50 best music movies ever

Tune your eyes and ears to this band of celluloid musical masterpieces

NB: for the sake of clarity we did not consider musicals, documentaries or concert films for this list

Amadeus (1984)

Peter “Equus” Shaffer adapted his fictionalised stage play based on the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri for the big screen. Composers, it turned out, were better fun than we thought.

The Commitments (1991)

The first book in Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy adapted into a surprisingly good film under Alan Parker’s direction. It was helped by broad Dublin accents, some questionable haircuts and Joey “The Lips” Fagan.

Gainsbourg (2010)

Joann Sfar’s film debut tackles French pop’s Serge Gainsbourg. Grotesque, puppet-like manifestations of the singer’s conscience steer the “vie heroique” while the man himself busies himself with getting Brigitte Bardot’s knickers off (much to his dad’s approval). Sheer class.

The Doors (1991)

Jim Morrison’s ego was so big, it could only be shot in widescreen, exactly what Oliver Stone did in this surprisingly honest (read “unflattering”) biopic of The Doors. Val Kilmer outdoes himself in Morrison’s overtight boots.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980)

Although a mockumentary, Swindle was about a real band – The Sex Pistols – and director Julien Temple hired the best actors for the job (also the band). Okay, it was a bit of a mess, but its moments of brilliance saved it.

I’m Not There (2007)

Bob Dylan turns up variously as a black child, a woman and Richard Gere in this cryptic film about the cryptic man. A beautifully-shot treat for Dylan fans, but a difficult starting point for those still getting to grips with his greatest hits.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles first film was camp, self-indulgent and full of jokes about Paul’s grandad being clean. That said, a number of films in this list wouldn’t have been made without it. And Paul’s grandad was very clean.

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Alan Parker turned Pink Floyd’s hit 1979 album into a surprisingly cohesive film, helped by amazing animation from Gerald Scarfe and a teeth-gritting scene in which Bob Geldof shaves off one of his nipples.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Jeff and Beau Bridges sit opposite each other tickling the ivories. Then Michelle Pfeiffer appears in a figure-hugging cocktail dress, steals the show with her piano-crawling rendition of Makin’ Whoopie and knocks the Baker Boys out of harmony.

Round Midnight (1986)

Paris, France. 1950s. An alcoholic jazz saxophonist. But look past the steaming-manhole clichés and you’ll find a great film wrapped in Herbie Hancock’s Oscar-winning score.

Once (2006)

An Irish busker (The Frames’ Glen Hansard) and a Czech girl (fellow musician Marketa Irglova) get it on in this music-based romance. But despite a healthy pinch of schmaltz, you’d be hard pressed to find a better feature film made this century on a budget of €130,000.

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Woody Allen’s paean to gypsy jazz had unexpectedly broad appeal thanks to big name leads from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. The real stars were on the soundtrack: the Dick Hyman orchestra featuring guitar legend Howard Alden.

Rockers (1978)

A mad slice of reggae gold in which the likes of Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (pictured) and Burning Spear attempted to make sense of the plot while the rest of us followed the barely-intelligible subtitles. Cult brilliance at its most cultish.

Grand Theft Parsons (2003)

Odd, but also funny ha-ha, true story of roadie Phil Kaufman, who drove across the States when country legend Gram Parsons died of an overdose. The mission: to remove him from his motel and cremate him in Joshua Tree National Park. Stars Johnny Knoxville.

8 Mile (2002)

Eminem assumes the role of wannabe rapper, convinced his lyrical prowess is his only real hope at a better life. After choking the local MC battle, his attempts to make his way out of the burned-out dump that is inner-city Detroit seem fruitless. Then he made 8 Mile.

Blues Brothers (1980)

From Saturday Night Live to the big screen, Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) and Jake Blues (John Belushi) – the purveyors of white R&B – star as two guys who dress in dark suits and sunglasses, with a whole lotta soul, on the search for redemption while trying to reform their band and save the orphanage they were raised in.

School of Rock (2003)

What do you get when you mix a bunch of smart-arse kids with an unemployed, overweight wannabe rocker – seemingly on a strong dose of narcotics – who can’t pay the rent? A zany musical comedy and yet another film where Black hogs the screen with his musical “talents”.

Human Traffic (1999)

Five twenty-something friends attempt to escape their hum-drum lives with a weekend filled with drug-fuelled debauchery, while dealing with relationships, the coming of age and battling their personal demons. It’s a fun film, honest. And don’t forget, it’s responsible for unleashing Danny Dyer into the world.

What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)

The movie that brought us big hair, erratic dancing and the truth behind Ike and Tina. This is so much more than your run-of-the-mill biography. The Tina Turner story explains what happens when you form a marital alliance with a controlling, narcissistic and violent excuse of a man.

The Harder they Come (1972)

The harder they come, the harder they fall. That’s the moral of this woeful tale – and the soundtrack album to this iconic Jamaican film. Making records is a vicious industry, as penniless Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) discovers via the medium of song.

Ray (2004)


Jamie Foxx plays the legendary blind R&B artist Ray Charles in this biographical film. Powerful performances, notably from Foxx (who scooped the Best Actor Oscar for it), recaptured the energy of the singer’s music. Sadly Ray Charles died before it was released.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Before Spinal Tap, there was no turning anything up to 11. Nigel Tufnel’s attempts to explain why ‘11’ is louder than ‘10’ to Marty DiBergi (played by director Rob Reiner) is one of many memorable scenes in the orginal rock mockumentary. See also: “It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

Shine (1996)

This multi-award winning Aussie flick about piano-playing prodigy David Helfgott’s life is no foot-tapper. Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-wining character tickles the ivories like a madman. Literally.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Steve Coogan plays Factory Records boss Tony Wilson in the hectic Madchester scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Peter Kay puts in an appearance, as does the real Tony Wilson… as the director of Wheel of Fortune.

Wayne’s World (1992)

Party time! Excellent! No way? Way! That sort of thing, plus good music, the red liquorice-dispensing Mirthmobile and schwing-worthy babes (“If she were president, she’d be Babraham Lincoln”) make up this grunge-rock lifestyle-comedy. Asphinctersayswhat?

Pump Up The Volume (1990)

Christian Slater stars as loner pirate radio DJ who fights American injustices from his radio station. It features a microwave exploding in a girl’s face and a guy committing suicide. But for all that, it was quite good fun.

Killing Bono (2011)

A former friend and U2 competitor from back in school is out to kill Bono (well, duh) after his own rock star dreams fail to materialise. Irish humour is complimented by a superb soundtrack.

I’m Still Here (2010)

Joaquin Phoenix got all fat and bearded for his fake, year-long rap career to make this mockumentary. P Diddy’s face when he hears “JP’s” music for the first time is priceless – even better, he’s not acting.

Almost Famous (2001)

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical schoolboy is on his favourite band’s tour bus, hanging out with groupies and writing for Rolling Stone – with Elton John’s Tiny Dancer playing in the background. The high-flying final moments are mock rock gold.

High Fidelity (2000)

Three record store employees spend all day making top five lists and refusing to sell their patrons I Just Called to Say I Love You. The London-based book was better, but the celluloid translation set in Chicago was no flop.

Walk the Line (2006)

It’s tough to pull off a good Johnny Cash, but Joaquin Phoenix outdid himself in this textbook biopic. Outdoing him in this film is Reese Witherspoon’s note-perfect portrayal of June Carter.

Control (2007)

Shot in black and white, with plenty of troubled silence, Control recreates troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in his final years of gloom. The backdrop of late ‘70s Manchester perfectly suits the mood.

Hilary and Jackie (1999)

Two prodigious classical musicians. Also, they’re sisters. The fierce rivalry between cellist Jacqueline du Pre and flautist Hilary du Pre-Finzi is told from both sides. True story, depending which one of them you believe.

A Mighty Wind (2004)

An hour and a half of close harmonies, corduroy and gentle jokes, as Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy et al send up the 1960s New York folk scene.

Crossroads (1986)

If you thought Karate Kid was Ralph Macchio's finest hour, you'd better roundhouse kick yo'self. Overprivileged blues fan and classically trained guitarist Eugene breaks an old blues legend out of a secure nursing home in order to learn a lost Robert Johnson song in the Mississippi Delta. The cheesy guitar duel with Steve Vai is legendary.

Beat Street (1984)

Along with 1983's Wild Style, this helped capture the early days of hip-hop, breakdancing and subway graffiti. Okay, so they were both served up with a typically '80s slice of cheese, but this is still a chance to see legends such as Doug E Fresh, Afrika Bambaataa and the Rock Steady Crew in their prime. And all are way better than Breakin'.

Still Crazy (1998)

1970s rock band Strange Fruit reunites after a couple of decades to, well, make some cash. The farcical storyline's thankfully overshadowed by a great cast, including primadonna lead singer Bill Nighy, grumpy bassplayer Jimmy Nail, potbellied drummer Timothy Spall, keyboardist Stephen Rea, Billy Connolly's omniscient roadie and a burned-out reclusive guitarist played by Withnail & I director Bruce Robinson.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Jeff Bridges was the perfect pick to play washed-up country singer Bad Blake in this adaptation of Thomas Cobb's novel. If you thought touring America might be glamourous, this'll set you straight. And in case you didn't already know, rhinestones are not cool.

Cadillac Records (2008)

If Crossroads’ assertion that “Muddy Waters invented electricity” is correct, Chess records discovered it. Oscar winner Adrien Brody stars as its founder, Beyonce steals the show as Etta James, and there are solid turns by Jeffrey Wright as Waters and Mos Def as Chuck Berry.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Slightly trippy tale of a journalist on the trail of a Bowie-like musician. Christian "anger issues" Bale plays the journo, while Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Bowie-esque and Ewan McGregor goes all a bit Iggy.

The Runaways (2010)

Moody vampire-botherer Kristen Swewart takes on the role of a young Joan Jett in 1975, trying to form an all-girl punk band that would become The Runaways. Bitching, drinking, drugtaking... Twilight the Musical this ain't.

Empire Records (1995)

A group of record-store slackers pool their collective teen angst and use it to keep their shop from closing down. Well, actually they just try to make more money, which is probably what they should've been doing instead of listening to music and bumming around in the backroom. Stars Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger.

Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

Few musicians have led as colourful or controversial life as ivory-tickling Jerry Lee Lewis. Dennis Quaid does a good job of conveying the mad maestro's anarchistic, self-destructive personality, while a young Winona Ryder plays his jailbait wife/cousin. If you like this, you have to read Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches, one of the greatest ever music biographies.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Gilbert and Sullivan almost ended their partnership after critics panned Princess Ida. Topsy-Turvy tells the story of their strained journey back to success with The Mikado, one of their most well-loved musicals. Jim Broadbent is at his best as W S Gilbert.

Sid and Nancy (1986)

If you thought Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were the couple most likely to implode, you're obviously too young to remember Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are simply mesmerising as the doomed titular pairing.

Nowhere Boy (2009)

A chronicle of John Lennon's early years and the complicated relationship he had with his aunt and estranged mother. Of course, there's also the fun bit where he meets Paul and George and starts some tinpot band...

Backbeat (1994)

How gutted must Stuart Sutcliffe be? While the pre-fame Beatles tour Germany, their bassist, Sutcliffe, falls in love with a local girl and has to choose between her and the band. True story. D'oh!

Dreamgirls (2006)

So obviously based around Berry Gordy and the birth of Motown that you wonder why they bothered changing the names. Oh, probably to stop getting sued... Jamie Foxx plays the Gordy-like overlord of the music label, while Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Hudson squabble over who's the lead singer in their Supremes-esque trio.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

A Finnish rock band seeks fame in America and ends up trying to make a gig at a Mexican wedding. They're rubbish, they look silly and they don't have a clue. Comic genius.

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978)

Eric Idle's tale of the Pre-fab Four, The Rutles. A great mockumentary of Beatlemania as well as a who's who of comedians and musicians.

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