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A List of Rock’s Essential Viewing: Music at the Core

The list of good films about music and musicians at its core is constantly growing and can prove to be an almost endless thing, and sometimes it’s hard to separate them from the films where it represents a cultural and social background. But here is an attempt to do so, with these ones concentrating ‘mostly’ on music first and foremost:

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All the Beatles Films: A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine

Richard Lester, 1964 // Richard Lester, 1965 // The Beatles, 1967 // George Dunning, 1968

Not just a matter of personal preference, but a matter of getting into the phenomenon of rock and The Beatles themselves. Elvis Presley and other ’50s rock movies came first, but A Hard Day’s Night was the groundbreaker and still stands the test of time. Help is possibly the weakest of the bunch but ushered in the age of video clips ahead of its time, Magical Mystery Tour is a misunderstood essence of psychedelia and fans of Manga movies can partly thank Yellow Submarine for their existence.

Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe, 2000

Sometimes the best stuff is born out of personal experience, and the same is true of this film that is partly (or mostly) based on Crowe’s personal experiences as a young, aspiring Rolling Stone journalist. The director is able to draw the best out of the rock experience as well as excellent roles from the late Phillip Seymor Hoffman and Billy Crudup, who turned in probably his best role so far.

Velvet Goldmine

Todd Haynes, 1998

This supposedly fictional (or not) view of rock stardom is seen through the glam rock eyes of David Bowie and Marc Bolan and their original American inspiration, a certain Mr. Iggy Pop. Haynes’ engaging story is able to transcend glam as a genre and is able to transcend its likely influence, Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise (1974).

Inside Llewyn Davis

Coen Brothers, 2013

The shadow of Bob DylanPhil Ochs, Simon & Garfunkel and other folk (rock) names big and small of the ’60s looms over one of the darkest (and best) Coen films. Sometimes you are too early, sometimes too late to make a mark as a musician, and sometimes it makes no difference if your work is better than that of others. The film that put Oscar Isaac on the ‘real actor’ scene.

I’m Not There

Todd Haynes, 2007

Yet another appearance of Haynes and Bob Dylan in one of the more imaginative rock (or music in general) movies. With different actors (male and female) interpreting Dylan in his different musical phases, it perfectly catches his chameleon character, both musically and possibly personal.

High Fidelity

Stephen Frears, 2000

Nick Hornby successfully brings his very British novel about a life of a music fan to America, with an excellent performance by the whole cast, showing all the ups and downs of being a collector and having (mostly) a good taste in music. Honorable mention goes here to John Cusack, obviously a fan himself, who was also instrumental in coming up with Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014), an excellent look into the life and mind of a musical genius that is Brian Wilson.

Tommy & Quadrophenia 

Ken Russel, 1975 // Franc Roddam, 1979

Rock Operas and musicals are some of the categories that can mingle and wildly differ in their concepts and portrayal, out of which quite a few escape the category of obvious and tedious. First of all there are two based on the music of Pete Townshend and The Who – Tommy (Ken Russel, 1975) and Quadrophenia (Franc Roddam, 1979), both giving imaginative interpretations of Townshend’s lyrical concepts that initially seemed tough to be put to screen.

Hair & Cry-Baby

Milos Forman, 1979 // John Waters, 1990

One is considered the epitome of a rock opera, while the other can easily fall into the category of a rock musical. Both prove that you need a really good director to transform either of the categories into a good viewing experience, with Forman taking a more detailed look at the hippy era from a distance and Waters showing his usually impeccable flair with mutant and weird.

Eddie and the Cruisers & Streets of Fire

Martin Davidson, 1983 // Walter Hill, 1984

Honorable mention here goes to Eddie and the Cruisers (Martin Davidson, 1983) and Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984). First for its mythological rock story better executed than what Oliver Stone managed with The Doors (1991), and second for its modern musical concept (Ry Cooder did the music).

The Rocky Horror Picture Show 

Richard O’Brien, 1975

Quite simply, it’s all of the above, with the added touch of horror and sci-fi that has become a part of the rock folklore. Not to everybody’s taste, but its rabid following that continues to this day gives it inescapable points.

The Blues Brothers, The Harder They Come, & Nashville

John Landis, 1980 // Perry Henzell, 1973 // Robert Altman, 1975

Some might not file these three films under rock but they have to be there anyway. Saying that either Blues, R&B, or Soul have no connection to rock would be pure sacrilege, and Landis, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd not only prove that they have/had an impeccable music taste, but have practically created a specific musical comedy genre on their own. The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1973), features some of the best Reggae recorded to this day, as well as Jimmy Cliff, one of Reggae legends himself in a movie that has a strong social message. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975), in his inimitable omnibus/not-omnibus style with a cast of dozens, Altman draws out all the characteristics of making it on a music scene – any music scene.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School & School Of Rock

Allan Arkush, 1979 // Richard Linklater, 2003

Rock and high school have been an almost constant theme since the music hit the screen, and two that make the connection stand out – Rock N’Roll High School (Allan Arkush, 1979) and School Of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003) – both make the connection in the best possible way. Arkush brings punk and The Ramones to high school and Linklater and Jack Black do the reverse, bring a high school to rock. 

This Is Spinal Tap

McKean, Shearer, Guest, 1984

A special place here needs to be given to This Is Spinal Tap (McKean, Shearer, Guest, 1984), a film that practically invented the category of mockumentary within rockumentaries or ‘musicmentaries,’ if you wish. The film not only shows an exemplary knowledge and understanding of (heavy) rock but brings some of the best music jokes around. The same could be said about Guest’s other rockumentary music venture, A Mighty Wind (2003), that has the original folk and more recent folk revival scenes down pat, with the same hefty dose of humor.

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