Movie Feature

A Bluffer’s Guide to: Musical films

By Travis WongMovies - 23 July 2012 2:35 PM | Updated 11 August 2014

A Bluffer’s Guide to: Musical films

Musicals have moved from the big screen to the small screen lately, what with ‘Glee’ and ‘Smash’. The heydays of the musical were in the early days when sound was paired with film, and these days it’s rare to see one in cinemas. After all, aren’t bug-like aliens and super humans running around in spandex more believable than having ordinary folks burst into spontaneous song and dance?

Nevertheless, musicals have garnered a loyal following. Full on big emotion, with some of the most memorable songs ever put in a cinema and amazing dance choreography, little wonder that they can still reinvigorate.  And look out for the upcoming musical with some of Heavy Metal’s big hits, ‘Rock of Ages’, with Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta Jones, that’ll hit cinemas here soon.

For this month’s bluffer’s guide, we run down some of the musicals you need to watch to beef up on your knowledge on the genre. 


Step 1: It’s a bit of magic

'Somewhere Over The Rainbow'

‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

The story: Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto are caught in a tornado's path and somehow end up in the land of Oz. Here she meets some memorable friends and foes in her journey to meet the Wizard of Oz who everyone says can help her return home and possibly grant her new friends their goals of a brain, heart and courage.

Why: No kids, Over the Rainbow did not come from a green frog puppet. It originated in this 1939 musical, as it follows the adventures of Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.  Shot in gorgeous Technicolor which just leaps out of the screen, the Wizard of Oz is a trippy and often campy ride, with numerous memorable songs. Despite it’s troubled production, including cast and director. The hit musical “Wicked” tells the story of both the Wicked and Good Witch, which makes this required viewing if you’re a fan of the musical.

Most memorable scene: A toss up between Dorothy singing Over the Rainbow in a sepia-toned Kansas or when the Wicked Witch melts away. 

Quote of the film: “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”


Step 2: You can sing anywhere

'Singing In The Rain'

‘Singing in the Rain’ (1952)

The story: With echoes of The Artist, a silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.

Why: Simply because it has some of the best dance sequences in the history of musicals. Surprisingly, the film was not a great success when it first came out, but over time, it’s managed to slowly seep up to the top of the charts, and besides being one of the best classic movie musicals, it’s just a fun movie, showcasing Kelly’s skills with his dancing shoes. Even K-pop band Girls’ Generation did a homage (of sorts) in their latest music video ‘Paparazzi’, though there was no rain in that. DUH.

Most memorable scene: What else? When Gene Kelly belts out Singing in the Rain and you wish there was a thunderstorm in the cinema.   Poor Kelly got a fever after filming that scene.

Quote of the film: “She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat.”


Step 3: Not all of them have happy endings


‘West Side Story’ (1961)

The story: Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, two youngsters from rival NYC gangs fall in love.

Why: You can’t get a better love story by basing one off one of the most classic love stories of al time, and it gets even better when you throw in dance numbers choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins and with songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It won ten Oscars, but surprisingly lead actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer did not take home any. But it did give some memorable songs such as ‘Tonight’, and Bernardo (George Chakiris) and Anita (Rita Moreno) supply a sizzling performance as Oscar-winning supporting actors. Unlike most other musicals, all does not end happily, which is certainly a rarity for musicals where the lovers walk off-stage arm in arm.

Most memorable moment: When the Jets break into 'Cool'. 

Quote of the film: “Come in, come in! We won't bite you until we know you better.”



Step 4: The Hills are alive!

'My Favourite Things'

‘The Sound of Music’ (1965)

The story: In 1930s Austria, failed nun Maria (Julie Andrews) takes on the job of becoming governess to the Von Trapp children. While she is initially met with hostility, the children eventually warm up to her.

Why: With classic songs like ‘Edelweiss’, ‘My Favourite Things’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and other tunes that your music teacher used to teach or torture you with, this musical has its place. With an annoyingly adorable cast and Andrews’ powerful lungs, it has helped boost Austria’s tourism industry forevermore. Yes, it is a little oversweet, like eating a carnival’s worth of cotton candy, but it does have an endearing place and will help you score points with your mom or mom-in-law. There’s even a sing-a-long version, where audience members, prompted by lyrics displayed on the movie, sing along to the movie en masse.  And if you really can’t stand it, at least you can check out Falco’s parody.

Most memorable scene: When the Von Trapp kids and Maria sing ‘My Favourite Things’. 

Quote of the film: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”


Step 5: Grease is still where it’s at

'Greased Lightning'

‘Grease’ (1978)

The story: Good girl Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and greaser Danny (John Travolta) fell in love over the summer. But when they unexpectedly discover they're now in the same high school, will they be able to rekindle their romance?

Why: Drumming up ‘50s nostalgia while whipping up some great rock-and-roll tracks, is a terrifically fun package that celebrates young love and being a teenager. Even if the stars look a bit too old to be in high school, it catapulted Aussie star Olivia Newton-John to stardom even as it rode Travolta’s extraordinary popularity, but Stockard Channing, who played the equivalent of a villain, the loose Betty Rizzo, was equally outstanding. While high schools have proven great fodder for musicals (witness the ‘High School Musical’ trilogy and ‘Glee’), Grease is still the word.

Most memorable scene: A toss-up between the cars and hairdos scene of ‘Greased Lightning’ and Frankie Avalon turning up in the rendition of ‘Beauty School Dropout’.

Quote of the film: “It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's what you do with your dancin' shoes.”


Step 6: It’s not all rainbows and ponies

'The Time Warp'

‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975)

The story: A newly engaged couple have a car breakdown in an isolated area and must pay a call to the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry).

Why: With a cult status and still being shown at weekends in cinemas around the world, this bizarre musical shows what a devoted fan base to a film can do. Tim Curry’s performance as Dr. Frank-N-Further is just out-of-this world, stomping on every taboo that no other musical would come close. The film was long banned and only allowed into the country recently, though we’re still waiting for a cinema to organise midnight screenings for it.

Most memorable scene: Doing the time-warp. The audience joins in at theatres to take part in the fun.

Quote of the film: "I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey."


Step 7: Look to Bollywood for help! 

'Lady Marmalade'

‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001)

The story: English poet/writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), falls in love with the terminally-ill star of Paris’s Moulin Rouge, cabaret actress and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman).

Why: Inspired to do a musical after watching a Bollywood film, Australian film director Baz Luhrmann took it upon himself to create a musical with the same energy. With a play-within a musical based on a Sanskrit play, Luhrmann intermingled modern pop numbers with the film’s nod to La Boheme, pulling influences together to create a mashup that ultimately oozed sequin and sizzle onto the screen. And how can you not like Kylie Minogue as the Green Fairy?

Most memorable scene: The stunning tango de Roxanne, where Luhrmann brings to bear his skills from his earlier hit, Strictly Ballroom, to create a compelling, hypnotic dance number.

Quoteof the film: The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. 


Travis Wong is a film loving geek who got his start from frequenting video shops in JB. He frequented movie theaters more often than school, and received his cinematic epiphany when he watched 'Taxi Driver'. While not driving a cab, he haunts DVD shops, and he currently has the largest remaining collection of VHS tapes and Laserdiscs in the country.