What Is the Best Scene in a Musical Film?
To mark the arrival of In the Heights in cinemas everywhere, our writers weigh in on their favourite musical numbers
The movie musical has been a staple of cinema ever since the medium first made the transition from silent to sound: at times, it can feel like motion pictures were outright invented just so we could capture the joyful sight of people singing and dancing on screen. The Golden Age of Hollywood gifted us with some all-time greats, of course, from The Wizard of Oz to Singin' in the Rain to West Side Story, though as the years have moved on the movie musical has fallen somewhat out of favour. Nowadays, a great musical film seems to be more of an exception than a given.
Still, one could certainly argue that few things have the potential to wow an audience, to stick in the memory and send a feeling of pure euphoria through the screen and into the aisles, as a truly great movie musical sequence.
To honour the arrival of Jon M. Chu's In the Heights, arguably the most dazzling musical to grace our screens in years, we asked our regular contributors to name their favourite sequences or numbers from the annals of musical movie history, from all-time classics to some lesser known gems. Here's what they came up with…
Words by: Tom Barnard, Alasdair Bayman, Jack Blackwell, Ben Flanagan, Ella Kemp, Emily Maskell, Lilia Pavin-Franks
“La Resistance” (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) – Tom Barnard, Editor
One of the great gifts of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is their ability to write parodies of canonical classics that are just as good as the numbers they're sending up. Case in point: “La Resistance,” from the 1999 animated masterpiece that is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (still, by the way, one of the great American musicals). The movie is packed with genuinely clever and witty songs (“Mountain Town” is a perfect riff on Beauty and the Beauty's “Belle,” for example), but the best comes close to the end – a dense and melodic pastiche of Les Miserables' “One Day More” called “La Resistance.” Sung by the angelic newcomer Gregory, rival to Stan, it begins as a moving lament to the kids' mission to prevent a war with Canada, then suddenly, hilariously, majestically, it draws together every song from the film thus far into a giddy, overlapping musical montage. It's backed by inventive – well, inventive considering the crude animation style – visual compositions, with characters staring directly into the “camera,” and even a few nods to the work of Busby Berkeley. The songwriting itself is too good to be called mere parody: “La Resistance” is a fully-fledged mini masterpiece of its own making.
Gene Kelly's Intro (The Young Girls of Rochefort) – Alasdair Bayman, Contributor
To many, Gene Kelly is the definitive on screen musical performer, his twinkling toes and energetic presence capable of elevating basically any picture. His finest screen moment, however (and I'd argue the genre’s highpoint), comes in the form of Jacque Demy’s widely celebrated and seminal The Young Girls of Rochefort. Kelly’s opening number sees him meet Solange (Françoise Dorléac) and fall head over heels for her in a scene that blooms to encapsulate the film's wider themes of love at first sight, the sheer vitality of life. Written by Demy himself, the musical numbers are imbued with a brilliant verisimilitude, as the music of legendary Michel Legrand interacts with Kelly’s vocals through a playful piano structure. Set against Ghislain Cloquet’s eye-popping mise-en-scene, the pinks and whites of this world are accentuated in all their components, and especially through the physicality of Kelly’s athletic physique.
“Shallow” (A Star Is Born) – Jack Blackwell, Contributor
A Star Is Born debuted on a particularly stacked day of premieres at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and if you’d told me in the morning that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut was going to outshine new efforts from both the Coen Brothers and Mike Leigh, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yet the instant that Lady Gaga’s Ally steps onto the stage to belt out “Shallow,” A Star Is Born won the day. It’s a knock-your-socks-off ballad; soaringly emotional and speaking to the precise feelings of the characters, all the while being fully believable as a standalone pop song in its own right. It’s no wonder that “Shallow” utterly dominated the charts, even as the film itself was bafflingly sidelined during awards season: this scene proved beyond doubt that Lady Gaga could be as big a star in the movie world as she is in the music one.
“Deewangi Deewangi” (Om Shanti Om) – Ben Flanagan, Contributor
When Marvel Studios announced Infinity War as “the most ambitious crossover event in history,” they'd clearly forgotten about Om Shanti Om. In Farrah Khan’s Bollywood masterpiece, Shah Rukh Khan plays mega film star Om Kapoor (or O.K.), who seeks revenge after discovering that he's actually been reincarnated. It’s part Singin’ in the Rain, part Vertigo, reaching a glorious crescendo of uncanny self-referentiality in the “Deewangi Deewangi” number. Here, O.K. is joined by the cream of the Bollywood crop, all playing themselves. From Kajol to Priyanka Chopra to Salman Khan to Rekha, thirty-one of cinema's most famous people arrive to make a spectacular entrance, by turns sexy, corny, and otherworldly, in order to bust-a-move with SRK. Vishal-Shekhar’s euphoric banger features the lyric, “All the hot girls put your hands up and say OM! SHANTI! OM!” which is only bettered by the following line: “All the cool boys come on make some noise and say OM! SHANTI! OM!” As Khan shakes his Ed Hardy-clad ass for ten minutes straight, cinema hits a peak of pure joy.
Make 'Em Laugh (Singin' in the Rain) – Ella Kemp, Contributor
While Singin’ in the Rain boasts Gene Kelly’s handsome, clean-cut leading man performance as actor Don Lockwood trying to adapt during a time of pivotal change for Hollywood musicals, the film’s most ambitious and accomplished number comes from Donald O’Connor, who plays his best friend Cosmo Brown. The whole film questions the mechanics of entertainment, but trumps navel-gazing theorising with technically dazzling theatrics. It does so in deceptively simple ways, too, namely with three words that fuel the film’s best song and one of the greatest musical numbers ever put to screen: “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Cosmo proceeds to tell Don in words, melodies, and movement what the most important part of entertaining is – his body snaps and slides like a perfectly wound-up doll, his face smiling and switching and constantly transforming, at points literally bouncing off the walls. He’s just one man, but conveys as much energy as an entire army. It’s silly yet so precise, straightforward in its message but immaculately put together. And, crucially, it does the job: as Cosmo goes to such lengths to explain how to make ‘em laugh, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.
The Wedding (Yentl) – Emily Maskell, Contributor
Yentl, Barbra Streisand’s first directorial credit, is an entangled tale of gender identity and romance that's exemplified in the “Tomorrow Night” song sequence. Yentl (Streisand), disguised as a man, is in a whirlwind of panic, caught in a love triangle, and about to marry a woman. The film’s queer subtext reaches dizzying heights as it cuts back and forth between Yentl’s suit fittings and a montage of wedding tradition. For a brief moment, there is a sense of calm: Yentl and Avigdor, who she’s actually in love with, meet eyes in a parade of candles. Flames dance between them but the harmony is short-lived. New layers of the orchestra are introduced as the tempo builds; Yentl’s lyrical articulation of her internal monologue grows more frantic, emphasised by the spinning camera and disorientating transitions. It’s a brilliantly energetic moment that encapsulates Streisand’s earnest performance and the charmingly chaotic nature of this wonderful film.
New York, New York (On the Town) – Lilia Pavin-Franks, Film Data Manager
It’s near impossible not to follow up the words “New York, New York” with “a wonderful town,” and we have the three rambunctious sailors from the heyday of MGM musicals to thank for that. On the Town, based on the 1944 Broadway musical of the same name, sees Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie (played gloriously by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) set loose in the city that never sleeps for only twenty-four hours, taking a break from their offshore duties. Unabashedly energetic, “New York, New York” serves as the perfect introduction to this trio of cheeky, awestruck men (determined to cram in as many sights and women in a short space of time) and one of the most recognisable cities in the world. Shot partly on location, the upbeat opener mirrors the boundless enthusiasm of the sailors-cum-tourists, with postcard-perfect shots of the trio frolicking in front of NYC’s most iconic landmarks; a world of wonder and opportunity at their tapping toes, even if it is just for a day.
In the Heights is now showing in UK cinemas everywhere.