These are not supposed to be the best music movies ever made, but ones that I enjoy watching over and over again and don’t annoy me due to stupid inaccuracies (though virtually all the fictionalized docs have taken liberties with history – not as bad as movies like The Buddy Holly Story or Jersey Boys, however, which couldn’t seem to get the facts right). Having recently seen the new Brian Wilson bio movie Love & Mercy is what inspired me to make a list of my favorite music related movies. The Brian Wilson movie is half incredible and half annoying and draggy. The sections of the young Brian played by Paul Dano are excellent with the musical recreations of the sessions to record Pet Sounds being some of the best music related scenes ever on film – very believable. Sadly, the casting of John Cusack who looks nothing like Brian (look at the hairline, for heavens sake – pretty basic Hollywood trickery could have fixed that!) didn’t work for me – a fine actor wasted in the role. His part of the movie mostly consists of Brian being catatonic and childlike – perhaps realistic, but it goes on too long and frankly needed some music scenes from a later day Brian. Still I recommend giving it a try. What is not included is American Graffiti which is filled with great music and Wolfman Jack, but it ultimately about a period and not music I decided. Also missing are straight documentaries like The Beatles’ Anthology which could arguably have been included, but didn’t feel like movies. Now on with my list.
I am a big Marx Brothers fan – smart slapstick with clever wordplay. This movie always felt like a 60s Marx Brothers update starring the fab four and is alot of fun to watch. Most reviewers don’t consider this to be the best Beatles movie – that’s their problem as I can watch it over and over and still laugh while digging the great songs plus it’s in color!
2.That Thing You Do
If I could ever met to talk to Tom Hanks, it wouldn’t be about movies – it would be about music as he seems to be a fan of the same stuff I loved as a kid – The Dave Clark 5, one hit wonder garage bands, etc. With this movie he created a world that really felt like the 60s I remember including a band that stumbles on to a hit song and rides it improbably to finally come crashing back to earth with jealousy and record company greed. The music is all great originals that was like finding a long lost Shadows of Knight record or something with sidetrips to instrumentals and oldies.
3.A Hard Day’s Night
A wonderfully believable fiction of the life of the Beatles that created the image we all carried of the four fabs till the day the band broke up (for better or worse – John the smart alec, Paul the cute one, George the quiet one, Ringo the loveable moptop). This is the black and white 1964 Beatles movie and frankly it still holds up to repeated replays with some nice side-characters like Norm and Shake who play real-life Beatle helpers Neil and Mal. (“stop being taller than me” – a movie line Julian Lennon once quoted to me when I interviewed him – who knew he was a fan too!)
4.The Rutles – All You Need Is Cash
Almost put this ahead of AHDN at #3 but then realized you had to have the original to make the parody work. An hilarious spot-on spoof of the life of the Beatles with Monty Pythons, SNLers and a fun cast of musical cameos including one of the guys being spoofed (George Harrison) who rose in my estimation for his participation in his own skewering. Frankly while laughing, you enjoyed the musical pastiches that felt like a lost Beatles album and ended up loving and missing the pre-fab four as much as their more famous counterparts.
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles is the most believable portrayal of a character I’ve ever seen in a movie. You forget he is an actor and believe he truly is a blind musician. The music or Ray Charles is an oldies radio staple so to see the tortured life he had to live while creating it is interesting and believable. Some fictionalization, but not enough to be annoying.
6.Grace Of My Heart
For a movie that didn’t do much at the box office in 1996, it continues to crop up on cable as an entertaining fiction that seems to be based on Carole King’s life but isn’t about her really. There is fine acting from lead Illeana Douglas along with John Turtorro (as a Phil Spector type), Matt Dillon (as a Brian Wilson clone) and Eric Stoltz in the Gerry Goffin role. Decent enough music was supplied by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach among others. A gentle movie that keeps pulling you back.
7.The Wrecking Crew – A Documentary
A wonderful tribute to the musicians who recorded most of the music I grew up loving being backing players on everything from the Monkees, Paul Revere & The Raiders and Sonny & Cher to the Tijuana Brass and Frank Sinatra. This is a painstaking and loving work from Denny Tedesco whose late dad played guitar on records by Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Mamas & The Papas, etc. Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson – all genius players few knew existed.
8.The Blues Brothers
In spite of all the auto destruction and Carrie Fisher, there are some really fun musical parts to this movie – Ray Charles shakin’ a tailfeather, Aretha telling her man to think, Cab Calloway showing he was still cooler than heck at age 72. Belushi and Ackroyd created perhaps the most iconic SNL characters ever while bringing “The Theme From Rawhide”, “Stand By Your Man” and John Lee Hooker to the metroplex. Plus they were on a mission from God to play great blues music.
9.This Is Spinal Tap
Spinal Tap lovingly skewered heavy metal bands and the whole music industry while creating a band that really seemed like a working band. Using some of the SNL cast, they created images that still work – the band that gets lost backstage trying to get to the main stage, an unreadable all black album cover, a zuccini down the pants, getting trapped in their own stage props, an amp that goes to 11 – on and on. And let’s not forget “Big Bottom”!
Everything Walt Disney did was created with quality in mind. This 1940 animated homage to classical music may be the only way kids of today can still get exposure to the classics (or maybe watching Looney Tunes) as it’s all about fast food disposable pop music today. There are fine Stokowski orchestrations here. Some of the animation is a dated, but Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice is priceless as are the dancing hippos and mushrooms.
2012 Australian import loosely based on the true story of a group of indigenous girls who wanted to perform for the troups in 60s Vietnam and are shown how to be a funky Supremes-like act by a white hustler. A very sweet gentle movie with excellent music mostly sung by Jessica Mauboy who really sells the late 60s funk in a big way.
12.The Glenn Miller Story
Okay, so there is alot of fiction in this 1954 movie, but the chemistry between June Allyson and James Stewart, the great big band music (the album was #1 for 11 weeks), the cameos from people like Ben Pollack, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa plus the footage filmed in Colorado (including my old alma mater the University Of Colorado) make this a guilty pleasure I always watch when it is shown on cable.
A 1968 movie that the Beatles at first didn’t care enough about to contribute more than old songs plus some discards (mostly George songs). Somewhere along the way it became a classic in psychedelic animation done on a relative shoestring budget. The blue meanies, the apple bonkers, the glove – all classics. George Martin’s score is a wonderful addition though why they initially cut out the great John rocker “Hey Bulldog” still makes no sense – at least it’s back on the DVD version.
14.Yankee Doodle Dandy
This is the oldest movie on my list – from 1942. James Cagney is a great choice to play the brilliant songwriter George M Cohan and the show is chock-a-block with great songs like “Harrigan”, “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Boy”. The Broadway plays dominate but it’s the stirring American patriotism the comes through on “Over There” especially.
15.The Kids Are Alright
A 1979 documentary about the Who that by accident ended up coinciding with the death of drummer Keith Moon as the film was wrapping production. While there have been further events in the band’s history (notably the death of John Entwistle), this movie covers their critical era with some great old performance footage.
This 1970 doc by the Maysles brothers was based on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour plus working on new music at Muscle Shoals studio. As such it features alot of the same music as was on the Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out live album – perhaps the best live album they’ve put out. The tour ended with the disasterous Altamont Speedway concert and that acts as a sobering end to the movie as well.
Cameron Crowe based this 2000 movie on his own story of touring with the Allman Brothers, etc. while a young teenage writer for Rolling Stone (the band in the movie is the fictional Stillwater). Kate Hudson steals the show as a tender but knowing groupie. Peter Frampton and Heart’s Nancy Wilson supplied alot of the original music.
This 2013 doc focuses on the Alabama studio (FAME) where so much great music was recorded in the 60s and 70s. Owner Rick Hall ends up being the main focus but the best parts are interviews with those who recorded there – especially the session guys like Roger Hawkins. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
19.Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll – Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is one of the first musical geniuses of rock and roll. He has also been one of the most difficult personalities of rock and roll and both are on display in this 1987 doc. Keith Richards should be commended for forging ahead with the 1986 concerts to honor Berry’s 60th birthday in the face of the irrascible personality of the honoree. There are some fine performances plus some valuable interview footage with pianist Johnnie Johnson and greats like Little Richard and Bo Diddley.
Though not as acclaimed as Jailhouse Rock or King Creole, this the the Elvis movie I always come back to due to how true to his career it seemed – not to mention the deep hued color footage of Elvis and his actual band at that time. He plays a country singer trying to break into the big time while being manipulated by a manager and chasing the girls. The music rocked – “Party”, “Mean Woman Blues” “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do” plus his then hit “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”.
21.Standing In The Shadows Of Motown
A 2002 funk version of The Wrecking Crew movie only from a black Detroit perspective showing the hidden talents who played on all the great Motown records of the 60s and 70s. This movie would have finished far higher on my list is they would have used performances by actual Motown artists instead of slugs like Joan Osborne and Meshell Ndegeocello.
22.American Hot Wax
Sadly this 1978 movie isn’t on DVD (you can watch it currently on youtube) due to music licensing, but it tells a fictionalized tale of THE rock and roll original – disc jockey Alan Freed. The man truly loved the music but was hounded into an early grave in the payola scandals. This movie takes place before that and shows him pushing the music he loved while organizing a concert with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (who appear as themselves). The side casting is erratic, however. On the plus is SNL’s Larraine Newman plays her best role as a wanna-be songwriter and Tim McIntire as an ernest if frazzled Freed. On the headscratching side, however, is the annoying sidestory featuring Fran Drescher and Jay Leno (?!).
Oh my, you don’t know how I struggled with putting this and/or Monterey Pop on the list as they both seem terribly dated now. The thing that swayed me on this was how groundbreaking the movie and the festival were for me back in 1970 – thrilling to Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After, The Who, Santana, etc. The music is still great, but oh how I wish I could edit out the endless scenes of blissed hippies, port-a-potties, Wavy Gravy and mud.
24.The Sound Of Music
The Rodgers and Hammerstein II soundtrack is all meat and no filler while Julie Andrews is winning as Maria Von Trapp. What drags this 1965 movie down is the sillyness of the Von Trapp family happily escaping the Nazis while walking over the Alps – no cold weather clothing, no food to eat – only their love to keep them warm (sorry if this sounds cynical, but…). The scenery is wonderful plus did I mention the great songs?
Technically not a movie, but a 1998 4 hour TV mini-series, it tells a compelling (if somewhat fictionalized) story of one of the more enduring (and perhaps tragic – all the originals are dead) Motown acts. That they made great records is not in dispute (“Get Ready”, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, etc.), but there were conflicts notably with their first breakout star David Ruffin. Leon does a great job of portraying Ruffin in the show.