Top Five Films About Music

The thing about doing a “top five” review of any pop-culture genre is that it easily can turn into frustrating, time-sucking exercise that absolutely none of my 12 readers will agree with me about.

I know from experience.  Way back in April of 2014, I did a piece on the top five television detectives.  It took five full days of writing and research and ended up being 4,000 words long.  You can find it here, if you are a fan of detective shows.

Nonetheless, I’ve discussed before how much I like the sub-genre of films that are about music, musicians, or the music industry.  I’m not sure why it touches such a nerve for me. I think it is because I view a love for music as such a universally unifying force. When a film that portrays that well, and throws in a great concert scene where the band or the performer connects in some kind of magical musical moment, it takes me back to when I’ve been in such a crowd.  Those are some of the happiest moments that I can think of.

So when I first discussed this topic with my wife, she asked the question I was avoiding:  What criteria are you going to use?  I wanted my criteria to be just two things

1.  I’ve seen the film

2.   I liked the film

But given the list of 20+ nominations that came in when I opened the topic up to my Facebook friends, I knew I’d need something to winnow down the list.  What I decided I was looking for were the films that both captured the raw passion of a love for music and managed to keep music as the main focus of the film.

The more I thought about it, virtually every good music film is a hybrid of some sort. A pure “focus on the music” is pretty rare.  But, I said I’d pick five.  Here they are:

#5–Searching for Sugar Man

This documentary almost fell of my list just because the first half leans heavily on making it a mystery film.  However, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an artist known almost entirely by his surname, is so remarkable that it bears a careful look.The 2012 film, written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, recounts the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican rock singer and composer who played in small clubs in his native Detroit and impressed a record studio enough to release his first album (Cold Fact) in 1970 and his second (Coming From Reality) in 1971.  Despite the enthusiasm of the men who had discovered and cultivated Rodriguez, the albums went nowhere.  His Dylan-like style and dedication to social justice, his anthems that spoke for the working poor, died on the vine.  He went back to a simple life of doing construction demolition to make ends meet at the same time that lurid stories began to circulate that he had gruesomely killed himself during a concert performance.  He simply drifted into obscurity.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the search performed by two fans from South Africa where, unknown to Rodriguez, he had become wildly popular by the mid-90’s.  His music of rebellion against social norms resonated deeply with the oppressed people of the region.  Even though he was virtually unknown in the US or in his own hometown, he had become “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.  The film unravels this discovery slowly (perhaps too slowly) and documents Rodriguez traveling to South Africa in 1998, stunned by the greeting from adoring crowds at six sold-out shows.

I chose this film because it proves that music, like The Dude, endures.  HIs songs of protest and change caught fire in a country where they were banned and where apartheid was used to oppress the masses.  The masses heard his voice and brought his music back to life.

#4–Love and Mercy

There were a number of fine bio-pics (“Ray,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” come to mind) to chose from, but the Bill Pohlad film was the one that stuck with me. Before I saw the film I considered the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be nothing but fun-loving, pop music that was the background of my adolescence even though I never drove a “woody” or spent anytime close to a surf board (regretfully).  Nothing wrong with that.

Wilson’s story weaves back and forth between the young Wilson (Paul Dano) and his older self (John Cusak).  The adult story line is compelling enough, as Cusak’s character tries to escape the smothering presence of his uber-manipulative agent and keeper (played creepily by Paul Giamatti), but far less interesting than the parallel story of the younger Wilson.

The core of the movie develops as Pohlad unfolds the musical brilliance that was behind all of that fluff.  The story he tells is of a young genius, who eschews the limelight of performance and touring to spend hour after hour working with studio musicians creating the sound of the Beach Boys.  In one such scene, Wilson passes out a single sheet of music to his crew who all go to work trying to interpret it while he bounces from the drums, to the cello, to the keyboards, coaching them along, assembling bits of music that are mostly in his head, and improvising on the fly.  The viewer has no chance to figure out what song is being assembled until the scene builds to the addition of the vocals and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” emerges, sounding like an entirely different song than the one I grew up with after witnessing it’s construction and Wilson’s incredible creative process.

The film builds around scenes like these, and I wish there were more of them.  There are enough though to paint the picture of how a person with a creative vision can pull together all the disparate pieces needed to create beautiful music.

#3–Once

One critic described Once (2007) as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.”  I have to admit, I never thought of it as a musical, but director John Carney describes it that way, so I’ll have to take him at his word.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of a guy and a girl (they are never named–something else I never noticed) who come together as musicians and almost (but not quite) as lovers.

The guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician and songwriter, and we are immersed in his songs and his dedication to music from the opening scene as he stands out on gritty Dublin streets singing for donations.  He meets the girl (Marketa Iglova) who stops to comment on his songs and toss a coin into his guitar case.  They chat and it turns out that she too is a musician, a pianist.  It only takes the film 14.5 minutes to get the two of them into a music store where she is allowed to play piano during the owner’s lunch break.

In this scene we get one of those moments of “musical magic” that is pure fantasy.  They decide to play one of this songs together.  After a 20-second tutorial, the pair seamlessly, without a single misstep or mistake, soar through Hansard’s lovely “Falling Slowly” a rendition so good that they will eventually win the 2008 Oscar Award for Best Original Song for it.

Yes, it is musical fantasy, but the gorgeous kind that gives me chills when the music is that good.  The guy and the girl are now “falling slowly” in love, not yet aware of the obstacles that will end up keeping them apart.  But they begin an unlikely collaboration as she shares some of her original work with him, and he asks her to begin to write lyrics for some of his work.  Their work with lyrics allows them to express their feelings about love and loss in ways that they just can’t through words alone.

The guy’s songs lament his lost love a former girlfriend who has left him and gone to London and bend between anger and longing and regret.  We learn later that the girl has left a husband behind in the Czech Republic and her songs are full of haunting lyrics that evoke loneliness and alienation.

We get a generous dose of music throughout, but it culminates in a weekend session in a recording studio with the guy and the girl and three other street musicians that they’ve talked into playing with them. The goal is to produce a demo disc that the guy can use to launch his career in London where he hopes he might win back the love he has lost.  The more they play, the better they get, and soon they’ve made a believer out of the bored studio tech as they push through the marathon recording session.

Once tells the best kind of love story, the bittersweet kind in which two lovers find each other in the wrong time and place. However, it never loses its focus on the music and the camaraderie that it brings, and the hope that it inspires.

#2–Almost Famous

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”  Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Here’s the dilemma about writing a piece like this.  I want the focus to be “films on music” where some element of music is really the driver of the film.  For example, Walk the Line is a fine film about an iconic musician, but isn’t it mostly a story of enduring love and the struggles with addiction and recovery?  Same with A Star is Born, a film I absolutely loved (for the first hour and ten minutes).  See what I mean?  Every story is a hybrid.

Almost Famous could be filed away under “coming-of-age story” where the real focus, reflected in the quote above, is on our never-ending desire to fit in.  However, watching it again and reading up on it, made me feel very comfortable having it on the list, and under the sure-handed writing and direction of Cameron Crowe, it makes its way to the number two spot.

Set in 1973, fifteen-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by a mom (Frances McDormand) who has tried to insulate her children from the corrosive effects of pop culture, especially its music.  She catches her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) smuggling a Simon and Garfunkel album into the house, which she declares is “the music of drugs and promiscuous sex.”  The scene prompts Anita to run off with her Ken-doll boyfriend but not before leaving a box of albums behind for William.  As he flips through his new collection of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell he opens a familiar looking Who album where she has left him directions on a post-it: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your whole future.”

The film is held together by the quest for “cool.”  Anita’s gift is supposed to reassure him that some day he will be cool, but it is his dedication to rock and roll, and his rock reviews for a local underground newspaper that launch his career into the coolest adventure a fifteen-year-old could imagine–getting invited to join the tour of the mythical band Stillwater as they bounce from city to city on an old bus–getting to be “with the band.” He strives throughout the film to get his critical interview with lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), as he sits behind the scenes watching the tensions grow in this, “mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  One minute he is a trusted friend; the next he becomes “the enemy”–the keeper of all of their secrets.

Ironically, the band in this film is not portrayed as particularly dedicated to their music, seeming much more concerned with status, fame, and being allowed to live a life of excess.  But for William and all of the other band followers including the “band-aids” (don’t call them groupies) lead by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the love of the band and the love of their music and the experience of each concert is something that they have come to live for, a drug more important than any of the drugs that get passed around at the never-ending parties.  Sapphire, one of the “band-aids” sums up passion that draws them into this life when she says, “They don’t even know what it means to be a fan.  Y’Know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band, so much that it hurts.”

Even through betrayals and reversals and the initial rejection of his article by Rolling Stone magazine, William persists and finally returns home.  In their unexpected reunion near the end of the film, William finally corners Russell for this interview.  The first question:  “So Russell…what do you love about music.”  And the guitarist finally answers, “To begin with…everything.”

Cameron Crowe has a lot of stories to tell in this one semi-autobiographical film, but his affection for rock-and-roll creates the core around which this film is built.

#1–The Commitments

This 1991 film directed by Alan Parker just barely broke even at the box office, but has gathered something of a cult following and produced an absolutely killer soundtrack.  It is the story of music fanatic/entrepreneur, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), who develops a passionate love for American soul music while living on the rough-edged north side of Dublin, Ireland.

Jimmy is living his dream of assembling a band that will bring soul music to Ireland.  Along the way, he has to do a lot of convincing, to both his musicians and his audiences that there is a reason that this music is something that will connect with the people of Dublin.  Once he has the core of the band collected, he lectures the group enthusiastically, telling them that, Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

Predictably, the group begins with many squabbles and stumbles as they try to master a musical style that none of them have grown up with.  Rabbitte tries to build the bridge between their experience and the music during one session when he tells them, The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin … so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!”

The band gets better as the crowds become larger and increasingly enthusiastic.  Before long, they are belting out the music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Marvelettes with passion and sophistication.  It appears as though Jimmy was right all along–American soul is the perfect expression of the north Dublin working man.

The character of Jimmy Rabbitte’s unwavering belief in the magic of soul music and his devotion to the goal of bringing it to the consciousness of the Irish working man imbues this film with a joyfulness that is untarnished by all of the chaos that comes with trying to  manage an unruly and undisciplined group of musicians.  Watching them catch fire as a group and wow their audiences in the latter part of the film, makes every minute worth watching.  It may well be the best film about music that you have not yet seen.

Ok, that’s it.  That’s MY list.  Which of your favorite films about music did I miss?  Lay it on me!

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