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 has 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 it 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, it’s an entire universe of its 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 written for make-believe band Stillwater feels as though it 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 it 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 Rogers and Hammerstein score is pure joy and one of the most successful soundtrack LPs ever.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
There are countless films that deal with the plight of the country of folk singer-songwriters. 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, maybe’s it’s the understated soundtrack. It’s a gorgeous take on the art scene of Greenwich Village circa 1961, led by a relatively unknown face in 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.
A Star is Born (2018)
It’s not often 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 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 created (and probably not the last), but the 2018 version is far and away the best.
High Fidelity (2000)
Released in 2000, High Fidelity is arguably John Cusack’s best work. 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, 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.
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