Top Five: Music Movies
We spent a long time on the podcast talking about music movies, mainly spurred by the news that the Mötley Crüe biography, The Dirt, is coming to theaters. We agreed, on the whole, that music movies kind of suck. Well, music bio-pics are usually ass, but we opened up the criteria a bit to include films that are explicitly about a real or fictional artist/band. Films were allowed to revolve around music scenes or professions, but we did not allow in films that are known for their soundtracks. We also nixed the idea of including musicals – sorry, that’s a list for another day. Another major exclusion were music documentary and concert films – so if you came here expecting to see Dig! or The Last Waltz, look elsewhere (those are two great documentaries though). Check out what we think – some are shared, others aren’t, and yes, we had long debates about each list.
I can’t believe that I forgot about this film during the podcast. It’s a stunning film: it looks great, sounds awesome, and tells the story of Ian Curtis (Joy Division) so well. Director Anton Corbijn, coupled with actor Sam Riley, created a beautiful tribute to this groundbreaking band without being conventional or leaning completely on the darker elements of Ian’s life.
2. High Fidelity
Thank god we opened up the criteria because it allowed a film like High Fidelity to squeeze in. A record store owner breaks up with his girlfriend and goes on a mission to find out where all his old loves ended up. That’s a simple enough premise and it is made better by the music references throughout. “Top Five” debates amongst employees (sound familiar?), a Bruce Springsteen monologue cameo, and a fantastic soundtrack elevate this film. A personal favorite.
3. The Doors
If it wasn’t for the “no musical” clause, Top Secret! would be sitting here in the Val Kilmer lifetime music achievement spot on my list. That dude is crazy talented – he’s funny, good-looking, versatile, and could fucking belt out tunes. The Doors was Kilmer’s show (though Kyle MacLachlan played Ray Manzarek perfectly) and it is made even more impressive by the fact that Val sang all of Jim Morrison’s songs. This is also the apex of Oliver Stone’s career: 1991, when he released this and one of the all time greatest films, JFK.
4. The Boat That Rocked
Color me unsurprised that this didn’t make waves over here in the United States. Maybe it was the change of title (it will always be The Boat That Rocked and not Pirate Radio) or the typical dry British humor – whatever it was, American audiences just said “no thank you.” I think this little film is wonderful: filled with great characters, awesome arcs, and a top ten soundtrack. Philip Seymour Hoffman sparring with Rhys Ifans in the last half of the film is a delight and one of Hoffman’s lasting images in my mind.
5. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Director Todd Haynes is fucking great, and another of his films almost made it into the top five. I saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story when I was 12 on a shitty VHS I got off of eBay with my parents’ credit card. It is a cult classic for three reasons: one, it uses Barbie dolls instead of actors for nearly all the roles in the film; two, Richard Carpenter sued Haynes because the director didn’t bother to try and get clearances to use original Carpenters music in the film, which Carpenter won and resulted in “all” copies of the film being recalled and destroyed; and three, it’s a whole lot of fun to watch. It’s a slim 43 minutes, and not a single one is wasted. Also, while being a send up on documentary biographies, it is surprisingly sweet and sympathetic to Karen Carpenter.
Honorable Mentions: 24 Hour Party People, The Blues Brothers, This Is Spinal Tap, Velvet Goldmine
Worst Music Movie: Almost Famous
1. The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio)
This is my favorite music movie if for no other reason than the soundtrack. Duffy, The Kinks, The Turtles, John Fred & His Playboy Band, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas; and that’s just the first five tracks! The story and characters are great too, touching on all the ingredients that make pop music so damn awesome, like sexual frustration, love, friendship, it-crowd jealousy. Good film, killer soundtrack. And that’s what this about right? The music.
2. The Doors
Val Kilmer kills it. I think this may be one of the more underrated performances in film history, let alone in roles where the performer was asked to actually sing. Kilmer nails the iconic vocals, I’d even argue that he out-does Morrison on a few tunes, and does it without being campy or over-wrought. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the rock n’ roll lifestyle; sexy, depraved, and lonely.
3. High Fidelity
I dig this movie so hard. Cusack delivers and Jack Black is genuinely funny. The music in this film is killer from top to bottom. Hell, they even allow Lisa Bonet to make a terrible Frampton song good. What makes this movie such a great music movie is that it uses music as the lens to view self-loathing, self-sabotage, relationship dynamics, and love. It’s a winner.
4. La Bamba
Not my Ritchie, Bob! Not my Ritchie! I’ve probably watched this movie a billion million times. I think it’s an interesting period in music, pre-British Invasion, before rock n’ roll was really a thing. The covers of Valens’s classic tracks by Los Lobos are perfect, they turn up the volume and add an extra bit of urgency to the proceedings. Also, Esai Morales absolutely murderers it as Ritchie’s brother, Bob. That dude deserved a much better career.
5. This is Spinal Tap
There isn’t much to add to what has already been said by countless others on this film. It’s a hilarious send up of rock n’ roll and how too often we take it all too seriously.
Honorable Mentions: Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story, That Thing You Do
Worst Music Movie: Almost Famous