The Less Singing a Musical Has, The Better The Musical Is – According to the Tomatometer

We compared the runtime taken up by performances in 21st-century musicals to critical response and discovered that too much singing could get you splatted.

by | October 3, 2018 | Comments

A Star Is Born

Joel Meares

With A Star Is Born hitting theaters this week – and boasting a 95% Tomatometer score – our mind has been on musicals. And, specifically, what makes a musical good… or, in the case of Star, Certified Fresh great. Is it the stellar acting? The costumes and sets? Or is it – you know – the music and musical performances? It’s the last question we’ve decided to tackle here.

Born straddles the line between traditional musical (think burst-out-in-song-at-any-moment films like Hairspray or La La Land) and what we’re terming “performing arts movies” (think movies where characters take to a stage to perform, or perform in a natural situation, a la Once or School of Rock). It features a number of performances of sure-to-be-huge songs – expect “Shallows” to pitch a tent inside your head soon and never, ever leave – but it only features a handful of them; no one ever busts out in song unnaturally in the film, La La-style, but in scenes where Lady Gaga’s Ally is composing music, she comes awfully close.

Other recent musicals, more traditional “musicals” like the Oscar-nominated Les Miserables, are almost entirely sung. Is one approach better than the other when it comes to critical response? Do critics favor movies with more performances or fewer? We turned to the Tomatometer to ask just that: Does more music equal a better musical?

We analyzed 101 musical or performing arts movies from the 21st century that have at least 25 reviews on our site. We noted the amount of performance time in each film (the time spent on performed songs, as opposed to background music or dance-focused numbers) and then calculated the percentage of each movie’s runtime that is taken up by those sung musical performances. So, for example, 2005’s Rent devoted 70% of its runtime to sung performances, while 2001’s Moulin Rouge! devoted 38%.

On average, the 101 movies devoted 34% of their runtimes to musical performances. We used that average to dive deeper, splitting the films into two categories – those with more than 34% of their runtime taken up by performances, and those with less. The key takeaway? Less, as is so often the case, is more.

Musicals with More Music

Films with more than 34% of their runtime taken up by performances

Number of Movies: 42 (see full list)
Average Running Time: 112 minutes
Tomatometer Score Average: 58.3%

More time spent performing equals less critical praise, according to the Tomatometer. In this category, 23 of the musicals or performing arts movies have Rotten scores, and only three (Sunshine on Leith, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hairspray) boast Tomatometer scores above 90%. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some great and memorable movies in the bunch. Despite the Rotten average, the movies in this section are big (Les Miserables, Mamma Mia!), bold (Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, Love Songs), and unique (The Lure, London Road, Repo! The Genetic Opera). They are, arguably, musicals made for lovers of the form.

The Last Five Years, a 2015 Broadway adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan (who movie and TV musical lovers will remember from NBC’s Smash), has the largest percentage of its runtime devoted to performances, at 81%. It was followed by Broadway veteran Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (74% of its runtime), Les Miserables (73%), Rent, and Mama Mia!. Of those, only Across the Universe, which featured the music of the Beatles, was a non-adapted original work.

There is a sweet spot, performance-wise, for movies wanting more showstopping numbers than average, but also wanting a Fresh score, and that is the 34%-40% range: Movies that kept performance time within that percentage range of their runtime had an average of almost 62% on the Tomatometer. This includes Moulin Rouge! and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, itself a spoof of a subgenre of the performing arts movie, the musical biopic. This 34%-40% range can also prove lucrative: some 38% of The Greatest Showman‘s 105 runtime was taken up by sung performances, and the movie earned $435 million at the global box office.

Musicals with Less Music

Films with less than 34% of runtime taken up by performances

Number of Movies: 59 (see full list)
Average Running Time: 114 minutes
Tomatometer Score Average: 71.5%

With movies like Once, Control, We Are the Best!, The Muppets, Sing Street, Lagaan, Enchanted, La La LandSchool of Rock, and Inside Llewyn Davis in this category, it’s easy to understand the high 71.5% Tomatometer average. It also helps that 32 movies in this category – just over half – have Tomatometer scores above 80%, and just 15 have Rotten scores (hello, Burlesque).

Of the 101 movies in our total set, the top 10 are dominated by movies that devote less than 34% of their runtime to performances. In fact, only one film in the top 10 goes above that threshold: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which devotes nearly 40% of its runtime to singing and which has a Tomatometer of 93%. Once, which has the highest Tomatometer among the set (it’s Certified Fresh at 97%), does come close, however, with 33.7% of its runtime taken up by performances. The rest of the top 10 is made up by You, The Living (22% of its runtime), We Are the Best! (25%), Monsoon Wedding (18%), Lagaan (19%), Sing Street (23%), The Muppets (25%), Enchanted (11%), Frank (26%), Inside Llewyn Davis (29%), and Crazy Heart (13%).

Movies that keep their performances to 20%-30% of their runtime fare the best of all movies in the set, with an average Tomatometer of 72.2%. This group includes some of the movies already mentioned, plus RayPitch Perfect, and La La Land.

A Star Is Born is in theaters October 5

The full data set

Movies with more than 34% of runtime made up of performances: Notorious (2009), Idlewild (2006), Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006), Love Songs (2007), Walk Hard (2007), From Justin to Kelly (2003), Moulin Rouge! (2001), The Greatest Showman (2017), Sunshine on Leith (2013), Walk The Line (2005), Cadillac Records (2008), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Pitch Perfect 3 (2017), Joyful Noise (2012), The Lure (2015), Country Strong (2010), Duets (2000), Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Beyond the Sea (2004), God Help the Girl (2014), De-Lovely (2004), Into the Woods (2014), The Producers (2005), London Road (2015), Colma: The Musical (2006), Rock of Ages (2012), High School Musical 3 (2008), Black Nativity (2013), Dreamgirls (2006), Nine (2009), Walking on Sunshine (2014), Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Hairspray (2007), Chicago (2002), Mamma Mia! (2008), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Les Miserables (2012), Rent (2005), Across the Universe (2007), The Last Five Years (2014)

Movies with less than 34% of runtime made up of performances: The Singing Detective (2003), Enchanted (2007), Crazy Heart (2009), Danny Collins (2015), Glitter (2001), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), 24 Hour Party People (2002), Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001), The Runaways (2010), Chi-Raq (2015), Basmati Blues (2017), August Rush (2007), Nowhere Boy (2009), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Bandslam (2009), Begin Again (2013), You, the Living (2007), Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), Jem and the Holograms (2015), La Vie en Rose (2007), Control (2007), Raise Your Voice (2004), Straight Outta Compton (2015), 8 Mile (2002), Camp (2003), Sing Street (2016), School of Rock (2003), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), Heart Beats Loud (2018), 8 Women (2002), The Fighting Temptations (2003), The Muppets (2011), We Are the Best! (2014), Pitch Perfect (2012), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Annie (2014), Office (2015), Frank (2014), Bride & Prejudice (2004), Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), Burlesque (2010), Ray (2004), Beauty and the Beast (2017), La La Land (2016), Rockstar (2001), Josie and the Pussycats (2001), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), A Mighty Wind (2003), Hustle & Flow (2005), The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), Sparkle (2012), Love & Mercy (2016), Get On Up (2014), Jersey Boys (2014), Muppets Most Wanted (2014), Fame (2009), The Sapphires (2013), Once (2007)

* There are two movies from 2000 on the list: Dancer in the Dark and Duets.

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