28 Great Films for Musicians

Musicians are a special breed of people. They see the world differently than the mainstream of society. They have an artsy weird streak, a special brand of humor, and they have their own universe of inside jokes. So it’s a little odd when Hollywood caters to us. I can picture musician directors having to “beg” the suits to let them do so. Often times, these movies are “pet projects” that only get made when a star makes the studio a big pile of money on a different project, and these pet projects are made to appease the stars, For that, the entire musician world says, “THANK YOU.”

Here’s a list of 26 films I came up with that speak to the musician side of me. Though I didn’t have the courage or time to rank them in any meaningful way – I just wussed out and put them in alphabetical order. I know, I know – how conformist of me…so sue me – this site is free, you know.

Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson

This film really captures that magic feeling that music can give you. It can suck you in. This culminates in the question that young William is trying to ask his hero all throughout the movie…”What do you really love about music?”

AMADEUS (1984)

Directed by: Milos Forman
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge

Near the end of the film when mozart is near death and Solieri is helping him with the death mass piece, it is such a picture of the difference of these two great minds. Mozart is too weak to write himself, so Solieri is transcribing – and you see that he just doesn’t understand the way the music works in Mozart’s mind.

Directed by: Valentine Davies
Starring: Steve Allen, Donna Reed

Now it was 1955, so there are plenty of cups of sugar in this early biopic, but there is some real music stuff in here, too. Like the way Benny was thought to be wasting his talent on “hot music” instead of the classics,the racism of the time, the story of how Lionel Hampton was discovered, the concert at Carnegie…all good stuff.

BIRD (1988)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora

An oustanding picture of jazz from a great director and jazz officianado – Clint Eastwood. One of the things that sticks out to me about this film was the drive to be somebody – to be great – and the ghosts of not measuring up keep coming back again and again.

Directed by: John Landis
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and more

What can I say about one of the classics? You’ve all seen it. It’s pure inspiration. How about the scene where the band takes the place of the “Good Ole Boys” in the C&W bar? Classic. Rawhide and Stand By Your Man 72 times in a row. Priceless.

Directed by: Steve Rash
Starring: Gary Busey, Jon Stroud, Charles Martin Smith

A classic story from a time when Gary Busey was sane. Great backstage moments, recording trivia, and show biz background can all be found here.

Directed by: Michael Apted
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones

A fascinating look at one of the pioneers of country music.

Directed by: Alan Parker
Starring: Robert Arkins, Johnny Murphy, Colm Meaney, Angeline Ball

Want to know what’s like to be in a band? Want to see a movie that’s truthful about all the behind-the-scenes discussions, fights, ploys, and triumphs of being in a band? This is it.

Directed by: Walter Hill
Starring:Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jamie Gertz, Freakin’ Steve Vai

Great guitar sounds by Ry Cooder and – did I mention – freakin’ Steve Vai?

DE-LOVELY (2004)
Directed by: Irwin Winkler
Starring: Kevin Kline, Ashly Judd

Admittedly a little weird in its construct, and a little on the g-a-y side, but it still has wonderful music, great acting, and some nice moments.

THE DOORS (1991)
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Starring: Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan

Val Kilmer as The Lizard King himself – and directed by Oliver Stone. What more do you need? Yes, I know its hard to buy Meg Ryan and a cokehead, but hey – you can’t have everything. The filmmakers did an awesome job interleaving the classic tracks with newer overdubs…nearly flawless by 1991 standards.

Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson

Yes – I know – it’s a musical. But it’s a darn good one, and there’s no Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. instead, it’s got some great R&B/Motown flavors that are really infectious. And Jennifer Hudson absolutely steals the show.

Directed by: Steve Kloves
Starring, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer

How good can a silly lounge act be? Pretty darn good, actually.

Directed by: Mark Rydell
Starring: James Caan, Bette Midler

Brings back the feel of Hope and Crosby. Picks up in the 40’s and goes all the way through the 80’s, showing the changing music genres, the changing war scene, growing up on television, etc. Some wonderful music arrangements in the score. The only down side is the 80’s era stuff. All the flashback scenes are terrific though.

Directed by: Allison Anders
Starring: Illeana Douglas, Matt Dillon, John Turturro, Eric Stolz, Bruce Davison

You didn’t know this was a major release? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. But what you missed is absolutely awesome. It’s loosely based on the life of Carol King and begins by showing her writing for the doo-wop groups, and morphing into the singer-songwriter era. Also includes her “beach boys-ish” boyfriend who gets lost in the drugs as well as the music. It’s a great story of redemption and making it through the crap of life. Great music, too.

Directed by: Jim McBride
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Winona Rider, Alec Baldwin

I absolutely love this movie. Seeing inside the early days of Rock N Roll, the music business, the recording industry, touring, and a great home story to boot. Love it.

Directed by: Christopher Guest
Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKeene, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Don Lake, Ed Begley Jr.

All the old, great folk-era musicians are getting back together for a PBS-style reunion show. This is the background for another one of Christopher Guest’s thrilling improv-mocumentaries. All the actors actually played their own instruments in this. Great fun. Wha Hoppen?

Directed by: Stephen Herek
Starring: Richard Dreyfus, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas, Olympia Dukakis, William H. Macy, Alicia Witt

OK – just try to muscle your way past the heavy-handed morality tale. There’s some other good stuff in here. Really. The whole discussion on Coltrane is worth the price. And the scene with Alicia Witt (the young clarinet player) is very touching.

RAY (2004)
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King

Surely you’ve seen it. If not, you’ve been living in a cave.

ROCK STAR (2001)
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Dominic West

There’s something about this movie that keeps drawing me back. I know its cheesy. I know it;s just not that good. But the musician part of me can’t let it go. And the 80’s part of me loves every minute of it. I absolutely loved the scene where Mats, the old dog Road Manager, relays the story to Chris about hin leaving the girl to go on the road is priceless. If you’re still not convinced, check out the supporting cast of this movie: Jason Bonham, Zakk Wylde, Blas Elias, Rick Catanese, Brian VanderArk – all real metal heads with real bands.

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Joan Cusack

So many insider musician jokes! To truly get thsi movie, you’re going to have to use your head, your mind, and your brain, too.

SHINE (1996)
Directed by: Scott Hicks
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Alex Rafalowicz, Armin Mueller Stahl, Lynn Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Googie Withers

A wonderful, offbeat story adapted from a true story.

Directed by: Paul Justman
Starring: The Funk Brothers, Ben Harper, Chaka Kahn, Gerald Levert, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Tom Scott, Bootsy Collins

This is the real deal, cats. These are the real cats who played on all the legendary Motown hits.

Directed by: Karel Reisz
Starring: Jessica Lange, Ed Harris

The story of Patsy Cline. Includes some vintage Grand Ole Opry stuff, early country music stuff, and of course that golden voice.

Directed by: Tom Hanks
Starring: Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathan Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, Charlize Theron

One of my personal favorites. It just has that optimistic early 60’s vibe NAILED. It’s such a fun movie to watch – and of course, again, lots of insider musician jokes.

Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr.

The beginning of it all. The legend. The movie. The mother of all mocumentaries. And this one goes to 11.

Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Raymond Barry, Kristin Wiig

Poking fun at the whole musician biopic genre, Walk Hard is chocked full of inside gags for musicians.

Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

Great movie. A nice look at some behind the scenes music biz stuff, too.

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8 Comments on “28 Great Films for Musicians”

  1. kylee Says:

    no “Once”? fail!

  2. jermtech Says:

    Kylle, I’ve never heard of “Once”! I’ll have to check it out.

  3. jermtech Says:

    Didn’t mean to mispell your name – just typed too fast. KYLEE.

  4. Natrino Says:

    Good seeing A Mighty Wind up there. Seems like that got a lot of crap, but it was hilarious. And seeing Harry Shearer in drag is something that stays with you.

    Once was the only movie I noticed missing. It’s a very independent movie that cast two musicians who have never acted before, and it’s directed by a musician. It ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

    Not only a great film for musicians, but a great film for independent movie fans.

    And the soundtrack is really good as well.

  5. Joeyb Says:

    Great list! Definitely some of my favorites are on here!

    I have to agree in regards to Once. My brother sent that movie to me. It really is a great film. The guitarist/singer/songwriter in the movie is Glen Hansard. He was also the guitarist in “The Commitments”…

    Yea, check out the soundtrack. Songs of mention…Falling Slowly and Say It To Me Now.

  6. Natrino Says:

    Glen Hansard is also the lead singer for The Frames.

    He and Marketa Irglova, the girl, have performed together and are known as The Swell Season.

    John Carney, who directed the film, is the former bass player for the Frames.

    Nice to see actual musicians throughout.

  7. jermtech Says:

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Joe. I’ll definitely have to check out this movie.

  8. tumultuous88 Says:

    I’m glad August Rush isn’t on here… I was forced to watch it last night. TERRIBLE!

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