Last week saw the release of the latest musical biopic – Respect – about the life of Aretha Franklin, with Jennifer Hudson playing the iconic singer. There’s no shortage of movies and documentaries trying to capture the story of musical legends for the big screen, and they all range from exceptional to no better than a filmed Wikipedia page.
Dipping into the well of famous figures and their recognizable discographies is no doubt an easy way to give audiences a glimpse into show business. However, there are plenty of original movies out there that found inventive, heartwarming/heartbreaking, and even hilarious ways of examining the music biz. Below are some of the very best movies about music and musicians that are not biopics (I will also be avoiding the traditional musical) that shine a spotlight on the struggle that comes with “making it,” the folly of fame, and the pockets in between where the real magic happens.
A Star is Born (2018)
A stunning directorial debut from Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote and starred in this classic story of rising and falling stars. He brought this story to the screen for the fourth time with painstaking rawness and impressive showmanship. Career-best performances from Cooper and Lady Gaga, and an arresting catalog of original songs bring down the house, all of which no doubt made the movie a big, fat hit. But the story of two lovers and musicians whose careers are going down vastly different paths has a classic Hollywood feel that’s difficult to come by now, and even more rare to be as good as this. A turbulent love story set against the backdrop of the music industry that uses falling and skyrocketing fame to explore insecurity, artistic expression, self-destruction and so much more, A Star is Born is a confidently made, magnificently acted musical drama that hits every beat just right.
The music world is mostly made up of musicians living a life on the road, performing anywhere that offers them a mic for whatever someone has in the cash drawer. Writer/director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart tells the story of grizzled, veteran country singer Otis “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) as he drinks his way through the twilight years of his career, performing in bowling alleys and restaurants in between passing out in roadside motels. Featuring some of Bridges’ best work in a career of highlights spanning decades, he perfectly embodies Blake’s guarded, curmudgeonly side that’s the result of being beaten down by a taste of success followed by a descent into obscurity. But when he’s onstage all those walls fall (singing songs written by T Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton, and Ryan Bingham), and he soon gets a shot at some kind of happiness when he meets young Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Cooper’s story is an ode to the musicians remembered only by scores of passionate fans in small pockets of the world, illustrating how no matter how many rodeos you’ve been through there’s always material waiting to be written into the next great song.
Get Him to the Greek
Stealing the show in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Russell Brand’s sexually ambitious English rock god Aldous Snow got his own spinoff with Get Him to the Greek, which focused on how, sometimes, being the life of the party is not all that it appears to be. Playing more of the straight man to Brand’s Snow is Jonah Hill’s burgeoning record company employee Aaron Green, who is tasked with getting Snow to the Greek Theater in one piece. A road comedy that’s mostly crazy fun antics set against the backdrop of the hard-partying rock n’ roll scene, the film from writer/director Nicholas Stoller doesn’t fail to shine a light on the side of Snow that’s pain, heartbreak, and insecurity – which gives his drug/booze/sex addiction complexity beyond “Because that rock star life!” Together with a pair of perfectly matched leads, Greek is a fun adventure through the madness of the music industry that doesn’t skimp on digging into the psychology of the madness driving the chaos.
Speaking of the self-destruction of music stars, Her Smell takes the claustrophobic, psycho-character-drama alternative to Greek, exploring the psychosis of frontwoman Beck Something (Elisabeth Moss) as her violent, destructive behavior tears her life apart. Taking place not on the main stage but backstage, writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s unrestrained examination of Something can be hard to watch, taking the explosive work from Moss and keeping it dead center no matter how jarring her actions or abusive her treatment towards those around her. Told in a series of five vignettes, we’re treated to a whole odyssey of Something – encapsulating how her selfishness and aggression drives everyone away, her eventual journey towards self-acceptance. A long, often trying experience, Her Smell is as brazenly in your face as the lead character, and anchoring it all is Moss at the top of her game, which is impressive considering she’s seemingly never not at the top of her game.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers proved once again why they’re the masters of Americana with Inside Llewyn Davis, which takes place in the folk scene in New York during the early 60s. While partly inspired by the life of folk musician Dave Van Ronk, this is an original tale of a folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who couch surfs between what gigs he can get, and spends the rest of his time taking his insecurity over his lack of success out on anyone who gives him the chance. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes this one of the Brothers’ most gorgeous movies to date, and it’s no wonder Isaac became a household name after his fantastic work here. Like other entries in the Coen’s catalog, the movie plays like an original odyssey across a distinct time and place in American history, exploring how an entire music scene that was influential in inspiring even today’s music was made up of musicians like Llewyn.
The epitome of short and sweet, director John Carney’s shoestring-budgeted, vérité-style tale of music and the bonds it can create packs no less an emotional punch than bigger budget showstoppers. A movie without a malicious or cynical bone in its body, the tale of an aspiring Irish music star (simply credited as Guy, Glen Hansard) meeting a soft-spoken Czech piano player (simply credited as Girl, Markéta Irglová) is all about how the best music comes out of human connections, whether they be fleeting or inescapable, heartbreaking or life-affirming. Together the duo brings out the best in each other for a series of – in the words of Guy’s father, “fucking brilliant” – songs, forming an unforgettable bond in the short time they spend together. Like its Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly,” Once is heartwarming from start to finish.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
This is not the first time I’ve – ahem – sung my praises for Popstar in list form, nor do I intend for it to be the last. Popstar is ceaselessly funny in its absurdity and commitment from its impressive cast, and equally poignant in its send-up of the entire landscape of pop music. But like Get Him to the Greek, as much fun as it has playing around in the sandbox of the music biz, it doesn’t miss a moment to layer in the sweetness and interesting character dynamics. Its story explores how fame and arrogance brought down a group of friends (the Style Boyz), and how member Connor4Real’s (Andy Samberg) humbling tumble down the fickle ladder of celebrity put into perspective what really matters when you’re creating music – the people you do it with. Oh, and despite what Connor4Real’s critics might think, every single one of the songs in the movie straight slap, whip, and rule.
The School of Rock
Not everyone with the pipes of a rock god actually gets to become one, and Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock (written by Mike White, The White Lotus) tells the story of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn and the length’s he’ll go to keep his dreams of superstardom alive – and keep up on his rent. The story follows the beats of the “self-improvement through mentorship” angle very closely, but this celebration of rock and roll has remained a classic worth fondly remembering and retooling for new viewers (both with a Broadway musical and Nickelodeon show) because of its rebellious, infectious spirit and with Black as the energic central figure. It’s sweet, funny, wails incredibly hard when the rock juices get flowing, and emphasizes how great music can bring everyone together to get tightly wound folks like Joan Cusack’s Principal Mullins to “stick it to the man.”
Another entry for writer/director John Carney, if his Once was all about how music shapes our connection to people, Sing Street is about how it forms our identity. Perfectly injecting that into a coming-of-age story about a group of students in Dublin during the 80s and the rise of music videos, Carney evokes the influences of Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates and more as young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) navigates his musical persona, love life (via the fantastic Lucy Boynton), and family struggles. Once may have been Carney’s big breakout, but Sing Street feels like his most personal film, telling a deeply relatable story about being young and finding your voice, and doing so with humor and style that keeps each new beat in the story feel fresh and always entertaining. Anyone who has ever changed their style or outlook on life thanks to one piece of art can relate to Sing Street – and even if you can’t – the song “Drive it Like You Stole It” will 100 percent win you over.
Much like Her Smell, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux can be a difficult watch, which is made pretty clear given the movie starts with a school shooting. But even when it gets lost in the weeds of its own ambition and narrative style, Corbet’s unique examination of fame and society’s problematic tendency to thrust young talent into the spotlight – and in the case of pop star Celeste (Raffey Cassidy as the young Celeste and Natalie Portman as adult Celeste) – ignoring their trauma makes for compelling viewing. Portman does some of her best work as Celeste and is worth remembering alongside the performances that got more attention, like Black Swan and Jackie. An imperfect movie, but fascinatingly so, and there are few examinations of modern celebrity as bold and with such a strong central performance.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Out of all the movies on this list, Walk Hard is the best one to watch when you’re feeling especially fed up with the typical music biopic. Mostly influenced by Walk the Line, the comedy starring John C. Reilly as Cox takes aim at many of the tropes of the genre with both a hilarious and loving approach. Featuring a revolving door of comedic heavyweights like Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Craig Robinson, Jenna Fischer, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Harold Ramis, and a slew of cameos, this constantly funny skewering of music biopics is actually better than many that get nominated for Oscars. Not only is that thanks to a pitch-perfect Reilly in a commanding, hilarious performance, but the surprisingly great original songs, as well. Whether it’s the confident title track, the sex-laced “Let’s Duet,” or the tender “Beautiful Ride,” there’s a smorgasbord of funny, catchy, and even sweet songs that breathe life into the ridiculous odyssey of Cox.
Almost as much a horror movie as it is a drama about a musician trying to achieve greatness, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash never falters in its ability to knock you for a loop. Much of that is because of J.K. Simmons’ deservedly Oscar-winning work as the most demanding teacher on the face of the planet, and the rest is because of how viciously Miles Teller’s Andrew strives to enter the former’s good graces. Chazelle’s movie breaks down the conventions of the “rising musical star” genre and contorts it into an intense psychological examination of the lengths someone will go to achieve greatness, and how much abuse they will take in the process. Sharply written with two outstanding lead performances, and laced together with kinetic editing and direction that gives every beat of the drum its own pulse that can either dazzle or terrify.
One of 2018’s biggest surprises and best movies, Wild Rose from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor kicked the barn door down with a story about Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a woman desperate to make it as a famous country singer in Glasgow, Scotland. Rose-Lynn – with a voice built for a superstar – is so driven to succeed she neglects her responsibilities as a mother to her children, viewing them as the burden holding her back. All about how making a name for yourself with music doesn’t need to mean becoming the next big thing, it’s easy to root for Rose-Lynn thanks to the star-making work from Buckley and her ability to captivate with several rousing musical performances. The one-two punch of her performance of Wynonna Judd’s “When I Reach the Place I’m Goin’” to an empty Ryman Auditorium and the finale of her performance of the original “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” will knock you on your ass and leave you there to let the tears roll wherever they may.
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