In honor of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hitting the silver screen, I’ve compiled these essential movie musicals that are a must-watch. Feeling the bug after seeing Mamma Mia? Keep the fun going at home with any (or all) of these picks.
Some of these films are classic Broadway, while others are a little more fringe. Grab your friends, and popcorn, and get ready to sing. Live your best life.
The Sound of Music (1965)
One Sentence Summary: Failed nun marries captain with seven children as they flee from Nazis.
While this was technically a stage play first (1959), the film is far more iconic. When I first became attached to this musical, I thought the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” was very romantic. Gladly, I’ve grown past that. These days I listen to “I Have Confidence” while walking through the city when I have something to do that I’m stressed about. I have always identified with Maria, especially as she flounders through the abbey.
Can I Singalong? You bet! I break into snippets of this musical on the daily. Most often, it’s “So Long, Farewell” when saying goodbye to friends.
Recommended If You Like: Mary Poppins, Matilda, My Fair Lady
West Side Story (1961)
One Sentence Summary: In the midst of gang violence, two lovers believe in a happy ending that never comes.
Yet another stage play (1957) turned movie. When my seventh grade English teacher asked our class to watch West Side Story and write an essay comparing it to Romeo and Juliet, I had already listened to the songs for years, yet only seen the movie to the first time, seeing as the songs are definitely part of our collective culture. I can’t talk about my love for this movie without acknowledging that the use of brown face is enough to turn a person away forever. (The good news is that there is a remake of the movie in the works that promises to make West Side Story slightly-less problematic.) The musical itself mirrors our current political climate in many ways and it is particularly eerie to watch how attitudes towards immigrants in the 1950s seem no different to what they are today.
Can I Singalong? Pretty much through the whole thing. Between “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” and “Something’s Coming” there is always something to sing during the movie.
Recommended If You Like: In The Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams
Mary Poppins (1964)
One Sentence Summary: Mail ordering people doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.
Another gem starring Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins combines magic with love. This movie shows how important it is to listen to children! They are small humans with needs! Unlike the previous movies on this list, Mary Poppins was a movie first, only making its Broadway debut in 2006. A sequel is coming out this winter staring Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda. (A fun fact about this movie is that it always makes my dad cry. Which, of course, forever endears it to me.)
Can I Singalong? You might get a bit tongue tied during “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but you can renew your confidence during many of the other wonderful numbers.
Recommended If You Like: The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Matilda
One Sentence Summary: In a mysterious mansion in the woods, a newly engaged couple takes shelter from the rain and their entire perception of reality is warped.
After failing spectacularly on Broadway in 1975, the movie adaptation has had decades of success. Much has changed in the world since this movie was hailed as a celebration of queerness, but the regular screenings all over the country still serve as a refuge for those who feel like they don’t belong. Rocky Horror has a cult following and when you watch it you can see why! It is strange in all the right ways and while it feels a little dated these days, it is always still fun to check out a shadow cast at your local art house theater.
Can I Singalong? If you’re not singing (and dancing!) along, why are you even here?
Recommended If You Like: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tim Curry in anything, Meatloaf
Sister Act (1992)
One Sentence Summary: While hiding from the mob at a convent, Whoopi teaches the nuns that music (and life) can be fun.
Oh, this movie is so fun. Poking fun without insulting religion, Sister Act calls into question what it means to be truly good. Spoiler alert – hiding in church from your surrounding neighborhood is not good. What happens when we open up our communities? Well, in Sister Act, lots of singing.
Can I Singalong? It depends how good your Latin is, but I think there is something for everyone.
Recommended If You Like: The Sound of Music, Miss Congeniality
One Sentence Summary: Whitney Houston helps Brandy find love despite the efforts of Bernadette Peters to make her life miserable. Also, Whoopi Goldberg.
I am embarrassed to report that I just watched this movie for the first time a few years ago, but wow I love it so much. In a revealing article from Shondaland, the production of this TV film has increased my fascination intensely. While there have been many interpretations of Cinderella over the years, it did not land on Broadway until 2013! There is so much to love in this movie – the costumes, the music, the spectacle of it all. Brandy is as sincere as Bernadette is absurd.
Can I Singalong? You won’t be able to resist. One might even say it’s impossible.
Recommended If You Like: Into The Woods, Beauty and The Beast, Sister Act
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
One Sentence Summary: Gender is a construct; Hedwig and Plato are here to prove it.
Definitely more of a fringe feature, Hedwig began its run Off Broadway in 1998. In 2001, a film adaptation was released that bombed in a big way. Like many box office flops, Hedwig has developed quite the cult following in the years since its release. It is a queer celebration and exploration into the complexity of gender through the lens of an Eastern European rock band immediately following the fall of the Berlin wall.
Can I Singalong? Die hard fans may get tongue-tied when it comes to lyrics, but there is actually a moment in the movie where the lyrics are on the screen and singing along is encouraged.
Recommended if you like: Rocky Horror Picture Show, Velvet Goldmine, Kinky Boots
Moulin Rouge (2001)
One Sentence Summary: A poor poet and a sex worker fall in love, but must keep it a secret to keep their funding.
Baz Luhrmann has a particular aesthetic that I very much enjoy. This movie is a spectacle in the most wonderful sense of the word. Fantastical representations of love combined with the magic of making a musical. Ewan McGregor is the perfect sad boy poet to Nicole Kidman’s sultry and ambitious actress. I am looking forward to seeing Moulin Rouge take the Broadway stage in 2019. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but if you’re feeling fragile maybe stop the movie a good fifteen minutes before the end?
Can I Singalong? There are so many covers and reinterpretations of songs that you might find yourself singing along even watching for the first time!
Recommended If You Like: Romeo+Juliet, Chicago, Across The Universe
One Sentence Summary: A woman murders a man she is having an affair with and then capitalizes on her notoriety as a murderess to gain fame and fortune.
Sometimes I get so caught up in the action of this movie and feel so intoxicated by female empowerment that I forget that it’s never justified to murder someone. Murder is bad! Always! But also the criminal justice system in the 1920s is wild. I wish more things in life could be solved by a jazz number.
Can I Singalong? I challenge you to make it through “Cell Block Tango” without bursting into song.
Recommended If You Like: Rent, Cabaret, Moulin Rouge
One Sentence Summary: A group of bohemian artists refuse to pay rent or take responsibility for their actions.
One of the longest running shows on Broadway to date, the movie musical adaptation was released in 2005, just a few years before the show closed. The movie has a few tweaks to the general timeline of the show, but is otherwise a very good adaptation. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by how much I love Rent, but when I re-watch this movie I remember how good it is. Rent has been an outlet for my angst for almost two decades and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Watch it enough times and you too will describe your state of mind through Rent characters.
Can I Singalong? You bet your ass.
Recommended If You Like: Chicago, West Side Story, Spring Awakening, Fun Home
One Sentence Summary: The trials and tribulations of an R&B girl group and their manipulative record label executive.
Probably the only time in history that Beyoncé has been overshadowed. This movie famously caused everyone who watched it to question why on earth Jennifer Hudson didn’t win American Idol. Whenever I watch Dreamgirls I remember that I am stronger than I know. Also, that following your dreams is hard, but worth it. Watch and be inspired!
Can I Singalong? I mean, you won’t be as good as Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson, but you can dream.
Recommended If You Like: Cadillac Records, Hairspray
Mamma Mia! (2008)
One Sentence Summary: A high stakes game of who’s the daddy just in time for a wedding.
It’s a pretty thin story, but the music is uptempo and fun. It’s a movie that makes me want get up and dance and also maybe travel to a Grecian island. Meryl is wonderful in everything and this adaptation is no exception. Don’t expect this to be life-changing, but enjoy the ride.
Can I Singalong? ABBA would hope so.
Recommended If You Like: Across The Universe, Hairspray, Sister Act
Into The Woods(2014)
One Sentence Summary: A barren couple complete a wild scavenger hunt through fairy tale timelines with mixed results.
I always love a good mixed-up fairy tale. There are so many story lines to follow, some more captivating than others, but what really keeps me coming back for more is the melodrama of it all. Into The Woods pokes fun at the fairy tale world while still entirely immersing you in it. Also, Chris Pine as an airhead prince is just so good.
Can I Singalong? There’s a song for everyone, but I am partial to “Agony.”
Recommended If You Like: Wicked, Maleficent, watching Meryl Streep rap
The Last Five Years (2014)
One Sentence Summary: There are two sides to every story and that story can be very long if it lasts five years.
The story of a five-year relationship from both sides, Cathy starts at the end of the relationship, and Jamie at the beginning. It doesn’t have the same spectacle quality of other movie musicals, but it is heartbreaking and triumphant. The struggle to navigate both success and failure while in a relationship is difficult, especially when your partner always seems to be on a different page. While Anna Kendrick does a wonderful job, I will always be enamored by this Cynthia Erivo cover of the opening number, “Still Hurting.”
Can I Singalong? Of course! Just don’t be bummed that you don’t sound as good as Cynthia Erivo.
Recommended If You Like: Newsies, Rent, West Side Story
What musical adaptations do you love? Let us know in the comments.