I know my stuff when it comes to movies. Music, not so much. That is why I never speak critically on the legitimacy of the audio art form. Still, everyone has a type of music that they love. The musical itself is a niche group of fans. But a good film about music can have you tapping your feet in both the theater as well as in the confines of home. Here are my top 10 movies centered around music. These are not pure musicals in which people break out into song and dance. These are films centered around great jams. Once again, this list is not in order of best overall movie. The tunes are what matter.
10. “Footloose” (1984):
This is cheesy stuff no doubt. But what community could not benefit from Kevin Bacon’s sweet dance moves. A Chicago city boy named Ren is forced during his senior year to a small midwest town that doesn’t allow dancing. A complete Bible Belt community, led by John Lithgow as a conservative minister. It is a struggle, but Kevin Bacon finally convinces a town to open its mind and get their dance on. Not the most intellectual adventure, “Footloose” reminds one to have fun and never give in to living with a stick up your ass. Plus it was the origin of the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game.
9. “Almost Famous” (2000):
Seeing a musician is really sexy, boy or girl, especially when you are young. Director Cameron Crowe’s classic “Almost Famous” epitomizes the ups and downs of rock ‘n’ roll. A 15-year-old boy played by Patrick Fuget, a rock fiend, schemes his way into Rolling Stone Magazine, the biggest music news outlet of the 1970’s. Convincing the editors that he is ready, Fuget goes on the road with an up-and-coming band named Stillwater during a season long tour across the country. The boy has no idea what’s in store in the crazy world of drugs and groupies in the hippy era. One could go on all day with the amount of stars that came out of this film, particularly Kate Hudson’s Oscar winning portrayal as the ultimate band chick. “Almost Famous” does also show the human side of the crazy life and how brittle even the biggest stars can be. Just watch the bus scene when the Elton John song Tiny Dancer comes on and you will see my point.
8. “The Bodyguard” (1992):
Say what you will about this schmaltzy romance story, “The Bodyguard” has arguably not just the biggest song but also the best soundtrack in movie history. Other than “Titanic”, can you name another jam more recognizable than I Will Always Love You? Somehow I doubt it. At the height of her game before Rapper/Singer Bobby Brown messed her up, Whitney Houston was the early 90’s version of Beyonce. Her stage presence was unparalleled, and “The Bodyguard” put her vocal talents on full display. Yes, the stalker trying to kill her and only Kevin Costner can save her plot has a lot of holes. Yet the two have chemistry. This is a movie that is ridiculous, but also stands the test of time.
7. “La Vie En Rose” (2007):
One of the most romantic songs ever written is clearly the Edith Piaf masterpiece La Vie En Rose. While not quite on that all time level of classic, Olivier Dahan’s biopic of the same name comes very close. The story of the life of Piaf was full of turmoil, starting with being raised in a brothel. Her rise to fame is not told in chronological order as hardship after hardship hit both herself as well as the ones she loves, as well as the ones that she pretends to love. “La Vie En Rose” is sensationalized to an extent to highlight a great singer. It also keeps things simple and shows the human we are remembering, led by an Oscar winning performance by Marion Cotillard. A truly romantic heartbreaker.
6. “Whiplash” (2014):
At what point do you allow a teacher, who in your eyes is a genius which is why he is your teacher, push you to the point of insanity? Director Damien Chazelle’s breakout hit “Whiplash” is almost as crazy as the pressure that comes with playing the drums. A young Miles Teller plays Andrew, a fresh enrollment student at the Shaffer Conservatory of music which is considered the best music school in America. He hopes to and has the potential to become a great jazz musician. Unfortunately for him, Andrew runs into a buzzsaw of a teacher in Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who took home an Oscar for the role). His teacher grinds this new student into the ground, then does it to him the next day. “Whiplash” is like the act of playing drums. If you do not keep the beat going then what is the point in playing at all?
5. “A Star Is Born” (2018):
No reason for this movie to be so good. Yet it is. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut hit it out of the park. A remake admittedly, this is the best version by far, and this is coming from the ultimate film nerd. “A Star is Born” is the best coming together of the exact right pieces placed in the exact right place. Lady Gaga is not a great actress, but in this role she is outstanding. Bradley Cooper has not proven to be a great film genius. Here he nails it. I tip my hat in honesty as always if it is good. The portrayal of jealousy, the desire to be famous, heartbreak, and understanding are masterfully done. I would bet no person in Vegas that Bradley Cooper directs another great movie or Gaga acts well again (great singer, don’t get me wrong). Yet “A Star is Born” was a perfect storm.
4. “Searching for Sugarman” (2012):
If you want to see a crazy story about music history, look no further than the Oscar winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”. Based on one of the most unlikely true stories imaginable, “Sugar Man” is the tail of an overlooked musician that touched millions of lives half way across the globe. A Detroit folk singer by the name of Sixto Rodriguez had a short lived career in which his two albums, while well received by critics, failed to sell in 1970’s America. Turns out his music became the face of a generation rising up against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Unbeknownst to the song writer, a nation became inspired by music nobody that his native country cared about. Long rumored to be dead by suicide, Rodriguez was eventually tracked down by a few determined fans to bring to light the songs that inspired a nation. “Searching for Sugar Man” is a crazy ball of wax, and also a great example of the human spirit surviving.
3. “Sing Street” (2016):
In no way can I relate to having a high school band. Could never play an instrument to save my life. That is not the point of the excellent Irish rom-com “Sing Street”. Taking place in 1980’s Dublin, our main character Conor is faced with a, let’s just say complicated family relationship. His parents hate each other and his older brother is bitter at life having not made anything of himself. Conor is forced into a Catholic school with a mean S.O.B. of a principal in Brother Baxter at Synge Street Catholic School. Life is dismal, particularly as Conor is bullied being the new kid. Then it happens. The beautiful girl across the street. From there it is time to start a band, and a group of misfits become the hit of the town. “Sing Street” optimizes the essence of being musical, particularly with the Drive it Like You Stole It fantasy sequence. An excellent ode to growing up no matter which era.
2. “This is Spinal Tap” (1984):
While not the original, mockumentary filmmaking exists to this day because of director Rob Reiner’s ridiculous rock music fun fest that is “This is Spinal Tap”. How to begin with this insanity driven comedy about the greatest group of hard rock imbeciles. So many classic jokes came out of this 80’s classic. From the band not being able to keep a drummer (one of which choked on his own vomit), to a guitarist not being able to escape his own egg live, to the band not knowing how to get to the stage, and a stereo going to 11. “Spinal Tap” is the quintessential farce about not just 80’s rock, but how ridiculous entertainment is.
1. “Amadeus” (1984):
Think classical music is boring? Yeah, me too often times. Watch Milos Forman’s masterpiece “Amadeus” and be ready to eat your words just as I did. Every time I recommend this classic to musicians, as well as anybody else, in the modern world they roll their eyes. Then they watch it and every time they come back saying how amazing it is. Only film recommendation that is undefeated for me. My favorite “Told ya so” movie ever. The tale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the man looking to kill him is captivating in a way that transcends generations. Opera scenes are shot with vigor and never dry the way that people think Opera is. Period piece acting has an underlying sense of sarcasm. Yet the performances by the two leads is unrivaled. One does not have to enjoy any type of music here. Watch “Amadeus”. Tell me I’m wrong.