Ron Graham’s List of the Best Music-Themed Movies
Contributor: Ron Graham
I am a HUGE fan of movies that are centered around music (as opposed to musicals). And I find that not many of my friends share that interest – or at least they aren’t saying if they do. These are the films I recommend you start with if you want to get used to good music in your movie.
Only one of them actually is a musical too. For some reason, I don’t generally go in for those. Anyway, here is the list.
Across the Universe (2007, R, Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood)
You can’t go wrong with the Beatles, although this particular musical, with a VERY 60s backstory that could almost be believable, was a collection of the Fab Four’s side-B material. Their side-B outclasses most of the universe’s side-A. And Sturgess and Wood can really sing. They even had chemistry.
Amadeus (1984, R, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce)
This is the only entry on the list involving purely instrumental music, and the only entry for classical. The imaginary backstory involves a plot by lesser talent Antonio Salieri (Abraham) to discredit the amazing and fast-rising Mozart (Hulce). Salieri succeeds so well that it drives him crazy.
Bandslam (2009, PG, Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens)
A bullied high-schooler (Gaelan Connell) who is a big fan of David Bowie, decides to create a band, as an outlet for his own creativity and a way to make friends. Another outcast (Hudgens) steps in as the lead singer in time for the titular band competition at the end – a performance that makes even Bowie take notice.
Begin Again (2013, R, Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo)
A forgotten A&R man (Ruffalo) has lost the respect and faith of the independent record label he started, and he is ready to kill himself when he encounters a new musical talent (Knightley) in a bar. Together they record an album with New York City as the backdrop.
The Blues Brothers (1980, R, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi)
MANY popular comedies started off as a series of skits from “Saturday Night Live,” and this one is probably the best of the bunch. As a team, Ackroyd and Belushi were never matched on SNL, and their take on 60s-style R&B is infectious. Their band is called on to save the Catholic school where they were raised.
Love & Mercy (2014, PG-13, John Cusack, Paul Dano)
Brian Wilson, who crafted some of the most popular songs of the 60s NOT recorded by the Beatles, was troubled by psychological illness and taken advantage of by his therapist, who kept him over-medicated. Wilson (Dano and Cusack) may have been some level of insane, but his talent was tied into it.
Pitch Perfect (2012, PG-13, Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow)
Barden College is heavily into competitive a cappella. (“So that’s a thing now,” says Kendrick.) The all-female Barden Bellas, shamed in the previous year’s national finals, seeks redemption with a mostly new cast of singers, including somewhat-rebellious Beca (Kendrick). This one mixes beats, genres, and choreography into art.
School of Rock (2003, PG-13, Jack Black, Miranda Cosgrove)
Jack Black pretty much takes over whatever film he’s in, as he’s pretty much a tornado of creativity and crazy. He pretends to be a substitute teacher to make money for rent, and at the school meets a class full of 10-year-old musical talents. He leads them to a regional band competition (there’s always a competition!) against grown rockers.
Soul Men (2008, R, Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, Sharon Leal)
This is the last movie ever made by Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, both of whom died within days after the film was released. Mac and Jackson play 60s R&B singers who faded from the public eye and gain attention again after being invited to perform at the funeral of a former partner.
That Thing You Do! (1996, PG, Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks)
In the early 60s (at least before the Beatles and Beach Boys), many musicians were able to craft albums on the strength of a single hit. This happened to the Wonders (a band created for the movie, and a play on the expression “One-Hit Wonders”), and their manager (Hanks) let them around the country to promote their big hit. It’s a beautiful song, too. On “American Bandstand,” some kid would say “it’s got a nice beat, and I can dance to it – I’ll give it an 85!”
Sister Act (1992, PG, Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith)
To escape from gangsters who committed a murder she witnessed, Goldberg disguises as a nun and hides in a convent. She eventually leads the sisters’ choir, converts their repertoire to 60’s R&B with Christian lyrics, and sings for the Pope. Music movies will often leave you feeling happy, but this one does that for you more than most.
Honorable Mention: A Mighty Wind, Country Strong, This is Spinal Tap, The Sapphires, Dreamgirls