The 15 Best Movies About Music

Read our list of the best narrative films and documentaries about music

best music movies

Universal Pictures/A24/StudioCanal

Music almost always plays a role in the movies that hit us in the gut or earn a lasting spot in our hearts. Sometimes, the role of music is in the foreground – think Scorcese’s use of The Rolling Stones or Pulp Fiction’s revival of surf rock. In other films, you may not even notice when a score or soundtrack activates a scene and imbues the paintings on screen with emotion. Then, there are the films that truly embody the spirit of music – those are the films we’ll be looking at in today’s list of the best music movies.

Our best music movies list focuses on feature-length narrative films and documentaries. Music’s best concert films (Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz, et al) surely deserve their own separate list.

The following list of the best music movies were chosen for their cultural significance, impact on the viewer, and their effectiveness in bringing musical subjects to life onscreen.

Best Music Movies #15: Pump Up the Volume      

(1990, directed by Allan Moyle)

By day, Christian Slater is a suburban Arizona kid who becomes a basement talk-show host when the lights go out. His nightly show pirates the local radio waves, sounds like Lennie Bruce and blasts Beastie Boys, Descendents, and I’m Your Man-era Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ both pulls down the shades and puts the spotlight on Slater’s Dr. Jekyll / Mr.Hyde DJ, whose show attracts the poetic Samantha Mathis and empathizes with the students of his school. The soundtrack is deep, with the ‘Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)’ mix by the Pixies, and ‘Love Comes in Spurts’ by Richard Hell and the Voidoids balancing the drama and the dark humor.

14: High Fidelity

(2000, directed by Stephen Frears)

music movies

Touchstone Pictures

High Fidelity is an investigation of the way that music fandom penetrates our everyday lives – especially our love lives. John Cusack stars as music snob Rob Gordon, who knows as much about heartbreak as he knows about obscure British pop bands. Gordon uses music to navigate his own consciousness and romantic history; Bruce Springsteen himself even makes a cameo in one of Gordon’s inner monologues.

13: Pink Floyd – The Wall

(1982, directed by Alan Parker)

Fantasia set the bar high for psychedelic animation, but Mickey’s magical dancing brooms have an iconic equal in The Wall’s marching hammers. Boomtown Rat and Live Aid founder Bob Geldof stars as Pink, an amalgam of thin English rockers, who lives the album written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Through live action and animation, demolition and decay, The Wall loiters on cold visuals that let the songs sink all the way in. ‘Is There Anybody Out There’ makes your skin crawl, while World War II looms in smokey ruins and Pink’s authoritarian dreams. Among all the creepiness, disaffected schoolchildren steal the show as Roger Waters shouts, “Hey, Teacher, leave those kids alone.”

12. 24 Hour Party People   

(2002, directed by Michael Winterbottom)

In 24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan is high entertainment as television host and Factory Records head Tony Wilson. Wilson guides the careers of poetic singers and steers the Manchester punk scene into music history. 24 Hour Party People follows Joy Division’s Ian Curtis (played by Sean Harris) and the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder (played by Danny Cunningham) on tours and onto studio rooftops as Wilson overflows with advice and meets every demand. The film celebrates the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks; even the Fall’s Mark E. Smith drops in for a line. Coogan’s Wilson helps you the live the whole thing with a wink and examines the changes in style without nostalgia; the film points out that raves were influential in eliminating the band and celebrating the DJ. Wilson is no luddite. But his love of all art, especially music, defines 24 Hour Party People.

11. La Bamba

(1987, directed by Luis Valdez)

La Bamba is the story of the legendary Ritchie Valens and his half-brother Bob, played by Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, respectively. Ritchie was a phenom, the real deal as a guitar player and songwriter, a 17-year old kid who died a half-year into his career. You know the ending: the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens were in the air over Iowa for five minutes before tragedy struck. But while the crash looms, the life of the rock and roll kid is electric and plays to all of the superb Valens hits, from ‘Come On Let’s Go’ to ‘Donna’. The ending of La Bamba could move a mountain.

10. Dig!   

(2004, directed by Ondi Timoner)

Dig! portrays the love/hate rivalry between two bands of psych-revivalists: The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. Ondi Timoner’s fly-on-the-wall look at the two bands and their intertwined careers won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Dig! is a time capsule of the major label music industry before its fall, and it’s also an intimate examination of the fine line between creative genius and madness (particularly in relation to BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe). The film overflows with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.

One of the stars of Dig! is The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s endlessly amusing tambourine player Joel Gion; hear Joel on the Culture Creature podcast.

9. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

(2015, directed by Brett Morgen)

best music movies

HBO Documentary Films

There are many films about Nirvana (About A Son, Last Days, that ‘classic albums’ Nevermind documentary), but Montage of Heck might be the best. Kurt Cobain’s spirit is brought to life onscreen with creative use of the frontman’s artwork, lyrics and creative detritus. Cobain’s personal audio recordings are the icing on the cake of this portrait of the artist as a young man.

8. Almost Famous

(2000, directed by Cameron Crowe)

Almost Famous is based on writer & director Cameron Crowe’s real-life experiences writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager. As a young writer, Crowe interviewed hard-partying legends like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Almost Famous distills those bands into the fictional band Stillwater, and the film also includes portrayals of real-life legends like Lester Bangs (played by the inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman). This coming-of-age-via-rock-n-roll story must be seen to be believed.

After you’re done watching Almost Famous, hear Cameron Crowe describe his Rolling Stone experiences on the Culture Creature podcast.

7. School of Rock

(2003, directed by Richard Linklater)

School of Rock is music appreciation 101. Jack Black makes a star turn as everyone’s favorite substitute teacher, the enthusiastic rocker Dewey Finn. After his band blows it, Dewey infiltrates a prep school and is shocked to find a bevy of bored kids. So, they rock. The love for music is infectious as the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the Ramones, the Clash, Black Sabbath, and T. Rex light up the soundtrack. School of Rock is truly a love letter to rock and roll, which makes it an easy contender for any list of the best music movies.

6. Straight Outta Compton 

(2015, directed by F. Gary Gray)

music movies

Universal Pictures

Prior to Straight Outta Compton, the closest thing to N.W.A. on film was Chris Rock’s hysterical CB4. Rock’s film spoofed Compton hip hop and the way its emergence scared the fuck out of America. In 2015, director F. Gary Gray brought us the real story of N.W.A. – or something close to it.

The performances in Straight Outta Compton (namely those by O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E) avoid the pitfalls of the overly sentimental biopic genre, which make this film one of the best music movies in recent years. Helicopters and sirens remind the audience of the characters’ stakes, and when N.W.A. record ‘Fuck Tha Police,’ the scene is immensely potent. The appearance of the song ‘Straight Outta Compton’ sells it best and tells it all: N.W.A. had cutting edge drum sounds and 808 bass, funk production from Dr. Dre, and lyrics and anthems that sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before in your whole fucking life.

5. Purple Rain

(1984, directed by Albert Magnoli)

best music movies

Everett Collection

This seminal musical drama is the ultimate showcase of the talent and charisma of the Purple One. Prince made his acting debut in the semi-autobiographical role of ‘The Kid’ and set a high-water mark for rock movies. Not only is Purple Rain a timeless work from one of pop culture’s most beloved icons, it’s essential watching for any lover of music movies.

4. Whiplash

(2014, directed by Damien Chazelle)

not my tempo

Sony Pictures Classics

Expert character actor J.K. Simmons turns super villain and torments a young jazz drummer in the riveting drama Whiplash. Simmons is ruthless as jazz teacher Terence Fletcher. His “not my tempo” remark is as brutally cold as Javier Bardem’s “friendo” in No Country for Old Men. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, the coolness of jazz becomes bloodsport in Whiplash‘s big band competition. Miles Teller plays the film’s young protagonist, who punches through snaredrums as the tension builds until it breaks.

3. This Is Spinal Tap 

(1984, directed by Rob Reiner)

Spinal Tap are Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. The comedic trio are the real deal: they wrote the lyrics, played the riffs, and acted their way into film history. This cult favorite mockumentary launched instant-classic quotes like “These amps go to 11,” making it #3 on our best music movies countdown.

Eric Idle of Monty Python laid the groundwork for Spinal Tap with The Rutles, a film about a fake Beatles group he’d developed which has the structure of a documentary. Spinal Tap was introduced on Saturday Night Live and This Is Spinal Tap is also told as a doc, but the effect is more universal than a parody of one band. Spinal Tap viewers consistently find ways to see themselves in the band’s hilarious mishaps – like being second-billed to a puppet show or getting lost in a tunnel under a venue. Rarely has the aim of satire connected with such a thrilling bullseye.

2. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

(1988, directed by Penelope Spheeris)

Penelope Spheeris’ portrayal of the Los Angeles metal scene is nothing short of wildly entertaining. This documentary includes interviews with legendary artists (Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmeister), bands whose dreams of success never came to fruition (Odin, anyone?), and everything in between. Spheeris is a fearless interviewer; she deflates the scene’s pervasive machismo in one stunning moment when she asks Paul Stanley of KISS blunt questions about the highly staged harem of women that surround him during his interview. The film includes several genuinely shocking moments, such as W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holme’s drunken confessions of alcoholism, delivered in front of his mother. This astounding documentary is easily one of the best music movies ever made. It was only available on bootleg until recent years, which means it’s also one of the most under-seen and underrated.

1. Amy

(2015, directed by Asif Kapadia)

best music movies

Photo by Fionn Kidney

Amy Winehouse’s vocal prowess and singular style were unmatched in her lifetime. Amy is both a showcase of her raw talent and a document of her public descent into the depths of drug abuse. This film pulls off an almost impossible feat: it tells both sides of the iconic vocalist’s story – the triumph and the tragedy – with equal does of candor and empathy.

The film is full of candid footage of the six-time Grammy-winner, interviews with friends and producers, and previously unseen performance footage. The many strengths of Amy won this film the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Truth be told, it’s one of the most moving films in any genre.

Listen to the best
podcast in music.

Subscribe to the Culture Creature podcast:
Apple Podcasts | Android | Stitcher | RSS