Music can define a picture, but soundtracks seem to matter a little more when the picture is about a musician. We tend to listen a little closer, whether to match the sound or take in the beauty of a well-tuned melody. And there are plenty of musicians that have been given the star treatment on the big screen where the talent truly translates. Here are 10 of the best movies about musicians.
Walk the Line
The first one to highlight is none other than the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. He had a voice that lingered long after the song has finished and there was indeed something more behind those lyrics. Walk the Line reveals the rocky road to stardom that Cash pursued, brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix who fits the profile well. Accompanied with an equally strong performance by Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, the James Mangold-directed picture perfectly stages Cash’s many appearances, the descent into drugs, and his desire to show up his old man that blamed him for the death of his brother.
Another movie that spotlights a late great musician of our time similar to Walk the Line is Ray. Jamie Foxx is at his finest when portraying famed music icon Ray Charles. It’s not an easy feat as the blind talent with his certain ticks could quickly turn into parody, but Foxx nails the role quite well. The film by Taylor Hackford does an ample job at detailing Charles’ extroverted nature and life of doubt that leads to him becoming a face for soul music, spanning from the 1960s all the way up to his 2004 death. It’s a movie that does well by the exuberant performer without shying away from his harsher and darker struggles.
Ritchie Valens quickly became a notable name of the music in the late 1950s but, as with most musicians, there were darker days ahead of him. It was tough enough that he struggled as a Latino to date a girl with disapproving parents, but it’s even tougher to handle a jealous brother and the unshakable feeling that your demise is soon on the horizon. Even with its premonition of his death that may seem a tad bit in poor taste, the story holds up for being well-rounded with Ritchie’s life, and Lou Diamond Phillips does the role justice.
Let’s Get Lost
Before famed jazz artist Chet Baker left this world before the completion of the documentary, Let’s Get Lost but there’s enough present here for one heck of a send-off. The film is equal parts background on Baker’s sordid history and following him around as he visits the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring plenty of interviews, archival photos, and raw footage of his interactions with others, Let’s Get Lost lets the audience enjoy Baker’s presence and appreciate his life, right up until the unfortunate end.
Mozart comes alive in this irresistible musical by director Milos Forman. Tom Hulce plays the famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an exuberant genius who knows it, and F. Murray Abraham fittingly plays his jealous colleague Antonio Salieri. For portraying Mozart as more of a rock star, it’s easy to get caught up in this tale with the most infatuating of melodies, theatrics, drinking, and giggling.
Love & Mercy
Brian Wilson was best known for being a co-founder of The Beach Boys but not so much for his later career choices. Love & Mercy portrays his slipping grasp on reality with crippling mental illness, his problem with drugs, and being ousted by his band. This eventually leads to him meeting the lovely Melinda who he would eventually marry. Equal parts a story of Brian and Melinda, its an honest film of sadness and tenderness, given the thumbs up from Brian Wilson himself.
Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross delivers a magnificent performance in the role of Billie Holiday in this stirring biopic on the jazz singer. She was a controversial choice for the role of Holiday, but she proved most she was worthy with her incredible voice on the familiar songs, leading up to her grand performance at Carnegie Hall. Not only was Ross’ performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination but the film also boasted a stellar cast with the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and Scatman Crothers.
Jazz pianist Joe Albany is the subject of Low Down, but his story of drugs and music is told from the perspective of his daughter, Amy-Jo. Based on Amy-Jo’s memoirs, Low Down reveals the Joe of the 1970s that is a mess of addiction around others but loving towards his daughter. It’s a somber and cathartic perspective of Joe’s life, having once worked alongside the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis only to fall prey to seriously hard drugs. Where others saw a musician falling down the same pit of downfalls, Amy-Jo saw her dad with a few faults in between being a good person.
Sid and Nancy
Sid and Nancy exists as both an intoxicating examination of the punk band Sex Pistols and a showcase for the acting potential of a young Gary Oldman. Oldman plays the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, a troubled man pursuing a relationship with the equally anxious Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). This is a loud and energetic picture that is perhaps the most orthodox of love stories. Well, unless you’re used to romances that involve lots of drugs, depression, suicide pacts, and rock and roll.
Straight Outta Compton
The tale of the NWA rap group is one of frustration and fury. Raised in areas where they grew to despise the cops, they burst into the genre of gangster rap with a fiery bluntness. After being profiled and restrained by cops, they promptly record their most notable song, “F**k the Police.” Straight Outta Compton does an ample job at showcasing the messy career of the group, along with some fantastic performances from a fantastic cast. The most interesting of the lot is O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of Ice Cube, playing his father for this picture.
Corinne Murphy writes regularly about movie trends and obscure stats for movie recommendation site – Taste.