Next Tuesday, the Criterion Collection will release an all-new, stunningly restored, and just plain wonderful Blu-ray version of A Hard Day’s Night, the classic Beatles musical comedy that, wouldn’t you know it, also turns 50 years old this summer. To mark the release of that acclaimed rocker (and the theatrical unveiling of the thus-far less-acclaimed Four Seasons biopic Jersey Boys), we decided to round up the best rock movies of all time — no concert films and no documentaries (been there, done that), but narrative films where popular music plays a vital role.
25. Purple Rain
Prince’s 1984 musical drama is no great shakes as cinema; the dramatics are often turgid, the pace drags, and its attitudes towards women are (to put it mildly) problematic. But the music — not just from the Artist Formerly Known As, whose performances of “Let’s Go Crazy” and the title song pretty much stop the movie, but from Morris Day and the Time, who embrace their rival roles with relish.
24. The Doors
Sure, it’s pompous and self-important and overcooked; so was the subject. But Oliver Stone’s 1991 Jim Morrison biopic goes all in, cranking up the volume, the mood, and the crazy for all 140 of its nutso minutes. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s immersive as hell; to see it with an audience (as this viewer did, on its initial release) is like going to a rock show where the hits just keep coming.
23. The School of Rock
A PG-13 movie starring Jack Black and a bunch of grade-school kids should, by any definition, not rock. But director Richard Linklater, writer Mike White (Enlightened), and star Black (in a role pretty much tailor-made for his talents) make a goofy, prefab-sounding premise into something joyful and energetic by harnessing their sheer, unvarnished love for the music in question.
The Beatles and director Richard Lester resisted the urge to follow up A Hard Day’s Night with some kind of Xerox sequel; instead, they went in the opposite direction, with a full-color, globe-trotting spoof of spy movies in general (and the newly hot James Bond movies in particular). It doesn’t have the off-the-cuff charm of Night, but it’s got a manic energy of its own, some very funny set pieces, and several terrific songs.
21. Phantom of the Paradise
Brian DePalma’s 1974 rock musical is an oddball pastiche of cult flick, send-up, rocker, and Phantom of the Opera homage, with good ol’ Paul Williams both playing the role of villainous record producer Swan and providing the original songs. It’s the kind of bananas movie you can’t imagine a major studio even considering anymore, but it’s got a style all its own and a take-no-prisoners attitude that’s just right.
20. 8 Mile
Eminem’s big-screen debut was no cheap-o Elvis-style jukebox flick; super-producer Brian Grazer and Oscar-nominated director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) brought the barely fictionalized story of Marshall Mathers’ early years to the screen, injecting the film with a moody, gritty street aesthetic and a sharp supporting cast that included Kim Basinger, Michael Shannon, Mekhi Phifer, and Brittany Murphy. But the takeaway here is the memorable rap battle sequences, fused with an improvisational electricity and the stakes of Rocky’s fight scenes.
19. The Buddy Holly Story
Back before he was a borderline deranged pitchman for Amazon and reality show standby, Gary Busey was an astonishing and gifted performer. Exhibit A: Steve Rash’s terrific 1978 biopic, with an Oscar-nominated Busey effortlessly stepping into the shoes (and glasses) of groundbreaking early rocker Holly. Few films have captured the excitement of hanging out in a garage and banging out a new sound as evocatively as this one.
18. The Girl Can’t Help It
In sharp contrast to the cheapo, throwaway movies of rock ‘n’ roll’s first flush of popularity, Frank Tashlin’s 1956 musical comedy was, as star Tom Ewell announces in the pre-title sequence, in CinemaScope and “gorgeous, lifelike color by Deluxe.” The copious performances are mostly window dressing for Tashlin’s cartoony sex comedy (featuring Seven Year Itch co-star Ewell and JV Marilyn Monroe Jayne Mansfield), but what window dressing it is: Little Richard doing “Ready Teddy” and the title number, Gene Vincent wailing “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” and Eddie Cochran crushing “Twenty Flight Rock.” That last number was memorized by one of the film’s young British fans, Paul McCartney, who used the song as his audition for John Lennon’s group The Quarrymen.
17. 24 Hour Party People
The first of many fruitful collaborations between director Michael Winterbottom and star Steve Coogan finds the actor playing Tony Wilson, the TV reporter who became a record entrepreneur, and who leads the viewer on a guided tour (often with self-referential commentary) of the Manchester music scene from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘90s. But the fourth wall-breaking and meta moments aren’t just gimmickry; they capture the anarchic spirit of the scene, and throw the viewer in as an active participant.
16. The Blues Brothers
John Landis’ 1980 hit fused three seemingly disparate movies: it was an edgy comedy featuring two popular Saturday Night Live characters; it was a big, expensive, car-smashing action/comedy; and it was a good old-fashioned Mickey-and-Judy “Let’s put on a show!” musical extravaganza. Somehow it all works, as if those odd pieces belong together, but the musical sequences have aged the best, with serious R&B lovers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi grabbing electrifying turns by such legends as James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway.
15. Pink Floyd The Wall
Director Alan Parker’s previous films included Fame and Midnight Express, and his film version of Pink Floyd’s 1978 concept album feels like the natural extension of that filmography — the music of the former, the grimness of the latter. Parker transformed the original idea of a live concert film into an All That Jazz-style dramatization of celebrity despair and political fury, and came up with what Roger Ebert called “without question the best of all serious fiction films devoted to rock.”
14. Rock N’ Roll High School
When legendary exploitation producer Roger Corman decided to make a teen movie in the spirit of his 1950s and 1960s hits, his first idea was to embrace its late-‘70s moment and make Disco High. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed — as did good luck, when first choice Cheap Trick were unavailable and Corman regular Paul Bartel (later to direct Eating Raoul) suggested the Ramones instead. It was a perfect match of performers and film, with the Ramone’s raw punk sound a natural fit with director Allan Arkush and producer Corman’s rough, offhand style. And the explosive conclusion, well, that’s rock ‘n’ roll in a nutshell, isn’t it?
13. Hustle and Flow
The improvisational rush and endless inventiveness of hip-hop music has proven strangely elusive for filmmakers; from the likes of Tougher Than Leather forward, there have been surprisingly few great rap movies. But Craig Brewer’s 2005 drama feels told from the inside out, with Terrence Howard’s star-making performance effortlessly personifying both the sensitivity and machismo of Southern rap. And the scene where his big track finally comes together beautifully dramatizes the genuine thrill and power of musical creativity.
12. I’m Not There
Director Todd Haynes knows a thing or two about unconventional biopics; his breakthrough film was the controversial Barbie-dolls-as-the-Carpenters film Superstar, so when he tackled the considerable task of making a Bob Dylan film, he took a wild, inspired approach: casting six different actors as Dylan, with none of them actually playing a character named “Bob Dylan.” Instead, each took on an aspect of his chameleonic career, allowing Haynes to craft an episodic, mosaic-style portrait of an artist who has stubbornly refused to be any single thing.
This 1975 adaptation of The Who’s 1969 concept album wasn’t just a Who movie, or even a rock musical — it was a Ken Russell movie, and the director of Women in Love and The Music Lovers’ baroque, sensualist style turned out to seamlessly mesh with the group’s wild, surrealistic tale of a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who becomes a pinball champion and cult figure.
10. The Commitments
Almost a decade after Pink Floyd The Wall, Alan Parker directed this rowdy, funny, and touching adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel. Like most of the best rock movies, the primary subject is sheer, unadulterated love of the music — in this case, a working-class Dublin band’s affection for American soul music. The narrative is compelling, and the acting terrific, but the musical performances stop the show (so much so that the film produced not one, but two bestselling soundtrack albums).
9. Velvet Goldmine
“Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.” So begins this affectionate tribute to the glam rock era from director Todd Haynes (again), who uses a Citizen Kane structure and a well-curated soundtrack of vintage and original tracks to evocatively capture the feeling of being young and utterly consumed by music. And as a nice bonus, it offers rock fans plenty of opportunities to play spot-the-avatar.
8. The Harder They Come
Perry Henzell’s 1972 reggae-infused crime story bears the scars of its low-budget production; the filmmaking is, at times, barely functional, the picture thrown together with elbow grease and crossed fingers. Yet that run-and-gun style is exactly the right choice, giving the picture an overheard, almost documentary quality, and lending extra urgency to the terrific songs by star Jimmy Cliff.
Like Tommy, Franc Roddam’s 1979 film was based on a Who concept album; unlike Tommy, it wasn’t an all-out musical, but a narrative infused with music by the Who (particularly in the show-stopping third act), as well as soul music from the film’s mid-‘60s period. Not that the picture is heavy on plot (as our own Tyler Coates noted) — it’s more about the feeling of being young, aimless, angst-y, and struggling to find one’s own identity. In other words, it’s about rock ‘n’ roll.
6. Jailhouse Rock
The filmography of Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley is, to be sure, an undistinguished one — and is universally recognized as such, with the entirety of his output dismissed as cheap-o Elvis-ploitation, occupying time that the King should have been spending in the studio and on the road, growing as an artist rather than coagulating into a product. But! The films aren’t entirely terrible; there’s a lot to like in Viva Las Vegas (primarily his scorching chemistry with Ann-Margret, seldom sexier), and this 1957 effort from director Richard Thorpe is just plain excellent, nabbing a natural, lived-in performance by Presley and several rollicking production numbers (including the appropriately iconic title song).
5. American Graffiti
George Lucas’ 1973 breakthrough film isn’t a musical, but it might as well be — the music is wall-to-wall, the hot records from that last night of summer (and last night of teenage innocence) blasting nonstop from the cars cruising the Modesto strip. The songs serve as both accompaniment and counterpoint, promising a freedom and ease that its anxious listeners are already realizing may never be theirs. And in a movie full of great scenes, perhaps the greatest finds Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) making a desperate attempt to get a message to his dream girl out on those airwaves via Wolfman Jack, prompting a trip to the radio station that turns into an object lesson in taking chances and chasing dreams (as well as in making assumptions). Graffiti pulses with joy for its music and love for its characters; it’s a shame Lucas would so rarely choose to make movies about real people again.
4. Sid and Nancy
Look, it ain’t all fun and games. Alex Cox’s 1986 film takes on a dark subject — the doomed love affair between the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen — and drills down, following the pair into a pit of drug abuse, emotional abuse, and ultimately death. It doesn’t make the life of a rock star look like all that much fun, but it gets under your skin and stays there.
3. Almost Famous
Before engaging moviegoers with the likes of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, Cameron Crowe was a teenage rock journalist, trailing the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles around the country for Rolling Stone and Creem. In 2000, Crowe turned that period into a warm, engaging, and remarkable movie. It’s a film filled with memorable characters and complicated relationships, but Almost Famous never burns brighter than when Philip Seymour Hoffman is on-screen, bringing legendary music critic Lester Bangs back to life, and in doing so speaking the axiom of the true music fan: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
2. This Is Spinal Tap
A funny thing happened on Spinal Tap’s way to satirizing rock music: it became rock ‘n’ roll itself. Director Rob Reiner and stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer made this mostly improvised, mock documentary to send up the excesses and self-importance of ‘80s rock (and heavy metal in particular). But yesterday’s satire is today’s status quo, and as the real deal grew more ridiculous, rock stars began quoting its dialogue and making amps that went up to 11. In retrospect, Spinal Tap seems prescient, insightful, and even quaint and restrained, while remaining — as ever — wickedly funny.
1. A Hard Day’s Night
The thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be great. The directive was for the Fab Four to knock out a jukebox musical, and to do it quickly enough that Beatlemania wouldn’t have ended by the time it galloped into theaters. United Artists only financed the picture so that they could get their hands on the certain-to-be-profitable soundtrack album. That combination of a need for speed and a shrugging, write-off attitude from the suits meant that, so long as they could do it quickly (cameras rolled less than four months before the film hit British cinemas), they could make just about whatever movie they wanted. And so they did, hiring quirky Richard Lester to direct and playwright Alun Owen to pen a script that wouldn’t ask the lads from Liverpool to do much in the way of acting; they would play fictionalized versions of themselves, riffing on their existing personas, in a “day in the life of the Beatles” narrative that Lester shot in cinéma vérité style (black and white, handheld, the works). In doing so, he gave the film a mobility and energy, but also the feel of a backstage pass; we’re along for the ride of being a Beatle, invited to an exclusive party with four cheeky, charming rock stars.