The Best Music Movies Ever


I hated the soundtrack album, but I’m still vaguely excited to see Idlewild, which looks like it may be that rare case where the musicians’ star-vehicle movie is somehow less pretentious than the album that accompanies it. Andre was pretty good in Four Brothers, and Big Boi was pretty good in ATL; I’m curious to see how the two of them do when they’re basically forced to carry a movie by themselves. And I’m curious to see how the movie deals with the OutKast myth itself, still one of the most fascinating stories in pop music even if the music they’re making these days mostly blows. Both the movie and the album have gotten a ton of press over the past week, of course, and it’s got me wondering where Idlewild is going to fit in the canon of music-based movies.

Of course, Idlewild may not actually be a music-based movie, at least not by the definition I’m using for this list. I’ve decided to exclude movies like Nashville, films that use music scenes as a constant backdrop but aren’t really about music. I won’t know whether Idlewild is one of those movies until I actually see it. I’m also excluding musicals and straight-to-video rapper-vehicle DVDs and biopics of musicians, mostly because I don’t generally like any of those things; the only halfway decent rock-biopic I’ve seen is Ray, and even that one fell into the trap of painting its subject in ridiculously broad, saintly strokes and hammering in the obligatory subplot about addiction and recovery. So I’m pretty much limiting myself to concert films, documentaries, and narrative movies that use music not only as background but as the central engine of plot; they have to somehow be about music. So by that definition, 8 Mile would qualify as a music-movie and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ wouldn’t, though neither one is making this list since neither is especially good. And this should go without saying whenever I run one of these things, but this is entirely a personal list; I’m not claiming any sort of objective authority here, and you can always suggest more in the comments section.

1. Purple Rain. This is basically all you could possibly ask for from a music-movie. It’s a star vehicle, of course, and it does an amazing job of positioning its star in a context and cementing his legend. The First Avenue scene, as depicted in the movie, probably has basically no real connection to any music scene in the history of the world, but it really looks amazing: multiracial, immaculately dressed patrons cramming into a club with really cool laser-lights and fog machines, all somehow able to do synchronized dances to the music being played by multiracial, immaculately dressed musicians. The plot is ridiculous and cliched, of course, but it sort of has to be; Prince isn’t really an actor, but he does just fine at playing the mythically pared-down version of himself, and he makes it look entirely plausible that a young prince would wear ruffly pirate shirts and eyeliner even when he’s in his parents’ basement. Even though he’s about four feet tall, Morris Day makes an amazing villain, all peacock exuberance and withering sneer. Apollonia’s nude scenes are like a gift from God. And, of course, the music, without exception, is ridiculously great. Prince was at his peak then, and so a document of one of the greatest performers ever to walk the earth playing to a hometown crowd and bringing big-moment emotion to every onstage moment is always going to be something you need to see. When he finally gets to the title song, and the camera pans the crowd and finds awe on everyone’s faces, it doesn’t look like acting. The soundtrack album is basically perfect, but I’ve always wished there was a bonus disc or something with the songs from the Time and Apollonia Six; they’re nearly as good, and Morris Day manages to make a pretty credible case that he could’ve blown Prince off the stage at some point. I can’t believe there are still people who haven’t seen this movie.

Prince: “Purple Rain”
Prince: “Baby I’m a Star”
Prince: “Take Me With U”
Morris Day & the Time: “The Bird”
Morris Day & the Time: “Jungle Love”

2. The Decline of Western Civilization. A few of the performances in this documentary are great (X, Circle Jerks), but I love the movie more for its depiction of a ridiculously fertile LA punk scene at the exact moment before “punk” started meaning a codified dress and attitude and sense of ethics, when it was just a whole bunch of scary, violent kids who constantly looked so tense they were about to explode. The mosh pits are basically just big fights, and they make for some iconic images: Lee Ving kicking some girl in the face, a mob of kids ripping Keith Morris off the stage. If you made this movie now about any music scene anywhere in the country, there’d be talk of careerism: either the bands would be talking about market-positioning and target demographics, or they’d be talking about their absolute rejection of all those things. Here, that stuff is completely ignored (except for the Germs’ manager talking about how she wants to quit all the time and she can’t get them to do anything). Instead, we get weirdly hilarious rants and DIY tattoos and the dead guy that someone found once. And virtually everyone interviewed in the movie (musicians, zine writers, kids) seems to be a legitimate psycho. I can’t even tell you how many times I watched this movie in high school; I showed a clip during an oral presentation once.

X: “Beyond & Black”
Circle Jerks: “Red Tape” and a bunch of other songs
Fear: “I Love Livin’ in the City”

3. Stop Making Sense. It’s just a concert movie, but it’s so beautifully constructed. First, David Byrne comes out and does “Psycho Killer” by himself, with boombox accompaniment and nothing else. Then, Tina Weymouth comes out, and they do “Heaven.” After every song, another musician or two comes out, and soon enough, the stage is absolutely jammed: Bernie Worrell, backup singers, some guy playing a huge bank of percussion instruments. Byrne blows his spazzy anti-charisma up to insane levels, flapping around in an enormous suit or dancing with a lamp. And the band had somehow figured out how to marry its twitchy art-punk with funk and Afropop and Eno atmospherics and a ton of other stuff, all of which served to make it fluid and graceful and huge. And everyone plays hard; you can see the beads of sweat flying off people’s heads halfway through. We only get to see the crowd for a few seconds at the very end; we don’t really need to see anymore. I was a little kid when I first saw this movie, and I didn’t really get that the band was weird as fuck; I thought maybe this was what most rock shows were like. If only.

Talking Heads: “Psycho Killer”
Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime”
Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love”
Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime”
Talking Heads: “What a Day That Was”
Talking Heads: “This Must Be the Place”

4. Wild Style. It might be a bit weird to call this one a music-movie, since it’s about a graffiti artist, but then the plot (such as it is) revolves around the guy abandoning his own ego and realizing that he has to paint a mural glorifying the rappers in the park, not his own inner demons. The acting and production values are mostly terrible, and there’s nothing that even resembles a story arc, but all the low-budget naivete actually works in the movie’s favor. There’s a real goofy joy in seeing the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic 5 rapping at each other while they play basketball or Busy Bee trying to spell his name out in money on a bed. The music is generally great, and it’s also one of the very few visual documents we have of the early days of rap, which makes it a valuable reminder that the music and the culture just started out as a bunch fucking around and having fun and making names for themselves, which means it only really differs from The Decline of Western Civilization in race and aesthetic; they both show pretty much the same impulses at work. Also, I totally love the bassline that pretty much runs constantly throughout the movie.

5. Fade to Black. So it didn’t turn out to be Jay-Z’s retirement show, but everyone always knew it wouldn’t be. There’s still a ton of goosebump moments before the music even starts: the aerial shots of Madison Square Garden, Michael Buffer, the jersey going up into the rafters. And the show itself manages to get across all the Clintonian charisma you actually get from one of Jay’s live show. I love Ghostface’s cameo, the fast-rap calisthenics on “Jigga What Jigga Who,” the way he runs out after the intro of “What More Can I Say,” everything. But my favorite scenes are the ones in the studio, where he’s talking to producers and putting The Black Album together. The scene of a pre-bodybuilding Timbaland drinking from a jug of purple stuff and giggling to himself while he plays beats is one of my favorite things in the world. Jay’s expression the first time he hears “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” is absolutely priceless.