The Decade's Best Movies About Music
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It’s the story of Texan native Daniel Johnston, whose mental illness co-existed with his genius for writing songs in its purest form—a mixture of Saturday Cartoon themes and the Beatles with the honesty of Woody Guthrie. In the 90s, he was an underground mascot god and made a fan out of Kurt Cobain. This is a documentary of his life that not only inspires but also gives a whole new meaning to what music means to life.
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
The Sex Pistols are not just a punk band, they were a cultural phenomenon frozen in an era of time. Julien Temple who also directed The Great Rock N Roll Swindle (1980), focused on the members with fitting candor. All the best footages are here: the concerts, the TV appearances, the filth, the fury and all the other bloody mess.
Are there any musicians with bigger egos than James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s own puppet masters? Shot during the band’s therapy sessions and the making of the album St. Anger, it’s one of the best documentaries ever made about a band, providing insights that seemed engineered but otherwise directly brutal with a “Hell, yeah.”
It’s like going on a time machine and reliving the era when Ian Curtis formed Joy Division—in glorious black and white. Sam Riley’s performance as the damaged artist is mirror-like and yes, the rest of the band looked cool too. One of the best biopics since Sid & Nancy.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
Old-school Canadian hair metal band Anvil was forged in the 80s and headlined with The Scorpions, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi during 1984’s Super Rock Festival in Japan, only theirs was a career that went down in obscurity. Now in their 50s, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, try one more time to reach the spotlight. Often hilarious but deeply moving, This is Spinal Tap…for real.
Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
No other rapper lived up to his rep. No other rapper bled enough for his music. No other rapper’s life is more worth chronicling than Tupac Shakur’s. Everything about the man is told in detail in this documentary, remembered by those that get left behind.
If Chicago-based alternative-country band Wilco weren’t a band, they could be indie actors playing in a movie about well, a band. Stark naked in black and white, it follows the genesis of the band’s fourth studio album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Then there’s the drama, the inner conflicts that were only realized inadvertently make this a classic.
Grand Wizard Theodore, DJ Jazzy Jay, Mix Master Mike, Almighty K.G., Grandmaster Flash, are just a few names by which the art of Hip-hop DJ (or Turntablism) got its groove. Not only does this movie trace the origin of scratching, it covers everything from rap, hiphop and breakdancing.
With his God-given talent, Anton Newcombe wanted to play God only to self-destruct. Big Brother meets True Hollywood Stories in this documentary about alternative bands the The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
While the successful I’m Not There featured Dylan’s multi-faceted persona, this 3-hour long documentary is a lot more “inside” because it created a myth out of reality. Insiders into Dylan’s career play like testimonies in court with Dylan’s public performances as major exhibits. And it’s directed by Martin Scorsese for chrissakes.
Part documentary, part reunion concert, it’s a celebration of the real heroes of Motown: the session musicians collectively known as The Funk Brothers that include (among others) Richard “Pistol” Allen, Eddie Willis, Earl Van Dyke and James Jamerson, who for 13 years provided the music for such luminaries as Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Diana Ross & the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.
Walk the Line (2005)
You get an already disturbed actor to play Johnny Cash, you get a wonderfully bubbly actress to play his wife, a director with the right conviction and tell the story like it is, and you get one hell of a movie. And that’s the way you make a biopic.
The film opens with the best testament of themselves: a middleweight band with a mountain of influence. For the Pixies, a much-awaited reunion gets glossed over by what looked to be internal indifferences, like siblings who haven’t seen each other for ages try to act normally. But the more they shy away, the more intimate it becomes.
Even if you’re not a fan of their music (who the hell isn’t?!), this documentary on the Ramones feels like a gathering of friends talking about early beginnings and memories rooted on music, and you’re in the circle. Intimate and highly intoxicating, it’s the Ramones up close and personal and right there in your living room.
Jamie Foxx’s transformation on screen was something we weren’t much prepared for. It was breathtaking. It was as if Ray Charles’ archival footages were digitized into the movie like they do in commercials. It is a fitting tribute to a man who fused soul and rhythm & blues together into one musical belief—the gospel of Ray Charles.
From who invented heavy metal to the church burnings in Norway, director, narrator and metalhead Sam Dunn traces the roots of the heaviest form of music from a historical standpoint and from a fan’s. With interviews from Tommy Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy, and Rob Zombie, it’s the ultimate metal manifesto.
La Vie en Rose (2007)
It’s a time when singing was an artform that came from the heavens above and once there was an angel of song named Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of the legendary French diva overshadowed everything in the movie for which she received an Oscar.
Riding in Vans with Boys (2003)
It’s the funny and “awesome” story of unknown band Kut U Up who went on tour in the summer of 2002 opening for Green Day, Blink 182 and Jimmy Eat World. If you think Billie Joe Armstrong, Tom De Longe and the rest of their bands are way wacky, get a load of the guys from Kut U Up—who with their crazy antics, looked as though they’ve been cut out from “Jackass.”
This Is It (2009)
The auditions for dancing spots in Michael’s troupe is more than a reality TV show, to share the stage with the King of Pop even only during rehearsals was a dream come true. What remains of a concert that should’ve been is now the highest grossing musical documentary. Even when he’s gone, Michael’s still tops the charts.
Nothing comes close to the enjoyment of music than by experiencing it performed live. Or by pumping up the volume in your stereo and losing yourself. But there are those that give us a new level of understanding and appreciation of music—the rockumentaries and the biopics. In some ways, it carries the electricity of front row seats, and the intimacy of backstage passes. Here’s a countdown of the decade’s best movies about music:
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