Music and the movies go hand-in-hand (or song in script). Since Victor Fleming's sweeping film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, cinema has been awash with melodic sound - from the pure musical, to films about music, to those that just happen to have catchy soundtracks.
The Wizard of Oz may well be the most recognizable early musical, but it was in fact The Jazz Singer (1927) released twelve years prior that introduced the audio track into cinema. In his book The Story of Film, Mark Cousins credits The Jazz Singer as being the film that ended silent cinema. Since then the genre has transformed and evolved, producing high and low notes along the way.
This list is comprised wholly of films released since the year 2000, and mainly of films about the music industry (there's only one that fits the classic definition of a musical). As such, other filmic aspects like robust characterization, engaging writing and credible acting have contributed to their success. They're all very good movies - one or two even being considered great - and they all boast enjoyable, interesting soundtracks.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Granted, this is a bit of a cheat. Best to get the 'iffy' selections out the way early. The Coen Brothers' (though only Joel has a director credit) first post-Millennial outing has a lot more in common with comedy than it does music, but its accompanying folk soundtrack did win a Grammy for 'Album of the Year.'
In the film, three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) find themselves on the run from the law while also chasing a mysterious hidden treasure. On their cantankerous travels the trio become inexplicably known as the Soggy Bottom Boys after recording surprise hit 'Man of Constant Sorrow' under pretense.
Though not actually sung by Clooney and Co - Dan Tyminski provided lead vocals - the song is funny and lyrically relevant, perfectly matching the film's mad brilliance as well as its dust-strewn Southern setting.
Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is undoubtedly one of the brightest films about music journalism to ever hit the silver screen. It struggled at the box office, unable to recoup its modest $60 million budget, but the piece was critically lauded upon release. In 2000, Roger Ebert called it his film of the year.
Perhaps most famous for its tour bus Elton John sing-along, this is also worth checking out to see a plethora of effective, varied performances. Patrick Fugit, in his first film role, stars as a budding journalist who gets the go-ahead from Rolling Stone to do a story on a rock band.
Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson are also key players in a film that Crowe hasn't bested in the decade and a half since. To be fair, he did set himself a pretty high bar.
School of Rock (2003)
Everybody's favorite eccentric musician-turned-actor, Jack Black, succinctly channels those eccentricities as Dewey Finn in School of Rock. Dewey, a struggling guitarist, pretends to be his roommate Ned in order to land a teaching job. He subsequently turns his class of children into a rock band and the rest is history.
This is a Richard Linklater film, which means it is bursting with heart and charm, in no small part due to Black's genuinely likable waster and the amiable performances of the numerous young actors playing his students. The soundtrack includes the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Ramones (whose "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down" propels a tremendous montage sequence).
Arguably, though, the most ear-catching moment is when the class play their energetic original track towards the end of the movie, eduction-adoring lyrics and all. That's what they go to school for.
Walk the Line (2005)
From the upbeat to the sombre. Walk the Line tells the story of Johnny Cash's rise through the ranks of country music during the mid-20th century. Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash - unsurprisingly with vigor and wholeheartedness - while Reese Witherspoon assumes the role of his real life lover June Carter. The latter received an Academy Award for 'Best Actress' in 2006, whereas the former had to make do with just a nomination.
If you're a Johnny Cash fan, chances are you've seen this one. It can be a tough watch, particularly as the talented singer-songwriter turns to substance abuse. But there are plenty of uplifting moments and director James Mangold helms with careful aplomb.
Of course many of Cash's early hits can be heard throughout the film, which is (just about) bookended neatly by a performance at Folsom State Prison.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Another film bearing a character who struggles with demons, in Crazy Heart Jeff Bridges gives one of his most accomplished performances to date. He plays Otis "Bad" Blake, a worn out country performer whose life is, at best, on the brink of tatters.
The Crazy Heart soundtrack is another T Bone Burnett production (the exceptionally talented man behind the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Bridges sings on the album, alongside Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall. Songs range from the buoyant "Fallin' & Flyin'" to Ryan Bingham's solemn "The Weary Kind."
Writer/director Scott Cooper showcases his talent from afar here, allowing the story to unfold without any spectacular tricks. The man who also directed 2013's Out of the Furnace is one to keep an eye on for the future.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The second Coen Brothers film to make an appearance and this time one with genuine musical roots. Inside Llewyn Davis criminally missed out at the Oscars in 2014, nomination-worthy more or less across the board: the screenplay is richly drawn, the acting is subtly exquisite, the soundtrack captures the folkish mood of 1961 New York wonderfully.
Oscar Isaac stars as the titular Llewyn Davis, a moody NYC acoustic singer whose life is bumpy with a career even bumpier. Narratively this has a lot in common with Crazy Heart, but the tone is colder with elements of dark comedy and melancholy.
The songs are universally excellent, many of which Isaac delivers via his woody tones. Justin Timberlake contributes to the goofy "Please Mr. Kennedy," a hilarious play on President Kennedy's involvement in the lunar climate of the time.
Sunshine on Leith (2013)
Adapted from a stage musical of the same name and packed full of Proclaimers songs, Sunshine on Leith is an audibly infectious 100 minutes. It's not the most dramatic film, nor even one brimming with originality - but it does have heart, much of which emanates from uplifting songs and cordial performances.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland the piece stars George MacKay as Davy. He and his mate Ally - these two are proper Scots - return to their home city having served time in the British Army. The contrast between two traditionally separate spheres of society (the tough soldier and the emotive singer) actually works well, injecting the characters with instant likability.
Inevitably Dexter Fletcher's film is all a bit too predictable, but what isn't as set in stone is how much enjoyment you get out of watching it.
Begin Again (2013)
A low-key indie hit (the film was made for around $8 million and ended up octupling that figure at the box office), Begin Again stars Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as a grassroots record producer and an unmotivated singer-songwriter respectively. Again set in New York City, apparently a hub for ailing musicians, this takes a very un-cynical view on people who stick to what they believe is right.
Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine is on hand as the dastardly boyfriend - his beard grows exponentially alongside our distaste towards him - but it's the relationship between Knightley and Ruffalo's characters that gives the film its allure.
The former Pirates of the Caribbean actor sings, and sings well, her songs imbued with disgruntled emotion and absorbing joy. As with many of the songs on this list, the centerpiece "Lost Stars" received an Academy Award nomination.
Whiplash could be a reference to the painful aftermath of Andrew's (Miles Teller) relentless drumming, or it could be the psychological effects of his teacher's unfiltered and unsolicited diatribes. It could also be how the viewer feels having spent just under two hours in the company of maniacal music honcho, Terence Fletcher.
Unlike each of the aforementioned cinematic outings, Damien Chazelle's film is devoid of actual singing. The music, a cacophony of brassy tones, becomes a character in and of itself. If drummer Andrew doesn't exhibit timing with pinpoint precision, Fletcher explodes (he's basically an R-rated Trunchbull). One awry beat? Cue a potential beating.
If not for the music, you should seek this out to see character actor J.K. Simmons give a career topping performance as the emotionally stringent music professor. You'll feel less tension on a piece of rope holding up a house.
Which music films drum to your beat?
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