Well before film existed, the musical had life. From religious pageants, to operas, to musical prose presented on stage, to traveling folk ballad minstrels – music and story have always been connected.
Musicals on film are not all created equal, and not everyone of them has characters breaking into song and dance every 10-minutes. Don’t believe me, well, check out the different musical sub-genres and distinctions below (with film examples).
- True Form Musical/Integrated Musical– is a film that combines acting with singing (and often dancing) seamlessly. The singing (and/or dancing numbers) are as balanced in the film as the spoken dialogue. However, other musicals in this category are completely void of spoken dialogue, meaning the entire film is told through song and/or dance.
Examples: The Greatest Showman, The Wiz, Grease, High School Musical, Wizard of Oz, Sweeney Todd, Dream Girls, Chicago, Into the Woods, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, Frozen, Sound of Music, Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Enchanted, Across the Universe, Mama Mia, Ella Enchanted, West Side Story, Tommy, Mary Poppins, Annie, Oklahoma, The Blues Brothers, Mary Poppins Returns, and Singing in the Rain.
2. Backdrop/Backstage Musical– These are films where the music is essential to understanding the story or the characters. Flicks representing this category can be biopics about actual musicians, or fictional accounts relating to an a cappella group, or songwriter, a band, a dancer, or the like. The music/dance isn’t just part of the story –it is central to the story – it is the backdrop of the story.
Examples: The United States vs. Billie Holliday, A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Ray, School of Rock, Walk the Line, Pitch Perfect, The Five Heartbeats, The Commitments, Once, Almost Famous, Bandslam, What’s Love Got to do With it?, Crazy Heart, Crossroads, Country Strong, Purple Rain, Streets of Fire, Eddie and the Cruisers, Love and Mercy, That Thing You Do, This is Spinal Tap, Nowhere Boy, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Bodyguard, Amadeus, Straight Outta Compton, I’m Not There, The Music Never Stopped, Fighting Temptations, some Beatles and Elvis films.
3. The Atmospheric Musical – These are not musicals in the true sense of the word, but these films use a pop music soundtrack (sometimes of a particular time period) to capture the vibe of the film, the period, or the characters. The lyrics of the songs could represent the characters, their moods, motivations, or their conflicts. In other cases however, the director may select certain songs just for the sake of having a successful commercial sale of the film’s soundtrack.
Examples: I Am Sam, The Breakfast Club, Top Gun, Singles, St. Elmo’s Fire, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy, Juno, Pretty in Pink, Boyhood, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dazed and Confused, the Big Chill, Pretty in Pink, Nottinghill, Baby Driver, and Hi Fidelity, Garden State.
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Some of my favorite musicals started on the film eventually leading to the stage show