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Movies about music

Movies about music

Continuing my occasional diversion into the world of music, here is a piece looking at great movies about music. This follows on from this being presented as a 4Sight at the 4Networking online Midweek Music group. In this definition, I do NOT include musicals!

This is an unashamedly personal choice, the movies about music which I have enjoyed most across a period of over 50 years. All of these are cinema releases as opposed to any purely TV shows. These include biopics, concerts (surprisingly few), Beatles films (a genre in itself) documentaries, mockumentaries and, to finish up, five cult movies run through with great music.

In the spirit of High Fidelity (included below), this includes a couple of Top 5 lists. Nearly all my shortlisted movies I have seen at the cinema, the only way to fully appreciate them.


There are so many excellent music biopics, with the combination of great music and an often incredible life of the artist providing the ideal mix for a movie. There have also been loads of these which have assumed that this combination is unbeatable box office without working out that you also need a great script and direction, resulting in all sorts of fumbled attempts.

I'm just going to focus on good ones, with a longlist that goes across many eras and musical genres:

Liztomania: Roger Daltrey as Franz Listz, in Ken Russell's wonderfully bonkers portrayal of the composer. Probably the culmination of his series of composer biopics, this one is great fun, with Liszt probably the first person to have a rabid fanbase, hence the title.
Bird: Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in this 1988 movie.
Ray: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.
Get On Up: Completing a trio of amazing biopic performances, the late, great Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.
Miles Ahead: Flawed but entertaining Miles Davis movie, a labour of love starring and directed by Don Cheadle.
Coal Miner's Daughter: Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn.
Backbeat & Nowhere Boy: Two intriguing Beatles back-story movies.
Love and Mercy: Required viewing for any Pet Sounds fans, this is a moving biopic about Brian Wilson.
Sid and Nancy: Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, what a story!
Sex & Drugs & Rock n' Roll: Andy Serkis as Ian Dury, again, what a story!
Contol: Beautifully shot 2007 Anton Corbijn take on the Ian Curtis story, with Sam Riley and Samantha Morton.
Straight Outta Compton: NWA continue their own mythmaking, but worth a look.
Rocketman: Taron Egerton is brilliant as Elton John in this look at '70s fame and its pressures.

My biopics Top 5

Amadeus: The 1984 screen adaptation of Peter Schaffer's play, this in its own way is as shocking as a Ken Russell tale, with Mozart wonderfully portrayed as a precocious brat.
Lady Sings the Blues: Billie Holiday is endlessly fascinating to Hollywood, with new movies emerging about her, but this 1972 biopic, with Diana Ross delivering a lifetime-best screen performance, is still the definitive portrayal.
Walk the Line: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon on never-better form as Johnny Cash and June Carter in this 2005 biopic. Johnny Cash is the real thing when it comes to music stars.
Good Vibrations: This 2012 film isn't about the Beach Boys, but about Belfast legend Terri Hooley, promoting bands in the midst of the Troubles - a joyous celebration of the power of music to heal.
24 Hour Party People: Tony Wilson is a fascinating figure, as a brand-new biography by Paul Morley illustrates. Turning the whole Factory Records saga into a comedy is inspired, with Steve Coogan perfect for the role.


How many times do you watch that DVD of a favourite concert? Not many I would bet. I have Bowie's Reality tour disc and I have only watched it a few times, despite it being a memento of my favourite Bowie concert in 2003. And the pointlessness of holding up your phone and recording a couple of minutes using a feeble mic, in the process blocking the view of the people behind you and taking you away from living a gig in the moment... well, don't get me started.

Anyway, here are three concert movies worth a look. Two gigs that have a special resonance by being farewells - Bowie's famous final Ziggy Stardust concert, and The Band's The Last Waltz. And a perfect live album and equally great movie - Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense.

The Beatles

All the Beatles' films are worth a look, from the early grappling-with-fame A Hard Day's Night and Help, through the psychedelia of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, to the disintegration recorded in Let It Be. Turns out they couldn't obey that title, with the new Get Back TV mini-series revisiting all the footage to provide a more balanced view of their life in the studio at that point. With both of these, they are worth it alone for the footage of the rooftop concert, surely the greatest live performance captured on film.
An excruciating memory is, aged nine, persuading my parents that we watch Magical Mystery Tour on TV on Boxing Day 1967. Confirmed them in their suspicion that The Beatles were overrated and probably high on drugs, which on the basis of that unscripted, incoherent mess, it was hard to argue with.


There are of course hundreds of docs about music, across every genre of music, but I've chosen just three I have particularly enjoyed.

Rockfield: The story of the world's first residential studio, tucked away on a farm in the Welsh Borders. Pretty well most great characters in British music, from the '70s to the present day, have stayed here, so the stories are fantastic.
Gimme Shelter: There are several Stones films, but this is the most interesting, allowing, as it does, the horrendous killing of a fan by Hell's Angels at the Altamont concert, to be shown and dissected. There is the death of the spirit of the sixties right there.
After the Screaming Stops: This 2018 doc about Bros is such an unexpected treat, with the brothers Goss delivering line after line of unwittingly hilarious material. So many quotable lines, but this is a typical example: "The letters H. O. M. E. are so important because they personify the word ‘home’".


You could be forgiven for thinking the Bros doc is a staged mockumentary, but it is for real. Similar confusion surrounded This is Spinal Tap when it first came out, inventing, as it did, the now much-copied idea of a mockumentary. Is this a real band, many wondered. The best movie about music? Certainly the funniest, with just about every scene having quotable lines in it, and one phrase having entered the lexicon: Turn it up to 11.

Cult movies

Wrapping up this tour is another Top 5, movies which are about music in the sense that they are suffused with it, either via a brilliantly chosen soundtrack selection or include musicians' lives in them.

O Lucky Man: I saw this three-hour epic at the cinema, a 1973 sort-of sequel to If, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm McDowell, fresh from Clockwork Orange. It's a tale of an innocent's journey through a strange version of Britain, and includes Alan Price as himself with his touring band, who provide the excellent original soundtrack music. Track it down!
High Fidelity: OK, the least cultish in this list, but, along with the book, a love letter to record shops and to music, and has got to be in a Top 5!
American Graffiti: Another love letter, this time to '50s rock n' roll and golden high school days. George Lucas brings humanity and warmth to this that his other work lacks - a joy from start to finish, with a wonderful soundtrack album.
Nashville: Many of Robert Altman's films can be hard to love but here is where his sprawling ensemble approach works perfectly - a fascinating patchwork representation of the musical world of Nashville.
Radio On: Another askance look at Britain, this time from 1979, in brooding black and white, with a great soundtrack and an early cameo performance by Sting.

So, those are my choices, many of which are available on streaming platforms or pop up regularly on terrestrial channels. There is also a Spotify playlist featuring tracks from all the key movies - tune in and enjoy!