Music and musicians have proved rich fodder for the movie industry over the years. From rockumentaries following great bands on tour such as The Rolling Stones and David Bowie to comedies such as The Blues Brothers and the brilliant parody This is Spinal Tap, the mores of the music world have made fascinating and often comical viewing on the big screen. Here are ten of the best movies recently released inspired by music and musicians.
Back in the 1930s, Alan Lomax travelled across America making recordings of folk and blues singers that now form a crucial archive of the roots music that inspired much of what we now call popular music. The 78 Project Movie is a documentary that follows a journey carried out in the present day and inspired by Lomax. The producers have taken a 1930s Presto direct-to-disc recorder with one microphone and recorded musicians working in various genres today. Interspersed with the music is historical insight from leading collectors and historians from the Library of Congress. The music recorded included everything from gospel, blues and folk to punk and Cajun.
Austin to Boston follows the classic rockumentary form and documents Ben Howard, The Staves, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Bear’s Den as they head out on tour across the USA, from Austin in Texas to Boston on the north-east coast. Moving across the 3000 miles between the two cities in five VW camper vans, the bands play at locations from small-town bars and rooftops to packed-out halls. As they wend their way towards Boston, the bands face trouble with their vans and the claustrophobia of travelling together and have to rely on their ingenuity to stay on the road. Labelled as a homage to old-fashioned touring, Austin to Boston has also been praised for the cinematography and use of the American landscape as the bands pass through.
Keep On Keepin’ On is the award-winning story of the blind piano player Justin Kauflin and his relationship with his mentor, the legendary teacher Clark Terry. The 23 year old Kauflin suffers not only from blindness but severe stage-fright, despite his brilliant piano playing. Terry must prepare him for a major Jazz competition at the same time as facing his own health problems. At 89 years of age, when he first starts to mentor Kauflin, Clark Terry has previously been a teacher to the likes of Miles Davis and a performer with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The film, produced by the great Quincy Jones, follows the pair as they both encounter new hurdles – in music and in life.
Flow is a debut feature by director Fenar Ahmed, starring the Danish rapper Gilli – the alias of Kian Rosenberg Larsson – as Mikael, a young man living on a housing estate and making precious little from his role as a manual laborer. He dreams of becoming a successful rapper and devotes his free-time to making music amongst his friends. Picked up as a ghostwriter by a well-known rap artist, Mikael encounters the classic conundrum of being entranced by the new lifestyle of wealth and glamour that he has always aspired to, and his old friends. Flow has been lauded for the soundtrack, innovative visuals and its authentic portrayal of raw creativity.
Eden has been over three years in the production stages as the filmmakers attempted to obtain rights to music for the soundtrack. This proved more expensive and problematic than had originally been envisaged. The French film is loosely inspired by the life of the brother of the director, Mia Hansen-Love, who was a DJ in the 1990s at the time of the emergence of the French House electronic dance music boom – this genre also spawned big names such as Daft Punk, M83 and Etienne de Crecy. The film portrays the rise of the main character, Paul, a pioneering DJ who encounters success but over time, comes to wonder about the virtues of the partying lifestyle.
Song from the Forest is two extraordinary stories in one. It is a true tale about the musicologist Louis Sarno and his son Samedi. Sarno is an American who once heard a song on the radio that inspired him to seek out the roots of the rhythms he heard – he followed the trail all the way to the rainforests of Central Africa and to the music of the Bayaka Pygmies. Sarno spent years recording their music and became a fully-accepted member of Bayaka society and had his son in the rainforest. He once made the promise of taking Samedi to see America when he was a baby – in the film he fulfils that promise as Sarno introduces his son to New York.
Today, the American rapper and songwriter Nas is known for having sold over 25 million records across the world – MTV rank him as one of the best MCs working today and The Source placed him as the second finest lyricist of all time. Illmatic was his first album, released in 1994, focused on issues such as drug abuse, violence, and artistic truth and integrity. Nas: Time is Illmatic follows the rapper as he returns to Queensbridge in New York and explores the cityscape, people and issues that informed his early life, including the work of his father, the Jazz musician Olu Dara. The film includes interviews with the early producers and musicians who worked with Nas.
Frank is almost certainly the zaniest of the films on this list. A British-Irish co-production and starring big names such as Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson, Frank is based on the story of Frank Sidebottom, the alter ego of comedian Chris Sievey and a singer who famously always performed wearing a huge papier-mâché head with his Oh Blimey Band. The film follows the character of Jon, played by Gleeson, a wannabee musician who enters the troubled world of singer Frank and his bandmates, charting their attempts to find fame and fortune. Mark Kermode, reviewing the film for The Guardian, describes Frank as managing to be poignant, surreal and exceptional.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Jersey Boys is the film version of the hugely successful Tony-award winning musical of the same name. The film tells the story of The Four Seasons, the group that made Frankie Valli famous in the 1960s, from their time as a group of teenage Italian-Americans in New Jersey, up until their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In between times, the members of the group each face trials and tribulations, including drug addiction, trouble with the mafia and running up huge debts as they do their best to maintain their musical success.
James Brown is remembered as the Godfather of Soul. His life was often turbulent, even for that of a musician. Get On Up charts his rise and frequent falls, from his early life in the backwoods of Georgia where he was born, to abusive parents, time in prison as a young man for theft and his redemption through music in the 1950s, all the way through several marriages, bust-ups with his band, his drug abuse and the death of his son. The original idea for the film was mooted in 2000 and production only began with a cast including Dan Ackroyd and Chadwick Boseman in 2012.