Counting down favorite films about music
March 31, 2021
A friend recently suggested that I write a column about my favorite music films. Not music documentaries, not musicals, not concert films, but scripted movies that are somehow about music.
So here we go, 30 films about music that I love:
30. The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis)
29. 24 Hour Party People (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
28. Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (dir. Liam Lynch)
27. Vox Lux (dir. Bradey Corbet)
26. The Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)
25. Empire Records (dir. Allan Moyle)
24. Notorious (dir. George Tillman Jr.)
23. Sid and Nancy (dir. Alex Cox)
22. CB4 (dir. Tamra Davis)
21. Sweet and Lowdown (dir. Woody Allen)
20. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (dir. Edgar Wright)
19. A Star Is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)
18. Popstar: Never Stop Stopping (dir. Lonely Island)
17. A Mighty Wind (dir. Christopher Guest)
16. Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)
15. Control (dir. Anton Corbijn)
14. Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars Von Trier)
13. 8 Mile (dir. Curtis Hanson)
12. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
11. School of Rock (dir. Richard Linklater)
10. I’m Not There (dir. Todd Haynes): A high-end art film about the mystery, madness, and genius of folk legend Bob Dylan. A lot of folks consider this to be one of the great modern films, and from a creativity standpoint, I can’t argue. Several actors embrace the spirit of Dylan and some of the most interesting musicians from the last 20 years embrace his music in this beautifully constructed art film about one of the most celebrated writers and thinkers of the 1960s and ’70s.
9. Pump Up the Volume (dir. Allan Moyle): Ostensibly Footloose for people who like good music, Pump Up the Volume tells the story of both culture clash and a battle of generational ethical standards. This one just should have been a teen film, but ended up being so much more. For people of a certain age, Pump Up the Volume was an introduction to underground music.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Coen Brothers): The classic modern music film, if there is one, the Coen Brothers’ 1960s singer/songwriter drama is the kind of flick that rewards repeat viewings. Drenched in era-specific details of a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village troubadour scene, Llewyn plays through as a calm, meditative, sad story about a struggling artist who is dancing the line of finding his break and giving up on his dream. Not a film you’ll likely grab to watch on a happy summer day, but certainly one that’s worth digging out from time to time.
7. Juice (dir. Ernest Dickerson): This was one of maybe five movies my friends and I were obsessed with in high school. It’s Stand by Me but with hip-hop obsessed inner city kids who all, to varying degrees, are trying to find their way towards a better life. At the center of the action is Q, New York City’s next best DJ. Through Q and his friends we get to visit the New York City hip-hop world of 1992 in a way that no other film captured. I’d argue it’s one of the most underrated and overlooked films of the 1990s. I’d love to see this one get the Criterion treatment it deserves. As a bonus, this one features Tupac in true rock star form.
6. Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry): The most recent entry on the list, this epic indie rock-focused film is about a self-destructive almost-rock-star played by Elisabeth Moss. If you love 1990s indie and punk rock (think Drag City, Merge, SubPop, Touch and Go, etc.) and have spent time reading about those artists, then this one is solid gold. That there’s only really one proper film that truly memorializes that period in music is tragic. But hey, at least that one film was handled by someone as uniquely suited for the task as Alex Ross Perry. This is one of the best films of the last few years — basically a ’90s rock version of a Cassavetes / Rowlands film.
5. Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola): This film isn’t about music, but the characters communicate through the music they like more so than they do with the words they speak. It’s a story of a summertime love triangle at an amusement park, accented at every turn by incredible music direction. The needle drops are perfect as is the Yo La Tengo score. This is probably the movie I’ve rewatched the most over the last decade.
4. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach): Though characterized as a film about a New Yorker going to California, Greenberg has always played as a music film to me. Similar to Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, we don’t get a story about people participating in music. Instead, we get the story of the people after the music. Three guys (Rhys Ifans, Mark Duplass, and an incredible Ben Stiller) who were in a band together a lifetime ago, reunite at different stages of adulthood in Los Angeles. We quickly learn that the band had a sliding doors moment before they broke up, in which a record label offered them a deal and Greenberg, their most vocal leader, rejected it, much to the chagrin of his bandmates. Like most of the films on this list, Greenberg has an amazing soundtrack, even kicking off with a full play-through of “Jet Airliner.”
3. Spinal Tap (dir. Rob Reiner): I work in film/video with musicians, and Spinal Tap, now 37 years old, still rings very true. A rock mockumentary about a bunch of clueless musicians who lack self awareness? That’s maybe the best elevator pitch I’ve ever heard. Bless this movie and all the movies it inspired (several of which are on this list).
2. Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe): Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical rock epic about his time spent as a teenage music critic for Rolling Stone magazine came along at the perfect time in my life. I had been writing about music for the IU’s student newspaper and was slowly discovering rock history. Almost Famous set me off on at least a dozen research projects and ultimately led me into some of my biggest music obsessions. One of the all-time great collections of actors and subjects, and pulled off in a timeless, energetic, poetic way that keeps the film forever on my rewatch list.
1. High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears): My personal go-to comfort film. From age 17 through 35 I worked at record stores off and on. It’s where I made some of my dearest friends and it’s the work I always enjoyed the most. Being in a record store all day long, and getting paid for it, is a lifestyle I’ll probably always long to go back to. Talking music with your friends, old and new; setting up in-store performances with bands; getting advance copies of the coming music; going out to the best show (or the best jukebox) after working a closing shift. As for the film itself, director Stephen Frears, actor/producer John Cusack, and writer Nick Hornby nailed it. And, as a bonus: best soundtrack ever.