10 Of The Best Music Movies Of All Time
What's your favourite?
In 1964, The Beatles released the musical comedy A Hard Day’s Night and proved an important point: we like to see our musical idols on screen.
The movie struck box office gold, enjoyed critical acclaim, scored two Academy Award nominations… and was mostly drowned out by the group’s teenage fans, who screamed so loudly the moment it started rolling that cinema audiences could barely make out the dialogue.
Our movie-going etiquette may have improved a bit since then, but Hollywood hasn’t stopped making movies that put music front and centre.
Some films place A-list artists in the starring role. Others are about totally fictitious bands. Some are serious, weighty biopics. Others — like, say, most of the inclusions on this list — definitely are not.
It’s a sub-genre full of gems, but what’s the greatest music movie of all time? To play favourites, we asked ten Junkee writers to make the case for the flick that has a special place in their heart (with one rule: we excluded musicals and documentaries). So, what’s yours?
High Fidelity is probably the best film ever made about being a music fan and collector. And for those of us who recognise ourselves in the obsessive jerks onscreen, it’s pretty harrowing to watch.
If you’ve ever blown a week’s pay on records; or gone through a breakup because your failed music career made you too miserable to be with; or if someone’s come up to the DJ booth to tell you the track you’re playing is great and you’ve standoffishly replied, “I know,” it’s too real. It’s also laugh-yourself-sick funny — especially the scenes set in the fictional but hilariously spot-on Championship Vinyl in Chicago, with John Cusack and Jack Black endlessly cataloguing their favourite tracks and mistreating the customers.
But the snarky comedy is brilliantly balanced with the depressing bits about ageing and the loneliness of obsession. It should come with a trigger warning.
Back in 2002, a time well before Eminem-as-himself in Entourage and mom’s spaghetti memes, there was 8 Mile. At first the movie seemed like a dicey proposition: music mega-stars rarely make for convincing actors. Then there was the particular case of Marshall Mathers himself, hardly an exemplar of subtlety and nuance in the early 2000s.
With respected L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson at the helm, 8 Mile turned out to be a critical and commercial hit. Set against the broken backdrop of Detroit, it’s a pretty dour, humourless watch, but Eminem commands the screen as Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Even with a limited range of facial expressions.)
No one remembers 8 Mile for the workplace drama or trailer park family strife: it’s the rapping that rules. The final battle, in which B-Rabbit tears apart his rivals, is as likely to inspire goosebumps as any classic sports movie. Kinetically shot by Hanson and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, it’s by far the movie’s most rewatchable scene.
At its 15-year anniversary, 8 Mile is also a strange kind of period piece: no one at the battles is watching through an iPhone.
Almost Famous is a movie about being born out of time, a struggle personified by its lead character. 15-year-old William Miller is too late to be there for the glory days of rock’n’roll, too young to take control of his music writing career, too juvenile to win the affections of Penny Lane, the girl he wants.
And we’re born out of time, too. Almost Famous offers a front row seat to the last gasp of one of music’s greatest eras — when labels actually had money, when magazines still ruled, when rock stars were true royalty — and for two hours and 42 minutes, it taunts us about not being there to experience it first hand (unless you were young in the ’70s, in which case what are you doing on this youth media website?).
A movie that speaks to the heart of what it means to be hopelessly devoted to music, and worth it for the ‘Tiny Dancer’ sing-a-long alone.
24 Hour Party People
The brilliance of 24 Hour Party People lies in its gently mocking tone — unlike most music movies, it isn’t aiming to glorify.
The casting of Steve Coogan as club impresario Tony Wilson is a touch of comic genius, but the real life source material is ripe for comedy, too: for every copy of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ sold, Wilson’s Factory Records loses money due to the single’s OTT packaging; Wilson founds legendary nightspot Hacienda, but the advent of ecstasy means people aren’t buying drinks and the club goes bust.
The film achieves the rare feat of appealing to music nerds and a mainstream audience. But maybe don’t watch it with your Mum.
This Is Spinal Tap
Here’s the thing about This Is Spinal Tap — it’s absolutely the best musical satire ever created, and by some distance, because it put something that was already borderline hilarious in front of a funhouse mirror.
After all, cock-rock was so deeply based on theatrical, over-the-top masculinity that just a slight dose of exaggeration, at the hands of a great team of writers, was a goldmine for comedic absurdity. And while the writing made it a great comedy, it’s the music that made it a beloved cultural institution.
The film’s soundtrack — full of original songs by the fictional band — mimics cock-rock’s excesses so faithfully that the film’s affection for the era remains clear, while the lyrics make a rollicking spectacle of its worst impulses. That balance is at the core of both the film and the soundtrack that anchors it, and it’s the reason why the film is not only beloved by music and comedy fans, but by the very musicians it parodied.
Today, it’s even responsible for a range of real-life bands — Steel Panther, The Darkness, Tenacious D, and plenty of other comedy acts wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the songs of Spinal Tap, and the film’s still referenced every time a drummer’s replaced, a band gets lost in a corridor, or a dial goes to 11.
I’m not sure if mere words can express how darling Sing Street is — which, I guess, is pretty appropriate considering it’s a film about finding your voice through music.
Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, divine) is a misfit Irish teenager who transfers to a rough state school when his parents separate and run into money problems. When he meets a cute girl on the school steps and accidentally tells her he’s in a band (whoops, right?), he’s gotta front up quick smart. So he selects a group of misfits and starts the most adorable pop-punk band you’ve ever seen in your life.
Sing Street is set in the mid-80s, and as the pop music scene changes rapidly — from Bowie to Flock of Seagulls to Spandau Ballet — the band’s aesthetic (and Conor’s adorable outfits) change to match. The original music is actually banging, and the whole thing reminds you that music is the perfect way to express yourself when just words fail.
I bawled like a baby in this delicious film, and I bet you will too. Enjoy, and thank me later.
School Of Rock
Anyone who went through the Australian schooling system in the late 2000s will have seen School Of Rock somewhere north of one hundred times. Every time a substitute teacher wheeled out a battered old TV — or a projector if y’all were fancy — we all knew what we were in for.
But within its ostensibly simple narrative of a fake sub teacher leading his class to victory in a battle of the bands competition, School Of Rock was actually genius. What other film educated us about the entire history of rock’n’roll, taught us what a hangover was, and gifted us with vital life mottos like ‘Worship The Band’? No other film, that’s the answer.
Plus let’s be real, it remains the only movie Jack Black has ever been remotely funny in.
The Blues Brothers
From a running SNL skit to one of the defining films of its generation, Jake and Elwood Blues came a long way for a couple of dodgy ex-cons fronting a blues revue.
One forgets just the kind of impact a film like The Blues Brothers has had until all the sayings that have entered the lexicon emerge — “mission from God,” “putting the band back together” et al — as well as performances from such immortals as Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and the Queen herself, Aretha Franklin. Throw in John Candy’s affable cop and Carrie Fisher’s fiery ex-girlfriend and you’ve got an adventure worthy of the single most expensive car-crash scene of all time.
Empire Records was the movie that made me realise music was bigger than something I danced to at discos. Up until I had seen it, my early 2000s CD collection consisted of nothing but singles from ex-Australian Idol winners and a debut album from Amity Dry, a former contestant on The Block. I was ten, okay?
But Empire Records took the romance of loving music and heightened it to an almost biblical level. The kind where music has the power to forgive egregious gambling debt, confess undying love and of course, damn the man.
You can’t watch the movie without wanting to be a part of that sort of magic. Well, I couldn’t anyway.
Yes, it was extra. And it’s a bit silly to think of the outrageous morality of it now. Especially when we really know how a story about a record store fighting to stay independent would have really ended: with the age of the internet. But for 90 sweet, naive minutes, Empire Records looks at consuming music in a much more black and white way.
Back in the day, Anton Corbijn was a house photographer for the NME — the British music paper that championed Joy Division probably more than any other publication. In those days the NME was resolutely black and white, and so were Corbijn’s stills.
Black and white suited Joy Division perfectly — being a grim northern band with a bleak northern, post-industrial revolution sound. Perhaps Joy Division’s greatest song was ‘Atmosphere’, and Corbijn’s stills were nothing if not atmospheric. If Corbijn had not existed to photograph Joy Division they would have had to invent him.
Corbijn filmed Control, based on the heartbreaking book, Touching From A Distance, by singer Ian Curtis’ widow. As you would expect from his still photography, Control is beautifully filmed in black and white. It is so atmospheric that it totally draws you in. Joy Division’s origins as glam-obsessed, working class kids in punk-era Manchester are wonderfully depicted. But the film pivots on Curtis’ growing problems with epilepsy and depression — exacerbated by his inability to resolve his affair with Belgian beauty Annick and his responsibilities to his wife and young child.
The film’s tragic ending would have been known to most viewers ahead of time, but it is still an enormous emotional wrench when it happens. Control is the perfect tribute to one of the greatest doomed talents of all time.