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The Top 10 Films About Music and Musicians

By Martin Keady · May 5, 2015

If anything, Shakespeare underestimated the power of music. He thought it was “the food of love,” when in fact it is the food of life; not so much an art-form as a life-form that helps to sustain all other aspects of human existence. And that includes cinema.

It is almost impossible to imagine cinema without music, its literal and metaphorical soundtrack. Even in the earliest days of silent movies, there was always a musical accompaniment (often by a live band or orchestra) to the action on screen, amplifying, enhancing and scoring the key plot developments (and even the incidental ones).  In turn, cinema has done much to demonstrate the power of music, showing how, in many ways, human beings are essentially music-making animals.

These 10 films about music and musicians, which range from documentaries to features and from country to classical, are all proof of the power of music and the unique hold it exerts upon our life and our imagination.

10. WALK THE LINE

(2005, Directed by James Mangold, Written by James Mangold and Gill Dennis, based on Johnny Cash’s autobiographies)

Johnny Cash was arguably the greatest singer of popular music in the second half of the 20th century, even more so than Frank Sinatra; while Sinatra was always essentially a great singer of jazz and “standards” (by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) from the first half of the century, Cash covered the waterfront of “pop” music, with his own, often definitive versions of songs by everyone from Vera Lynne to Depeche Mode, as celebrated on his “American” series of recordings with Rick Rubin at the end of his career. Those recordings returned Cash to the forefront of popular music after a long decline, and Walk The Line was their cinematic equivalent, telling and celebrating the story of the fabled “Man in Black.”

The film has been criticized as a hagiography and there is a degree of truth in that criticism, particularly as the screenplay was based on Cash’s own account of his long and troubled life. Nevertheless, through James Mangold’s skilful direction, and in particular the uncharacteristically controlled and sympathetic performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and the deservedly Oscar-winning performance of Reese Witherspoon as his beloved, June Carter, Walk The Line – appropriately enough – walks the line between truth-telling and reverence, and between fact and myth.

9. CONTROL

(2007, Directed by Anton Corbijn, Written by Matt Greenhalgh, Based on the book Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis)

Ian Curtis may have been a very different singer and songwriter to Johnny Cash, but Control, like Walk The Line, is another superb biopic of a complex, charismatic and often contradictory figure.  However, where Walk The Line was based on Cash’s own accounts of his life and career, Control was based on a vision of Curtis provided by someone else, namely his wife, Deborah. As its title, Touching From A Distance, suggests, Curtis, who dreamed of stardom even as he struggled with both epilepsy and the most grinding of day-jobs (as a benefits adviser in an unemployment office), was almost unknowable, even to those closest to him.

That sense of touching or viewing from a distance is evident in the film, for which Anton Corbijn was the perfect choice of director. Although Control was his first feature, he had spent a lifetime researching its story, having initially found fame as a photographer of Curtis’s band, Joy Division, for the British music press, and his black and white cinematography is, in effect, those early, monochrome photographs of the band being brought to life. And his Ian – Sam Riley – not only bore a considerable physical similarity to Curtis but brought out all his underlying angst and existential doubt.

Control is particularly good in showing how Curtis was both plagued by and inspired by his epilepsy. For all the other demons that tormented him (not least the fact that he fell in love with a woman other than his wife), this physical illness was a major contributor to his suffering and eventual suicide, as he suffered regular fits that at the time went largely undiagnosed and certainly untreated. However, as Control shows, epilepsy was also, at least in part, the source of his manic, maniacal energy on stage and in song, as epitomised by his greatest song, She’s Lost Control, in which he recounts the twisted, writhing agony of a fellow epileptic.

8. LET’S GET LOST

(1988, Directed and Written by Bruce Weber)

I am well aware that it would be possible to produce a number of these lists devoted to particular types of music – pop, jazz, classical, even metal – and perhaps in the future I will do so. In this list, however, I wanted to look at all music films across all the different types of music, and to that end Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost is included, ahead of the likes of Bird, Round Midnight and Lady Sings The Blues, as the great jazz film, being simultaneously as loose and controlled as the music (and musician) it celebrates.

Let’s Get Lost is almost a cinematic equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s magisterial novel about art and ageing, The Picture of Dorian Grey. Just as Wilde juxtaposes the eternally youthful Dorian with his rapidly decaying portrait, so Weber contrasts the elderly jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker with his younger self, as caught on camera in film and television performances from the 1950s. The young Chet was as beautiful as James Dean, and almost his exact musical equivalent in bringing youthful energy and flair to an ageing art-form (in Dean’s case cinema, in Baker’s jazz). Thirty years later, however, Weber was a junkie, and Weber does not flinch from showing the terrible toll that his addiction has taken on both his looks and his musical ability.

Nevertheless, Let’s Get Lost is also a celebration of arguably the greatest white male jazz singer (Sinatra excepted, but Sinatra couldn’t play an aching trumpet solo like Chet). And its title is almost the perfect definition of jazz itself, the form of music that celebrates improvisation and self-discovery like no other. Weber stays true to that sense of ad hoc creation in his own film-making, especially when Chet arrives at the Cannes Film Festival, ostensibly to join Weber for the premiere of another of his documentaries but in reality to show an almost broken but undeniably genuine artist against a backdrop of glitz and superficiality.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PfdYQzeJk0]

 

Trailer Credit

7. TOMMY

(1975, Written and Directed by Ken Russell, based on the album Tommy by The Who)

The tagline for Tommy was, “Your senses will never be the same again,” and it was entirely fitting for two reasons. First, it was true to the storyline both of the original Who album and the film that Ken Russell created from it, which told the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who initially becomes a wizard pinball player and ultimately a pop star and quasi-messianic figure. Secondly, it was true to the staggeringly dense and loaded cinematic world that Russell would create in the film.

Tommy, of course, was The Who’s original “rock opera” and as with most operas its plot is at best slight, at worst utterly ridiculous. However, the epic music, including classic tracks such as “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me,” more than makes up for any narrative deficiencies, and the same is true of the imagery in the film it inspired. Some of it is daft, even self-indulgent, but much of the rest is genuinely powerful, even overwhelming, from Keith Moon’s genuinely rancid turn as Tommy’s abuser, Uncle Ernie, to the super-saturation of sound and vision in sequences such as Tommy’s visit to a prostitute, played and sung by Tina Turner as The Acid Queen.

The Who’s legacy largely rests on their two great “operatic” albums, Tommy and Quadrophenia, and the films they inspired. There is certainly a case for the inclusion of the film of Quadrophenia in this list; in many ways, it is a better, if simpler, film. However, for its sheer musical and visual chutzpah, Tommy just edges it, as the definitive document of the sonic and stylistic excesses of 70s rock.

6. GIMME SHELTER

(1970, Directed by Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin)

If Tommy is a fictional visual and sonic holocaust, Gimme Shelter is the real thing, showing the literal and figurative end of the Sixties as it documents in harrowing detail The Rolling Stones’ tour of America in late 1969, culminating in the filming of a real killing at the infamous Altamont free concert.

Music and cinema were closely entwined throughout the Sixties, as bands sought to preserve and mythologise their performances on screen, and cinema in turn sought to siphon off some of the life-giving energy of pop music, which was the utterly dominant art-form of the decade. The Rolling Stones themselves were the subject of several such films, from Charlie Is My Darling (a record of their 1965 tour of Ireland) to Godard’s typically brilliant but bizarre Sympathy For The Devil (or One Plus One), which set the Stones’ music against the backdrop of wider societal unrest (and imagery of the Black Panthers activists). But the ultimate Stones movie, and arguably the ultimate rock music movie, is Gimme Shelter.

Even today, more than 45 years on, it is still shocking that the Maysles brothers and their cameramen were able to capture on film the brutal stabbing of Meredith Hunter, a black teenager, by a Hell’s Angel, and then subsequently released that film. It lends the movie an absolute, unquestionable authenticity, akin to the Abraham Zapruder footage of the assassination of JFK. Ironically, therefore, Gimme Shelter is possibly the portrait of an assassination averted, as it shows Hunter holding a gun before he is accosted and stabbed by one of the Stones’ so-called “security guards.” It is one of the fascinating “what ifs” of cinematic and musical history to consider what would have happened if Hunter had taken aim at and even shot a Stone. Almost certainly, the Maysles brothers would have kept their cameras rolling and recorded an even more awful and shocking crime.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9SiAFQJdqo]

 

Trailer Credit

5. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

(1976, Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Written by Paul Mayersberg, Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis)

The Man Who Fell To Earth is not actually a Bowie biopic, but in many ways it is the definitive Bowie film and the definitive film about the alien quality of much music and many musicians – the sensation that they are somehow different, or “other”, to the rest of us, and that that otherness is what allows them to access and even create the music of the spheres.

Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a very human-like alien who comes to Earth to try to find some way of sourcing the water that his home planet needs to stave off an apocalyptic drought. Using his “alien” knowledge, he becomes an inventor, a multi-millionaire and eventually a pop star, using samples of his own people’s language and music to create an album that becomes a best-seller, even as Newton fails in his primary task of saving his planet from destruction.

It is almost impossible to imagine The Man Who Fell To Earth without Bowie as the lead. He, of course, had already played an “alien” on stage, in the form of Ziggy Stardust, but as Newton he went even further, becoming simultaneously utterly unearthly (especially when his actual physiology is revealed to others, in particular the woman he marries) and all-too-human, especially in his addiction to alcohol and television.

The only real deficiency of The Man Who Fell To Earth is that not only did Bowie himself fail to produce a soundtrack to accompany it (as he and the movie’s producers had originally hoped) but nobody did: no official score has ever been released. Nevertheless, in its use of existing music, not least Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War”, the film reinforces the sense of music itself being somehow otherworldly, as if it had been brought to earth millennia before by a visitor such as Bowie’s Newton.

4. THE BEATLES MOVIES: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP! 

(1964 & 1965) Both directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day’s Night written by Alun Owen and Help! written by Charles Wood and Marc Behm)

Much of the greatest art is about duality, or twinning, showing the mutual co-existence of apparent opposites – tragedy and comedy, hope and despair, seriousness and frivolity  – in a way that is more attuned to traditional Eastern philosophy, particularly the Chinese idea of the twin life-forces of yin and yang, than most traditional Western thought.

Shakespeare is the classic example.  He was the father of twins himself – one boy (who died young, probably through plague) and one girl (who lived) – which must have been incredibly rare in the 16th century, when so many children died in childbirth. And from that privileged viewpoint, he saw the dual nature of existence, combining comedy and tragedy in his very finest writing, for example, the appearance of the drunken porter in Macbeth immediately after Macbeth’s bloody slaughter of Duncan and his servants.

The same is true of The Beatles, who, like Shakespeare, are among the few truly great “universal” artists who are adored both by the critics and the masses. Their basic twin energy was the dual songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney; although they usually wrote separately, Lennon’s wordplay and cynicism perfectly complemented McCartney’s essentially sunny disposition and ability to create an unforgettable tune. And of course, the “Fab Four” also had another set of “twins,” as it were, in George and Ringo, the less-famous but no-less fascinating “other half” of the band.

Similarly, Beatles albums can be conceived of as pairs: Rubber Soul and Revolver (George Harrison famously said that Revolver was really the second part of Rubber Soul); Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, twin psychedelic peaks; The White Album, which was literally a double album; and finally, Abbey Road and Let It Be, the twin epitaphs of a band so good that one farewell album was not enough.

And the same is true of the Fab Four’s fabulous films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! They are ultimately impossible to separate because they are two halves of the same whole, combining the most magical of music with surrealist wit and cinematography, to document forever the phenomenon of Beatlemania and set the musical and visual template for so much of the music and cinema that followed.

3. THE HOURS AND TIMES

(1991, Directed and Written by Christopher Münch)

The third great Beatles movie is The Hours and Times, a fictional dramatisation of the 1963 Spanish holiday shared by John Lennon and the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, just before Beatlemania broke not only across Britain but across the world.

This brief trip abroad has always been hugely important in both the Beatles story and, even more importantly, the Beatles mythology. Famously, John Lennon struck another Liverpudlian musician who alleged that he had been “Brian’s bum-boy.” Whether or not Lennon and Epstein had sex (and the film suggests that they at least came close to going to bed with each other, before Lennon found some female company), The Hours and The Times is a fantastic and fantastical reimagining of a central event in the central relationship that launched The Beatles, between the band’s leader at the time (before he was eventually matched and then eclipsed by Paul McCartney) and the manager-mentor who saw something in the band before the rest of the world did.

For a while, Ian Hart seemed only to play John Lennon in movies (he repeated the trick in Backbeat), but if an actor is only going to play one role they could do a lot worse than that role being John Lennon. Hart shows all of Lennon’s wit and energy, especially when he is dancing round the hotel room to one of his beloved Little Richard records, but also his self-loathing, which gave birth to many of his greatest songs. Equally, however, David Angus is superb as Epstein, the ultimate “FM” (frustrated musician), who can only watch in wonder as his protégé works his magic on young women and anyone else who comes into his orbit.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvJrbHEp36s]

 

Trailer Credit

2. AMADEUS

(1984, Directed by Miloš Forman and Written by Peter Shaffer, based on his play of the same name)

Perhaps I spoke too soon. Perhaps it is not Brian Epstein who is the ultimate FM, but Antonio Salieri, the anti-hero of Amadeus, who is all the more frustrated because although he is a musician (and a successful one at that) he knows he cannot compete with the genius of his younger, more uncouth but more brilliant rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Before researching this piece, I had not realised that Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, which he adapted for the screen, was itself based, at least in part, on an earlier play, by the great Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin. Entitled Mozart i Salieri, it was written in 1830, a mere five years after Salieri’s death. Now I know, it seems entirely fitting, because just as much music is based on earlier music before reshaping it, much literature is based on earlier stories and tales before it is transformed into something new. The past is a palimpsest, on which we all write and rewrite our names and tales.

There are other great classical music movies, notably Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (which, like Tommy, was made in 1975 and also starred The Who’s Roger Daltrey) and A Clockwork Orange (the soundtrack to which, by Wendy Carlos, reimagined Beethoven for the age of electronic music). However, Amadeus outdoes them all, not least because it features arguably the greatest music ever written by the greatest musician – Mozart.

There is another reason why Amadeus is so successful, and that is its director, Miloš Forman, who is perhaps cinema’s greatest chronicler of insanity. In his two finest films, Amadeus and One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest, he shows very different men succumbing to overwhelming mental pressure and ultimately mental illness. In Cuckoo, it is Jack Nicholson’s Randall P. MacMurphy who initially pretends to be mad but is ultimately driven mad – literally – by the lobotomising effect of mental institutions. In Amadeus, however, it is not only Mozart himself who loses his mind but Salieri, as he is forever tormented by the fact that he could have done more to save his younger, more talented rival, and in failing to do so has deprived the world (and even his own ears) of the marvellous music that Mozart might have gone on to create.

1. THIS IS SPINAL TAP

(1984, Directed by Rob Reiner, Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner)

It may seem perverse to vote Spinal Tap as the greatest movie about music and musicians (what other spoof movie would be chosen as the best example of the genre it spoofs?) but it is also entirely justified, because more than any other music film Tap shows the inherent ludicrousness of music itself, which, after all, is ultimately nothing more than human beings imitating songbirds – and failing.

Tap is revered by musicians themselves, particularly rock musicians, because it shows their solipsism and self-absorption, endlessly agonising over absurd song titles and album covers. However, it also shows that such solipsism and self-absorption is probably absolutely necessary if music is to be created at all. David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell may be silly, even downright stupid, but they are also utterly devoted to the whole idea of music and its transformative power.

Ultimately, Tap is the definitive music film because the music created for it is so much better than most of the genre of music it satirises, namely metal. Songs like “Big Bottoms” and “Stonehenge” are at least the equal of most metal tracks, and in many cases better. Of course, most metal-heads would argue that Tap aren’t metal at all, or at least not heavy metal, and they have a point. Their “soft metal,” or even “hair metal,” was arguably the starting point of that genre, which went on to dominate much of the second half of the 1980s with bands such as Bon Jovi and Motley Crue.

Finally, Tap is funny – truly, eye-wateringly funny, as so few “comedy” films are. The great “laugh-out-loud for an hour-and-a-half (or more)” movies are tragically rare: among the best are The Life of Brian, Woody Allen classics such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, and Anchorman. In combining great pastiches of music with great pastiches of musicians, Tap is “the hidden eleven” on the dial of great music movies.