If the last couple of years are any indication, music movies are marching back. Biopics on the likes of Queen and Elton John have done quite well, even when competing against what many call television’s golden era.
The best music films function like a musical but have all the plot twists and drama of a good VH1 Behind the Music episode. Viewers get the music they love, and in the best scenarios, the actors actually learn to sing or play a few guitar chords. These movies reflect larger-than-life talents to the tune of an excellent soundtrack, and what more could you ask for in a time when you are stuck inside than a great plot and a killer soundtrack? Sure, some movies might offer one or the other, but when they can offer both? Bliss.
The problem is that whittling down the category and selecting some of the truly best music movies of all time is as easy as finding nine creative things to do with that bunch of kale that you panic-bought last week. To simplify things, we disqualified documentaries. As amazing and informative as these movies can be, they’re in an entire universe of their own. Also, no outright musicals (mostly). That too is another genre worthy of its own lengthy list.
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Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s Y2K classic almost goes without saying. The film takes place in ’73 and follows an aspiring young music journalist during the heyday of Rolling Stone magazine. The classic rock songs written for make-believe band Stillwater feel as though they could be the work of Zeppelin, Skynyrd, or the Allman Brothers. And Kate Hudson’s character, Penny Lane (inspired by Pennie Trumbull), is as delightful and freewheeling as they come.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Main Cast: Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson
Runtime: 122 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The rules were no documentaries … but we said nothing about mockumentaries. This examination of fake English glam-hair-metal band Spinal Tap is absolutely hilarious. One of writer Christopher Guest’s greatest gifts to the public, the 1984 film is as absurd and intoxicating as ever. The scuzzy music steals the show, but the outstanding wardrobe, stage layouts, and picture-perfect depiction of rock star ridiculousness aren’t far behind.
Director: Rob Reiner
Main Cast: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest
Runtime: 82 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9
Last Days (2005)
A bit of a sleeper, Last Days takes a somewhat quiet and reflective look at Kurt Cobain’s final hours. Directed by Gus Van Sant and released in 2005, it beautifully portrays the tortured Nirvana frontman before the misty backdrop of his native Pacific Northwest home. The film grasps the urge to escape that we all instinctively feel — an urge all the greater when you’re the face of grunge rock and your signature frayed sound has been taken over by the pop music machine.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Main Cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento
Runtime: 97 minutes
IMDb Rating: 5.8
While we’re on the topic of grunge, we have to include Singles. The ’92 film is another by Crowe and paints a lovely portrait of love and music during Seattle’s most famous era to date. Actual stars like Chris Cornell (RIP) and Eddie Vedder enter the mix, and the vignettes of struggling relationships capture perfectly what it’s like to grow up without completely sacrificing your going-to-shows, drinks-after-midnight younger self. It’s a rom-com that swaps the cheese for the best of Gen X noise.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Main Cast: Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick
Runtime: 99 minutes
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Purple Rain (1984)
The grandaddy of them all, Purple Rain is pretty much the role model of the group. Here, Prince shows his unrivaled ability as a dynamic pop-rock god, part sweet-talking, bike-riding crooner, part electric-guitar-wielding badass. The barn-burning 1984 movie is like one long music video, drenched in purple and never letting off of the pedal. You will wish it was the ’80s and you had a motorcycle.
Director: Albert Magnoli
Main Cast: Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day
Runtime: 111 minutes
IMDb Rating: 6.6
The Sound of Music (1965)
The iconic 1965 film is too vital not to include, even if it’s very obviously a musical. It raked in five Oscars and is typically included in every “best films of all time” shortlist, music-themed or otherwise. A triumph of singing over not, culture over Nazis, and Julie Andrews over anything, The Sound of Music makes you want to frolic through the countryside with reckless abandon. And the Rodgers and Hammerstein score is pure joy and one of the most successful soundtrack LPs ever.
Director: Robert Wise
Main Cast: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
Runtime: 172 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.0
High Fidelity (2000)
Released in 2000, High Fidelity is high on the list of the best John Cusack movies of all time. It’s a film with scenes that burrow deep into your psyche and likely inspired millions of thoughtful mixtapes, assembled for love interests across the globe. Apparently, settling on a soundtrack was one of the hardest parts of production, which is unsurprising given that the film focuses on music snobs as its main characters. But the sonic backdrop does the film proud, featuring the likes of Bill Callahan, Roky Erickson, the Beta Band, Bob Dylan, and more. If you didn’t have a vinyl collection before watching this movie, you’ll surely start one after.
Director: Stephen Frears
Main Cast: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso
Runtime: 113 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
There are countless films that deal with the plight of folk singer-songwriters, but this happens to be one of the best (and one of the best movies streaming on Amazon). Tempting as it was to include Crazy Heart, it was 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis that made the cut. Maybe it’s the Coen brothers’ mystical effect, or maybe’s it’s the understated soundtrack. It’s a gorgeous take on the art scene of Greenwich Village circa 1961, led by up-and-coming Oscar Isaac (who performed many of the songs himself). With T. Bone Burnett as executive music producer, the film would always have a strong sound. The added layers and slight surrealism offered by the gifted directors make it a must-watch.
Director(s): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Main Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Runtime: 104 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5
A Star Is Born (2018)
It’s not often that a film can prove that an actor can be a musician and vice versa. La La Land is a great example of the former, but A Star Is Born does both, swimmingly. Lady Gaga flexes her acting muscles, while Bradley Cooper shows that in another life, he could have just as easily been a drunken country-rock legend. Cooper’s downfall, in particular, is so gripping — and unfortunately so commonplace among great rock stars — that you just might contemplate setting down the beer for good. Better still, original tracks like “Shallow” and “Maybe It’s Time” would be hits even if they were written just for headphones and speakers. It’s not the first time this film has been made (and probably not the last), but the 2018 version is far and away the best.
Director: Bradley Cooper
Main Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott
Runtime: 136 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Love & Mercy
In a masterful biopic of the great Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, John Cusack and Paul Dano team up to embody the early and late stages of his life, full of turmoil and mental overhaul. Switching between timelines, we witness an adaptation of a younger Wilson (Dano also magnificently performs the songs himself) as he quits touring to produce the timeless album Pet Sounds, slipping slowly and steadily into psychosis. Cutting to the future, Cusack plays an older and broken Brian Wilson, psychologically limited and trapped under controversial 24-hour therapy tactics from the infamous Dr. Eugene Landy. Beautiful and tragic, we witness the many shattered pieces of Wilson’s psyche as he single-handedly competes with the world-famous Beatles to discover new and experimental music. This is one of the best movies streaming on Hulu right now and should not be missed by any music lovers.
Director: Bill Pohlad
Main Cast: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
Runtime: 121 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.4
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