Rock On! The 10 Best Films about Music

Niall McGrade

Media tends to overlap. There are books about music, music about films, and films about books. There’s an entire genre of film dedicated to song and dance, and new musicals are being released all the time. Aside from that, there’s an entirely different sub-genre of films that don’t just include music – they are about music. We’ve trawled the archives and picked the 10 best music movies of all time.

Whiplash 2014

Focusing on a promising young drummer and his abusive band instructor, this film has fantastic actors, a gripping plot, and a phenomonal soundtrack. The critics seemed to agree, as Whiplash walked home from the Academy Awards with no less than three wins. J. K. Simmons’ acting credentials are on display for the world to see, and the fact that this is only director Damien Chazelle’s second film promises good things for the future.

Rolling Stone Awards Display

Almost Famous (2000)

This is a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama detailing a teenage journalist’s stint with Rolling Stone. Set in 1973, it follows aspiring music pundit William Miller and his tour with the fictitious band Stillwater (not to be confused with the real band). Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as the legendary rock journo Lester Bangs, and the film provides genuinely touching moments alongside hearty belly-laughs. Another critic-pleaser, Roger Ebert called it the best film of 2000, and the film’s soundtrack won a Grammy.

High Fidelity (2000)

Based on Nick Hornby’s best-selling novel, High Fidelity is about music and the love of music. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a music lover and record-store owner who is well-versed in music lore and poorly-versed in romance. Gordon recounts his top five breakups, alongside some stellar music. This film also provided Jack Black’s breakout role, and there’s a scene where he really steals the show. You’ll know it when you see it.

The Producers Stage Show

The Producers (1968)

Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder, all on the same project. Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Well, it was. The Producers spawned its own Broadway musical and a 2005 remake, so it’s certainly done well for itself. This is a little ironic, because the film is a satire following two men who are trying their very hardest to fail. By producing a Broadway flop, they’ve found a way to make more money than with a hit, so the audience is treated to a musical-within-a-musical. Brash and hilarious, The Producers is a modern classic.

The Commitments

The Commitments (1991)

In the northside of Dublin, Jimmy Rabbitte wants to put together the world’s greatest soul band. A ragtag bunch of Dubs is eventually found, all white and all working-class. At first, they’re not great, but with management and the help of a local musician, they come together beautifully. The soundtrack consists of cast covers of soul classics, and it’s excellent. Even if you don’t watch the film, the soundtrack stands on its own merits as a great soul release.

Blues Brothers (1980)

You’ve more than likely seen this one. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd star as the eponymous Jake and Elwood Blues, as they undertake “a mission from God” to save their Catholic orphanage from foreclosure. To do so, they reunite their estranged Rhythm and Blues band and put on a show. Along the way, there are a lot of obstacles, including neo-Nazis, a mysterious woman, and a rival band. This is a cult classic, and for good reason.

School of Rock (2003)

Another Jack Black vehicle, this kid’s flick was both a commercial and critical success. A strange pseudo-musical, slacker Dewey Finn (Black) is kicked out of his rock band and becomes a substitute teacher at an exclusive, $15,000-a-year private school. Rather than teach, he tries to turn the student body into a band. The movie sounded so promising that Led Zeppelin allowed the studio to use one of their songs, which is a rare honour.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Filmed at the very peak of Beatlemania, A Hard Day’s Night is both the original and the best Beatles film. The opening sequence starts fast, with the band escaping a horde of fans and boarding a train. As an audience, we’re supposed to believe that this is a typical day in the life of the band. If it had been any other band, it might not be as convincing, but the Beatles had enough charisma to pick the audience up and bring them along for the ride.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

A fictional documentary featuring a fake film-maker and a fake rock band. Satirising the pretensions of 80’s rock and metal, it has since become a cult classic. In 2002, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy enough of being preserved by the US National Film Registry. This is a film that everybody needs to watch, if only to see the “Up to eleven” scene that has been engraved into our cultural memory.

The Pianist (2002)

Winner of three Academy Awards and nominated for an additional four, The Pianist is one of Roman Polanski’s more recent directing projects. Based on Władysław Szpilman’s autobiography, it’s a harrowing tale of a polish, Jewish musician’s sturggles in a WWII Warsaw ghetto. Polanski escaped from the Kraków Ghetto as a child, so it’s a touching, tasteful treatment of Jewish troubles in WWII.

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