There have been several enjoyable movies featuring musicians, and music. From the comfort of our living room we can take a musical road trip, visit a swanky concert hall, experience an insider’s look at the music industry, travel back in time to a New York City discotheque, learn some musical history, get to know a musical legend while toe tapping to tunes all the way. Depending on your taste in music, the movie soundtrack is a guarantee to be solid gold. I enjoy many types of music so I collect and watch movies featuring all kinds of music from vintage classical, to rock and roll, together with the blues, soul, country western, bluegrass, and some pop music to round out the mojo.
The following 16 film reviews are the musical themed movies on my recommended list beginning with the most recent ones I have watched, and also tripped back in time to comprise at least one per decade, all the way to the 1940’s. I didn’t mean to skip the 60’s, but before you say Woodstock, recall that it was released in 1970. Regrets if I omitted your favorite. I don’t have the time to see them all.
1. Love and Mercy: 2014 drama biopic music
This is a comeback story about famous musical artist Brian Wilson. Hard core Beach Boy fans may be disappointed by the serious theme of the movie. It is not a happy-go-lucky Beach Boys songfest because it is based on the true story of Brian, and has some dark, unhappy scenes. Strong performances by both Paul Dano and John Cusack, as the younger and older Brian Wilson, are what drive this movie. By far the best part of the film is to see Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the recording studio and his interaction with the band members while composing a new album. Brian’s serious mental troubles begin soon afterwards. I think it is safe to say the LSD trips did not help his shaky mental condition. Stay for the credits and see the real Brian Wilson perform the title song.
2. The Sapphires: 2012 drama biopic music foreign
Although edged with some serious themes, this film nevertheless does an amazing job of being funny, and has a great soundtrack with plenty of 60’s Soul music. I was impressed with the talented cast that you never heard of, or seen before. Doesn’t matter; they nailed this movie all the way. Stay for the credits and see old photos and film of the real Sapphires. A feel-good movie for the whole family, and based on an amazing true story.
3. Walk the Line: 2005 drama biopic music
This one is from the Captain Obvious List. An outstanding film about Johnny Cash; his music, fame, fighting his demons and the lady that saved him. The chemistry of the two leads was excellent. Well-deserved Oscar Gold for Reese Witherspoon.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou?: 2000 comedy musical
This is not your typical Southern Chain Gang prison movie. Instead of cruelty and pain, everyone in the cast seems to be having a good time. To get an idea of the sense of humor of the movie, at about midway through we see a beautifully staged and choreographed KKK rally. The movie captures the essence of a bygone time and place with plenty of Depression-era shenanigans, old cars, homespun clothing, and, of course, vintage American music. In one of the strangest pop-culture phenomena of the decade, the old fashioned bluegrass soundtrack went on to become more popular than the film, and swept the Grammy Awards. I dare you not to tap your feet when George Clooney and the boys strike up a tune.
5. Almost Famous: 2000 Teen music
Hop on the tour bus for a peek inside the world of American rock & roll music. A teen age kid gets a dream assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to do a profile of a rising rock band, and off he plunges into the experience of his life. This is a fun road trip and coming-of-age story with plenty of good music, and behind-the-scenes hijinks.
6. Red Violin: 1998 drama music
Spanning three centuries, the movie traces the history of a musical instrument. Did I lose you? Hey guys, still there? Actually the movie is a very entertaining series of short stories jumping through time from the 1600s to the present. All the short stories are entertaining, but my favorites were the violin maker and his wife, an orphan virtuoso, and China during the Cultural Revolution. This film has one serious flaw: The main character who we see throughout the entire film is a modern day art expert who turns out to be a sneaky crook. He lies and cheats his employers in order to steal the Red Violin (hint –FF as required).
7. Amadeus: 1984 drama biopic music
Only 2% of the public are classical music fans, so the interesting story of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1755-1791) is largely unknown. Wolfy, as his wife calls him in the film, rose to modest fame during the reign of Austrian Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. The best comedy in the film is provided by Joseph II, as he complains that Mozart’s tunes “have too many notes”. As is sometimes the unfortunate case in the art world, Herr Mozart’s compositions are much more famous and appreciated in death. His early passing (age 35) was a shock to the European music world and many legends were born concerning his untimely death. This movie adopts the myth that Antonio Salieri, the court composer, was driven mad by his jealousy of Mozart’s musical genius, and plotted his demise. The film is told in flashback and contains many of Mozart’s most famous tunes. The soundtrack for the movie became a best seller, and sparked a popular interest in Mozart’s music.
8. Crossroads: 1986 musical fantasy teen
A musical prodigy - Lightning Boy Eugene, is a rebel at the NYC Julliard Music School. He has a passion for the Blues, and begins a quest to recover the fabled 30th Song of Robert Johnson, a legendary 1930’s songwriter. Eugene teams up with harmonica playing, Willie Brown – an old colleague of RJ, who along the way provides insight on vintage American music history. So this road trip movie, with a kid and an old man, begins in NYC and ends in Bluesville. The trip becomes more interesting when they encounter 80s teen queen Jami Gertz in her career best role. The climax of the film is a Guitar Duel with the devil’s champion (rock guitarist Stevie Vai). Enough said –no spoilers. I liked the soundtrack, so I bought it. Good rental.
9. Tapeheads 1988 comedy music
Trust me - this is the best underrated comedy you've never heard of. It is a fun story about two young men, well played by Tim Robbins and John Cusack, starting their own company, The Video Aces, and trying to hit it big in the fast emerging industry of music videos. The movie cleverly skewers some of the oddball MTV bands. The Aces never miss a beat. The scene with them doing the alphabet backwards in sign-language, excluding all vowels, to prove they're not drunk is comedy gold. It's a low-budget affair all around, but the music video parodies, the meetings with Mo Fuzz and the performances by the Swanky Modes make this flick my favorite music industry movie of all time. A DVD for the serious collector. Cool soundtrack by Fishbone is a bonus.
10. Cabaret: 1972 musical
Set in Berlin, Germany, circa 1930, with the Nazi Party rising to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, the fun and games continues at the Kit Kat Club. Liza Minnelli brings brassy, nightclub singer Sally Bowles to life, and she performs the best songs of this musical. The songs by the Cabaret dance troupe are funny, clever, and dripping with satire. But perhaps the most unforgettable song was performed by a Nazi Youth Choir at a German beer garden. It gave me a cold chill. Those who typically don't enjoy musicals might make an exception and try this film. Bonus - Rookie Actress Maria Berenson makes an outstanding debut in her first major film.
11. Saturday Night Fever: 1977 Teen music
Few opening scenes in modern movies capture the mood, and frame the story better than the first five minutes of SNF. Without a single line of pertinent dialogue, the opening scene establishes sense of place, and introduces Tony, the main character played by John Travolta. The camera pans famous landmarks in New York City, and the disco anthem Staying Alive blasts on the soundtrack. Tony was born dancing and walks in perfect time with the beat. His snappy clothes and cool dude strut suggest he's a big shot, but this big shot is a delivery boy with no future. Excitement lay just over those bridges in Manhattan. But how can a poor boy from Brooklyn get into that club? Watch this movie and see how.
12. Gigi: 1958 musical
The old MGM studio produced the finest musicals, and Gigi was one of the masterpieces. This film would never be made today. The old fashioned plot would be scorned today as sexist, but the attitudes portrayed in the film are true to the times. Besides, the plot is quite irrelevant compared to the singing and dancing. Doesn’t matter one bit. The score, screenplay, the fin de siècle costumes, and color Cinematography of Paris won Oscar gold (9 altogether including Best Picture). The French cast was loaded with talent, and could there be a better Gigi than Leslie Caron? Thank heaven for Leslie Caron.
13. Fantasia: 1940 family fantasy music animation
This Walt Disney masterpiece was ahead of its time. While highly acclaimed and well-known today, it was not very popular when released in the 40s. The idea of "Fantasia" was to combine great pieces of classical music with cartoons. In doing so, it reverses the purpose of a movie's score; the movie serves the music, not the other way around. This unique style has no straightforward plot, and that disappointed viewers expecting another cute, sugary Disney story. Even if you have only a slight interest in classical music, you probably have listened to these famous music pieces, but when seen together with the cartoons, it is movie magic and good fun – regardless of age.