Olivia Newton-John recently passed away at the age of 73 after a long battle with breast cancer and the world mourned the loss of the incredibly talented actress and singer. She was a mainstay on stage and screen and most audiences will remember her as Sandy, the co-star of the hit phenomenon, Grease.
Grease wasn’t the first teen-focused musical film, but it took many lessons from the films before it and the ones afterward have had difficulty living up to its heights. And that is in no small part due to the incredible singing and acting of Olivia Newton-John.
10 The Fantasticks (2000) – 5.6
The Fantasticks is a motion picture adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name in 1960. The play and the film are a riff on a Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet story but with the plot reversed in a very interesting way and in a suburban, modern setting.
The teenage lovers in the film are separated by a wall and their feuding fathers. The twist, the fathers are secretly best friends and have been pretending to fight because they know there is no better way to get young romantics to fall in love quicker than telling them, “no”. Once the ploy is revealed, the lie leads to true feelings developing between the teenagers.
9 Dear Evan Hansen (2021) – 6.0
Dear Evan Hansen first appeared on Broadway in December 2016 and plans for a film were quickly developed with the creator of Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky. The film stars Ben Platt who made a name for himself a few years earlier as the co-lead on The Book of Mormon.
Dear Evan Hansen is a dark comedy, coming-of-age story that tells the tale of an unpopular high-school student. He ends up, through a series of coincidences, becoming the poster-friend for another student who recently committed suicide. While the film was not an out-an-out hit, the production of the film was lauded as it managed to convert the stage play effectively to the screen.
8 Cry-Baby (1990) – 6.4
Johnny Depp gets to do two of his favorite acting moves in Cry-Baby when he gets to both play an eccentric, greaser character who is something of a parody of the trope, and he gets to sing, something he didn’t have a chance to do until many years later in the adaptation of Sweeney Todd.
Cry-Baby was actually an original property that was eventually brought to Broadway. Not only did it have catchy and ear-worthy songs, but it was also a funny and charming send-up of earlier musicals like Grease and West Side Story.
7 Bye Bye Birdie (1963) – 6.6
The 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie was an immediate success when it arrived and a film was made for it just three years later. This music class staple is a fantastic coming-of-age story with some real stakes as the main character, Conrad Birdie, who rocks a small town in a dramatic and charming fashion when he comes for a visit.
The main plot involves the pop-icon Birdie, based on Elvis Presley and Conway Twitty, who decides to have his farewell tour before his army service in Columbus, Ohio. All the girls in town are excited, and the boys are of course mad that a big shot has taken their attention away from them. It has great musical numbers, and it’s an intelligent look into how boys and girls interact with each other at that impressionable age.
6 Fame (1980) – 6.6
A musical based on experiences that each of the cast members would have gone through was bound to be a worthy entry into the teen-musical sub-genre. Fame tells a five-part tale of students from their auditions for a School of Performing Arts to their final year as seniors.
The film was a critical success, receiving two Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. Its release was also different from most films of the time. Fame opened more like a play, released in specific cities first to garner attention and then released nationally later.
5 Hairspray (2007) – 6.7
2007’s Hairspray is the third version of the hit film originally created by John Waters for the screen, adapted into a play, and then finally into the film starring John Travolta, Zac Efron, and Niki Blonsky. The film is an upbeat, coming-of-age film about a young woman, Tracy Turnblad, who wants to become a star and ends up rallying against segregation along the way.
This Hairspray is a time machine into the hottest stars of the early 2000s and each actor brings palpable joy and readiness to the film. John Travolta excels in the role of Tracy’s mother, which is traditionally played in drag, with Christopher Walken proving to be an unexpected delight as Tracy’s father. On top of that, Michelle Pfeiffer excels as the musical’s detestable villain.
4 Pitch Perfect (2012) – 7.1
Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick star in the 2012 movie that led to two sequels and a television show on its way. The story is based on a non-fiction story by Mickey Rapkin titled Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate a Cappella Glory.
The story is of a college a cappella group and a freshman (Anna Kendrick) who is a newcomer to the struggling all-female singing team. There are some incredible and, unusual choices for pop songs in the film including “Cups (When I’m Gone)” which shot Anna Kendrick to number 6 on the US Billboard’s Top 100.
3 West Side Story (2021) – 7.2
A remake of the well-known classic movie and play, Steven Spielberg and his longtime screenwriter, Tony Kushner, directed and wrote the first remake of the musical in over 50 years. This updated version is closer to the stage version than the original film.
Spielberg and Kishner decided that while the script would be rewritten, the songs themselves would remain. This departure from the usual Spielberg film-fare was not a box-office smash, but critics praised it and the film was nominated for Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards and Ariana DeBose became the first Afro-Latina and openly LGBTQ+ woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
2 Grease (1978) – 7.2
In 1978, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John teamed up to put one of the greatest film romances on the big screen. Grease is the legendary high school musical about a California greaser in love with a preppy Australian girl.
Every song in Grease is iconic from “Grease Lighting” to “You’re the One That I Want”. Each musical number has incredible choreography and lyrics that have stuck with audiences for years. The names Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson are now synonymous with musicals and the film remains incredibly watchable to this day.
1 West Side Story (1961) – 7.6
Every musical that came after West Side Story owes a debt of gratitude to the film. It is by no means the first film adaptation of a celebrated Broadway show, but it is one of the first truly modern musical films with real-world problems the characters face and a setting well known to many filmgoers.
An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film follows two star-crossed lovers as their respective gangs, the Sharks and the Jets battle it out for control of the streets of New York. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture becoming the record holder for the most wins for a musical. It is a testament to the importance of the film that the story remained untouched until 2021.