But sometimes I just want to veg out in front of the TV and watch a music-related movie. The other night one of the cable stations broadcast one of the great ones in recent years, “Crazy Heart” starring Jeff Bridges. It’s the tale of a fading, hard-drinking and hard-living country star and his ultimate redemption. The music is nothing short of great, which is not surprising when you find that one of the producers was T-Bone Burnett. See it if you haven’t; enjoy it again if you have.
That got me to thinking of other movies about music and musicians that I’ve seen and always seem to watch again when available. Here’s a list of a few of my favorites. Some are specifically about individual musicians, some use music-making as a backdrop for a story, some are documentaries. Check them out if you haven’t. In no particular order…
“Almost Famous” (2000) starring Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson (!) and Patrick Fugit, whose character is closely based on Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe. While fictional in terms of the band (Stillwater), their lead singer (Crudup) and the groupie who loves him (Hudson) it closely parallels the adventures of the very young Cameron Crowe (Fugit’s character) on a writing assignment from Rolling Stone, covering a national tour by up-and-coming Stillwater. Crowe, when only in his late teens, went on tour with the Allman Brother’s Band and many of the incidents in the movie are very close to what happened on that tour. Supporting roles by Frances McDormand as Fugit’s character’s mom and the departed and truly great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the jaded and tough-as-nails publisher of a rival magazine are big highlights. Look closely and you’ll see cameos by other well-known actors such as Jimmy Fallon and Rainn Wilson. In short, the movie captures a unique moment in rock history in the early 70s when big money eclipsed the hippie mentality that drove many bands and musicians of the time. The music is terrific too, and the acting is first-rate.
“Bird” (1988), directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Forest Whitaker as the troubled genius, Charlie “Bird” Parker. This is not a great movie in my opinion, but a very good one. While I don’t agree with Eastwood on most things – like politics – his love of jazz was apparent when he made this movie and Whitaker does a great job of portraying this genius of jazz. How much of the content of the story is accurate is debatable but the music is fantastic. I do wish Eastwood had used better lighting in this movie but I’m sure the darkness that almost overwhelms it visually is meant to portray the darkness in Bird’s soul.
“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) directed by the Coen brothers and starring George Clooney, John Turturro and John Blake Nelson. I positively love this movie and I’ll bet I’ve watched it ten times. The story is silly but all the actors seem to be having the times of their lives. But what it really comes down to is the music, old-timey, authentic country and mountain music, plus some fantastic blues by Chris Thomas King portraying a character loosely based on Robert Johnson. The cameos and supporting roles (and there are many) are also great and there are many, many memorable lines. Clooney and company singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” (voice overdubbed by Dan Tyminski of Union Station) cracks me up every single time.
“Crazy” (2008) starring Waylon Payne as the legendary Nashville guitarist Hank Garland. I confess that I knew very little about Garland before I watched this movie but what a great and sad story it is. I won’t go into the plot details but while only average as a bio-pic I do think it accurately portrays what the music scene was like in Nashville in the 1950s, and just how great a player Garland was. Not easy to watch at some points but the music is absolutely first-rate.
“Woodstock” (1970). The granddaddy of all concert films in the rock era. Musical cast of hundreds; audience of hundreds of thousands. I did not go to Woodstock, although I could have. Many of my friends went but I opted for the 1969 Newport Folk Festival and I’m glad I did. My friends, to a person, reported having pretty much a miserable time at Woodstock. Rain, mud, no food and the impossibility of getting anywhere near the music were their complaints. Of course, their stories have changed somewhat over the years (!). In any case, some of the music in the film is great, some not so much, but viewed with the benefit of hindsight plus hearing stories after the event from the musicians themselves make the film worthwhile, to me anyway.
“The Last Waltz” (1978). Many consider this to be the greatest concert film of all time in terms of the quality of performances. Interestingly, in “This Wheel’s on Fire” Levon Helm states categorically that he hated the event and only viewed the film once. His disgust comes from the fact that by that point Robbie Robertson had made his intentions known about quitting The Band; the others would have continued and did in fact try a few iterations without Robertson in the following years. But there is absolutely no question about the playing of the legendary performers that night. My favorite is Muddy Waters, whose pure, menacing, powerful and wonderful blues is on full display. Joni Mitchell was great too. But Neil Diamond???? What the heck was he even doing there?? I never miss an opportunity to watch “The Last Waltz” when it shows up on one of our cable stations.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) Although this may be the least known of all the Coen Brothers films I think it’s one of their best, although if you’re not a guitar geek or interested in the Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s I can see how it might be boring. It won and was nominated for many awards when it was released but faded away quickly. Listed generally as a “black comedy” it is based on the autobiography of Dave Van Ronk, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” I highly, highly recommend that book by the way. The Llewyn Davis character is played by one of my favorite actors, Oscar Isaac as a struggling folk singer in the Village and is based on Van Ronk. As with all Coen Brothers “dark” comedies, various misfortunes befall Davis as he tries to build a career at the epicenter of the folk music world at that time and still remain true to himself and his music. And oh, the music. With T Bone Burnett as the musical producer and contributions from groups like the members of the Punch Brothers and Marcus Mumford it is sublime. Cameos are everywhere but my favorite is the great John Goodman as a very powerful manager/producer who many feel is a take-off on Albert Grossman. One of the most powerful scenes is at the very end, when Davis goes to a club in the Village to hear a new, young singer/poet who has begun to sweep the folk world. Davis’s reality and the larger world collide. It should also be noted that Oscar Isaac plays and sings all his own songs. See this movie! And read the book!
And finally, for now…
“A Mighty Wind” (2003). Written and directed by the wonderful Christopher Guest, this film is generally thought to be a take-off on a tribute concert that took place about that time for Harold Leventhal, who was a very influential folk music concert producer in the 50s and 60s. The cast will be familiar to anyone who knows and loves Guest’s gentle but often hilarious comedies (“Best in Show” “Wating for Guffman” “This is Spinal Tap” - oh God, how I love that one!). The characters are direct take-offs on people and groups like The Kingston Trio, New Christie Minstrels, and even Dylan and Joan Baez. Imagine Eugene Levy as a Dylan character!! A detail that I loved was the instruments used. Way down in the credits you will see that they were provided by the sadly gone and lamented Mandolin Brothers store in Statin Island, New York. Vintage Martins, vintage Gibsons, vintage Vega banjos, etc. Very cool indeed. And the songs (all written by Guest and all perfect in terms of period-correct folk whimsies) are terrific. Over the years I’ve tried to turn on a few of my older folkie students to this film, and while most “get it,” a couple who were heavily into the folk scene in the late 50s and 60s took offense at the way folk music and its players are portrayed. I tell them that they are missing the point. Guest is not mocking that time and that music, he’s only giving it a gently nudge with a smile. Over the decades I’ve been into folk music in various forms I’ve met more than a few oh-so-serious practitioners of that style who could do with a nudge from time to time!
Peace & good music,