Music is the perfect theme for cinema, as it plays such an enormous role in our lives. There have been dozens of fictional music-themed films throughout movie history, and some of these are classics which perfectly capture the power of music and the impact that it can have on individuals (and the world). These films are often snapshots into certain eras or scenes, making them nostalgic and something that the audience can connect with. Whether it is about a jaded record store owner, the rise of an artist, or a biographical drama, these are cinema’s love letters to music.
10. School of Rock
Although School of Rock is a very silly film (starring Jack Black, go figure…), it is also portrays the value of music and the impact that it can have on individuals (both young and old). It is also endearing and hilarious, largely thanks to Jack Black’s wild, over-the-top and energetic performance as Dewey Finn, and performances from several of the kids. Dewey impersonates his friend, Ned, as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school. He then starts a band with the kids in the class so that he can win Battle of the Bands. He helps the students to grow in confidence and embrace their talents along the way, whilst charming the uptight Principal Mullins (brilliantly played by Joan Cusack). It is a feel-good, heartwarming story which also features some fantastic rock and roll played by the extremely talented 13-year-olds who feature in the film.
9. 8 Mile
2002’s 8 Mile took popular culture by storm, and you will still find many people quoting the film or rapping the freestyles performed by Eminem. The movie is a rap biopic written by Scott Silver and directed by Curtis Hanson, and stars Eminem, Mekhi Phiffer, Michael Shannon, Kim Basinger and the late Brittany Murphy. The film sees a young white rapper, called Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith (Eminem), attempt to launch a rap career in inner city Detroit in a largely African American genre. He is humiliated by his enemies which shatters his confidence, but embarks on a personal journey which sees him rise to the top and get his revenge in some unforgettable rap battles. It is a great insight into rap culture and features some excellent music, but it is also an engaging story with the entire cast making it stand out and become an important movie.
8. Walk the Line
Walk the Line is a biographical drama based on the life and career of country music legend Johnny Cash. Joaquin Phoenix puts in an excellent performance as Cash (Oscar nominated), and the film also features Reese Witherspoon as June Carter (seeing her win an Oscar for Best Actress), Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Liberto and Robert Patrick as Johnny’s father, Ray. The story of Johnny Cash’s life is well known by many, but this film helped to bring it to the masses and also helped to popularize his music with many fans who were unfamiliar prior to its release. The film covers his life from a young age, including the death of his brother and strained relationship with his father, all the way through to his drug addiction, legendary performance in Folsom Prison, and engagement. It is a fascinating story with some fine performances, and of course brilliant music throughout too.
Loosely based on the 1973 rock opera by The Who, Quadrophenia will resonate heavily with many Brits who grew up in the mid ’60s and early ’70s. The story revolves around the clash between Mods and Rockers, two youth subcultures which caused a huge divide at the time. Heavily centered on music and appearance, the Rockers were into motorcycling and rock music, whilst the Mods rode scooters and were into soul, R&B and ska. Quadrophenia sees Jimmy Cooper, a London Mod, and his Mod friends descend to Brighton, where an epic riot between the Mods and Rockers breaks out. Jimmy has sex with his crush amidst the madness, and he is then arrested and fined before returning back to London, where he soon becomes depressed. The film perfectly encapsulates the time, and of course is heavily music themed, with The Who providing the soundtrack.
6. Saturday Night Fever
John Badham’s 1977 film Saturday Night Fever had a huge impact on society and helped to popularize disco music around the world. The classic dance film showcases the disco subculture, including the music, dancing, clothing and sexual promiscuity. Each year Hollywood churns out dance films all inspired by this film, but none hold a candle to Saturday Night Fever, which remains hugely popular and important. The film follows Tony Manero (John Travolta), who is a young man that spends his weekends in a Brooklyn discotheque, where he is carefree and able to forget all his weekday troubles. The choreography and soundtrack has become iconic, with the soundtrack being the first example of cross-media marketing. It is the perfect snapshot of disco culture in the late 1970s, so much so that it is deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.
5. This Is Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap is a 1984 rock mockumentary that has gone on to inspire dozens of other mockumentaries, and these would prove to be a specialty for co-writer, director and actor Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and Waiting for your Consideration). This is Spinal Tap follows a fictional heavy metal band called Spinal Tap, and it satirizes the behavior and lifestyle of rock and heavy metal bands (as well as rock documentaries). The result is a hilarious and highly-quotable film, with much of the dialogue being improvised by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael Mckean and Harry Shearer (who all also co-wrote and scored the film). It has had a lasting impact on music, and specifically rock culture, and is an essential viewing for any music lover. The mockumentary form was so effective that many moviegoers believed that Spinal Tap were a real band.
Ray is a biographical film that tells the story of rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles’ life. The film is widely praised, largely thanks to Jamie Foxx’s phenomenal performance as Ray Charles, earning him an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and more accolades. It is a brilliant insight into the life of Ray Charles, who went blind at aged 7 after witnessing his younger brother drown. The film starts with this moment, and then follows his journey to become one of the all-time great musicians who incorporated several different styles of music. In addition to being a fascinating watch (with fantastic music), this film also opened up an entire new audience to the music of Ray Charles, which is a true gift, as many cinema goers will have been unfamiliar with his music prior to seeing the film. Ray Charles unfortunately passed away prior to its premiere.
3. The Commitments
A film adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel, Alan Parker’s The Commitments is a brilliant comedy-drama film centered around the formation of a soul band in Dublin, Ireland. Jimmy Rabbitte wants to manage the best band in the world, but after becoming disillusioned with the current bands in Ireland, he decides to form his own soul band. He holds auditions and assembles a group of young but talented working class Dubliners, and they rise to become a phenomenally talented and excellent band. Despite this, the band clash constantly off-stage due to egos and jealousy, showing that it takes much more than on-stage ability to succeed in the music industry and what success can do to individuals. In addition to being one of the greatest Irish films, The Commitments is noted for its brilliant soundtrack, with most songs performed by the cast band (who were chosen more for musical ability than acting).
2. High Fidelity
British author Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity, proved to be such a great story that it was adapted into a feature film in 2000 by Stephen Frears. The comedy-drama follows Rob Gordon (John Cusack), who is a music-loving record store owner who struggles with his relationships with women. He and his record shop employees, brilliantly portrayed by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, compile musical “Top 5” lists for every occasion. The story sees Rob start his own label, “Top 5 Records,” after discovering a talented band, and having an on-again and off-again relationship with his latest girlfriend, Laura. Whilst the story unfolds, Rob counts down his “Top 5” memorable breakups, which adds to the charm, and storyline, of the film. This all makes Rob go on a personal journey, and the under-running music theme is something that all music lovers can enjoy.
1. Almost Famous
Made in 2000 but set in the early ’70s, Almost Famous is a great love letter to rock and roll. It is a semi-autobiographical story of writer and director Cameron Crowe’s experiences as a journalist when touring with rock bands, which saw him meet his idols, lose his virginity and fall in love. In the film, 15-year-old William Miller is an aspiring rock journalist who gets the opportunity of a lifetime to hit the road with a rock band. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ensues, but it is also a touching, hilarious and well-crafted coming of age story which received four Oscar nominations. Patrick Fugit as William, Kate Hudson as love interest Penny Lane, and Billy Crudup as guitarist Russell Hammond all excel and keep you engaged throughout, but it is Crowe’s love and experience of rock music which makes this such a classic film.