There are a lot of diffrent music films out there so to pick out a Best Of -list from them, one must consider all kinds of films with some sort of a musical element to them. Drama, Comedy, Tragic, Fun, Fiction, Documentary, Psychedelic, Straight-Forward, and a lot more films that couldn't be further away from each other. They are considered to be Music films when they include a lot of music and the music acts are included in the plot. I finally decided that I should pick 10 music documentaries (which I avoided when picking my favorite documentaries) and 5 fictional music films, whether they were straight-up musicals or just films that circled around music and the way it affects peoples' lives.
Now, in this sort of a task the critic's musical taste guides a lot of his preferences, and though I try to be fair and open for all kinds of music, it applies to me too. So I apologize in advance if I haven't given some great film a chance simply because I didn't dig the music. As the last thing I'd want to be is a music critic (the most pointless job in the world), I urge you to judge the films by the stories they have to tell and how they tell it, rather than with what kind of music do they have in. Nevertheless, I'll include YouTube clips to some groovy songs from the films. So, without further ado, let's rock!
There are some OK general films that work as introductions to particular music genres, such as Punk: Attitude (2005, Dir. Don Letts) and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2006, Dir. Sam Dunn et al.). While they are good starting points for someone who doesn't know squat, they offer little new to fans (other than a chance to see their idols reduced to talking heads). I emphasize proper stories in my choices rather than educational docs.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
Director: Sacha Gervasi
A beloved documentary, that luckily worked like a charm for the down-on-its-luck metal band it was depicting. Anvil! is almost too easy to believe to be a mockumentary. The antics of a has-been metal band go so over-the-top, and the characters themselves seem to be the kind of good-natured fools (one of them even named Robb Reiner), that the whole thing seems like a Spinal Tap remake. But since I've heard a testimony from a concert promoter that had met the band, I have no choice but to accept that the guys in Anvil are very real. And it makes me feel a little bit better about the world.
Anvil! is by no means a film that laughs at its subjects. Director Gervasi is a long-time fan of the band Anvil, that used to have it rough. On tour they play in cellars which pay only in gulash, or in stadiums to which no one comes. At home they feed themselves by doing construction work and other odd jobs to survive. Yet the rock star dream of these middle-aged men never fades. And that is something we all could learn from. After all, after enduring all the crap from bad promotors and managers, the band finally finds themselves a show in which they are respected and loved. And they seem to be doing well even today.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005)
Director: Michel Gondry
I'm not really deeply invested in hip-hop, altough I know good shit when I hear it. And I don't think it's even a tiny bit over-blown when some people call the Block Party comedian Dave Chappelle arranged the greatest hip-hop concert of all time. Erukah Badu, Kanye West, Mos Def, and the reunion of The Fugees are just some of the huge stars that played in the middle of Brooklyn to a select number of people. Chappelle himself proves that he has a big heart as he wants to include people that wouldn't otherwise have a chance to see such a spectacle, such as his grocery store saleswoman and various other midwestern folk. Of course, at the same time maintains his usual (funny) crude routines that deal a lot with race issues. The film is also a portrait of the comedian at the height of his power, and the film spends a lot of time with him organizing the event, some scripted, but some documentary parts too.
Michel Gondry captures the live sound stupendously accuratelly to the film. There is a strong sense of being there, and as a result the togetherness that the concert was aiming for, comes through to the viewer himself. The actual music performance bits are a little short, but luckily the DVD provides longer versions from some of the songs.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Daniel Johnston is a little slow musician with great song-writing skills. He used to be such an independent musician that his records came on copied C-Tapes, to which Johnston had personally drawn the cover. When Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain began to plug his T-Shirt, he earned some acclaim. But the musician also had some mental problems, particularly with his self-image. The mental illness eventually took over and almost shut him down completely. The documentary depicts the rise, fall, and rise again to the man who's not out for wealth and fame, but rather just a happy life to himself.
For the non-acquainted, it doesn't exactly become clear why Johnston was considered as such a genius, as his singing voice is quite dreadful and his lyrics don't seem that special either. Maybe it's something to do with his technique. At least he's a talented artist, with his creative cartoons being animated to reflect a little what went on in his head. But this isn't a film about the musician, it's a film about the human being. And as such, it is one of the most intimate documentaries possible. Everyone in Johnston's family speaks openly about the incidents and their worries, so the viewer can't help but to be sucked in. It is a pretty horrifying portrait of living with manic depression, but the sweet ending gives hope and leaves a happy feeling.
Director: Ondi Timoner
DIG! is a story about making it in the music business. Every aspiring band should see the film and figure out if they really have what it takes to succeed. The film is also the story of two Alternative Rock bands in the 90's, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. TBJM has a better and more innovative songwriter, Anton Newcombe, but the rest of the band members are (and have been) interchangeable. The Dandys are a little closer to your basic Indie rock, but they tend to have catchier melodies and a vastly better group dynamic. The latter band works hard and becomes eventually a success, while the other wallows in idle hedonism, arguments and self-pity and remains obscure. This is also a source of remorse and compassion for the Dandys, whose frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor narrates the film apologetically.
The film features some of the most incredible on-stage fight sequences captured on documentary tape since Hated: GG Allin. Newcombe is such a prissy musician that he fears not to attack his band-mates or audience members during his performance, if he feels they prevent him. Newcombe's problem is that he, like many other hugely creative individuals, views others as obstacles rather than as a helping hand to get where he wants. Part of the reason TBJM doesn't hit it big is because Newcombe's ambitions make them fail at every would-be turning point (like when a executive from major recor label is watching). Thus, the film is also a bit tragic, but it also paints a picture of how brutal the industry was in the 90's. The companies only suppoerted bands that had hit potential, and anything less than that was just a useless waste of money. The Dandys work hard, and eventually make it in Europe because they happened to have a song that suited a cellphone advert. God only knows the commercialism has only gotten worse since that, because the whole record industry is at its death rattles.
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007)
Director: Julien Temple
Of course, I also had to include the film about my personal hero. It helps that it's a great film that looks like its subject. Julien Temple is a music film director that has a knack for the visuals, so he utilizes quick montages, animation and whatnot among the usual gig footage and talking heads. And of course in this, the talking heads are (seemingly) all gathered around the bonfire to reminisce about the late Strummer. And because Strummer made his legacy in The Clash, the single greatest, awesomest band that ever has or will exist, all the gig footage is KICK-ASS with capital letters!
Strummer believed in communities and people coming together to work in harmony. Unlike a lot of other punk rock musicians, he didn't churn out the same old thing every day of his life, but explored and created his whole life. And very rarely did it feel forced, as all the innovations and ideas seemed to flow naturally to him and through to his music. I'm starting to eulogize my hero here, but this all comes through in the documentary too, in a beautiful, the most Strummer-esque of ways. It skips most of the personal life of the man, but sometimes it's more important to reinforce the legend than to reveal the human inside.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Some quite acclaimed directors took on to do films about some very influental veteran musicians in the 2000s. The most notable of these are the music films of Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese. Both are known of their innovative use of music, and it seems that they have people skills to boot, which allow the musicians themselves to feel comfrotable around them. Demme seems to be a good friend of Neil Young, as he has already done two documentaries about the Countryrock superstar.
The old-timer musician was diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s but he was much too strong and recovered well. Demme's first Young film covers mostly his return concert. It starts with some reminiscing and feel that all the musicians are part of a large, extended family. The comfrotable feeling of spending times with friends comes through from Young's pleasant performance. He may not a hard-partying rock star, but with a little hard work and a friendly athmosphere, you can create a concert just as good. It helps that the music is great, too.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
Director: Martin Scorsese
One of the biggest miracles of the 00's was that Bob Dylan bagan to open up and to talk about his career. Thus, we got the first part of his autobiography (still waiting for the next one, Bob), and a massive documentary that covers the pivotal years of his career in the 60's. And that was directed by Martin Scorsese, no less. Altough the director didn't even meet Dylan in person during the making of the documentary, and has dismissed the documentary as just anothe, it is by far the best work Scorsese has done in years. Scorsese was more invested in the Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light (2008), that's good enough too, and provides more of Scorsese's patented wild camera drives. But as a description of a rock legend it can't hold a candle to No Direction Home.
We follow Dylan's career from a jewish kid that became fascinated by the old American folk music, to the dismissive "voice of a generation" to hippies, to an electronic "Judas" that just didn't give a shit about fan reactions, to a born again christian. Wisely, Scorsese provides a lot of context to the times so that later generations can begin to have a better idea of why dylan was such a huge deal. Well, other than from his extraordinary songwriting skills. There's a large amount of humor and charm among the reminiscing, and there are a lot of other interesting people heard alongside Dylan. The whole 3,5 hour film is a lot to take on one sitting, which is why I've always had to watch it in two parts. But it really is a solid piece of work that answers a huge amount of questions from huge variety of people. That's why it should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in the biggest, greatest folk musician of all time.
The Ramones: End of the Century (2003)
Director: Jim Fields, Michael Gramaglia
It was a sad start of a decade for punk as some of the founding members of the bands that surfed on the first wave began to pass away. In the case of The Ramones, they were such cartoon characters anyway that it's as impossible to imagine them dying than it is to try to imagine them being retired Rolling Stones-aged has-beens. Too Tough To Die, as they themselves put it, as well as I Don't Want To Grow Up. Luckily, a great documentary was made about the band just before Death started reaping its founding members one by one.
End of the Century gives the band members time to talk, and short cuts everyone else not as important to the band. It is a bit of a tragic story, about how one of the most innovative bands ever never really found mainstream success. But the saddest of the tales is the one the bandmembers themselves try to circle around: the failing friendship between vocalist Joey and guitarist Johnny. It is revealed that when the differing political views couldn't separate them, one woman could. And both were men capable of holding a grudge. In the final scenes, Johnny is being interviewed after the death of Joey, and altough he still refuses to make amendments, he has a tone of melancholia in his voice. Ditto Dee Dee, who did not try to bring the band members together, but jumped the ship himself. Most documentaries follow a pattern of rise, fall and rise again. The career of The Ramones starts with coolness, innovation and having a good time, and ends with a steep decline, which makes it one of the saddest music documentaries of the decade.
Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Director: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
This is a really rare kind of music documentary, the one that even someone who hates the band (like me) can enjoy as well. Well, actually hate is a bit of a strong word, but I don't think Metallica has made anything worthwhile since The Black Album. But that's beside the point. We see the band washed up, riddled with personal problems and looking for professional help. The bassist Jason Newstead has just left the band and vocalist James Hetfield has gone to enter rehabilitation due to his alcohol problem. The band also tries to find the balance to their reorganized crew and to solve the power struggle between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. There are some songwriting and studio sessions as the band tries to pull themselves together to make a new album.
As the band tries to go to the root of their problems they even invite Dave Mustaine from Megadeth to their therapy session. What follows is the most incredible scene of whiny narcissism as Mustaine complains how hard his billionaire life has been after he was kicked out from Metallica. The ending of the film is bittersweet as we know, instead of using the positive energy gained from the therapy sessions, the band went on to make the worst, the most bloated album of their career, that even turned a large number of their die-hard fans against them. Some people should just know when to call it quits. And that money and success won't make one happy.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Director: Paul Justman
Some times the music documentary brings some long-overdue credit to legendary musicians that no-one recognized. Such is the case with Shadows of Motown, which tells the incredible story of Funk Brothers, the house band that played on the background of almost all of Motown's hit artists from the 50's to the 70's. The artists they provided music included Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and The Temptations. As such, The Funk Brothers have more number one hits in America than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley all put together.
The film goes along in two time levels. The past part reminces the roots of the band and their antics when they were in the height of their popularity, but could still walk on the street unrecognized. Pericularly interesting are the stories around the hard-drinking bassist James Jamerson, who came up with the base lines to songs such as Bernadette and I Heard it Through The Grape Wine. He might've been so drunk while recording that he couldn't stand up, but lying down on the floor he still could play the bass perfectly! The modern parts see the surviving Funk Brothers meeting up and jamming in the studio and preparing for the concert. It's nice that the aged musicians finally had a moment in the spotlight, altough many of them have since died. But the surviving members to my knowledge still tour, and to bigger and bigger audiences.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008)
Pet Shop Boys: Life In Pop (2006)
Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome (2007)
Soul Power (2008)
White Stripes Under The Great White Northern Lights (2009)
To be seen:
Air Guitar Nation (2006)
Girls Rock! (2008)
Gogol Bordello: Non Stop (2008)
Shut Up & Sing: The Dixie Chicks (2006)
You have no idea how hard it was to pick these five fictional films. It's because I haven't really dug most of the modern musicals, but feel that they should be represented. So, all of these five are as well quite far from each other, but they are all groovy films that I like to write about. So enjoy!
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Director: Lars von Trier
The only real reason I wanted to have fictional movies included is so I could write something about this brilliant, seminal work by Lars von Trier. It's the first time Trier has chosen a genre filled with conventions, and while breaking all of them, maintaining some, thus keeping the audience at their toes. And he can really bring a wallop to the stomach of the audience with this kind of filmmaking skills.
Textile factory worker Selma Jezkova (Björk) is going slowly blind. She tries to save enough money while she still can to give his son an operation to maintain his eyesight. But then Bill (David Morse), the husband of the family housing her, runs into severe financial troubles himself and steals her money. Getting the cash back drives Selma on the path to certain doom. She only wants for her son to be saved, and hopes for a happy ending the likes of which she has seen on musicals. Will she get it, or should the audience go home at the second-to-last song?
To say the film is depressing is an understatement. The film was hard to do even for the actors, with Björk announcing that this would be her only film role. It's a pity, because she's nothing short of phenomenal. As the cute but naive Selma, she is the kind of character the audience easily symphatizes with, and wishes to protect from the evils of the world. But Trier is cynical towards all major institutions in the society, and portrays them as more harming to the individual, than helping. The music, composed by Björk, in this musical is also a bit different than usual, but by all means still excellent.
Director: Adam Shankman
In the early 60's, the overweight, but happy-go-lucky teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is obsessed with the TV programme The Corny Collins Show. She gets a chance to audition for a dancer in the show, much to the dismay of thinner girls. After getting help from his friends, he lands a spot. She then decides to start to fight for better treatment for the black dancers on the show.
Altough I'm a big John Waters fan, I actually haven't seen the original 1988 Hairspray. Which might be why I enjoy the hell out of this new adaptation, made according the popular stage musical. The satirical look at celebrity culture was ahead of its time in 1988, but also fits like a glove in the modern world. It helps that the songs are catchy and, funny, and well-coreographed too. The film also has a campy and corny, but essentially right message of being true to oneself and to fight the wrongs one sees. But the real strength in the film is its cheerfully used bad taste. I love Divine, but one gets used to her antics after a few movies. Even Waters couldn't come up with anything as disgustingly, hilariously wrong as having John Travolta in drag and Christopher Walken be a married couple, very much in love as well.
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Us westerners may not notice there is a difference, but alongside Bollywood there are also a film industry in the Tamil territories of India. This film is a real crown jewel of the Tollywood filmmaking, as there's so much action, romance, catchy songs, and plot twists in nearly three hours, that a dozen Hollywood films couldn't cover them all. It is also a film that takes place in two different times at once, and the hindu belief of reincarnation is a pivotal point in the love story of the film.
Bhairava! Bhairava! He (Ram Charan Teja) is a cool motorcycle stuntman starts to have flashbacks back to his previous life whenever he touches a mysterious girl. In actuality this is fair and sassy Indu (Kajal Agarwal), but there are a lot of romantic comedy's mistaken identity scenes, when Bhairava just can't figure out the truth. Unfortunately, by the time he realizes this, Indu is kidnapped by their reincarnated enemy. Before the final showdown, we get to jump back to 400 years ago and see how Bhairava's and Indu's affair went to the rocks then. But they get another chance by kicking ass in the present and hard. The action is gloriously over-the-top and magnificently epic. You can't find ideas such as these in any Hollywood movie, try as you might. WARNING! The following clip, while awesome, may contain spoilers.
The music is as in Indian movies it prompts to be – it comes out of nowhere and barely advances the plot. There is a music scene inexplicably shot in various Swiss cities, with Switzerland's flag waving around. Yet it gives me an excuse to attach my recommendations of this kick-ass movie, so by all means, find the film!
Director: John Carney
I was baffled myself of why I left out this from my Best Romances list. Well, the thing is that the Romance never really forms around the main characters. The Girl (Markéta Irglova) is married, and while the Guy (Glen Hansard) is clearly in love, he decides not to push things. But the pair has a good chemistry and they do make beautiful music together. Once is a film about street musicians.
So the Guy is a hoover repairman, who earns a bit of extra money by playing in Dublin's streetcorners. He meets the Girl and as it happens she's a talented musician too. He fixes her broken hoover and she helps him to make a demo tape. The pair plays around the town, and starts to write songs to each other. The film of course ends in separation, but it is a kind of bittersweet ending that gives a tiny shred of hope for the pair. Indeed, Hansard and Irglova had such a good chemistry on set that they became an item for a while, and also toured playing the film's music.
Ireland is of course the promised land for minstrels of all ages and nationalities. Dublin is a prominent character itself in the film, providing sheter and sympathy for the main characters. The Indie love story in the film isn't overly cutesy and reasonably subtle, so the result is an immensly likeable film.
Popular Music (Populärmusik från Vittula, 2004)
Director: Reza Bagher
Finally, we have a hilarious coming-of-age story that's a Finnish-Swedish co-production. It is based on the cult novel of Mikael Niemi, which I'm sure isn't as well-known abroad than in here. The amount of music in the film version is less than in the other films on this list, but it is essential to the plot and quite good one at that.
Matti (Niklas Ulfvarson as a kid, Max Enderfors as a teen) is a child growing up in the 60's in Lapland, near the border of Finland in a small village called Vittulanjänkä (looslely translated to Cuntville). Even though the village has such a crude name, the life in the town is highly religious and humble. But then Matti and his best friend Niila (Tommy Vallikari, Andreas af Enehjelm) discover rock 'n roll via some forbidden records. They decide to form a band, and this decision will drift them apart, but at the same time drive them towards adulthood.
Finnish comedies aren't usually very funny, and I don't really think Swedish are usually that good either. But by having a sort of mixture of the countries' quite similar sense of humour, the result is unexpected and thus hilarious. What really translates well are the great cast of oddball characters, that still feel familiar to anyone who still remembers their childhood. The pains of growing up are realized quite universally here, but the nostalgia of the Scandinavian countryside is a theme best understood by Nordic people. Rock used to be about rebellion and pushing old aside to bring new in. You had to be the right age to really feel it in your lifetime and that's what this film portrays quite nicely. Luckily we don't get to see too much of the future, so the adulthood of our beloved characters is best left to figure in your own imagination.
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
I'll have to mention this one more musical, even though it is not to my tastes. For Moulin Rouge is clearly made with love for fans of colorful musicals. Everything is vamped up to 11, from the camp, the vivid visuals to the pop songs you already know by heart. The plot is, of course as thin as they come. I personally find the film and all its cutesiness a bit aggravating, altough there is much to love. So my conscience permits for me to take it on the list, but it is a must to all musical fans.
To Be Seen:
Le Concert (2009)