Yesterday, which opens in the UK this week, imagines a world where Sergeant Pepper, Eleanor Rigby, and a yellow submarine live only in the mind of Jack Malik – a street musician whose life changes when he is the only person who can remember the Beatles following a freak accident. It is the latest in a long history of cinematic jukebox musicals; a quick glance at the Wikipedia page reveals that a film can be categorised as a jukebox musical as long as its songs predate it and are (at least tangentially) used as narration. Everything from Meet Me in St Louis to Rocketman – one using a collection of older songs woven into a fictional narrative, the other using a single artist’s work to tell his life story – fit the bill.
The common connector is nostalgia: the appeal of these pieces, versus that of a musical with original songs, is the pre-existing emotional connection to the music involved. This can to be a double-edged sword; over-reliance on the songs to draw audiences can make a lazy picture. In some cases, the music lifted into the jukebox musicals becomes the definitive version of the songs; ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ immediately evokes Gene Kelly with an umbrella, not Dean Martin in an earlier variety show. Who knows how ABBA will be remembered in 20 years’ time. Tying back to Yesterday, the most notable exception to this nostalgia rule might be the Beatles themselves. A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine hit cinemas at the height of Beatlemania and starred Paul, John, George, and Ringo – at least in animated form.
The below 10 musicals began in a wide variety of ways – some from stage shows, some in the golden age of Hollywood musicals – but all harness the collective enthusiasm for their artists and songs to tell their stories.
10. Rocketman (2019)
Despite its panache and splendid performances, Dexter Fletcher’s most recent jukebox musical ends up at the bottom of this list due to its biographical bent: it is not terribly exciting to use Elton John’s songs to tell his own life story. That said, the songs rarely appear as stage performances, instead being woven into the narrative and sung by multiple cast members, to literally or figuratively represent each milestone in John’s life. While bogged down by the paint-by-numbers biopic structure, when it is allowed to be big and bold it evokes the best of Hollywood musicals.
9. An American in Paris (1951)
The Gene Kelly showcase makes a strong argument for classification as a jukebox ballet rather than a jukebox musical in its final act, but the collected George Gershwin songs and orchestral suite provide a charming, catchy backdrop for a thin romantic narrative that is just an excuse for the song and dance. That said, not much plot is needed when Kelly’s magnetism and talent are at the fore. It may not be the strongest story on this list but remains joyous to this day.
8. Easter Parade (1948)
This Judy Garland/Fred Astaire classic makes use of Irving Berlin’s songbook to give both performers some of the defining numbers of their career, including ‘Steppin’ Out with My Baby’, ‘We’re a Couple of Swells‘, and both leads’ unique renditions of ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. While the film’s role as one of Garland’s early comeback vehicles is well known, Astaire was not initially supposed to perform alongside her. He was coaxed out of retirement by Gene Kelly, who had to drop out of this picture due to a broken ankle. You get the feeling either version would be good enough to make this list.
7. Yellow Submarine (1968)
The Beatles’ animated musical fantasy is the iconic band’s only entry on this list, thanks to its psychedelic visuals and fantasy plot that only loosely connect to the real-life personas. Nineteen songs – some of which were previously recorded but never released – are included across the 90-minute run time, which has to be one of the highest concentrations of songs-per-minute in a movie musical. The film is worth seeing if only for the impressive feat of weaving all these tracks into a colourful, creative, family-friendly narrative.
6. All That Jazz (1979)
To fictionalise his own life, director Bob Fosse drew on a collection of popular songs from the early- to mid-20th century – the era in which he grew up, before bursting onto the Broadway scene as a dancer and choreographer. While none had featured in Fosse’s own stage career, they paid homage to his origins and the era in which musicals – and musical films – were popularised. While divisively meta-theatrical and ever so slightly self-indulgent, Fosse makes up for it with his signature sharp style.
5. Sunshine on Leith (2013)
Dexter Fletcher’s highly underrated Scottish musical weaves the wonderful corniness of The Proclaimers into a heartfelt romcom. Sunshine on Leith is a fantastic example of the cheesy ingenuity required to string a narrative together while representing all of the band’s greatest hits: you need a nurse for ‘watching a man dying’, you need a proposal for all their fantastic love songs, and you need someone moving abroad to ‘send back a letter from America’.
4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
This gem may be the quintessential example of pre-existing songs losing almost all meaning outside of their jukebox musical revisioning. With the exception of ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ (which is loosely inspired by an earlier tune) and ‘Moses Supposes’, all songs in the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen film were taken from 1920s and 1930s variety shows – very hard to believe when Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds have made ‘Good Morning’ so iconic!
3. The Blues Brothers (1980)
While unfortunately directed by the worst helicopter parent in the film business, The Blues Brothers fuels its 150-minute run time with a toe-tapping rhythm and blues soundtrack. The creative team went all-out in their homage to the best of the genre, featuring cameo performances from the likes of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. Add in rock-solid plotting, a car chase of epic proportions, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s deadpan double act, Nazi mockery, and Carrie Fisher with a bazooka, and its classic status is cemented.
2. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Luhrmann dials the jukebox musical up to 11 in his take on La dame aux camelias, updated to fin de siècle Paris and featuring some of the biggest hits of the late 20th century. The Elephant Love Medley may be one of the most inventive mashups in musical history – Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman make Elton John, David Bowie, the Beatles, and more entirely their own, connecting the familiar tunes to an endlessly-adapted love story in a way that feels entirely new. Let’s not forget Jim Broadbent singing (well, lip synching) Madonna.
1. The Mamma Mia! Cinematic Universe (2008 and 2018)
The stage adaptation Mamma Mia! and its film-only sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are unquestionably the pinnacle of jukebox musical achievement. Yes, continuity and timelines between the two make absolutely no sense, but it does not matter when the songs are so catchy, the plots so joyous, and the singing so variable, oscillating between questionable (looking at you, Pierce Brosnan) and angelic (Lily James deserves the world). The first film benefits from ABBA’s greatest hits, but the second film may even improve on the first with its ridiculously creative (and just ridiculous) uses of some B-side tracks. Lastly, without meaning offence to the Beatles or Proclaimers or Elton John, ABBA may be the ultimate jukebox musical band; there’s an unabashedly sincere and cheesy number for every occasion.