I've been wanting to post this for some time. I'm often recommending music-related movies to my students.
The focus here is not really on concert films, though there will be some. Instead, the focus is more on giving you insights into music, becoming or being a musician, music history, the music business, music production, picking up music vocabulary and plain old inspiration.
I thought I could keep the list short and sweet, but it keeps growing. So, I will break the movies up into several themed lists (and update as needed).
PARENTAL WARNING: A number of these movies might not be suitable for children. There is learning value in these recommendations, but handle with care as needed.
Tip: The Rotten Tomatoes links often have links to where you can currently stream many of these movies.
Part 1: Historical Music Movies
This first set of movies can almost give you a rough history of music. It's not a complete history by any means. No matter how much I add, there will still be many gaps and major musicians missing. These are movies I, and my students, have enjoyed and learned from.
Don't worry if you think I skipped over some obvious movies—they're probably on an upcoming list. Let's begin...
This movie is often in the top 100 movies of all-time. It really is flawless. The acting, the set design, costumes, music, story, cinematography--all of it. Beyond chronicling the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus explores the struggles and emotions of musicians and all creative people: fears of mediocrity, marveling at genius, earning a living, and relationships with family, lovers, friends and rivals. Highly recommended.
Another movie about a famous Classical composer—Beethoven. While not as well-done as Amadeus, this movie is still a good glimpse into the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Blues: A Musical Journey
Martin Scorsese's 7-part mini-series on the history of the blues. So much music has grown out of the blues that it's essential for you to know its history. It's unfortunate this PBS series is not streaming anywhere. It is sometimes replayed on TV. The companion book is good, too. Highly recommended.
Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson
A documentary about blues guitarist Robert Johnson. Legend has it that, to play so well, Johnson went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil. In 1936-1937, Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs in a couple of hotel rooms in San Antonio and Dallas. (If you ever visit San Antonio, you'll find a small shrine to Johnson in the lobby of the Gunter Hotel where he recorded.) The recordings were unearthed in the sixties and have provided endless inspiration to musicians. Highly recommended.
A biographic movie about the great American composer Cole Porter. Many of his songs are now jazz standards (songs frequently played and sung by jazz musicians). Some songs you may know: Night and Day, I've Got You Under My Skin, Love for Sale, I Get a Kick Out of You, and All of You.
Charlie "Bird" Parker is a key figure in jazz. Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others, ushered in a new era of jazz called bebop. Clint Eastwood, a jazz pianist himself, directs this movie about Bird's genius and his tragic end. This is a story every musician should know. Highly recommended.
Note: You might know Clint's son Kyle Eastwood who is an excellent bass player.
Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross portrays the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday. An excellent film.
The Cotton Club
While the focus of this gangster movie isn't music, there's a lot of music in the background. You get a look at 1930s showbiz inside Harlem's famous Cotton Club where people like Duke Ellington played. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I haven't seen the director's cut (Encore), but it is supposed to be better. It's worth watching, but not essential since music isn't the main focus.
Ken Burns: Jazz
The PBS documentary mini-series on the history of jazz. Highly recommended.
(There are many jazz movies to come in other posts in this series.)
This biopic about singer Patsy Cline can give you a little history on the early days of country music.
Bill Monroe - Father Of Bluegrass Music
Bluegrass began with mandolin player and songwriter Bill Monroe. Interviews with Monroe give insight into the origins and early players of bluegrass music. Highly recommended.
Ray Charles is a critical figure in music history. He brought together blues, country, R&B and gospel to form soul music. Music was never the same after Ray Charles.
One for the Money: The Birth of Rock N' Roll
In the 1950s rock n' roll grew out of blues and rhythm & blues. This documentary does an excellent job exploring racial divisions in music, the music business, and the beginnings of rock. Highly recommended.
The Buddy Holly Story
Buddy Holly was one of rock 'n roll's first big stars. Holly died in a plane crash at the age of 22. A good movie.
Another early rock star, Richie Valens, died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly. A third star, The Big Bopper, also died in this crash. It devastated the music world.
Teenage Awards Music International. This 1964 concert film is like the Nickelodeon Teen Awards, but listen to this lineup: Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and James Brown. James Brown is the reason to see this. Why? His performance blew everyone's mind. Notice the contrast between the other bands, who mostly stand there and play their songs, and how James Brown puts on a show. The world has never been the same since.
Fun fact: Sting references this performance in The Police song When the Whole World is Running Down.
You can often find clips of this on YouTube. Highly recommended.
Get on Up
James Brown is a pivotal musician in history. He took soul music to the next level creating funk. It wasn't only his music which was significant. He transformed music performance; the way he ran his band and how he knew which musicians to put in his band are all part of his genius. James Brown delivered many great bassists to the world and brought bass guitar far into the foreground. It's important to know your James Brown history.
This movie is a big-time Hollywood biopic of the godfather of soul.
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown
A excellent HBO documentary on James Brown (to watch instead of the dramatized Get on Up movie). Highly recommended.
A Hard Day's Night
The Beatles were a phenomenon. Their influence on music is indelible. One of several movies The Beatles released, A Hard Day's Night captures the fun they had with the press and Beatlemania. Entertaining.
The Beatles Anthology
There are so many documentaries about The Beatles. This series is great, but still not streaming! Highly recommended.
Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train a Comin'
Jimi Hendrix is yet another giant who permanently changed the course of music. Highly recommended.
The Woodstock festival was one of the biggest music events in music history. Highly recommended.
This is one of rock's most (in)famous documentaries. In 1969 The Rolling Stones played a concert which descended into madness. Highly recommended.
Black Sabbath: Inside Black Sabbath 1970-1992
A two-part documentary on the heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath. Difficult to find (check YouTube), but worth the watch. Highly recommended.
This movie surprised me. I haven't heard it talked about much. It is very real and raw feeling. This gives you a glimpse into the 1970s Jamaica music scene. The cast includes a number of famous musicians such as Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Burning Spear and more. It has an incredible soundtrack. If you're interested in reggae, this is a must watch.
Punk Revolution NYC
This documentary covers a lot of ground looking at the New York scene in the 1970s and beyond. Many bands are featured: The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, Television, Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blondie, and many others. Highly recommended.
The Decline of Western Civilization I, II, III
The Decline of Western Civilization came out in 1981 documenting the L.A. punk scene. This documentary can be intense and hard to watch at times, but it is excellent. After its success, part II The Metal Years (1989) and part III (1998) were released (Flea appears in pt III).
24 Hour Party People
This was another movie I didn't expect to be so good. 24 Hour Party People is about the Manchester music scene and Factory records. This movie chronicles all of the ups and downs of bands like Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and others. Some of these stories are very heavy. Highly recommended.
Tad - Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears
To me, there's not a perfect documentary capturing all music in the 90s yet. This one about Tad is quite good. Other good movies to give you a feel for the 90s music scene are: Hype!, Mudhoney: I'm Now, and 1991: The Year Punk Broke. As you would expect, there are many Nirvana documentaries, too.
The movies listed above are meant to give you a broad look at different times in music history. Don't fear if I left off your favorite ones; there are several more parts of my music movie recommendations to come.
More movies to come...