30 best music movies
Sing along if you know it...
We love musicals. Characters suddenly switch from talking calmly to leaping about the place belting out showstoppers, and scooping up Oscars in their wake. But they receive plenty of glory, so we've decided to explore the flipside - movies about music. The stuff that dips into the business, exposes the pressures of live performances and radiates the sheer love of an instrumental arrangement that makes your heart sing and your toe tap.
30. Kill Your Friends (2015)
If Patrick Bateman had sidetracked into music development, he might have turned out something like Nicholas Hoult's deranged A&R man Steven Stelfox. An eccentric misanthrope whose inner monologues and lust for success propel him to seeking out killer ways to find the next big thing.
Adapted from the cult novel by John Niven the film washes itself in the late '90s Britpop era. Masterful song choices plucked from the stalwarts of the scene hammer out a soundtrack to rival Trainspotting, pushing Stelfox into the darker recesses of his job spec.
29. Purple Rain (1984)
Prince's big screen debut leans on camp to support the giant ruffled collars and overacting of its leading man. This quasi-autobiographical tale casts him as a talented -- if arrogant -- musician called The Kid, romping through Minnesota trying to get his musical act together. Women pose trouble, while his band is in trouble.
Forget realistic portrayals of musicianship, or even of human beings. This isn't that kind of film. Instead savour the over-the-top cultish dialogue ("Your lips would make a lollipop too happy,") and stunning live performances.
28. Lucky Them (2013)
A little-seen Pacific Northwest gem by Megan Griffiths picks up on the industry in the Internet age. Toni Collette's music journalist is tasked with an assignment that's a rarity in this era of aggressive click-bait aspirations; seek out a legendary scenester musician who went missing ten years previously.
Charming largely because of Collette's warm wit and sharp humor, the purpose of her journey hinges on discovering something about herself, that's a given considering the muso in question is a former beau.
27. Pitch Perfect (2012)
Who knew that a story about collegiate acapella would prove so popular? Kay Cannon's peppy dialogue and wry stabs at teen stereotypes secure Pitch Perfect into the modern movie music pantheon, a film aware of the nerdiness associated with its subject matter.
Hitting all the pertinent notes of a success story it manages to inject much-needed verve into an otherwise typical plot: after losing an important singing contest, a college acapella group muster up new ways to keep their routine fresh. Cue an influx of new, unorthodox members who push the Barden Bellas into different terrain. Fun frolics, bizarre humor and a knockout final performance will have you singing along in no time.
26. Empire Records (1995)
Allan Moyle followed up another music-tinged slab of teen angst (Pump Up The Volume) with this broader day-in-the-life comedy set in an independent record store. A nineties romp that revolves around the carefree staff of Empire Records packs a lot of characters and various storylines in; uncertainty about the future, confusion about identity and the biggest theme that reigns triumphant -- how music is the salve for all ailments.
Its signature line yelped out by Mark, "Damn the man! Save the Empire!" has, in twenty years, done for this cult classic what "I am your father" did for Star Wars.
25. 24 Hour Party People (2002)
The burgeoning Manchester punk scene kickstarts this tale of musical appreciation achieved through excess told via the unreliable narrator skills of Steve Coogan's Tony Wilson. The "Madchester" of the 1980s backdrops the bulk of the story, as Wilson -- formerly a TV reporter -- switches his career and founds Factory Records.
The self-reflexive story follows Wilson's career trajectory, interspersed with anecdotal sequences based on the rising music stars of the day; Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays appear, sometimes through live concert footage. It's by far the most savvy lookback on a pivotal musical era. The casual asides and frequent breakage of the fourth wall are an added touch of genius.
24. Ray (2004)
While Oscars don't always guarantee a film's lasting legacy, Ray houses a powerhouse performance from Jamie Foxx that continues to dazzle. In other words: he brings his A-game to a role that he earned through convincing the very man he would come to play -- Ray Charles. How much collaboration occurred between the pair is irrelevant, the gusto and pride that Foxx instils within Charles makes him a compelling figure to watch, as he journeys through life from humble, troubled beginnings to a international stardom.
23. School of Rock (2003)
Richard Linklater drops a musical spin onto his favoured theme of growing up. Both Dewey Finn, an out-of-work musician who turns to teaching, and the children he schools learn from the lessons played out in this stellar riff on scholarly aptitude. If you want to excel then hard work is a necessity. Luckily for this classroom of youngsters their homework assignments involve shredding on flying-v guitars and hammering the skins.
It's a joy to watch, simply for the moments where the kids realise how rewarding music can be. And naturally, there's a competition looming at the end, which isn't there for the taking but more an inspirational carrot urging the whole school to rock out.
22. Walk The Line (2005)
Inspired by the late great Johnny Cash, Joaquin Phoenix commandeers the part of the country legend. Swaggering across stages and into the heart of his future wife -- played excellently in a lifetime best performance by Reese Witherspoon.
21. The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone divided critics at the time with his semi-truthful (aren't they all?) biopic of The Doors, or more importantly, of its extravagant frontman Jim Morrison. The perfectly-cast Val Kilmer -- who in 1991 appears as Morrison's doppelganger -- strides with all the braggadocio befitting the esoteric performer. While the real-life members of the group criticised Stone for falling short on character depth and accuracy, that's not the intention. If anything the purpose is to paint a portrait of Morrison's downfall, which comes to a head with one of the film's chewiest moments depicting the band's legendary Miami show in 1969.
Undoubtedly, it's the pulse of the drug-fuelled era which takes precedence over musical importance. Batshit epiphanies laced throughout the film a true testament to Morrison's altered state: "Devouring consciousness!" he cries. "Digesting power! Monster of energy! It's a monster! Nothing will destroy our circle! Ride the snake! Ride the snake to the lake!" Ride the snake, indeed.
20. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Influential for both its bell-bottomed costumes and killer soundtrack, Saturday Night Fever introduced the world to disco through the smooth moves of John Travolta's Tony Manero. During the week he suffers through a soul-sucking job, but at the weekend? He owns the dancefloor at the hippest discotheque in Brooklyn.
Like all good rise-to-glory movies there's obstacles to overcome for Tony, but that's not what anyone remembers. Its lasting legacy stems from the songs populating its stellar boogie sequences. A part of why it's heralded by many as the definitive disco picture.
19. Crazy Heart (2006)
Scott Cooper draws on Jeff Bridges' inherent likeability even when he's behaving like a slovenly layabout to winning effect. Bridges famously captured that aura in The Big Lebowski but as country music has-been Bad Blake, not content with his current lot in life, the humour is trumped by tragedy.
That tragedy of course the downfall of his once soaring career, that's taken a few steps back as his golden years are spent travelling the country plugging away in dive bars. It's a fairly standard formula for a music flick, that avoids the trappings of schmaltz in favour of character and compassion. Bad Blake's glory days might be behind him, but he's still got what it takes to deliver heart-wrenching tunes and some phenomenal pick-up lines.
18. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen travels back to the 1930s jazz scene, infecting the real history of the era with a fictional biopic of Sean Penn's jazz virtuoso Emmett Ray. Ray is a hard-nosed, gifted guitarist, whose self-appreciation and sidelined pimp business doesn't prevent him from finding love with Samantha Morton's kind-hearted laundress. Their romance is still squandered at times thanks to his artistic desire to be free, and to perhaps one day better his musical idol Django Reinhardt.
17. What's Love Got to Do with It? (1991)
The life of Tina Turner is relayed in this blistering, and rather uncompromising, biopic that never shies away from the ugliness of her musical and marital union with husband Ike Turner. It's in a league of its own when compared to other rags-to-riches music movies; the obstacles Turner overcomes are by far some of the harshest ever depicted onscreen.
Her story unfolds as she is spotted by Ike and propelled to stardom -- the cost of which she suffers behind closed doors. It's these earlier scenes of abuse running parallel to her onstage performances -- delivered uncannily by Angela Bassett -- which make her freedom, and musical bravura, all the more triumphant by the film's end.
16. Frank (2014)
Yes, the one where Michael Fassbender wears a papier mache head throughout the whole movie.
A wholly unique enterprise that is unlike any other movie on this list, Frank is told through the eyes of Domhnall Gleeson's wide-eyed outsider Jon, who views his invite to join experimental musical troupe The Soronprfbs as an opportunity to showcase his songwriting skills. Riffing on the real-life Frank Sidebottom persona of Chris Sievey, it's Fassbender's enigmatic frontman who steers the film away from Jon, as his struggle with achieving fame and acclaim drive this masterful take on the creative process.
15. 8 Mile (2002)
This generation's Rocky forgoes the boxing ring antics for the dimly-lit clubs of Detroit, where Slim Shady himself, Eminem, plays rap star wannabe Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith. Slumming it at a job he loathes Jimmy lives solely for the moments when he's onstage, engaged in a poetry slam-style rap battle, his dreams of escaping the trailer park never far from his mind.
Director Curtis Hanson transforms a tried-and-tested formula -- the rise of the underdog -- and guides it down a less obvious road. There's wins in the shape of Eminem's performance and Kim Basinger's against-type bit as his haggard mother, the biggest saved for the outstanding delivery of Jimmy's rhymes.
14. Footloose (1984)
Teens fight back against authority figures with some fancy footwork. Kevin Bacon leads this eighties cult favourite as Ren, a city boy jiver uprooted to a small Midwest town where John Lithgow's preacher has banned rock 'n' roll and dancing. As a rebel with a cause Ren takes it upon himself to right the wrong brought to this tiny 'burg.
And that includes a lot of dancing. Those choreographed sequences hit home thanks to its soundtrack, that's a synth-fuelled composite of eighties chart toppers, the perfect accompaniment to a youthful uprising.
13. Hilary and Jackie (1998)
Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce took several liberties when telling the story of acclaimed cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, a child prodigy who fast became an internationally renowned classical musician. Focusing on her relationship with sister Hilary the movie nevertheless tells of Du Pre's complex personal and public life, as she rose to prominence.
Emily Watson, as du Pre, went above and beyond to add authenticity to her performance, going so far as to learn the cello. That commitment continues across the movie, where she chews out Rachel Griffiths' Hilary over and over, in a fascinating look into the weight of performance and the desire to reach ever-dizzying heights.
12. Once (2006)
Stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova co-wrote the songs for Once, a sweet Dublin-set love story concerning the romantic entanglements that stem from sharing a creative process, which is a sheer joy for music itself.
Hansard's street busker-repairman falls head over heels for a young flower seller who also harbours a significant talent for the keys. Their chemistry spurs on a songwriting and recording session, the whole affair playing out with whimsy and warmth, and an impromptu jam that'll have you moved to tears.
11. Control (2007)
Sam Riley takes on the role of Joy Division's troubled frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn's biopic of the singer's all-too-brief life. Awash with a monochrome colour palette -- the film was shot in black and white -- the grey hues somewhat exacerbate Curtis' inner 'division.' Will he find joy, or will he not?
With Curtis' wife on hand as co-producer it's refreshing that the movie resists painting him as a victim to some outside influence. His undisputed talent for channeling anguish into lyrics and poems the result of a deep discontent, that Riley's nuanced turn brings in abundance.
10. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Possibly the only music film that's as memorable for the amount of cars trashed during production as it is for the killer soundtrack. The Blues Brothers started life as a Saturday Night Live sketch, and went on to become one of the most beloved music movies of all time. Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi's careers rocketed into the mainstream as brothers Jake and Elwood. Their plan to renovate the orphanage in which they grew up sends them on a mission to rally funds.
In addition to the huge amount of automobiles that wrecked a mall, the movie boasts a stellar supporting line-up of real-life music legends including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
9. Whiplash (2014)
Basing a movie on the one thing that everyone fears -- being called out on your inability to nail a correct time signature -- Whiplash buries its themes beneath the brilliant musical interludes at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory. Miles Teller's Andrew who leads, isn't quite yet the virtuoso drummer he longs to be. Enter: JK Simmons.
Simmons' Oscar-winning performance is the most talked-about element of the movie, and he is utterly superb. Those hidden themes surface as his harsh persona thaws a little, when he opens up to Andrew and reveals why he's such a stubborn old mule. That brief moment when he stresses the importance of not being "OK" but being "great" kinda makes up for all the shouting and red-faced bellows.
8. The Commitments (1991)
Alan Parker's grimy rock 'n' roller kicks out the jams with enthusiasm, a result of hiring nonprofessional actors with real skills as actual musicians. Leading the band is Jimmy Rabbitte, played by Robert Arkins, who poaches a bunch of his friends from a wedding group with the intention of starting a new type of act, the likes of which Dublin has never seen.
As set ups go, it's fairly straightforward; The Commitments form and vow to make their endeavour a success. Where it differs is in its execution. Individually the band strive to trudge on in life, it's only when they come together onstage that the magic happens. Each performance brims with vigour as if they lives depended on busting out those soulful tunes.
7. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
It was Rob Reiner's love of behind-the-scenes rock documentaries that inspired him to create one of his own. Shaped into a faux-realistic account of the exploits of Spinal Tap, a fictional British rock band, his end product turned into a cultural touchstone for the silliness and excesses of rock 'n' roll.
The slapstick movie follows the band, made up of comedy legends Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, on tour. During which Reiner and co. spoof the typical diva tantrums and rock stereotypes that normally plague real bands. Their quasi-serious attitudes have since gone on to become cultural shorthand for when real-life bands edge into pretentiousness.
6. Shine (1996)
A disheveled man trudges through the rain and into a restaurant. The shabby overcoat and cigarette dangling from his lips, props intended for misdirection. See, once he sits amid the diners at the piano it all changes. What flows from his fingers is musical bliss. And so begins Scott Hicks' Shine, the movie that put Geoffrey Rush on the map and earned him an Oscar as one of three actors enlisted to play Australian pianist David Helfgott.
A man who struggled throughout life to appease his father's demands, pushed himself to the limits of his ability and a result had a nervous breakdown. The tale takes artistic license with the specifics, but that's little excuse to not view this enchanting biopic.
5. The Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Sissy Spacek plays country star Loretta Lynn in this eighties rags-to-riches tale that set the bar high for musical biopics. Spacek's refreshing and observant turn scored the actress her first Oscar.
Directed by Michael Apted, Coal Miner's Daughter is, some 35 years later, one of the best efforts at recreating the real-life experiences of a artist onscreen. Charting Lynn's early days in Kentucky, where she married her husband (played by Tommy Lee Jones) at 15, through to her attention-grabbing bar sets and all the way to her tenure at the Grand Ole Opry.
4. Almost Famous (2000)
Way before he struck out as a filmmaker Cameron Crowe travelled the U.S. for Rolling Stone, interviewing bands and living up the rock n' roll lifestyle aboard tour buses and backstage at gigs. It's those experiences which inspired Almost Famous, a movie that places his love of music right at the core in the shape of Patrick Fugit's wannabe rock reporter William Miller.
Beating away at the heart of this semi-autobiographical film is a no-holds-barred account of what being a successful musician entails. The endless repetition of performing every night and the toll of travel mean nothing to William, who becomes entangled with popular rock act Stillwater during a stateside tour. In particular Billy Crudup as the band's enigmatic singer -- a riff on Robert Plant, who is reportedly the source of the "I'm a golden god!" moment -- hammers home the consequences of fame, that still look more enticing than they do tiring.
3. Nashville (1975)
Citizens of Nashville opined that Robert Altman's movie fell flat when it came to real depictions of its beloved country stars and the city they inhabit. Most critics did not share that opinion, citing Altman's satirical riff as a nigh-on perfect deconstruction of the American landscape. Whichever stance you take, it cannot be denied that this cheeky docu-drama is a highlight of music cinema. Storywise, it's sparse on specifics: it unfolds across five days leading to the main events: a grassroots presidential campaign/music festival.
A whopping 24 characters are introduced via Altman's typically long, uninterrupted takes. Most are musicians and most are played by actors with no ability in that area, which makes for some interesting song choices -- another bone of contention for locals who were furious that the movie paints its legends as talentless. When really it's quite a witty character study.
2. High Fidelity (2000)
Based on Nick Hornby's novel, High Fidelity transplants the action from London to Chicago, a move that worried fans of the book who then watched the movie and realised none of Hornby's wit was lost in transit.
And if there was ever an actor to satiate loyalists, it's John Cusack, whose turn as Rob Gordon, the ill-tempered and utterly watchable record store owner, completely nails the central conceit: the obsessive relationship we have with music. Which like everyone on the planet is twinned with his personal life experiences.
Rob's soundtracking and penchant for lists ropes in two of his employees, played by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, who just like him, can't resist geeking out over the immense record collection at their disposal.
1. Amadeus (1984)
Milos Forman played fast and loose with historical accuracy when adapting the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His big screen feature, itself adapted from the stage play, inserted rivalries that never existed and posited impotence on those whose loins produced many, many children. Those liberties shouldn't detract from the power of the piece, which scooped up practically every Oscar at the time.
Tom Hulce plays the composer with the necessary zeal, and resists the urge to go full-on 'wacky genius', which makes his Mozart all the more likeable. His outward enthusiasm only matched by Forman's eagerness to flood the movie with sonatas and refrains at every opportunity.