Top of the Pops - The Greatest Music Movies
Move over musicals, there are no song-and-dance numbers here. Doug Whelan scans his shelf for the greatest films that celebrate music in a visceral and in-yer-face way. The sights, the sounds, the smells - as a great director once said…
Published 25/07/2014 | 02:30
In film theory, there is a term called 'diegetic music'. In short, that is music that is coming from a source within the scene itself - a guitar or piano, an amplifier, radio, record player and so on. Non-diegetic music, on the other hand, is music placed over the soundtrack. It's the reason those hills were alive, for example.
In film history, then, there are two distinct sub-genres of music movie - those in which the cast break in to song, backed by bands from unknown sources, and those that put the music itself front and centre. Live and loud, gritty and great, it's those types of movie we tend to generally prefer (and cringe less at).. John Carney's romantic comedy Begin Again did it to charming effect with Mark Ruffalo's guerrilla band recording their album on the streets of New York, but it's been done so very well over the years, we decided to compile our favourites. From the top and in chronological order, here goes…
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
The original music movie. We were thinking of including Help! on the list but A Hard Day's Night is a funnier and altogether better movie. What's interesting to remember about this one is that while it's nowhere near documentary, its portrayal of Beatlemania is fairly accurate by all accounts. Do you think those adoring fans at the train station had to be encouraged to scream their heads off and chase John, Paul, George and Ringo down the street? Not likely. The camaraderie between the Fab Four, as well as their on-screen bemusement at the megastardom before them is only a hair's breadth from fact too.
The Last Waltz (1978)
I agonised over whether to include The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense (below). It was like choosing which child you love more, so I included both. Martin Scorsese's classic is, on the face of it, a concert film, a farewell performance of staggeringly cool folk-rock veterans The Band who, we learn in the revealing interview interludes, have amicably decided to call it a day. But on the night it turned in to something different: a celebration of an entire generation of American music, and perhaps the swan song of the entire flower power movement, making way for the harder, faster, more exuberant MTV and image-obsessed 1980s. It's magnificent, moving, and - if you read up on it - quite funny once you realise how very, very high they all are.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
The original rock documentary, or if you will, rockumentary. It's hard to overstate the influence that This is Spinal Tap has had on the genre, but look at it this way: even genuine, heartfelt contemporary music docs like the ones further down this list tend to be measured against this fictional one for authenticity and entertainment value. Featuring flawless performances from the entire cast, a soundtrack that's both brilliant and absurd and the fact that pretty much every line is quotable, This is Spinal Tap is a strong contender for the best music movie and the funniest film ever made. For added brilliance, get the DVD, which features a commentary by the cast, in character, reminiscing on the disastrous tour 30 years later. Now, whaddya say? Let's boogie!
Stop Making Sense (1984)
The DVD of Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film calls it 'the Citizen Kane of concert films', and while that's a fairly abstract comparison, in spirit it's spot on. Rather than dive in feet first, the show begins with no lighting and no backdrop, only David Byrne's solo performance of 'Psycho Killer.' One by one, the rest of the band join him while the crew constructs the stage around them. By the sixth or seventh song the show is in full swing and the band is tearing through a stunning set. What results is one of the most memorable and infinitely watchable concert films ever shot. Dublin's Light House Cinema often shows it, and it's always a party.
1984 was certainly a strong year for music in the movies, signified by the above entries but also by the fact that Milos Forman's Amadeus won every award under the sun. Based upon the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from the 19th century play Mozart and Salieri, Amadeus is pure film-making and a hybrid of genres: period drama, mystery and a quite modern sensibility jostle for attention. But the real magic is in the music, for the audience and the characters alike. Everyone who eccentric young composer Mozart (Tom Hulce) meets is quite taken by him and by his music - except fellow composer Salieri (F Murray Abraham), whose jealousy at Mozart's genius leads to madness and murder. Enchanting in every way, including inventive and stunning recreations of Mozart's works.
NOT the one with Britney Spears. Crossroads is a forgotten '80s gem starring Ralph Macchio about a young guitarist who sets out with an elderly blues musician to travel to Mississippi to discover the heart of the Blues. In a nutshell, it's The Karate Kid with guitars, ie it's awesome, with a bit of Faustian legend thrown in for good measure, as Macchio duels with the devil - no, really - in a climactic six-string showdown. Sounds silly, but with a brilliant bluesy soundtrack by Ry Cooder and a surprisingly gritty storyline, Crossroads is a stone-cold classic that should not be forgotten.
The Commitments (1991)
"The Irish brothers and sisters wouldn't be shooting the arses off each other if they had soul." Is The Commitments the best Irish film ever made? That has been the subject of many pub conversations up and down the land. It's certainly the most quotable, thanks to a sparkling screenplay adapted from Roddy Doyle's novel. But it's all about the music too, and it's fair to say that Alan Parker's comedy introduced a whole generation to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and more. The Commitments has stood the test of time too - you're reading this right now, thinking 'I might watch The Commitments soon', aren't you? So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.
What's Love Got to Do With It (1993)
After this biopic of the life and times of Tina Turner was released in 1993, both she and ex-husband Ike were critical of some of the content. It played fast and loose with the truth in some cases (but certainly not others; Ike Turner really was a bastard). What's all true, though, are the extensive musical sequences, particularly the recreations of classics like 'Rolling on the River' and 'River Deep, Mountain High', and the troubled couple's first teaming up in a smoky 1950s blues club. There's a troubling sense for most of the film that we, the audience, like Tina, might forgive Ike for his abuses, because we love the music. She doesn't though, and here we are 50-odd years later still humming the same tunes.
High Fidelity (2000)
The only film here that's not about a band, musician or otherwise, but High Fidelity (based on Nick Hornby's novel)is a music movie through and through. Transplanted with surprising success from London to Chicago, High Fidelity captured the easygoing lifestyle of record shop workers we've all dreamed of living at one time or another in our lives. Okay, maybe we're not all going to organise our records 'autobiographically' but this film captures perfectly the idea that music is something that gets in to our hearts and shapes us all, albeit in different ways. And once again John Cusack proves himself to be the most likeable and charismatic actors on the screen. Now, Monday Morning Mixtape: GO.
8 Mile (2002)
Yes, I'm including 8 Mile because hip-hop should be represented in this list somehow. Yes, it's Rocky with microphones. Yes, Eminem is not a great actor and Curtis Hanson's quasi-biopic of the young rapper is for the most part forgettable. Until, that is, amusingly named Jimmy Rabbit picks up the mic and does what he does best. That's when 8 Mile really comes to life and it makes it ultimately a rewarding watch, especially in the climactic rap showdown when our hero becomes a Greek chorus of his own life, disarming his foes by telling them what they already know. I propose a sequel: Eminem is playing stadiums these days - stadiums! What would Rabbit think?
Some Kind of Monster (2004)
The story goes: a crew was hired simply to document the recording of heavy metal megastars Metallica's next album. Instead, to paraphrase Spinal Tap's Marty DiBerghi, they got more… a lot more. What they found was a band in freefall. They could hardly look one another in the eye and after 20 years on the road together, couldn't find any new music. Some Kind of Monster exposes the band as spoiled-rotten rock stars; it's unintentionally hilarious at times but it's a testament to their staying power and the dedication of their fans that it ultimately became another reason to love Metallica.
Julien Temple's take on the iconic festival isn't a history lesson or a travelogue. Instead, it cobbles together four decades' worth of footage to literally bring viewers along to the festival, from arriving on Friday, partying through the night, watching the sun come up and getting ready to do it all again. And again. And again. Pardon the cliché but at times it really is like being there, including musical interludes from down the decades, and visits to the areas of the festival you just don't see on the BBC. For better or worse, it's a love letter, so the rampant crime that existed in the '80s and '90s is glossed over somewhat. But it's still a hell of a ride.
A microscopic budget, amateur-ish actors and original songs with a lot of heart; that's what propelled John Carney's Once all the way to Oscar night. There was something else about Once, though. At the end of The Commitments, the last we saw of Outspan was him busking on Grafton Street… now 25 years later, there he is. It's a subtle (and debatable) reference that got us right in the feels, and set up the heartbreaking and uplifting story that was to come. It's a multi-award winning Broadway musical now and you'll only ever see Glen on Grafton Street on Christmas Eve. That's a double happy ending if ever there was one.
Britain in the '70s and '80s was, in a word, grim. It has been captured flawlessly on screen time and time again, but the music of the era has perhaps never been reflected as well as in Anton Corbijn's equally grim biopic of tragic Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Curtis's troubled life and eventual suicide is handled with care and beautifully portrayed by Sam Riley; the film's strength is that Corbijn manages to create an enthralling musical portrait of the era while also telling Curtis's story. Neither side of the film is left behind by the other, perhaps because of Corbijn's close real-life friendship with the surviving members of Joy Division, giving him cause to do justice to both. A beautiful film, though perhaps not one for Sunday afternoon.
Mistaken For Strangers (2013)
Try as they might to be something different, most music documentaries turn out as puff pieces for the band in question but Mistaken For Strangers is something different - a tour movie that's not about the band. Instead, this is a unique coming of age story about the director himself, with much-loved rock band The National's tour as the backdrop. Tom Berninger happens to be the younger brother of lead singer Matthew, creating an instantly unique interview atmosphere. Once the band does take the stage, well, they say you don't have to be a fan of The National to enjoy this film but by the time it's over, you will be.