A successful and well done movie musical soundtrack can either really enhance or diminish the impact of the accompanying film. A movie musical soundtrack is integral to the film’s success. Usually adapted from a previously known and performed Broadway musical, the expectations for these films can be incredibly high.
For this particular list, the musical soundtracks present feature musicals in which characters spontaneously burst into song. They have dance numbers as if there is a live theatre audience watching. The musical numbers typically advance the plot, aid in character development. And they feature epic production numbers that can take place anywhere.
I took critical acclaim, commercial success and cultural influence into account. This list excludes exclusively instrumental film scores, animated musicals, animated films. It feels like they each deserve their own list. It also excludes non-musical film soundtracks, as I listed them seperately. To read that top ten list you can click here.
- Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
“It’s just a jump to the left, then a step to the right.” Since its initial theatrical release the Rocky Horror Picture Show has become an international sensation and is now regarded as one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Critics initially panned it upon release in 1975. But 30 years later in 2005, the United States National Film Registry added it to its list for its cultural significance. The Rocky Horror Picture Show started to become well known. That happened when audiences began participating with the film at midnight showings. These first screenings took place at the Waverly Theater in New York City in 1976.
This snowballed into people dressing as the characters. And eventually fans started performing alongside the film in places all over the globe. These performances continue to this day. It has garnered a large LGBTQ+ audience, with celebrated themes of sexual awakening, liberation, self-expression and gender identity. It also holds the record for the longest continually running movie release ever. Rocky Horror fans even hold conventions worldwide. The accompanying film soundtrack was composed by Richard Hartley and is the definitive version. It features Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Meatloaf, Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams and Charles Gray. The excellent glam rock soundtrack, like the film it accompanies, continues to entertain audiences around the world. The ultimate cult classic.
Essential Track: “The Time Warp” by Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell
My Favourite: “Sweet Transvestite” by Tim Curry
- La La Land (2016)
“Here’s to the ones who dream”. The dreamy La La Land won the most Golden Globes by a single film, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The AMPAS nominated it for Best Picture (and it famously lost to Moonlight amid the mix-up). The romantic musical film ended up winning Academy Awards for Best Original Score. It won a Grammy award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media. And it won the Oscar Original Song for “City of Stars”.
Justin Hurwitz composed and orchestrated the songs while Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the lyrics. There’s one exception, which is “Start a Fire” which John Legend wrote with Hurwitz, Marius de Vries and Angelique Cinelu. Damien Chazelle’s film pays tribute to the best musicals on the big screen. He drew much inspiration from Jacques Demy’s classic musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. These songs have lush instrumentation and poignant lyrics. It is no surprise that this acclaimed musical soundtrack captivated audiences around the world.
Essential Track: “City of Stars” by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
My Favourite: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” by Emma Stone
- Funny Girl (1968)
“Hello Gorgeous”, Barbra Streisand famously said while accepting the Academy Award for her performance as 1920’s comedy star, Fanny Brice in the magnificent Funny Girl. The William Wyler film received eight Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. It was incredibly popular with audiences as well, becoming the highest grossing film of 1968. In 2016, US National Film Registry added it to its list for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The musical soundtrack is mostly a showcase of Streisand’s fantastic performance. All lyrics were composed by Bob Merrill with music by Jule Styne. For the film version, Merrill and Styne’s three new compositions replaced eight of the songs from the original musical. These replacements include two Fanny Brice (the basis for the musical) songs include the show stopping tune “My Man”. It also features vocals by Omar Sherif and ensemble members. By the end of the soundtrack, it is crystal clear as to why Streisand is “the Greatest Star”.
Essential Track: “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Barbra Streisand
My Favourite: “People” by Barbra Streisand
- Fiddler On The Roof (1971)
“If I were a Rich Man.” The critically acclaimed musical directed by Norman Jewison was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won three of those Academy Awards, including Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score. That last Oscar ended up in the hands of famous arranger and conductor John Williams. Williams adapted the musical from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock and Harnick composed the Broadway musical version.
Widely considered a classic, it features a talented ensemble cast who brings all of these beautifully written songs to life. “Prologue/ Tradition”, “To Life” and “Do You Love Me?” are some of the most powerful tracks on this epic and emotional soundtrack. The music certainly transports the listener to the Ukrainian town of Anatevka in which the film takes place. The Fiddler on the Roof‘s soundtrack stays with you long after listening. These strong songs deeply resonate with universal themes of love, loss and life. L’Chaim to life!
Essential Track: “If I Were a Rich Man” by Chaim Topol
My Favourite: “Sunrise, Sunset” by Chaim Topol, Norma Crane, Michele Marsh, Michael Glaser and Fiddler on the Roof ‘s Motion Picture Chorus
- Chicago (2002)
“He had it coming, He only had himself to blame”. Chicago became the first musical since 1968 (Oliver!) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of Rob Marshall’s Chicago was overwhelming. That success, some think, helped revive the movie musical genre for the 21st century. Its dynamic soundtrack features Catherine Zeta Jones in an Academy-Award Winning Performance as Velma Kelly. It also features Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart and Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton. Their performances got the Academy’s attention enough to give them Oscar nomiations. Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Mya Harrison also appear in the film.
John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the fantastic music and lyrics. Danny Elfman also contributed an instrumental number. The US soundtrack also includes the US Billboard #1 Dance Club Hit: “Love is a Crime”. Singer-songwriter Anastacia wrote that song with Greg Lawson, Denise Rich, Damon Sharpe and Rick Wake. “Roxie”, “When You’re Good to Mama” and “Mister Cellophane” are some of the highlights of the Grammy Award Winning Soundtrack. This soundtrack will continue to dazzle our (Roxie) hearts for decades to come.
Essential Track: “Cell Block Tango” by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Susan Misner, Denise Faye, Deidre Goodwin, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova and Mya Harrison
My Favourite: “Overture/All That Jazz” by Catherine Zeta Jones
- Dreamgirls (2006)
“And I am telling you….” the Dreamgirls soundtrack is iconic! The Dreamgirls Grammy Award winning soundtrack hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Leading that film is Jennifer Hudson’s incredible Academy Award Winning performance as Effie White. Her performance of the show stopping tune, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is fantastic. And it is the centerpiece of the film and soundtrack. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The soundtrack also features fantastic vocal performances by Beyonce, Anika Noni Rose, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and more.
Harry Krieger composed the score and Tom Eyen wrote the lyrics for the original Broadway production. For the 2006 film, four new songs were added, with music by Harry Krieger with various lyricists including Siedah Garrett, Willie Reale, and Anne Preven. The Underdogs, comprised of Harvey Mason, Jr. and Damon Thomas became the production team here. They rearranged the Broadway musical’s score for the film. Beyonce and Scott Cutler also helped contribute musically with the powerful, Academy Award nominated song, “Listen”. The Academy also nominated “Love You I Do” and “Patience” for Best Original Song. It’s a soundtrack that you will want to “Listen” to on repeat.
Essential Track: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” by Jennifer Hudson
My Favourite: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” by Jennifer Hudson
- Hamilton (2020) Original Broadway Cast Recording
“I’m not giving away my shot”. This record-breaking and critically-acclaimed Broadway musical has captivated audiences around the world. Disney+ released the live stage film this year, becoming the most streamed film of 2020. The cast also recorded the best-selling cast album of all-time. And it even hit #1 on the Rap albums chart, the first Broadway cast album to do so. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also performs as Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton features hip-hop at its core. It has even spawned a successful mixtape, “The Hamilton Mixtape” featuring various popular artists. These include Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Usher and Kelly Clarkson and more. It’s ambitious, brilliant and a modern-day musical sensation.
Essential Track: “Alexander Hamilton” by Leslie Odom, Jr., Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Lin Manuel Miranda, Phillippa Soo, Christopher Jackson & the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
My Favourite: “Wait for It” by Leslie Odom, Jr. & Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
- West Side Story (1961)
“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” This brilliant soundtrack spent 54 weeks at # 1 on the Billboard 200 album charts, the longest run at #1 by any soundtrack album in history. It features classics like, “Maria”, “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty”, all written by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The New York Philharmonic adds an impressive touch to the tracks. Together, these musicians recorded something masterfully crafted, forward-thinking and groundbreaking. The film won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the most for any musical film. The accompanying soundtrack album also deservedly won a Grammy in 1962 for Best Soundtrack Album.
Essential Track: “America” by Jim Bryant and Marni Nixon
My Favourite: “Somewhere” by Jim Bryant and Marni Nixon
- The Sound of Music (1965)
“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music.’. A beloved classic. It is one of the most successful soundtracks in history, selling 20 million worldwide. It reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and in 2015, Billboard listed the album as the second greatest of-all time. The acclaimed songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the music and lyrics. Rodgers penned both lyrics and melody for the new songs used in the film version. That’s because Hammerstein died in 1960 prior to Robert Wise making the film.
Irwin Kostal arranged and conducted the iconic soundtrack. Led by Julie Andrews’ wonderful vocal performance, the soundtrack also features great vocals from Bill Lee, Peggy Wood, Charmian Carr, Dan Truhitte, Marni Nixon and more. It includes classic songs like, “My Favourite Things”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Edelweiss”. In 2018, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”. Whenever The Sound of Music comes on, you can’t help but sing along.
Essential Track: “My Favourite Things” by Julia Andrews
My Favourite: “Do-Re-Mi” by Julie Andrews, Charmian Carr, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner & Kym Karath
- Grease (1978)
“Grease is the word”. The original soundtrack from the motion picture has sold 38 million records worldwide. It is one of the highest selling-albums of all time and the #1 highest selling-soundtrack from a musical. The Grammy nominated soundtrack features stellar performances by leads John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And it features the rock and roll revival group Sha Na Na, Stockard Channing, Louis St. Louis and Cindy Bullens. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees wrote the Billboard #1 hit title track. Meanwhile, Franki Valli of the Four Seasons performed that track. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote the score for the Broadway musical. And the soundtrack features all the songs from the original Broadway musical. Well, except for two (Shakin’ at the High School Hop and All Choked Up).
Not all of the songs on the soundtrack ended up in the film. And the music department made some of the original musical songs into instrumental pieces. The soundtrack spawned huge Billboard #1 hits: ” Grease”, “You’re the One that I Want”. It also featured the Academy Award Nominated classic “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (#3). John Farrar and Gibb separately wrote them specifically for the super successful film version. One of the greatest and most successful movie musicals ever made, Grease is an undeniable cultural phenomenon. The soundtrack is full of timeless classics and still resonates with audiences today around the world. With its critical acclaim, untouchable commercial success and continued cultural impact, Grease remains the ultimate movie musical soundtrack.
Essential Track: “You’re the One that I Want” by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John
My Favourite: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” by Olivia Newton-John