Classic Musicals to Watch Before “La La Land”

This may sounds silly, but there was a legitimate time in my life when I wanted life to be a musical. That may be a strange thing for a grown man to say. However, when I was much younger, I thought it would make life more exciting and maybe we’d all get along more if we had to randomly sing and dance with each other.

Let’s put all our cards on the table here… I still think that would be pretty cool.

As a result, I obviously love movie musicals, so imagine my delight learning that Damien Chazelle, writer and director of Whiplash, decided to create an homage to classic, MGM movie musicals from the 1950’s and 1960’s. La La Land is set to release this holiday season, and is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz from its early screenings at various international film festivals.

Before you run out to see this new musical, let’s take a look back at some of my favourite classic musicals.

West Side Story (1961)

I want to be upfront with you from the start; this isn’t really all that great of a movie. I’m honestly very confused why it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Richard Beymer is borderline unwatchable as Tony. Natalie Wood as Maria is fine but dull (and very obviously not Puerto Rican). The camera work is often uninspired, providing not much of a new experience from the stage show.

The film does gain some of its vibrancy from its supporting characters played by Rita Moreno (Anita) and George Chakiris (Bernardo), who offer much needed life to an otherwise dreary film. Top that off with some fantastically choreographed dance sequences, Leonard Bernstein’s perfect score, and biting social commentary, makes this film still worth watching in spite of its flaws.

If for no other reason, watch this movie for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris performance of the best number in the entire film, “America.” It’s everything a musical number should be; it’s fun, it’s filled with energy, and laced with a message that’s still relevant.

Fame (1980)

Calling this a classic musical is pushing it, but it is well over thirty years old now. More a deconstruction of classic musicals then one itself, "Fame" uses vignette style storytelling (see also: "Crash", "Love Actually") to show the everyday life for the students of a prestigious performing arts high school in New York City.

While there is music in it and it’s great, the film’s excellent writing and natural performances from all unknowns is really what separates it from other films within the genre. The focus is more on each of the individual characters and their personal journeys with fame and what it could and has cost them.

Also unlike other musicals, this film is grounded firmly in reality. The songs are a way for the characters to express their realities rather than a means to escape from them.

This film was a huge risk for MGM; a departure from their classic musicals like "Wizard of Oz" and "Singin’ in the Rain." It paid off however, winning two Oscars (best score and best song), and spawning a popular TV series by the same name.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

A musical about orthodox Jews living in a Russian village doesn’t sound like the breeding grounds for a great musical. However, somehow this tale transcended its context of devout Tevye, struggling with his love for his family, and mankind in general, with his strict adherence to…TRADITION!

Everything about this movie musical is top notch: the cast, the visuals, the story, and the songs, etc. If you haven’t already watched it, you should do so immediately. I absolutely love this movie. The characters are unforgettable, the songs are endlessly singable, the feels are undeniable. This musical is a perfect synthesis of everything that makes a musical great; strong characters, visually energetic numbers, earnest sincerity and heart, and universal themes.

If you are still unconvinced to watch this movie, watch it simply to listen to the first film score that earned John Williams (yes…THAT John Williams) an Oscar.

Mary Poppins (1964)

I never liked this movie as a kid. I thought it was boring and strange. I was confused why Mary Poppins was so mean and why cleaning my room was not nearly as fun as she made it seem. Also, how could Bert’s pants look like that when he pulled them down to dance with the penguins?? It was very unrealistic #causeeverythingelsewasveryrealistic #thethingsthatconfusedmeasachild #howdotheydothattho?

I was bored one day a few years ago, and decided to throw it on for whatever reason. It was like I was watching the film for the first time. While there are definitely elements in the film aimed at children (the fun animated sequences, the over the top nature of the entire piece), the story itself is not meant for children at all. The film is a call to adults to return to a state of childlike wonder, something I did not pick up on at all as a kid. I was surprised by how engaged I was in the plot, how clever and profound the songs were, how well staged and designed everything was, and how lived in the world felt. Add in Julie Andrew’s and Dick Van Dyke’s iconic performances, and you have yourself not only a great musical, but a great film.

If you haven't watched it since you were a kid (or ever), it’s definitely worth rewatching.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I might be a bit biased, but I still think "Singin’ in the Rain" is the greatest musical of all time. I grew up watching it as a kid, and it only gets better with age. A biting satire of the studio system at the time of its release, while simultaneously the epitome of a studio musical.

Every single musical number is painstakingly unique and well-crafted and takes total advantage of the visual medium of film. From the grandiose dance sequence “Broadway Melody” featuring smouldering chemistry between co-stars Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse and an eye popping, Frank Loesser inspired vision of New York, to the genius physical comedy of Donald O’Connor in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Every number leaves its unique mark.

There is no film that is quite like "Singin’ in the Rain" and I don’t think there ever will be. It has earned its place as the greatest American musical there is. If you have yet to see it, there’s no time like the present.

There are so many fun musicals, and some truly great ones that I’ve overlooked. I’m very glad to see that the movie musical is making a comeback. Here’s hoping "La La Land" is the first of many original movie musicals to come.

Also, here’s hoping after seeing it, as a society we will be one step closer to living life like it’s a musical.


  • Brenden Bell

    Screenwriter, Editor, Blogger, and Visual Content Manager

    Brenden Bell is a screenwriter, video producer, editor, teacher, and Visual Content Manager with The Initiative Production Company. He loves eating ice cream, everything nerdy/dorky, thinking too much, and dogs (mostly just the big ones, but he’s open-minded)


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