If you’re spending the weekend in, here are 6 great movies about music to watch.
It’s Saturday night and you’re stuck at home. You wish you could be out listening to great live music from bands like The Groove Merchants or Drive, but you can’t. So you pick up the remote and decide to watch a movie. Netflix recommends the same 50 things you haven’t wanted to watch before, and you’ve already watched all the new releases on HBO. You could spend the next 20 minutes of your life channel surfing. But why do that when you can choose a movie from this carefully curated list of my personal favorite movies about music and the music business. Some of them are funny, some of them are classics, and some of them you might never have heard of.
Amadeus (Streaming on Netflix)
If you’re looking for a pristine truth-telling about the life of one of the western world’s greatest composers, this movie ain’t it. Instead, this is one of the best movies about talent ever made. Seriously. Using the real music and real contemporaries of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as his starting point, the writer, Peter Shaffer, explores the politics of popular music and exposes the heartbreaking truth that genius and success are not synonymous.
The story is told from the point-of-view of Mozart’s most jealous contemporary, Anotonio Salieri, who recognizes the genius of Mozart and then, out of spite, uses his powerful position as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II to squash and ultimately destroy Mozart.
Amadeus won the Oscar for best picture and seven other Academy Awards in 1984. If you’re a music fan and you’ve never seen it, then go watch it right now. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again. The music is sublime.
That Thing You Do (Available on Amazon Instant Video and Youtube for Rent)
Maybe you aren’t in the mood for a serious, tragic story about musical genius. That’s OK. This next pick is a light-hearted romp through the music of the late 1950’s. Tom Hanks wrote, directed, and is featured in this picture about a local band and their journey to become one-hit-Oneders. (That’s the name of their group. Intended to be a clever band name, it’s basically a running joke throughout the movie because no one knows how to pronounce it.)
When Guy Patterson gets the chance to sit in on drums after an accident leaves a friend with a broken arm, he finds himself carried along on a roller coaster ride to fame after the band produces a hit. The music here isn’t sublime, but the hit is catchy enough that you won’t mind hearing it played over and over again throughout the film. It’s a fun look at the music industry of early rock and roll.
Almost Famous (Streaming on Netflix)
Almost Famous is a movie about the rock scene of the 1970’s told from the point-of-view of a writing prodigy who cons his way onto the tour of an up-and-coming band. William Miller loves rock music (despite his single mother’s concerns that it will rot his brain and corrupt his values). And it’s his love for the music that is the heart of this funny, earnest, and touching film about coming face-to-face with our heroes and discovering just how human they are.
William writes music reviews for his high school paper and he’s good enough that he occasionally sells a piece to a local music magazine. Good enough that his writing catches the attention of a Rolling Stone magazine editor who unknowingly sends a 15-year old geek out to do an in-depth profile of the rock band, Stillwater. Before William knows it, he’s on the road and up to his eyeballs in all the things his mother warned him about–groupies, drugs, and egos on the rise.
The film is loosely based on the real life experiences of writer/director Cameron Crowe, famous for such movie hits as Say Anything and Jerry McGuire. The same touch of wonder and idealism that is so present in those films pervade this one. You’ll walk away happy and craving a listen to some of the 70’s hits featured in the film.
This Is Spinal Tap (Available on Amazon Instant Video and Youtube for Rent)
You know how The Office and Parks and Recreation and a host of other shows center around the convention that that the characters are real people being filmed for an upcoming documentary? This is Spinal Tap is the pioneer of that particular story-telling device, the mocumentary. It’s become a staple of television and film because This is Spinal Tap, in being so hilariously funny, revealed just how cool the mockumentary could be.
The film pretends to be a documentary about an 80’s heavy metal band, Spinal Tap. Everyone in the band sports the long hair and tight clothes ubiquitous to the time period, and like so many musicians in metal bands, none of them are even remotely attractive. This is just one of the rock tropes that’s heavily parodied.
We all take our music seriously, maybe too seriously. This Is Spinal Tap shows us just how silly the whole music business can really be.
The Thing Called Love (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
The Thing Called Love was never a hit, even though it features a bunch of well known actors. It was one of the last films that River Phoenix ever made, and Sandra Bullock appears in a supporting role prior to her break out performance in Speed. But the real star of the film is country music.
Samantha Mathis plays Miranda Presley, a New Yorker who somehow likes country and not rock and roll. The film opens with her arriving in Nashville hoping to make it big as a songwriter. One of the things that makes the film work for me is that she is the opposite of all the country music clichés. She dresses like a 90s-era city girl in her jeans, leather jacket, and Yankees cap. She’s cynical and unsocial—starkly contrasted with the open hearted and big-haired people who populate the music she loves.
It’s not ground breaking and the love triangle featured at the center of the movie has been done a million times. But there’s something really compelling about this fish out of water story, maybe because the film promises that even a fish out of water can survive and thrive.
Once (Available on Amazon Instant Video and Youtube for Rent)
Most musicians won’t ever get played on the radio or land a record contract. That’s probably why most movies about music focus on the fantasy aspect of it as the road to fame and fortune. But that story gets old after a while. Perhaps that’s why Once is such a refreshing look at the world of music. Nobody is getting paid to make music (except in coins tossed into a guitar case); they play because they love to.
The musicians in Once all have day jobs. His is as a vacuum repairman and hers is selling flowers. They meet one day while he’s busking on a corner during his lunch break in downtown Dublin. They get to talking and pretty soon they’re playing music together. Their first collaboration results in the yearning Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly,” one of the most emotional moments in any musical I’ve ever seen. The film hints at a romance blossoming between the two as you might expect, but even in this way the film defies our expectations. It remains true to life as a sweet story about two people who really just love music, whether it pays off for them or not.
Those are some of my favorite movies about music. What are yours? Be sure to share the movies I didn’t include but that would make your list in the comments!