But first, a tangent:
For the first twenty-seven years of my life, I was very confident that the word was pronounced “bi-opic.” This was no doesn’t understand the silent “rce” in Worcester, situation, I was just out here throwing a surprise hyphen a letter early in a word that was very obviously two well-known abbreviated words mashed together.
For whatever reason, no one called this into question until one ill-fated day, while listening to a podcast on a drive with my now-fiance, I made a joke about how stupid the host sounded mispronouncing such a simple word incorrectly, overemphasizing “BIO-pic” for misguided comedic effect. Her correction of my multiple-decade-spanning error was as gentle as it was eviscerating. Her willingness to marry me in spite of this remains one of my life’s great mysteries.
Did this embarrassment ultimately bias me against the biopic art form writ large? I don’t think so. Did it seem like a good enough justification to remove a bunch of contenders from the Best Movies About Music list and make it more interesting? Sure!
And thus we arrive at Nate’s Top Five Non-Biopic Movies About Music.
A few criteria that rose to the top while putting this list together:
Does this movie feel like an honest representation of some aspect of musical life/musical performance/musical consumption/musical obsession?
Does this movie capture the emotional connection to/experience of music?
Does this movie include good music?
If this movie includes musical performance, is the musical performance believable?
Is this movie good?
The result is a list that is as subjective in reality as it is irrefutably etched in stone in my heart (at least until I regret it immediately after print and frantically hack back into the MM&H site to revise post-publishing). So without further ado:
5. Mo’ Better Blues – dir. Spike Lee (1990)
An undersung classic, both in the Spike Lee filmography and the movies-about-music cannon. While not an optimistic film in its analysis of music (or love), it’s one that leaves room for growth, understanding both the ways we can tether ourselves so tightly to something that defines us and the ways we can still survive once we’ve lost it.
Lee’s marriage of light and sound is as always astonishing, though perhaps here more than any film not named Do The Right Thing. There is a luminescence to every scene, drenching New York in perpetual stage light. The gorgeous soundtrack by Brandford Marsalis and Lee’s soon-to-be-perennial collaborator Terence Blanchard is ever-present, except when supplanted by a Coltrane or Davis classic.
While a later entrant on this list similarly captures the tumultuous, multi-headed hydra that is intra-band dynamics, Mo’ Better Blues grounds it in the more relatable working-musician-on-the-NY-club-scene (Denzel’s unrealistically massive loft apartment aside). The green room banter amongst the quintet (extra love to everyone’s favorite Gus Fring on the keys) nails the frantic oscillation from vitriol to humor in a distressingly accurate fashion.
Propelled by the brilliance of Denzel’s performance as Bleek Gilliam and the charisma of his foil Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes), and complete with some of the more convincingly staged performances by non-musicians (less one truly bizarre, badly aging, semi-anti-hip-hop pseudo-beat-poem halfway through the film), Mo’ Better Blues is a must-watch and essential member of the Top 5 Non-Biopic Movies About Music.
4. High Fidelity – dir. Stephen Frears (2000)
When I was younger, I watched High Fidelity mistaking it for a celebration: I loved lists, I loved music, I loved having my heart broken; this was the film for me! Numerous therapy sessions later, and now I love High Fidelity for the movie it actually is: an honest portrayal of both the joy and the toxicity of obsession.
Cusack’s performance is peak Cusack (and speaking of peak Cusack, shouts to big sister Joan and her characteristically scene-stealing work here); Lisa Bonets’s Marie de Salle is cool personified. I am never not laughing while Jack Black is on screen. And though the Barry Jive and the Uptown 5 “Let’s Get It On” performance is an all-time moment, the needle-drop that really seals it is Rob cranking the stereo on “I Believe When I Fall In Love” to take us into the credits. Number One with a bullet on Nate’s Top 5 Music Movie about Non-Musicians.
3. Coco – dir Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (2017)
I will tell you this: I was not expecting Pixar’s first true foray into the musical world to center its plot twist on the nuances of songwriter splits. And yet, in quintessential Pixar fashion, this is the wire-walk of Coco: a dance between celebrating the pure, generationally-transcendent power of music, and acknowledging the trauma of a musical life derailed by everything from creative partnership squabbles (murderous or otherwise), to familial obligation, to parental or societal repression, up to and beyond the boundaries of mortality.
Visually, it’s an astonishing film, featuring easily the best animated depiction of a stringed instrument (though shouts to Kubo, especially on the degree-of-difficulty front). The soundtrack is nothing but bangers front to back, but Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez deserve extra praise for writing their way out of the oft-ill-fated script calls for the greatest song of all time conundrum and giving us “Remember Me,” a song that has made me cry each of the sixteen times I have watched this movie. A true all-timer.
2. Almost Famous – dir. Cameron Crowe (2000)
The longest relationship I’ve had with a film on this list. Unlike most others included, Almost Famous offers us access to the musical world from a myriad of angles at once—the young obsessive, the critic, the insider, the jaded star—each afforded a depth beyond the boundaries of their archetype. Francis McDormand and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are fireworks in small containers. Kate Hudson is inescapable gravity. Fever Dog absolutely slaps. Billy Crudup at his hottest. The “Tiny Dancer” scene (played though it may be). “One day — you’ll be cool.” “I’m on drugs!!!!”
It is impossible to untether these moments from the misrepresentation of Patrick Fuget’s nonconsensual kiss with an overdosing Penny Lane as a romantic moment—a deeply upsetting stain at the center of the narrative, which demands a reexamination of both director Crowe’s intentions, and of our own interpretations of their relationship. And even so, no other film makes you feel so completely a part of its family, Stillwater-esque, opening space for “The Enemy” to join the pre-show huddle.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis – dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (2013)
There are aspirational movies about music, and there are tragic movies about music, but no other film I’ve seen manages to so perfectly capture the in-between: that cyclical monotony of gig-into-session-into-gig; of contorting every piece of yourself just to get into position for a big break, to have that big break come, and to walk away with only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
Inside Llewyn Davis would be a desolate film were it not for the care that the Coen Brothers (and Oscar Isaac’s genuinely startling performance) give to their titular character, allowing them to display the droning heartbreak of his musical career without undermining the joy that keeps him returning to it. Elevated even further (as if it needs to be) by three of the best “actor actually performing the songs” scenes committed to film, and one of the funniest (give Adam Driver his Oscar already). It’s a magic trick of a movie, and as such, is well-deserving of the number one slot on Nate’s Top 5 Non-Biopic Movies About Music list.
A Few B-Sides:
Josie and the Pussycats – dir. Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont (2001): Quite possibly the most scathing critique of the late 90s/early 2000s pop music industry, and featuring four of the best “written for the movie” tracks of the past thirty years at least.
Purple Rain – dir. Albert Magnoli (1984): Captures all the best nonsensical melodrama of the Purple Ones’ apex era (‘79-’87, or Prince – Sign o’ the Times for those keeping track), and at least four of the best on-screen musical performances outside a concert film. It is a horrifically casual scene of domestic violence away from making the top-5 cut.
A Goofy Movie – dir. Kevin Lima (1995): “Eye 2 Eye” is a top-5 Disney song, absolutely don’t @ me.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – dir. Edgar Wright (2010): A phenomenal soundtrack and some truly wonderful band practice bits, but will always feel like more of a comic book movie to me, which leaves it just off the list.
The Wackness – dir. Jonathan Levine (2008): a classic “white kid in 90s era New York bonds with the therapist he deals drugs to about love and hip-hop” film, featuring some truly bananas acting from Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck.
Once – dir. John Carney (2007): More of a nostalgia pick than anything else, can imagine it rising or falling on a rewatch. Might go do that now.
To check out an even more extensive list of Non-Biopic Movies About Music, swing by Nate’s Letterboxd. You can yell at him in the comments section there.