After a recent viewing The National’s offbeat rockumentary had me cinematically and sonically enthralled, I decided to revisit the world of music films and recommend movies that truly and utterly rock. By this I mean any flick where the music is the primary protagonist, the format, whether documentary or fictional narrative, mattering less than the pure love of tunes. There may be some disagreement over which films made it to this list, so feel free to post films you dig in the comments section below. Really, there is a near infinite (relatively) quantity of music flicks to rock out to.
Almost Famous (2000)
That Cameron Crowe classic that made us all wish we could drop everything and go follow a band on the road. The film is basically a love story to the fading rock and roll generation, and homage to people who truly loved the music. If you haven’t seen the “Tiny Dancer” tour bus scene, then you haven’t yet lived.
Empire Records (1995)
That exceptional coming-of-age story foretelling the death of record stores and celebrating the music. Also the reason “Rex Manning Day” is a thing, this film is endlessly fun and relatable, and features some of Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger’s best moments. Also, there’s that amazing mock funeral.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Why we all want our amps to go to 11 and why drummers everywhere are afraid of spontaneously combusting while playing. Directed by Rob Reiner, this rock mockumentary remains a legendary comedy flick, and not only because one of tracks in the fake discography of Spinal Tap is called “Lick My Love Pump.”
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
That very surreal, surprisingly dark Coen brother’s movie that chronicles the depressing career of Oscar Isaac’s egocentric, nihilistic titular folk singer-songwriter. The Coens do something unique here, in allowing the actors to perform full renditions of the tunes, the majority of them hauntingly well played. It’s a gorgeous folk album dressed up as an only slightly less mesmerizing film.
It Might Get Loud (2008)
Just that film in which Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page hang out and play music together. All three guitarists have distinctive styles and stories behind their careers, which unfold over the course of the film, but the best part of the whole experience is getting to see the three greats jam together.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
The inspiring and often heartbreaking story of the Funk Brothers, the band that played on almost every Motown hit you’ve ever heard. Based on Allan Slutsky’s (Dr. Licks) bass book about legendary bassist James Jamerson, its goal to bring the unknown session group out of anonymity leads to some tragic revelations about some of the industry’s best musicians in history. Also, there’s amazing live re-imaginings of Motown tunes.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2002)
That other Coen brothers’ flick, the one that gives The Odyssey an ol’ timey groove. Although George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson lead this comedy, the real star is the period folk soundtrack, the whole film drenched in banjos, blues, bluegrass, and the now incredibly popular, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Without the music, the adventure wouldn’t be the same.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
A jazz and soul filled masterpiece, the music, most notably Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blaring from Radio Raheem’s boombox, an integral part of the tension and feel of the story. Watch this film not only to see music’s powerful presence, but also to experience what happens when the music stops. Mister Señor Love Daddy’s final lines of the film, before a music dedication, will echo forever.
Sound City (2013)
Dave Grohl’s love ballad to analog recording technology and, also, rock and roll. Grohl, arguably the biggest rock star at present, recounts the story of Sound City Studios, the L.A. studio that recorded Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s a loud, boisterous flick about one hell of a board (the Neve 8028) and producing a certain type of rock sound. Also, Paul McCartney shows up to jam for the film’s corresponding album.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
An uplifting and also heartbreaking look at the 48 hours surrounding James Murphy, and LCD Soundsystem’s, final show at Madison Square Garden. The documentary features a good deal of the final concert, and some tear jerking shots of James Murphy crying in a room filled with the band’s equipment. Arcade Fire and Reggie Watts make appearances, the final product a joyous and somber celebration of the band’s ending career.
Heima: A Film by Sigur Rós (2011)
That movie where you get to see how versatile, epic, and expansive Sigur Rós is in their music, performance, and overall style. One of the best concert/documentary releases in recent decades. Watch for a more ethereal experience than you’d receive from other music documentaries and films.