30 films all music obsessives should add to their watch list
From biopics and documentaries to pitch-perfect comedies and dramas – here are 30 truly excellent movies to keep you entertained.
From biopics to documentaries, the fictional to the fantastical, film makers have tried to capture the love, pain, struggle and magic of music – and the people who live and die for it. Here are some of the best.
3 CLASSIC HIP-HOP AND RAP FILMS
Wild Style (1983)
In a line: Foundational hip-hop film chronicling the revolution of graffiti, music and breaking from the heart of NYC
Few films come close to capturing the birth of hip-hop quite like Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style. Feeling more akin to a documentary than it is fiction, Wild Style explores the symbiosis between graffiti artists, rappers, breakers, MCs and DJs, capturing the independent spirit of life on the streets and red-lit venues of ‘80s New York. Though you won’t find Oscar-winning acting performances here, you’ll find features from early legends like Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash and, crucially, a vital slice of early hip-hop history.
Hustle & Flow (2005)
In a line: Gritty rags-to-riches drama of when rap dreams become a reality
Remember when the struggling Memphis hustler-turned-rapper played by Terrence Howard puts a music crew together and they make that first song – Whoop That Trick – together in his bedroom and it’s pure magic? Well, if that doesn’t give you chills, you’re a hater. Hustle & Flow tells the story of an aspiring emcee and a last-ditch attempt to make it big in the music industry, with a stunning lead performance by Terrence Howard that bagged him an Oscar nomination.
8 Mile (2002)
In a line: Eminem’s quasi-autobiographical film of a rapper trying to break out of Detroit
Eminem plays B-Rabbit, a poor kid who lives in a mobile home on the outskirts of Detroit and dreams of becoming a rapper. If that sounds a lot like Eminem’s own life, it’s because it is, but perhaps with a few embellishments. The film ends with an epic rap battle where he crushes the competition and, perhaps, sets off on the path toward a career in rap. You only get one shot. He got his – he took it.
3 FILMS BRINGING RAVING TO THE BIG SCREEN
In a line: Stylish, slow-burning film capturing the heady rush of the Parisian house scene
Directors often don’t quite manage to translate the atmosphere of clubbing to the big screen without it feeling contrived or corny. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden is no such film. Winding in and out of the rave over two hours, Eden hones in on ‘90s Paris clubland via its protagonist Paul, following him across two decades as he rises the ranks as a DJ at the crest of French touch sound. But his pursuit of his art comes at many personal costs. It’s a moving, delicate portrayal of life's shifting seasons over a heart-tugging backdrop of house, disco and electronic nostalgia.
Human Traffic (1999)
In a line: Cult clubbing film of reckless youth living for the weekend
Right, Human Traffic isn’t a ‘music film’ in the strictest of senses – but for an adrenaline shot of the wild weekends of the British rave it doesn’t get much better than this. The soundtrack is all-out house, techno and jungle, Matthew Herbert co-wrote the theme tune and there’s even a cameo from Mr. Carl Cox himself. Nice one bruvva!
24 Hour Party People (2002)
In a line: Steve Coogan leads a tongue-in-cheek tour of a vital era in Manchester’s music history
This comedy film documents the Manchester music scene through the lens of a slightly real, slightly fictional Tony Wilson, the television and radio personality, record label founder (he started Factory Records) and concert promoter. From the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks to Joy Division and New Order, 24 Hour Party People shows how the scene evolved from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s – with a flair for the absurd.
4 DOCUMENTARIES CELEBRATING MUSICAL MAVERICKS AND OUTSIDERS
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
In a line: Oscar-winning documentary demystifying an unlikely musical hero
Whatever happened to Sixto Rodriguez? The ‘70s Detroit folk singer never made it in the US, but his music found its way to apartheid-era South Africa and turned him into an inspirational, if incredibly mysterious, hero. And a few fans want to find out why. We follow them as they navigate the myths and clues about his life to try and find out just who Rodriguez was – and whether his rumoured suicide was true after all.
In a line: Documentary capturing the clashing of two American rock egos
You’ve probably never heard of Brian Jonestown Massacre, and maybe – and this is a big maybe – you’ve heard of the Dandy Warhols. But that doesn’t stop this documentary on how stupid and ridiculous and selfish both bands are from being hilariously frustrating and entertaining. This is the only movie in the history of movies that includes an on-stage band fight involving a sitar.
In a line: Defiant Sundance prizewinning documentary following an Afghan refugee rapping for a better future
Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s documentary follows the teenage years of Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan refugee working as a cleaner in Iran with big dreams of being a rap superstar like her idol, Rihanna. But after a surprise visit from her mother tells her she is to be wed for a bride-price of $9,000, her path as an artist takes an unexpected turn. Sonita is a gripping film about rebellion against traditions, the power of music as activism, and the ethics of documentary filmmaking itself.
The Last Waltz (1978)
In a line: Star-studded farewell to legendary roots rock group, the Band
The Band is a great band, no doubt, and their final concert was an important one. But a film about a concert would be destined to be boring unless, maybe, Martin Scorsese directs it, which is what happened on The Last Waltz. It’s 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom, and The Band’s joined onstage by friends Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton, among others. The candid backstage interviews provide a glimpse into what motivates one of rock history’s great outfits.
5 FILMS FOR HEAVY METAL AND HARD ROCK HEADBANGERS
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
In a line: The mockumentary that launched all mockumentaries
The film that gave the world the phrase “turn it up to 11”. It was a mockumentary about a ridiculous British heavy metal band, but it felt so real because real world rock and roll is often just as preposterous. That’s why many people back when it came out – and still – think This Is Spinal Tap is a real movie about a real band. You can’t make this stuff up – or can you?
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
In a line: Feel-good documentary about middle-aged rockers pursuing their metal dreams
Anvil, a real Canadian heavy metal band that’s been praised by Metallica and Slayer and nearly every metal band, has been described as a real-life Spinal Tap. This doc catches up with them 30 years after their brief prime as frontman Lips works for a catering company. But they’re trying to relaunch their careers, because they had a rock and roll dream they never woke up from.
School Of Rock (2003)
In a line: Exuberant comedy bringing a rock & roll education to the classroom
Jack Black’s greatest role will likely go down as the failing rocker who scams his way into becoming a substitute teacher at a private elementary school in this sidesplitting but heartfelt Richard Linklater film. He covertly teaches the kids how to play rock music (and “stick it to The Man”) instead of teaching them math. Their lives will never be the same again.
Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
In a line: Tense documentary peels back the tough exterior of metal gods Metallica. Results: awkward
Metallica invited two documentary filmmakers to film them recording an album from scratch – but what actually came out in the final cut was not as much music as it was emotional outpouring. Some Kind Of Monster becomes a fly-on-the-wall for the legendary metal band’s onscreen fighting and therapy over a year of footage, where tempers flare, relationships are torn and guitarist James Hetfeld signs into rehab. “It is the best mirror we’ve ever had in our lives,” he says of the film.
In a line: Pre-internet era rom-com with a killer grunge soundtrack
Grunge music put Seattle on the music map. With Singles, Cameron Crowe tried to capture that scene through the lives of young single people looking for love and meaning and whatever. The celebrated soundtrack features the big Seattle bands of the day, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Alice In Chains. There were also cameos by Eddie Vedder and other members of Pearl Jam, as well as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.
6 BRILLIANTLY TOLD MUSIC BIOPICS
Walk The Line (2005)
In a line: Award-winning, all-star biopic of a country music trailblazer
Joaquin Phoenix gave a stunning performance as Johnny Cash in this biopic focusing on the country music star’s early life. Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter and she did a darn good job too. Tackling the life of an artist as iconic and powerful and influential as Cash is a huge challenge, but Walk The Line pulled it off swimmingly and showed the many, conflicted sides of a music legend.
The Doors (1991)
In a line: Uneasy biopic that hones in on a rock'n'roll enigma
Oliver Stone directing a movie about Jim Morrison (yes, it’s called The Doors, but it’s really about the band’s charismatic and controversial lead singer) is the perfect storm of overinflated egos colliding. It could’ve been a mess, but in this case, it was solid gold. This film shows how much myth matters in rock music, and how drugs and a God complex can rise a band to glory and then ruin it all.
In a line: A virtuoso performance capturing the life of a soul music pioneer
Jamie Foxx does an uncanny portrayal of Ray Charles. Every twitch and muscle movement is so on point that you quickly resign to the fact that you are watching the soul legend himself. Ray is a rich and uptempo portrayal of his life, tracing his story from turbulent childhood to worldwide fame through addiction, affairs and life on the road. What’s best, the voice we hear singing throughout is Charles’ himself.
In a line: Moving black-and-white biopic of the troubled life of the Joy Division frontman
Joy Division’s tale is a tragic one. They were on the edge of international success and a huge US tour when Ian Curtis died by suicide. Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, shows the band rising up through the local clubs and making two great albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer. But Curtis’ own internal demons and health issues get the best of him, and the end came way too close to the beginning.
In a line: The tragic life and legendary career of one of jazz’s brightest burning stars
Clint Eastwood’s Bird is a window into the world of jazz via saxophonist livewire and bebop pioneer, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. It’s a complex, heavy watch that clocks nearly three hours long, with much of the film focused on the tumultuousness of Parker’s (played by Forest Whitaker) tragically short life spent in the grips of addiction. But carried by the brilliance of his music – and it is Parker himself you hear playing on the soundtrack – Bird’s talent glows among the dark, smoky clubs throughout.
Sid and Nancy (1986)
In a line: Pitch black tale of a punk love story
On 12 October 1978, Sid Vicious (played by Gary Oldman) is arrested on suspicion of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Alex Cox’s gritty cult film depicts the tumultuous years that led to that tragedy, throwing you deep into punk’s furiously stormy waters and the underbelly of its most famous band, the Sex Pistols. It split opinion on its release; though revered by critics for the most part, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) scathingly called the film a “fucking fantasy”. Still, for a heart-wrenching portrayal of addiction and romance against a backdrop of the bleak and noisy late ‘70s, Sid and Nancy does it brilliantly.
FOUR SIDE-SPLITTING MUSICAL COMEDIES
Wayne’s World (1992)
In a line: Eccentric comedy following two loveable goofballs as they make it big on prime time TV
Wayne and Garth, the heroes of this Lorne Michaels-produced film that spun-off from a Saturday Night Live skit, are the real world Beavis and Butthead. They’re long-haired, burnt-out rock and roll stoners but they have big, incorruptible hearts. The multiple ending sequences are perhaps the most avant-garde thing to ever happen to American cinema.
The Commitments (1991)
In a line: Charming comedy-drama of a Dublin band aiming for star-spangled soul fame
Based off Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel of the same name, The Commitments were Dublin’s finest rough-and-ready soul band, assembled by local wheeler-dealer Jimmy Rabbitte and featuring friends and local oddballs from the Northside. The film follows them as they scramble up the ranks of the local music scene – all the while led by a killer soundtrack of ‘60s soul covers. If you like your Aretha Franklins, Al Greens and Otis Reddings, you’ll love this.
Blues Brothers (1980)
In a line: The zany adventures of a blues band of brothers
They were on a mission. From God. Dan Akroyd and John Belushi are trying to get the band back together to play a show and raise enough money to save the orphanage where they grew up. And nothing will stop them. With appearances by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and John Lee Hooker, there are great musical performances and lots of jokes from this Saturday Night Live sketch gone wild.
High Fidelity (2000)
In a line: List-obsessed music geek examines his failed love life in this offbeat rom-com
That every music nerd is a snobby, selfish, insensitive jerk is more or less the premise of High Fidelity, the tale of a going-nowhere-fast record store owner in Chicago (John Cusack) struggling through a breakup. He listens to music, he talks music (mostly in the form of “Top 5” lists), he walks music, he eats music, he sleeps music, he dreams music, and he sort of – but not really – figures out how to be a better person to the one he loves. The highlight’s the hilarious performance by Jack Black, who plays a snarky employee at the record store.
5 GRIPPING DRAMAS WITH MUSIC AT THEIR HEART
In a line: Pulse-raising drama that pushes a quest for musical greatness to its limit
Whiplash is a film about suffering. A 19-year-old aspiring jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) wins a scholarship to elite music school the Shaffer. There, he finds himself under the tutelage of an iron fisted, abusive teacher. The result is an explosive drama that follows the pair’s vicious relationship as teacher pushes student through blood, sweat and tears. Summed by the words of its most ruthless main part, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Purple Rain (1984)
In a line: Prince’s electrifying acting debut with an Oscar-winning soundtrack
Turns out Prince is as captivating on screen as he is on speakers. Purple Rain is the cinematic companion to Prince’s album from the same year. He plays “The Kid”, the frontman of a band called The Revolution trying to make it on the Minneapolis music scene. His life is filled with pain and struggle and doubt, but on stage, The Kid is an undeniable star. The long live concert shots of Prince and his band performing classic tunes like Let’s Go Crazy and I Would Die 4 U and, yup, Purple Rain, were captivating and certainly helped copies of the album fly off shelves.
In a line: Tempestuous reimagining of a much-mythologised classical music rivalry
Eight of the 53 awards won by Amadeus were Academy Awards. Not bad for a movie about classical music, specifically the fictional battle between Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. In the film, Mozart’s a crude, wild and crazy party boy who steals all the glory from the more sophisticated Salieri, who unleashes a sinister plot to sabotage Mozart once and for all.
Almost Famous (2000)
In a line: Sharp, semi-autobiographical coming of age story of a budding journalist on the road
Every music journalist’s dream writing scenario is to go on tour with a big rock band and write about it for Rolling Stone. That’s exactly what happens in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Not only does the protagonist ride around with the band in the tour bus (and on airplanes), hang backstage, and witness the frontman’s LSD fuelled meltdown, he also loses his virginity to a few groupies (sorry, “Band Aids.”) Oh, and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays notorious music journo Lester Bangs
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
In a line: Moody comedy-drama of a week in the life of a couch-surfing folk singer
Llewyn Davis, the protagonist of this Coen Brothers movie starring Justin Timberlake, could’ve been Bob Dylan if not for bad luck and his terrible decision making skills. Based in 1961, the struggling Greenwich Village folkie tries to make it in the music game but he seems to always be just an hour late to success. It’s a dark comedy, like most Coen Bros. films, and it reminds us that for every Dylan throughout history there’s at least one Davis whose trajectory was derailed by folly.