Music is an integral part of the cinematic experience. A soundtrack can forever fix a specific song to a specific moment, and a score can subtly (or not so subtly, if done badly) influence how you feel about what you’re watching. So it isn’t a surprise that movies about music are prolific enough to form their own subgenre. Rock ‘n’ roll, as one of those most exciting and pop culturally significant of genres, lends itself very easily to the world of filmmaking. The characters are larger than life, with a mix of style, cool, and bad decision-making that can’t help but be terribly appealing.
As a subject, music also allows for a certain kind of freedom of storytelling, giving films lots of room to be just plain weird, to represent visually what is essentially a collection of feelings and sounds. The way music affects us is easier to express with metaphor than a straight narrative sometimes, and a handful of the films on this list take full advantage of that. What links all of these films is an exploration of how music relates to us and what it means to us, as well as how its specific cultural influence can have such lasting repercussions. Some of the stories feel so personal to the filmmaker in question that they almost tell us more about the person making the film than the subject itself – but they all reveal something about the person watching.
Here are the 15 Best Movies About Rock ‘n’ Roll.
15. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Phantom of the Paradise is a Brian De Palma film that loosely adapts Phantom of the Opera as a glittery, campy musical horror film – a true relic of the 1970s. It didn’t do well upon its release (except, for some reason, in Winnipeg, Canada), but like many films of its ilk, it found an audience through the years. The story of the film concerns a composer named Winslow Leach whose music is stolen by a satanic record producer named Swan, who wants to use the songs to open a concert hall called the Paradise. Swan chooses a woman named Phoenix to perform Winslow’s music, and when Winslow hears her, he falls for her.
Thanks to Swan’s machinations, Winslow is sent on a journey that results in jail, disfiguration, and something akin to musical servitude, producing music for Swan in a devil’s bargain. That quick plot summary doesn’t begin to touch on the bizarre twists and turns of Phantom of the Paradise. It’s no surprise that it became a cult classic with its sheer level of stylish strangeness, though its music was one thing to get acclaim right off the bat: it was even nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for the score.
14. The Rose (1979)
Starring Bette Midler, The Rose is a fictionalized version of the life of Janis Joplin. The film was first titled Pearl, based on Joplin’s nickname, but when rights to her life story did not come through, it was changed. It follows rock star Rose as she struggles with drug and alcohol dependence while being pushed too far and too hard by her conniving manager. She eventually dies of an overdose, much like the real Joplin.
The story of a hugely famous musician becoming swallowed up by their fame is a familiar one that could border on cliché at this point, but it’s much rarer to see a woman in that role than a man. Rose’s mix of selfish, self-sabotaging behavior with talent and genius is a much more comfortable role for audiences to see a man in, so The Rose stands out as unique for allowing a woman that same level of messy brilliance.
13. Tommy (1975)
Tommy is based on The Who’s album of the same name, which came out several years before the film. It stars lead singer Roger Daltrey with a supporting cast made up of many notable names: Ann-Margaret, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Jack Nicholson. Tommy is a rock opera in which the titular character is shocked by trauma into a catatonic state, and his family spends the rest of the film alternately trying to shake him out of it or taking advantage of him.
Tommy’s inability to hear, see, or speak gives him a singularity of focus that leads to inexplicable pinball success, which his family exploits for money. When another trauma brings him back after all other attempts failed, he utilizes his life story to create a sham religion based on the tenants of catatonia and pinball. It doesn’t end well. The sheer pomp and circumstance, the sweeping drama and all-encompassing music, are what makes Tommy stand out.
12. Cry-Baby (1990)
The less mainstream cousin to 1988’s Hairspray, Cry-Baby is John Waters’ ode to teenage delinquency. Set in the bright and colorful world of the 1950s (or at least the cinematic version of that decade), the film follows Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby Walker, a teenage greaser (referred to as “drapes” in the film), as he falls for a girl from the right side of the tracks (Amy Locane), gets into rumbles, goes to jail, and, above all, expresses himself through song. It’s a musical, but one using blatantly dubbed voices to comic effect, and it relishes especially in the music of the time period.
Locane’s Allison comes from a world of full skirts and wholesome doo-wop, and Cry-Baby’s edgy Elvis style is utterly irresistible. The movie is pure John Waters, set in his beloved Baltimore and playing on the same music and style of his youth that he first explored in Hairspray. It’s campy, a little loopy, and a great deal of fun. It shows music as a lifestyle that determines how you dress, who your friends are, where you come from, and who you feel you are.
11. I’m Not There (2007)
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is a highly unique (and probably polarizing for that reason) biopic that uses six different actors to convey different facets of music legend Bob Dylan. It’s through this narrative device – people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities all playing variations on one person – that the true scope of Dylan’s impressive career can be conveyed. It mixes fantasy and reality, fact and fiction, and relies heavily on metaphor. It’s like a dreamy scrapbook made up of a lifetime’s worth of mementos.
The soundtrack boasts an impressive number of Dylan songs (including the titular track “I’m Not There,” which had never been released prior to the film) in both their original format and as reinvented covers. In addition to showcasing a best of Dylan’s work, it demonstrates how malleable his songs are and how they can be rearranged to suit all manner of occasions. The entire film is a loving tribute to a great artist.
10. Pump Up the Volume (1990)
Pump Up the Volume stars Christian Slater as another teenage Gen X loner with a chip on his shoulder (but with less murderous impulses than Heathers’ J.D.). Slater’s Mark Hunter runs a pirate radio station that he uses to anonymously rant about what’s wrong with his school, his community, and society at large. This understandably draws some attention, with some dangerous results, and Mark has to decide if he wants to take real action to affect real change or not.
The film didn’t do well in the box office, though it was relatively critically well-reviewed, but looking back it captures such a specific moment in cinema and music. The soundtrack is full of the Pixies and Soundgarden, Sonic Youth and the Cowboy Junkies – music defining of a very specific generational moment. Pump Up the Volume encapsulates the time it was made it and the teens it depicts, and the music they listen to is integral to that.
9. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982)
Much like Tommy, Pink Floyd – The Wall is a film inspired by an album. Since it takes so much inspiration from music, the resultant film is surreal and symbolic, with limited dialogue and a big emphasis on image. It even features multiple animated sequences. It’s a film that thinks outside of the box, using its musical groundwork to create a movie that captures the feeling of the album without crafting a tight narrative (which isn’t always necessary for a film to be good).
The plot, such as it is, follows a rock star named Floyd “Pink” Pinkerton (get it? do you get it?) who is dealing with some mental instability ever since the death of his father, which occurred when Pink was a baby. The beginning of the film finds Pink in a depressed state, and subsequent flashbacks detail all of the events that brought him there – all of the bricks that form the wall that keeps him distant from the rest of the world. The often horrifying visual metaphors of the film drive home its protagonist’s mental state in a way dialogue can’t, creating a perfect – if painful – harmony of image and sound.
8. Control (2007)
Control stars Sam Riley as Ian Curtis, frontman of the punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with epilepsy and depression. The film explores Curtis’ personal life as well as his professional life, including his marriage to wife Deborah (Samantha Morton), an extramarital affair, the band’s growing success, and Curtis’ struggles with his health. It is, in many ways, a traditional biopic, showcasing the rise and fall of an artist lost too soon.
Director Anton Corbijn had been a huge Joy Division fan prior to making the film, and even met the band and photographed them for NME, a British music magazine. He had a strong personal connection to the band, making him a perfect fit to direct the film and giving him a vested interest in representing Curtis with honesty. It isn’t a fawning interpretation but neither is it an incisive takedown, instead striking a balance that feels true.
7. School of Rock (2003)
A Richard Linklater comedy starring Jack Black, School of Rock is one of those family friendly comedies that actually delivers on the laughs in a fresh way. Black stars as an unsuccessful musician named Dewey Finn who uses his roommate’s (Mike White) name to snag a substitute teaching job at a prep school. Though he initially plans to use the job as an effortless way to make some money, he begins to see musical potential in his students – and through that allows them to tap into their potential in other ways. He trains the kids to win in a Battle of the Bands contest against the band that kicked him out, but discovers one of those age-old moral lessons: it’s not about winning, it’s how you play the game.
Though largely a vehicle for Black, it has a great supporting cast and the kids are well chosen, resulting in a real sense of camaraderie that lends itself well to the message of the film. Dewey puts aside his selfishness and showboating to form a real team, and finally grows up thanks to a group of kids.
6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch started as a stage musical, became a movie, and then recently returned to the stage, making the jump to Broadway almost twenty years after its initial premiere. Its story is told in a series of narrated flashbacks by protagonist Hedwig as she reveals how she came from East Berlin to the United States, where she tries desperately to make her name as a rock star despite the issues of her past. She began her life as a young man named Hansel who meets and marries an American G.I.; to make their marriage official (and get out of Eastern Germany), Hansel agrees to undergo gender reassignment surgery, at which point she takes on the name Hedwig. The surgery is botched, however, leaving Hedwig with the titular “angry inch.”
Hedwig’s true journey is one of seeking wholeness, though her attempts to find this through other people always ends in despair. The songs appear as part of Hedwig’s underwhelming string of gigs, sometimes with a heightened edge of fantasy that communicates Hedwig’s escape through music and how transcendent it can be for her to perform.
5. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
An earlier study by Todd Haynes’ into the life and image of a rock star, Velvet Goldmine follows a fictionalized version of David Bowie, here renamed Brian Slade and played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It focuses on the explosive beginnings of his career in the 1970s, specifically the glam rock phenomenon, and how success eventually swallowed him whole. It deals with his relationship with his wife (Toni Collette) and his lover-slash-collaborator (Ewan McGregor, playing an Iggy Pop-esque character), all filtered through the experiences of Christian Bale’s Arthur Stuart, a reporter and former fan. It tells the story not only of a rock star’s rise and fall, but a young fan’s journey of self-discovery thanks to his music.
Though the film doesn’t use any Bowie songs (he was apparently not a fan of how he was represented, and therefore didn’t grant permission), but it does a fantastic job of creating proxies, and also mixes in other music of the period to add to the atmosphere. Velvet Goldmine is at times a hazy, confusing movie, playing with ideas of memory, identity, and the way art influences the people we become.
4. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
This Is Spinal Tap is a satirical mockumentary that follows the misadventures of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. It was written by and starring Rob Reiner (who also directed), Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, though there were tons of notable cameos by popular actors like Billy Crystal and Anjelica Huston. The film featured heavily improvised dialogue, resulting in lots of memorable jokes and iconic bits, such as the revolving door of drummers (some of whom departed this world by spontaneous combustion) and amps that get turned up to eleven.
Since its release, This Is Spinal Tap has become a cult classic, beloved both for how it satirized rock stars and how it satirized music documentaries. Even as it cracked jokes and had fun, it still tapped into something very authentic about the subject it was parodying. It was so convincing that upon its release, a portion of audiences thought that it was a real documentary about a real band. Like many great comedies, it proved that sometimes humor is capable of feeling more honest than drama.
3. High Fidelity (2000)
High Fidelity isn’t the story of a rock god or even a run of the mill musician; it’s the story of a man who lives and breathes music, who has defined his life by the pop culture he’s consumed throughout it. John Cusack stars as record store owner Rob Gordon, fresh off a breakup with his serious girlfriend and intent on reliving the five worst breakups of his life in an effort to understand where it all went wrong.
Filled with “top five” lists of all kinds, musical references so deeply loving they border on pretentious, and a plethora of mixtapes, the film is truly a love letter to loving pop culture. Anyone who has ever been an intense fan of anything could probably relate. It takes the grandiose premises of many films on this list and distills them down to their smallest, most intimate form: a fan finding himself in the things that he loves.
2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The first of many movies starring the Beatles as themselves, A Hard Day’s Night is by turns funny and silly, as well as chock full of great musical performances. The opening of the film, in which the Beatles are chased through London by a stampede of screaming girls, has become iconic in its own right. However, despite elements of the real, the film is undoubtedly a parody.
The plot is thin (for more thickly-plotted Beatles shenanigans, see 1965’s Help!) but the charm is not, and even in this day and age one could understand the delight fans must have taken in being able to see their favorite musicians just clowning around. It represents the madness of the band’s fame, how it was exciting but also cloying, and presents them as relatively normal, nice boys caught up in the middle of it. It lampoons the band’s popularity while also capitalizing on it and capturing a very specific moment in music history.
1. Almost Famous (2000)
Based on the real life experiences of filmmaker Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous follows fifteen-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he shadows fictional band Stillwater while working on an article about them for Rolling Stone. Along the way he falls for the enigmatic Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a devotee, or groupie, of the band.
It’s a coming-of-age story that hits all the usual landmarks, shaking the main character out of his boyish innocence and starting him on the journey towards adulthood. A big part of the story deals with meeting your heroes – which isn’t always a good thing. Heroes are real people, after all, with all the faults and foibles that entails; there’s no way they can live up to the idealized vision their admirers build up. It’s something everyone has to deal with in one way or another as they grow up, though perhaps not always in such cinematic circumstances.
Any other tales of rock ‘n’ roll that deserve to be on this list? Let us know in the comments.