Eric's Top 10 Movies About (Rock) Musicians

by Eric Melin on January 22, 2008

in Top 10s

Two weeks ago, J.D. issued his list of the best movies that revolved around musicians, real or imagined. It is a pretty broad category, and I felt that there were numerous things that he left out that I would have put in. Two of the best musician-oriented films I’ve ever seen came out this year, in fact. I’ll exclude them both from this list, since I have full-length reviews of Todd Haynes’ ambitious Bob Dylan-inspired “I’m Not There” and the low-budget indie broken-relationship romance “Once” elsewhere on the site (Just click on the movie titles to read them.) Also excluded are any documentaries. That is a list for another day. I could come up with more that ten really good rock docs, so we’ll save it for later, shall we? I’ll also exclude “That Thing You Do!” Because both J.D. and myself have gushed about Tom Hanks’ sleeper flick about a one-hit wonder band on more than one occasion. Also, Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” is not on this list because it is a very silly movie. Sure, there are a couple amazing sequences, but it worships the “poet” side of a drunken, flamed-out Jim Morrison way too much. Val Kilmer is already puffed up with his own self-importance before the naked Indian appears to lead him around. No to “The Doors.” Sorry. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that “This is Spinal Tap” is the best movie ever made. But you already know that. So, as Marty DiBergi once said, “Let’s boogie!”

josie and the pussycats reid dawson cook10. Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

A minor film, to be sure, but thanks to some great little power pop ditties from Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, former Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley, and Matthew Sweet, this movie actually kind of rocks. Let’s forget for a moment that Tara Reid is a tabloid-fodder disaster these days—in this film, her dim-bulb act works and is actually appropriate for the character and somewhat charming. Reid, Rachel Leigh Cook, and Rosario Dawson are a struggling rock band plucked from obscurity and put through the corporate wringer of the rock n’ roll promotion machine. Lots of subversive humor actually finds its way into this teen-aimed film, some of it poking fun at the very audience it’s trying to attract! And did I mention the tunes were catchy as Hell?

la bamba lou diamond phillips9. La Bamba (1987)

Lou Diamond Phillips’ portrayal of Ritchie Valens was so on the money in this biopic of the teenage early rock n’ roll star, that my friend Rich Yarges was inspired to pick up a guitar and start writing songs. Three years later, Truck Stop Love was born and I was playing the drums for the band. Thanks, Lou! This sweet and sentimental movie covers Valens’ short and tragic life from a poor family life as a migrant worker to unexpected superstardom and finally, his death at 17 in a 1959 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Los Lobos covered Valens’ biggest hit for the soundtrack (as well as all the other Valens songs that Phillips lip-synched for the movie), and it became a hit all over again. Marshall Crenshaw (who also wrote songs for last year’s “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) plays Holly and ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer has a brief cameo as Eddie Cochrane, giving the movie some extra rock cred.

why do fools fall in love tate berry fox8. Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1998)

Another teenage sensation that burned brightly and fizzled out almost just as fast, Frankie Lymon was on top of the world at age 13. By the time he was 18, he was washed up and addicted to heroin. In an interesting structure for a biopic, director Gregory Nava’s story flashes back and forth between the 1950s and 1980s, as three women claiming to be his wife try to get their fair share of royalties in a courtroom. Paul Mazursky plays Roulette Records head Morris Levy, whose half-songwriting credit on Lymon’s biggest hit (and the movie’s title) is oft-disputed. He represents a big ugly side of the record industry in its infancy—where label heads routinely ripped off their artists, although nothing much has changed since then. Larenz Tate plays the tragic Lymon, who had to adopt a soprano singing tenor once his voice changed and was clean for three years before a celebration of a new record contract resulted in his fatal overdose. All the songs in the film are original recordings of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and you may be surprised to find out just how vibrant and alive they really are.

grace of my heart douglas turturro stoltz7. Grace of My Heart (1996)

Illeana Douglas plays a talented singer/songwriter who wants to perform her own material but ends up writing for others in this thinly-disguised tribute to Carole King and the Brill Building song factory. Director Allison Anders covers lots of different eras of rock history, cramming it all into one movie. It’s a bit of a jumble, but for rock enthusiasts it’s a joy trying to pick out all the references. Matt Dillon plays the Brian Wilson-damaged-surfer guy and Eric Stoltz plays the political-message-beatnik poet guy, while John Turturro plays the eccentric producer guy. J Mascis (from Dinosaur Jr.) and Joni Mitchell wrote songs for the movie, and Elvis Costello liked writing the film’s signature song “God Give Me Strength” with Burt Bacharach so much that the two made an entire album together directly following.

buddy holly story busey6. The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Who knew that reality show freakazoid and D-List celebrity Gary Busey was actually a complete badass of an actor at one point? “La Bamba” may have had actual rock stars playing rock stars, but Busey made his own rock cred the DIY way. Nominated for Best Actor for playing Buddy Holly from ages 19-22, Busey was 33 years old at the time the movie was filmed. He also did all his own singing and learned how to play Holly’s songs live. Although the film may have more historical inaccuracies than “La Bamba” (like using composite characters instead of depicting his real band members and showing Holly reading and writing music even though he couldn’t), it tends to avoid big clichés a little better. All in all, it is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a young genius who had way more to offer the world than we’ll ever know.

jack black school of rock5. The School of Rock (2003)

The best thing about this Richard Linklater-directed Jack Black comedy is that Black’s buddy Mike White, wrote it for Black. Every inch of the script has that untamed enthusiasm and total love affair with rock n’ roll that the Tenacious D frontman is known for. If the six original episodes of “Tenacious D” on HBO could be considered a movie, then they’d be awful high on this list. (The movie Tenacious D movie “Pick of Destiny” was a pretty big disappointment, with one-quarter of the magic of the TV show.) This is the film that made Black a star, and only the second one (after “High Fidelity”) to ever use him to his full comedic capacity. It’s an interesting comment on how far rock n’ roll has come that we now have a movie that is considered mainstream where a schoolteacher teaches kids how to play an AC/DC song. When I was in school, that was soooo not okay. Even if the rock-is-rebellion storyline ends up being more like a less offensive “be yourself” after school special, it is genuinely funny and surprisingly moving. I should also mention Joan Cusack as the unsung hero of “The School of Rock” for her funny and heartbreaking turn as the uptight school principal. The scene where she ‘lets loose” by singing Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” is priceless.

what's love got to do with it bassett fishburne4. What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)

Angela Bassett channels the fury of a live Tina Turner performance and shows the courageous side of a woman trying to get out from under the cycle of abuse. Both the fairly unknown Bassett and her co-star Laurence Fishburne (who played Tina’s notorious wife-beating husband Ike) were nominated for Oscars for this searing movie that documents the distinct imprint the Turners made on rock music, and 25 years of living in fear. The Ike Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” may be the most oblivious man on the planet, when he can’t figure out that the people are not coming to his shows to see him. The infamous stage performances of the group are choreographed and mimicked down the smallest detail. Adapted from the autobiography by Tina, there are complaints about the veracity of all the charges against her ex-husband. But even if only half of them were true, Ike’s still a bastard—a bastard who made some incredible music with Tina, who was always the star of the show. Thank God the movie ends before “Thunderdome.”

sid & nancy oldman3. Sid and Nancy (1986)

If you want an accurate depiction of the Sex Pistols’ amazing rock journey from sensation to implosion, rent the fascinating documentary “The Filth and the Fury.” If you want a doomed love story about two tragically co-dependent people who, at their lowest point, could barely communicate with each other, try Alex Cox’s equally fascinating (for different reasons) “Sid and Nancy.” No deep exploration of what it meant to write and record the maelstrom of genre-defining music made by the Pistols in the late 1970s can be found in this film. The guy who plays the Pistols’ lyricist/singer Johnny Rotten (Lydon) isn’t even any good. Maybe that was Cox’s point, though. He makes it easy to see why people were drawn to Sid Vicious, who beneath the swagger and spikes, seems like a lost little boy. Gary Oldman is simply amazing as the beleaguered bassist, and so is the gratingly annoying Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen. If junkie Sid was the only one who could see his junkie girlfriend’s good traits, then he was a better man than I. And the fact that he could see that in her makes this movie all the more intriguing, and, dare I say, somewhat romantic?

hedwig and the angry inch john cameron mitchell2. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Adapted from his own off-Broadway stage musical for the screen by John Cameron Mitchell (who also stars in the title role), this far-out glam rock musical is a huge breath of fresh air. Hedwig is an East German transgender with a botched sex change operation and a love for rock n’ roll and philosophy. She ends up in a trailer park in Junction City, KS., writing songs with a teenage Christian boy who later on becomes a hugely successful rock star with their songs. Her band, the Angry Inch, meanwhile, is touring a chain of bad seafood restaurants trying to make a living. Like the play, the story is mostly told through the songs, but Mitchell keeps the movie from becoming too stagebound with constant flashbacks and surrealistic dream sequences and animation that illustrates the sometimes-obscure lyrics even more obscurely. The entire movie has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a real longing to unravel the mysteries of relationships. The music, by Stephen Trask, is a terrific glam rock throwback soundtrack all written and recorded by the players and actors.

1. beyond the valley of the dolls the carrie nationsBeyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Roger Ebert co-wrote this trippy dippy rock n’ roll fantasy gone wrong from exploitation director Russ Meyer about an all-girl band called The Carrie Nations who travel to L.A. and lose their shirts, their friendships, and their minds. Meyer’s first stab at mainstream success, working for 20th Century Fox, was till way too weird for them an garnered an X rating upon its release. The editing is seizure-inducing, the acting campy as Hell, the story an uproariously demented soap opera, and the music is really bad in a fun way. If “Josie and the Pussycats” was a teeny cautionary tale, this is the blood-soaked nightmare. A huge cult has sprung up around this film, and deservedly so. Ebert and Meyer conjure up diabolical porn stars, vain actors, sleazy lawyers, loving lesbians, and a murderous party animal who calls himself Z-Man and has female breast implants (and is unmistakably the template for Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) in one of the most anarchic movies you’ll ever see. He was also reportedly based on Phil Spector, which turned out to be a prophetic guess on Ebert’s part. The movie is eminently quotable, so it’s too bad Ebert didn’t write more movies back then. I have a feeling he was living out his own kind of rock n’ roll fantasy, working with Meyer and his busty female stars.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Randall January 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm

I’d have to include Purple Rain.

I remember liking a movie called Still Crazy, about a rock band that gets together for a reunion–perhaps enough to make the lower reaches of a top 10 list from me. But I’d have to see it again to be sure–it’s been almost 10 years. (Oh, now I see it’s on J.D.’s list.)

In the mockumentary category, there’s The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.

And then there are some awesomely bad movies: Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Can’t Stop the Music (with the Village People, Bruce Jenner, and Steve Guttenberg), and probably my favorite bad movie of all time: The Apple, which has a crazy plot about the evils that await those trying to make it big in the music biz, and multiple fake musical acts.

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2 Rutkowskilives January 22, 2008 at 4:31 pm

New York Doll.

Highly recommend it. Documentary about Arthur “Killer” Kane’s conversion to Mormonism. I like to think it’s the sort of spiritual rock movie the world’s been waiting for. Really well done, very compelling story. I’m not a documentary guy by any means, but this one sucked me in.

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3 Eric Melin January 22, 2008 at 4:57 pm

How could I have left off The Rutles??? I guess, technically, it’s not a theatrically-released film. I’ll have to have a Top 10 made-for-TV movies and include that, KISS Meets the Phantom, and that hilarious Beach Boys movie where Mike Love told Dennis Wilson, “You’re out of the band, Buckwheat!”

The documentaries wil lhave to be another list– and I need to see “New York Doll.”

Never liked “Purple Rain.” I know, sacrilege, right?

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4 Jen January 24, 2008 at 8:53 pm

Josie and the Pussycats?! Where the hell is Rockstar?? Call it what you will, Mark Wahlberg is fanTASTIC with his awesome rock hair and leather pants, not to mention, “Stand Up and Shout” could quite possibly be one of the greatest soundtrack songs ever. Also, who doesn’t love Eminem rockin’ it trash-style in 8 Mile?

Many props for La Bamba, though! I have Ritchie Valens’ sweater.

How does the Def Leppard documentary make you feel?

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5 Jen January 24, 2008 at 8:55 pm

P.S.
I meant Made for TV Movie, not documentary.

“Stand up and Shout! Stand up, stand up, stand up, stand up and let it out!”

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6 Eric Melin January 25, 2008 at 1:13 am

Love the idea behind “Rockstar,” HATED the execution. They turned into another lame cuationary tale with the girlfriend and cheating and drugs and booze and then….he reaches inward and turns into a sensitive acoustic grunge man. No thanks. The movie was also severely homophobic. A doc on Judas Priest (the band it was based on) and Ripper Owens (the tribute singer who fronted the band for a while) would have been way better.

The DefLep doc on VH1 was unintentionally hilarious. I did like “8 Mile.” It proves Curtis Hanson can direct any genre. Although I never did see “Lucky You.”

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7 Dana January 25, 2008 at 9:54 am

Eric,
Save yourself a few hours of your life, DON’T ever see “Luck You”! VH1′s Def Leppard movie was unintentionally funny, I kept waiting to hear a line from Bloodhound Gang’s song “Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me”…”The drummer from Def Leppard’s only got one arm!”

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8 Dana January 28, 2008 at 9:37 am

I knew there was a movie you and J.D. both left off your list; “Airheads”! Guilty pleasure or not the movie is awesome. Talk about a catchy tune, the Lone Rangers “degenerated” is it! What other movie has a guy that finally gets a record contract and proceeds to take that contract and wipe his ass with it?

“Johnny don’t care about the world, As long as he can do his girl..and prove that he’s a man!”

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9 cleavy January 28, 2008 at 10:26 pm

“…only the second one (after “High Fidelity”) to ever use him to his full comedic capacity.” A bit off subject, but don’t forget Jesus’ Son (1999)! Jack Black is amazing in that movie. Also, a little more on subject, I believe the title of the movie is a reference to a Velvet Underground song.

By the way, the website is still rockin’!!

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10 Ranto March 27, 2008 at 10:57 am

You should have cranked it up to Eleven & included THIS IS SPINAL TAP

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11 David March 27, 2008 at 11:00 am

…no “Almost Famous”?

Oh — and Jack Black was hilarious in “Dead Man Walking.”

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12 Eric Melin March 27, 2008 at 11:07 am

David-
It seems like every list I make includes “Almost Famous,” so it was a conscious decision to leave it off. But I should have mentioned it in the intro. Not sure why I left it off. JB sticks out in DMW so much now, it’s weird , huh? Ha!

Ranto-
From the opening paragraph: “Oh yeah, and don’t forget that “This is Spinal Tap” is the best movie ever made. But you already know that.” I could go on about that one forever…!

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13 Trevor August 1, 2008 at 9:49 pm

Why the hell isn’t “The Doors” on this list? It’s certainly better than “Josie and the Pussycats” or “School of Rock”, and at least “The Doors” is about real rockstars.

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14 Eric Melin August 2, 2008 at 12:48 am

From the introduction: Also, Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” is not on this list because it is a very silly movie. Sure, there are a couple amazing sequences, but it worships the “poet” side of a drunken, flamed-out Jim Morrison way too much. Val Kilmer is already puffed up with his own self-importance before the naked Indian appears to lead him around. No to “The Doors.” Sorry.

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15 Jon Woodland October 16, 2009 at 1:46 pm

No way! “The Doors” definitely needs to be on this list. I would probably also include “Rockstar”. I’ve never seen “Almost Famous” but I’ve heard it’s really good. Some people I’ve talked to also like “This Is Spinal Tap”.

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