of the era’s biggest talent, from Tina Turner to Elton John.

4. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

You’ll come for the soundtrack, but want to stay for all the dirty, gritty, New York-in-the-1970s realism on display in this disco drama, which helped shoot John Travolta—already famous for the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter—into the stratosphere. With what remains one of the top-selling soundtracks of all time, Saturday Night Fever may seem like a fun disco-era romp. But the original release was substantially darker, with an R rating and a contemporary Washington Post review saying it “assaults you with a flagrantly foul-mouthed script and coarse viewpoint.”

5. Grease (1978)

Based on Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 musical, this rollocking romp about 1950s high schoolers quickly became a classic and landed several songs on the charts—including Frankie Valli’s title track, written by Barry Gibb. Grease has also become everyone’s favorite example of Hollywood’s habit of casting older adults as teenagers. Olivia Newton-John (Sandy) was 29, Stockard Channing (Rizzo) was 33, and Michael Tucci (Sonny) was 31.

6. The Muppet Movie (1979)

The inaugural feature-length film in The Muppets franchise tells the “backstory” of how The Muppet Show stars first met, featuring a vengeful restaurateur (played by Charles Durning) and more cameos than you can count. Having puppets sing from cars and swamp sets wasn’t always easy: While shooting “The Rainbow Connection,” Jim Henson was operating Kermit from a cramped diving bell concealed in the water.

7. Fame (1980)

Fame, which follows talented teens at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, is a prequel of sorts to another iconic musical: A Chorus Line. In her song “Nothing,” the character Diana Morales reminisces about her time at the school. According to director Alan Parker, this inspired Fame producer David De Silva to develop an original movie exploring what that would’ve been like.

8. Purple Rain (1984)

Purple Rain’s high-octane performances and chart-topping soundtrack helped make it a blockbuster. But Prince’s semi-autobiographical film wasn’t originally called Purple Rain, nor was it meant to include that song. Its working title was Dreams, and of the 100 songs Prince gave director Albert Magnoli to choose from, “Purple Rain” wasn’t among them—it was added after Magnoli saw the singer perform it live.

9. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

In the original cut of Frank Oz’s ’80s cult classic about a bloodthirsty Venus flytrap, Seymour and Audrey don’t live happily ever after—or at all. Audrey II eats them both (which also happens in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 stage version), and his progeny take over the world. Test audiences hated the conclusion so much that the filmmakers begrudgingly scrapped it.

10. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top musical tragicomedy follows the ill-fated romance between “penniless writer” Christian (Ewan MacGregor) and glamorous courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) against the backdrop of Paris’s Moulin Rouge circa 1900. Getting the rights to include so many modern pop songs took a good two years, and Luhrmann failed with songs by at least two artists: The Rolling Stones and Yusuf/Cat Stevens.

11. Chicago (2002)

The stars in Rob Marshall’s movie version of Kander and Ebb’s 1975 Broadway musical did their own singing and dancing, though some had little to no previous experience. Richard Gere learned to tap-dance; and Renée Zellweger, who’d never seen the musical nor heard the songs, trained extensively to play Roxie Hart. Catherine Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, had done musical theater, and John C. Reilly had actually performed as a tramp clown during his youth.

12. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Many critics decried the 2004 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway classic—helmed by The Lost Boys and Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher—for favoring spectacle over substance. But the movie seemed to enchant the general public just as effectively as the phantom himself (played by Gerard Butler) beguiles his young protégé, Christine Daaé (Emmy Rossum). Audiences gave it an A CinemaScore, and 84 percent of its more than 250,000 Rotten Tomatoes reviews are positive. For all its operatic melodrama, The Phantom of the Opera still makes room for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments: Christine’s late father, seen only briefly in a photo, is portrayed by Ramin Karimloo, who’s played both Raoul and the phantom in stage productions of the musical.

13. Dreamgirls (2006)

After several false starts, a movie adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls finally hit screens in 2006 with an all-star cast featuring Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson in her film debut. While the original musical tried to distance itself from its inspiration—Motown Records’ origin story and the rise of The Supremes—so as not to ruffle feathers, filmmaker Bill Condon made changes to bring it closer to its roots. Key among them was shifting the setting from Chicago to Detroit, Motown’s birthplace.

14. Once (2007)

With Once, a story of friendship between a heartbroken Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower-seller (Markéta Irglová), writer/director John Carney turned virtually every mainstay of a movie musical on its head. Its two stars were musicians—not trained actors—who wrote much of the music as they shot the movie over 17 days in Dublin, improvising their way through Carney’s screenplay. They didn’t have costume designers, lighting technicians, paid extras, or, in fact, permits.

15. Across the Universe (2007)

Julie Taymor’s ambitious ode to The Beatles tracks the band’s own evolution from young pop rockers to psychedelic counterculturalists through a fictional ’60s love story between Jude (Jim Sturgess), a working-class Liverpool artist, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a straight-laced American student-turned-anti-war-activist. In order to distance viewers from the original Beatles tracks, composer Elliot Goldenthal intentionally omitted many memorable guitar riffs, which he called, according to Taymor, “the ghost in the room.”

16. Mamma Mia! (2008)

A young woman’s lighthearted quest to find out which of her mother’s three former flames is her father before her wedding, told through the music of ABBA, was adapted for film by the creators of the original 1999 West End musical—producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd, and writer Catherine Johnson. Two ABBA members make cameos: Benny Andersson is the piano player on the dock during “Dancing Queen,” and Björn Ulvaeus plays one of the Greek gods seen during “Waterloo.”

17. Get on Up (2014)

When Chadwick Boseman first got the script for the James Brown biopic Get on Up, he’d recently finished filming the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and flat-out refused to step into another icon’s shoes. Director Tate Taylor refused to give up, and Boseman eventually accepted the role, delivering a superlative, spirited portrayal of Mr. Dynamite’s many sides. Though the bulk of the music comes from Brown’s remastered recordings, Boseman did all the dancing himself.

18. La La Land (2016)

Writer and director Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning flick opens with a flashy musical number in a mundane setting: gridlocked traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. If the scene looked painfully familiar to L.A. commuters, that’s because it was filmed on an actual freeway ramp that had to be shut down for a weekend. That balance of Old Hollywood romance with the harsh reality of struggling in one the least forgiving cities in America is explored throughout the movie’s runtime.

19. A Star Is Born (2018)

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s magnetic chemistry and a slew of evocative songs—many composed with help from Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson—effectively silenced anyone tempted to suggest that the world didn’t need yet another iteration of 1937’s A Star Is Born. Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the film, cast Lady Gaga after seeing her perform Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” at a cancer benefit. In the movie, Cooper’s character Jackson Maine first discovers Gaga’s Ally in a drag bar singing that very song.

20. West Side Story (2021)

With the help of historical consultants and an almost unimaginably talented cast, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner created a less one-dimensional, highly dynamic remake of West Side Story. Though Spielberg has said that his team drew inspiration from the 1957 musical rather than the 1961 movie, they did borrow at least one beloved element from the latter: Rita Moreno, who played Anita. In Spielberg’s film, she portrays a new character named Valentina, the widow of drugstore owner Doc.