Playing It by Ear: 15 Movies That Celebrate Music

There is a difference between music fans and musical fans, just as there are differences between musicals and movies about music. The latter category unites two great art forms in theme. Whether it’s a biopic, documentary movie, or tribute to music’s captivating effect on us, there are some magical music-inspired films to enjoy.

1. Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus (1984)
Image Credit: Orion Pictures.

The well-known ’80s movie Amadeus features a youthful Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the virtuoso composer, and his relationship with the mediocre contemporary Antonio Salieri. Everything about the film works from the amazing soundtrack and music editing, Tom Hulce’s infectious laugh, and an irresistible F. Murray Abraham, who plays the jealous Salieri.

2. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

Metallica_ Some Kind of Monster
Image Credit: IFC Films.

Metal fans from the ’90s will have most likely seen this film, which is set in the post-Black Album Metallica era. It’s 2001, and the band (thanks to Lars Ulrich) is in the midst of a lawsuit against the music file-sharing website Napster. With bandmates struggling to find their new identity and the ghost of departed bass player Jason Newsted haunts them, it is a compelling watch.

3. Marley (2012)

Marley (2012)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

While there is much furor over the new Bob Marley: One Love biopic movie making its mark, one must refer to the documentary Marley to get a more detailed understanding. The award-winning documentary charts his early life in Jamaica, his rise in the music industry, his political advocacy, and his demise from cancer at a young age. If anything, one should watch this movie for the soundtrack.

4. A Star is Born (2018)

Lady Gaga A Star is Born (2018)
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper dazzle in this remake of the 1976 movie starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. One could argue it has elements of Romeo and Juliet: two incompatible souls lost in a vortex, unable to truly be together. However, Variety says the movie captures the essence of a male-dominated culture on its way out. Regardless, this is a movie about music’s darker side we all need to see.

5. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis
Image Credit: CBS Films.

The Coen Brothers’ first journey into music territory gives us a front-row seat to an exploration of the ’60s Greenwich Village folk guitar scene. We follow the exploits of fictional crooner Llewyn Davis, played by a young Oscar Isaac (surely a rock star in the making — what happened to his music career?), a downtrodden, talented musician attempting to make his way in an eccentric counterculture.

6. The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist (2002)
Image Credit: BAC Films.

Roman Polanski won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist in 2003, beating out Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, among other heavyweights. Polanski’s questionable past aside, the film’s delicate treatment of a Jewish pianist in World War II Poland will bring tears to anyone’s eyes, not just for its horrific context but for the demonstration of music’s power on display.

7.  Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014)
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

To put it simply, if you love music and you haven’t seen Whiplash yet, what the heck are you doing with your life? The film won several Oscars for its fast-paced, ruthless, high-octane narrative and realism. Acting buffs can study J.K. Simmons’ greatest acting performance for years; however, the real winner in Whiplash is the music — perhaps the film’s real protagonist.

8. Once (2007)

Once (2007)
Image Credit: Buena Vista International.

Once is technically a musical, but one might call it a musical for musicians. The movie’s premise is that a down-on-his-luck vacuum repair technician reels from romantic heartbreak as he attempts to kickstart a musical career and meets a humble yet talented Czech musician who helps mend his broken heart, boosting his musical confidence. Shot in and around Dublin, Ireland, Once heralds music as a uniting, lifesaving force; moreover, the soundtrack is out of this world.

9. Wayne’s World (1992)

Wayne's World (1992)
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Who didn’t love Mike Myers’ breakthrough movie, Wayne’s World? He and Dana Carvey may have owned the early ’90s with their tribute to rock music and modern living. Two best friends who run a public-access rock music TV show from their basement face many existential hurdles when a major studio picks up their show. “We’re not worthy!”

10. Elvis (2022)

Elvis (2022)
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Baz Lurhmann doesn’t do simple things — his films need to expand from usual premises, characterization, and narrative methods, capturing the human condition in all its joy or despair. Elvis is a biopic like no other. If anything, one must see the movie for the scene involving a young Elvis stumbling upon a gospel church service, making the connection between modern and spiritual music that would define his sound, launching him as the most famous singer of his generation.

11. School of Rock (2003)

School of Rock (2003)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

When it came out in the early millennium, School of Rock was a runaway success; those who missed it must see it, especially with young kids. If there is an actor designed to appear in music-based cinema, it’s Jack Black. He plays a failed musician who tricks his way into teaching a private school class, which he fashions into a kiddie rock band ready for entry into a local battle of the bands night. If you love rock music, School of Rock hits all the right notes.

12. Across the Universe (2007)

Across the Universe (2007)
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Okay, Across The Universe is a musical but one with a difference: the film is a testament to the ’60s zeitgeist and a love letter to The Beatles. Following the exploits of a young artist trying to make his way through a ’60s landscape of war, civil rights, and self-exploration, this intertextual movie uses Beatles’ songs to tell each story part. Viewers who balk at the idea of a musical will enjoy Across the Universe, while Beatles fans will adore it — think less glamor and more social realism with a Beatles soundscape backdrop.

13. Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight Outta Compton
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

N.W.A. was one of the most iconic hip-hop acts of the late ’80s and early ’90s, so a respectable biopic was always needed. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t disappoint, drawing a realistic picture of the band’s rise to stardom and media-instigated infamy. It didn’t help that the album’s graphic imagery and messaging turned a large part of youth culture against any sense of social progress. However, this movie puts a human face on an album a retrospective Pitchfork review says converted “half the nation into murderous psychopaths.”

14. This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Image Credit: Embassy Pictures.

Where would comedy be without this monumental rock music comedy? There is so much to love about This is Spinal Tap: the talented trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, the live performance set pieces, and the deadpan one-liners still quoted in mainstream vernacular. This Is Spinal Tap is a world-class film; moreover, Rob Reiner’s fly-on-the-wall, “mockumentary” style influenced much of the comedy that followed.

15. Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous
Image Credit: Columbia TriStar Film.

Cameron Crowe is a director with huge musical connections and it’s a common theme throughout several of his movies. His movies Singles, Pearl Jam Twenty, and Almost Famous each resonate with music fans in a different way. Almost Famous was inspired by Crowe’s experiences as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter in the ’70s. This fictional retelling includes real-life characters Crowe met along the way, as protagonist William Miller follows the fictional band Stillwater on their make-or-break American tour.

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


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