Some comedies first.
“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” This is a take-off on the Johnny Cash biopic but so much more. Sometimes crude and a bit juvenile, John C. Reilly is wonderful as a rise/fall/rise country star. The puns and inside jokes come a mile a minute, with riffs on country music of course but also Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Brian Wilson, punk rock and more. You’ll laugh your ass off, I promise.
“A Mighty Wind” A lesser known gem from director Christopher Guest, and like all his comedies it does not mock his subject but laughs at and with it gently. Folk music is the theme with riffs on all the greats of the 50s and 60s, including the great Eugene Levy as a Dylan-like character. I particularly enjoyed the details, including period correct instruments.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Not a movie about music – it’s a comedy based on Homer’s The Odyssey (!) set in the Depression era South, but the music is absolutely sublime. And it’s really, really funny. I’ll bet I’ve watched it ten times.
“This is Spinal Tap” Directed by Rob Reiner, this “mockumentary” made me literally fall out of my chair laughing the first time I saw it and I still watch it when it happens to come on. About a dimwitted but loveable fictional heavy metal band, it has become part of the music culture with many quotable lines.
A few documentaries:
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” I positively love this movie and own a copy of it. It is the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, the anonymous studio musicians at Motown who created the soundtrack of our lives if you’re a Baby Boomer like me. Fabulous players all, their story is told with interviews of the surviving members (a few of who have died since the movie was made), and interspersed with footage from a concert that was held with them plus some younger singers doing classic Motown hits. Check out Joan Osborne singing “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” and “Heatwave” – the pure joy she and the Funk Brothers exhibit will bring a tear to your eye. And the amazing Chaka Khan singing “What’s Going On” is an absolute masterpiece. I can’t recommend this one enough if (like me) you love classic Motown. And along with the great music, you will shake your head in amazement at the details – and wonder why the Funk Brothers never received the accolades they deserved.
“Good Ol’ Freda” This is a small movie but fascinating. It is recollections of Freda Kelly, who was the first president of the Beatles fan club in Liverpool and went on to become their office manager and secretary at Apple Records. She was also something of a mother to all of them and if you’re a Beatles nut like me you’ll find her stories wonderful.
“Searching for Sugarman” This small movie became a cult classic. It is the story of a minor league Mexican-American singer songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who made two albums in the 1970s that quickly faded into oblivion. Except in one place: South Africa at the height or apartheid. There, his albums were known and loved by every young person. A film maker found out about this and in spite of the rumor that Sixto had died in a terrible accident, made it his business to see if Sixto was still alive, and what had become of him. After a long search he was found living a modest life in the U.S., totally unaware that he was a legend in South Africa. The film maker takes him to South Africa thirty years after his records were released and the pandemonium and adoration that followed are heartwarming. The movie won a number of independent film awards, and rightly so.
“The Other One” This is a film about Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. If you’re a Dead Head you should see it. Lots of interesting stories and some great music.
“20 Feet from Stardom” The story of the fantastic but unheralded women who backed up bands like the Rolling Stones. It is a story of bias, perseverance, and pure musical talent that only now is being recognized.
“Living in the Material World” A quite long and detailed doc about the “quiet Beatle” George Harrison. It’s taken a while, but George has finally come to be recognized as an equal to the “other” songwriters in the group. George’s deep religious beliefs and sincerity come through, along with some fantastic singing and playing. You’ll learn of the deep respect many other musicians, both old and much younger have for this departed genius.
“Miss Sharon Jones” A modern soul powerhouse, also sadly gone, she almost single-handedly with her band the Daptones revived the interest in and performance of classic (but new) soul music.
“Gimme Shelter” Of all the movies about the Rolling Stones, this one captures the pure rock and roll core and mystique of the band. Filmed before, during and after the tragic and seminal Altamont Rock Festival, I truly believe that decades and generations from now when people want to know what pure rock music was all about, this will be one of their references.
“Bob Dylan – Don’t Look Back” Another period piece that defines (as much as that’s possible) what Dylan meant and his influence in his early years. There are quite a few other docs about him focusing on his various stages of withdrawal and reemergence in the music scene but this one sets the stage for the legend.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” In the history of rock music there have been few characters as gifted, complex and sometimes despicable as drummer Ginger Baker. He never accepted the term “rock drummer” and was quite disdainful of anyone who insisted on labelling him as one; he always viewed himself as a jazz drummer. But there is no question that his drumming in the rock idiom was some of the most powerful and revolutionary ever made.
“The Last Waltz” Some call this the greatest concert film ever made and who am I to disagree? Interestingly, except for Robbie Robertson who was the one who insisted on the breakup of The Band, the other players in this greatest of all “Americana” bands hated the movie. But the performances by guests from Joni Mitchell to Eric Clapton to Neal Diamond (???? Wha?????) are great. My favorite is the blues powerhouse Muddy Waters, whose performance of his classic Mannish Boy is so powerful the other musicians on stage (including Clapton) are almost blown into background scenery. This is another one that I can’t resist watching again and again.
There are so many of these that I can’t come close to listing them all but here are a few of my favorites.
“A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” Nothing more can be said about these two classics that feature dozens of the Beatles best songs. Both are little dated and hokey but especially “Hard Day’s Night” captures what Beatlemania was all about. It was filmed on only about 60 days on a budget of only $150,000 in 1964. This was because the record executives were convinced that the Beatles phenomenon would quickly fade away and they wanted to cash in while they could! “Help” is pretty silly and very dated but the music? Oh, the music. There never will be anything that comes close.
“Crazy Heart” Jeff Bridges plays a down in his luck former country star and he absolutely nails what it is to be on the road playing small bars and the price of fame. I love this movie so much. Not easy to find but see it if you can. And marvel at the great music and playing, and the fact that Bridges sang all the songs of his character.
“Love & Mercy” This recent fictional accounting of the life of genius Brian Wilson may or may not be totally accurate but the acting is superb and the music is wonderful. Apparently Brian didn’t hate it, so it must be OK!
And there are so many more movies related to music I could mention. “Verlon Thompson: Sweet Dreams Do Come True”; “The Wrecking Crew”; “That Thing You Do”; “Almost Famous”; “Buena Vista Social Club”; Ken Burns “Country Music” series; “Echo in the Canyon”; “Muscle Shoals”; “Inside Llewyn Davis”….. Get inspired to pick up your guitar. Start watching!
Peace and good music,