From the wildest of rockers to country’s biggest stars and acoustic folk songsters, films about musicians have played an important part in the movies. Rarely can audiences walk away unaffected by the music itself or more often the revealing story behind artists that we’ve admired from a distance. In celebration of our Music Mondays film series, we’ve asked Hogan Short, VIFF film writer and editor of Beatroute Magazine, to share his top 8 music films.
Nobody does enjoyable bleak like the Coen Brothers and they created a masterful work of music with Inside Llewyn Davis. The unlikeable nature of the protagonist in this film might be why it at times seems forgotten but to fans of it it makes it that much more impressive that they actually pulled it off. This is a week in the life of a talented but unaccomplished young singer in 1961 Greenwich Village. This place and time is rarely explored in film even though it was the origin of the big bang for modern American folk music and the likes of Bob Dylan. Inside Llewyn Davis gave us incredible original songs like “Fare Thee Well” sang by Oscar Isaac in one of his best and most underrated performances. Seeing Adam Driver sing the catchy and funny “Please Mr. Kennedy” was a delight and one of many casting risks the Coen Brothers always seem to make look so easy. Llewyn Davis is not a hero or an antihero, but his journey is something audiences can hope for and feel heartbroken. His bad luck is consistently compounded by his terrible attitude and selfish actions. There is still empathy for him because he has that pure, one of a kind talent and he deserves it and the Coen Brothers treat him as such.
Maybe it is cheating or unfair to include two films by the same filmmakers but this has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Not only are the songs all so enjoyable but they play perfectly for every scene for every character. O Brother, Where Art Thou is a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, but basically told as a folk musical in the 1930’s following three escaped convicts searching for hidden treasure. These three rightfully convicted criminals are still so likeable as the imposters of the folk trio, the Soggy Bottom Boys, exceptionally portrayed by Coen staples George Clooney, John Torturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. The songs are scattered throughout the film, never stalling the story that weaves through many locations and characters. You Are My Sunshine is heard by the daughters of Everett. Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby is heard as a literal siren song, heard through the trees and down the river. O Death is sang with a terrifying beauty by a wizard of the Ku Klux Klan among this group of hatred. Whether it is a man who sold his soul to the devil playing guitar around the fire or a group of chained and jailed men bashing rock, every song feels naturally in place, as if people and groups sang like this in reality. O Brother, Where Art Thou is a fable and the soundtrack at play here is just another example of the Coen Brother’s creative genius.
No list about film and music would be complete without Almost Famous. This is Cameron Crowe’s best film about the rise of a rock and roll band with a behind the scenes look at the relationships within and around the band seen through the eyes of a high school kid writing for Rolling Stone magazine. The soundtrack in all of Crowe’s music is always apparent but this semi auto-biographical really digs into the music itself. The music and nature of the business is fun at time and tragic, but this is a real journey that we feel lucky to have been a part of. There is a scene when the band, writers, manager, and groupies are all upset and on the bus back home. There is a sense that fame and pride has hurt or ruined the band. Elton John’s Tiny Dancer begins to play and by the end the tire bus is smiling and signing to each other. They are remembering what they love about the music, and it is showing the audience the real power of music. Music can level us and it can join us and this movie is a beautiful tour ride with the band StillWater.
This is Rob Reiner’s first feature film and he definitely turned it up to eleven. There are so many incredible star making performances in this film, notably the common players in Christopher Guest films. This is rockumentary at its best and in a time when that genre has exploded it is a testament that this is still possibly the best one even now. This is an aging British rock band on their American tour playing hilarious but also well-crafted songs like “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” and “Sex Farm”. These characters are ridiculous with no absolutely self-awareness but it does not matter. Every interview, every show, and every song has a new and inventive problem with hilarious results. If you are a fan of comedy or music, which is everybody, this is a must see music film.
This is fresh and new and in everyone’s minds but it still needs to be said that this was a great feat in filmmaking. The first half is incredible and fun and re watchable. We see a song and a love both being created before our eyes. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga pours out of the screen just like every original song does. The music is incredible and not just Shallows. There is an Ally sung, belting stadium performance that quickly cuts to its smaller version of Maine singing intimately at a piano. This movie celebrates the passion for music while also showing this beautiful love story and the tragic realities that often exists in this industry. This is the fourth make of this film, but to make a story feel so familiar connect with so many people makes it even more impressive.
This film checks so many boxes when making an incredible character study. Miles Teller as Andrew is in every single scene. It is formulaic in its nature, his entire journey and rise through the ranks as a drummer at a competitive music school. His adversary seems to be J.K. Simmon’s Fletcher but it also just might be himself. He battles demons, gives up everything, and even places himself in danger for his passion for music and to be the best. He becomes obsessed and the conversation of if this is worth it is what makes this film so interesting. Each scene between Andrew and Fletcher is so viscerally confrontational and it is so interesting to be in the room for it. This movie attempts to show us what it takes to be the best and not only if it is worth it, but is it worth it even if it works. Whiplash could be a person’s hunt for greatness in anything but it is about music and it is absolutely one of the best.
The film that got Jeff Bridges an Oscar. This is another incredible character study about an aging country music star, Bad Blake, suffering from alcoholism on a small bar tour. Bad Blake’s charm and talent makes us love him and the incredible music written by legendary T Bone Burnett makes us also love the music. It is this love we feel for Blake that makes us so happy when he does well and so heartbroken when alcohol or pride destroy his relationships. When Blake meets a lovely writer woman and falls for her and her great young son it becomes a redemption story. We ache for Blake to change but he is aging and stubborn with an addiction problem. This is a love letter film to the power music has in our lives and the stories behind the songs. This is a beautiful film that will leave you tears of joy and sadness, especially when the song “The Weary Kind” begins to play, one of the all-time original great film songs.
John Carney is a great writer and director for original music in film. Sing Street (2016) and Begin Again (2013) are all layered character stories with a musical backdrop of numerous great original songs. Once was his big breakout version of this formula, a modern musical about a busker and an immigrant who meet to create songs in Dublin over the span of a week. This is just a charming film that is just as much a love letter to music as it is to these two unnamed people. Music connects these two and their lyrics make that connection so powerful. They have their problems and complications due to the harsh realities of life but it is always music that keeps them connected, despite any fears they may have. These themes are relatable to everyone and what better way to convert those messages than through music.
Now that we’ve got your head in this music film space, it might be a good time to take a look at our two upcoming Music Monday films!
Nina Paley’s delightful follow-up to Sita Sings the Blues is a Virgin’s Guide to Judaism, in particular the story of Exodus and the Passover (from a mildly askance 21 Century feminist perspective); a love letter to the filmmaker’s dad, Hiram, who gamely fields her theological inquiries on the soundtrack; and it’s a fabulously funny animated musical, in which Paley marries her dazzling cut-up technique to a finger-snapping score from Louis Armstrong, Led Zep and Gloria Gaynor, among many others.
Monday March 4, 8:30pm, VIFF Vancity Theatre. Tickets: https://goviff.org/-seder-masochism/
This 1984 doc from music film specialist Robert Mugge captures soul legend Al Green in his heyday, in performance, but also speaking with surprising intimacy to camera about his songwriting, his success, and about finding God. Producer Willie Mitchell also weighs in from time to time, but mostly this is Al in his own words, and quite captivating in his own unusually humble, singsong speaking voice. “Essential viewing.” NME
Monday March 11, 8:50pm. Tickets: https://goviff.org/-gospel-according-to-al-green/