One of the galvanizing urges between movie buffs and music fans is a powerful love of lists. Whether the subject is “Best Sports Movies” or “Top Five Songs About Underwater Life,” we fans love the debate almost as much as putting our own lists in order. As a longtime fan of the film writing of TNB’s Associate Arts & Culture Editor Cynthia Hawkins, I needed to know her essential movies about rock and roll. She graciously obliged me and below are what we feel are ten essential movies about rock and roll. We prepared our lists separately and merged them after they were complete so as not to influence each other’s comments. In the case of one of the movies, this proved both telling and extremely amusing.
Without further ado, here are our Ten Essential Rock Movies.
TNB Music Editor
Cynthia’s Top Five
Bleak biopic of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. Co-starring heroin.
Sid and Nancy was director Alex Cox’s 1986 follow-up to Repo Man, and it marks Gary Oldman’s first major role in a feature film. Anyone who watches this anew will wonder why it took the Academy so long to recognize Oldman with a nomination, because in Sid and Nancy, Oldman achieves something miraculous. I think this might be the only musician bio-pic in which I’m too lost in the character and the emotional impact of the performance to compare the actor to the actual person. Gritty, riveting, brutal, tragic–all of that applies here. There’s a great scene with Sid and Nancy silhouetted in a grungy alley making out while garbage is flying around them, which perfectly encapsulates who these characters were as Cox chose to present them. One of my all-time faves.
When this gut punch first came out, I was already in the throes of a Sex Pistols obsession and this movie blew me away from the get go. At no time did I ever feel like I was watching an actor portraying Sid Vicious–Oldman’s performance as a junkie icon is terrifyingly convincing. I’ve always appreciated the fact that Cox dodged the star-crossed lovers cliche and hewed pretty close to the facts–that Vicious was a talentless junkie who happened to stagger onto the tail of a comet and Spungeon was the calculating groupie who loved Sid’s notoriety as much as the man himself. Also, while Oldman rightfully earned his place among the masters with this role, Chloe Webb (who beat out Courtney Love for the part of Nancy), was equally compelling in my opinion. I went off to college in the fall of 1986 and vividly remember packing to come home for Christmas while listening to Joe Strummer’s “Love Kills,” from this soundtrack. Another personal favorite, the Pogues’ gorgeous “Haunted,” is also on that soundtrack. Rarely has bleak been done so beautifully.
Absurdly strong soundtrack accompanies intersecting stories of likeable, self-obsessed music fans in 90s Seattle. Best thing to happen to Seattle tourism since… well, ever.
Cameron Crowe might well be the master of rock-n-roll films and I therefore had trouble picking just one of his many great offerings. But I’m going with Singles for its fine-focus on the grunge scene. The characters move in and out of clubs where rock titans like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are performing on stage. It’s like you could walk into any random club and one of the biggest acts in the world will be in the background playing. Members of Pearl Jam stand in as members of Citizen Dick– the fledgling band fronted by Matt Dillon’s Cliff. In fact, this would make a good double-feature with Pearl Jam Twenty in which Eddie Vedder and his bandmates discuss their involvement with Singles as well as their memorable live gig for film execs at the release party. By the way–see what I just did there? I squeezed in another Crowe selection. A Crowe sucker-punch of awesome.
This movie made me want to move to Seattle as fast as my cargo-panted legs would carry me. I bought the soundtrack before seeing the movie, and that album set me off on a two year unstoppable obsession with grunge. Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick are dynamite as Steve and Linda–the main couple, and the characters played by Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon and Sheila Kelley are entertaining as hell. What makes these supporting characters so likeable are the flashes of self-awareness they each reveal in brief but telling junctures in the film. While Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High was full of one-dimensional stereotypes, the characters in Singles are complex and real. Who doesn’t love Dillon’s iconic Cliff Poncier discussing the Belgian people’s enthusiasm for his band? Loads of classic quotes and acres of great music add the finishing touches to one of my top ten films of all time.
Guitar gods Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White get together for a chat and some jamming. Surprisingly entertaining for even non-musicians.
The premise of this one is fairly loose: sequester three distinctly different guitarists in a room together to talk shop, play some guitar and see what happens. I love the free-form, organic shape of this documentary and the way it unpacks its various stories between scenes in which Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White sit around swapping notes. In a way, the main story is the artistry of guitar playing rather than the individuals practicing that art. Best scene: the sheer kid-like pleasure Page exhibits while listening to a Link Wray LP. Also, I want Page’s record collection.
The premise struck me as boring–two aging guitar gods meet with an up-and-comer and they slap each others’ back and play some riffs while making it all seem so casual and effortless. Yawn. Then I got over myself and finally watched it when it showed up on one of the movie channels. I was pleasantly surprised by the sincerity in the way they play and in their approach to music theory, as well as their equipment. I was particularly struck by Jimmy Page’s enduring passion for music–the way he closes his eyes and moves with the rhythms while he plays, and the way he immerses himself into a jam–it’s like he’s still twenty-five. Jack White is duly reverential of his auspicious company and The Edge is intensely fun to watch, even when twiddling knobs and gadgets to make cool effects that sound cold and soulless when played next to anything by Page. To be fair, even Handel’s Messiah sounds cold and soulless when played after Jimmy Page.
Nick Hornby’s novel is relocated to the States, with John Cusack re-imagining Lloyd Dobler as an obsessive record store employee with appallingly thin social skills.
Another record collection I’d like to take ownership of is Rob Gordon’s in High Fidelity, played by John Cusack. This film marks one of the rare cases in which the book and the adaptation work equally well for me. The characters are exactly as I’d pictured them in the Nick Hornby novel (and now you know I picture John Cusack for every male protagonist I read). And High Fidelity belongs on our list because Gordon is obsessed with lists. Ready? Top five side ones, track ones. Go …
I’ll just say it–I hated this movie. I think it was my abject loathing of John Cusack that created such a grating cinematic experience for me. Not only was a cherished book Americanized for no good reason, but they cast the uno-dimensional John Cusack, bringing his pissy, overtalky, guy-on-the-fringe character to yet another movie. I don’t always feel that a book is de facto superior to any movie it might spawn, but in this case I most certainly do. I wish I could travel back through time and find the person who greenlit this cinematic mauling and hit them across the knees with a tire iron.
Dark and rainy ass-kicker about a vengeful superhero, with a dark and rainy soundtrack that went to number 1 on the Billboard 200.
Murdered rock star Eric Draven comes back from the dead, looking all Trent Reznor, circa 1993 to enact revenge on Michael Wincott’s Top Dollar, looking all Ian Astbury, circa 1989. This is probably the most rockin’ movie in my five. Just look at the soundtrack offerings by Nine Inch Nails, Pantera, Helmet, Stone Temple Pilots and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Witness the scene in which Draven smears on his black makeup and stands at the circular window ready to kick ass as The Cure’s “Burn” plays. Case closed.
I was surprised at how good Brandon Lee was in this movie and I was happy that they released it, rather than put it on a shelf (Lee was killed in an on-set accident while filming this movie). The plot was the kind of hammy, revenge-driven testosterone fest that guys like me could watch from breakfast through dinner on a rainy weekend day. The soundtrack is fantastic. Then again, pretty much anything with Pantera is fantastic. If you listened to Pantera while you had a stomach flu, it would be fantastic.
Joe’s Top Five
Documentary about Iceland’s rich, multi-layered music scene does for Reykjavik what Singles did for Seattle. Except this is the real deal.
I came across this movie on Ebay or Amazon or one of those sites as an “If you liked this, you might also like…” Fascinating documentary about the many different music scenes thriving across Iceland, with an obvious focus on Reykjavik. From traditional Viking music brought to life by a massive orchestra to a couple guys sitting in a cramped bedroom, wood-shedding folk tunes, the passion of these musicians is the main character of this movie. This movie builds excitement–you feel like there’s an electric scene happening and you want to get there as fast as possible. Screaming Masterpiece turned me on to some killer music by bands like Bang Gang, Singapore Sling and múm. Also, great performances by Sigur Ros and Quarashi.
Iceland has one of the weirdest, freshest, most eclectic music scenes out there. I’d seen Behind the Music-kinds of things on Bjork many years ago that attempted to explain why that is, but Screaming Masterpiece is so much more thorough in its exploration (as well as the sheer number of bands covered). It all boils down to Vikings and poetry, according to composer Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, and how much more rockin’ can you get? I love the idea of the Icelandic music scene being an environment in which no one’s playing to make it big (because the machinery to make a musician big isn’t in place there the way it is in the U.S.) – they’re simply playing for the love of music.
Canadian anthropologist and metalhead Sam Dunn flies across the globe to reveal the inner workings of humanity’s much-maligned, rarely understood tribe of heavy metal.
Admittedly, it was easy for me to get behind this movie as soon as Dunn sided with me that Blue Cheer, not Black Sabbath or Zeppelin, was the first heavy metal act. His now-famous Heavy Metal Genealogy is a masterful family tree of all the genres of rock and metal. Dunn looks at more than simply the music–he looks at the culture surrounding it, from the outside in and the inside back out, giving an account that a non-metalhead might enjoy just as much as their Venom-loving neighbor. Dunn’s interview with a pissed-up Necrobutcher from Mayhem was knee-slappingly funny, and I love that he’s not above pointing out some of metal’s unintentionally funny quirks, such the patently homoerotic overtones of acts like Manowar, that have gone almost entirely unnoticed by the fans. Loads of fun and packed with candid interviews with heavy metal’s biggest and most colorful legends.
The opening scene of this documentary, with all the metal-heads crowded in the concert parking lot felt really, really familiar. There could easily have been a teenaged me in spandex and shredded jeans and a bikini top wandering around in the background looking for Aquanet. I think it’s Rob Zombie who says in this film that the coolest thing about the metal scene is that despite the large number of people involved in it worldwide nobody on the outside realizes just how big that scene is. Like they’re some kind of stealth subculture. I appreciate that the documentary is primarily interested in that subculture rather than select bands. Dunn’s series Metal Evolution, I think, does more to explore the latter.
Alright, enough of the Cameron Crowe shit, already…
The feel-good movie of the summer. What writer doesn’t love the young William Miller? Righteously portrayed by Patrick Fugit, he embarks on his first freelance gig for Rolling Stone magazine before it became an odious purveyor of reality television and obesity-inducing video games. Billy Crudup is my fave in his portrayal of the rock god on the rise, emotionally unequipped to balance the accolades and temptations of superstardom. His character feels very authentic to me because the shitty things he does in the movie are the kind of shitty things that real people do to each other–even generally nice people like Crudup’s Russell, whose redemption at the end makes the movie so satisfying to watch. While the situations in the movie seem larger than life, the characters never do. Jason Lee’s character bugged me, as did Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane, but the “Tiny Dancer” scene still makes me smile.
So happy this was on your list because it was agony trying to decide between this one and Singles for my Crowe selection. This one has the benefit of being based on Crowe’s own story as a burgeoning young rock journalist and his deep, personal connection to music is evident throughout (just as it is for the characters – example, William’s sister playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” for her mom in lieu of her own explanation as to why she’s moving out). And Stillwater has to be the most believable, and most listenable, fictional band ever.
The world is full of stellar rock documentaries, many of which concern real bands. Even among the best of the bunch, this one goes one louder.
Biting satire delivered with such attention to detail that many people thought the movie was about a real band when it was first released. I love the characters–dull-witted and pompous egomaniacs who throw tour bus-sized tantrums about challenges such the sandwich bread backstage being too small to make a sandwich. I still can’t get over just how good the music is–legitimate metal full of plenty of hooks, power and attitude. There are the obvious, quotable moments splatted all over this flick, but for me, the more subtle details are what push this over the line into greatness. Whether it’s the hyphenated name of the English label head (Sir Denis Eton-Hogg) or the band’s early days as The Thamesmen (and their brilliant old school R&B hit “Gimme Some Money), the writing is informed by an expansive knowledge of music history, musicianship and the inner sanctum of rock and roll.
Okay, maybe Stillwater is the second most believable movie band. Spinal Tap might have to be the first. On many occasions, I’ve heard bands describe how much they hate this movie because it’s a little too accurate. As a matter of fact, The Edge says something to that effect in It Might Get Loud. There’s just nothing funnier than Derek Smalls setting off alarms in airports with his foil-wrapped cucumber or the miniature Stonehenge descending in the smoke on the stage. This one, quite simply, is the quintessential rock-n-roll film. And it goes all the way to eleven on the scale of awesomeness for popularizing the mockumentary.
This seven car pileup of a documentary captures the precise point at which two bands–former friends–passed each other on the way up/down the ladder of fortune.
Documentary maker Ondi Timoner happened to have the cameras rolling just as Anton Newcombe, frontman for the then-up-and-coming act The Brian Jonestown Massacre, popped a cassette into his stereo and proclaimed his love for then-unknown hipsters The Dandy Warhols. Famous last words. This documentary captures the moment as the two bands forge a drug-fueled friendship and the seven years that follow as the friendship disintegrates into hatred, violence and paranoia. The BJM are poised to step into the mainstream while the Dandys are the struggling hopefuls, marveling at the coolness of their friends in the BJM. But then the unexpected happens–the BJM implode through massive doses of drugs and ego (OK, this isn’t all that unexpected), forfeiting their shot at the big time. Meanwhile, the Dandy’s score a hit with “Bohemian Like You,” and end up on the European festival circuit, playing for packed arenas full of screaming fans while their embittered former friends break up after a series of fistfights and failed club gigs. The BJM’s music is ridiculously good, making their story all the more tragic.
For much of this one, I was wondering if this film wasn’t actually the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s mockumentary of themselves. All of the praise, for each other (at first) and by the music journalists and industry types, was so profuse and the stories of their antics and lives as artists so over-the-top. And you have statements like this one from Anton Newcombe: “People are jealous of our sheer ambition that we have and the fact that we’re like the most prolific people in probably North America.” Very brash. Very funny. And then Newcombe has a downward spiral, and it’s not so funny anymore. The early closeness and the eventual contrasts between these two bands through this odd, fun-house-mirror kind of perspective is truly captivating.