There have been many, many movies and documentaries made about real life musicians. Some of them have been critically acclaimed (Ray, Amadeus, This Is It, A Hard Day’s Night) while others have been universally panned (Spice World, Justin Bieber’s Believe).
Only a handful of cinematic tales have graced the silver screen (and your local Redbox) involving make-believe musicians and singers. The idea has given birth to some great original music itself, and has also replicated some songs that had enjoyed prior success by the artists that the movie paid tribute to or expanded upon.
Below is a list of the must-see films from this genre in descending order. If you haven’t seen any of these flicks, get them today – or you might even get lucky and find them streaming on Netflix! So fill a bowl with popcorn, get comfy on the couch, and settle in for a full slate of pretend musical entertainment.
10. Country Strong (2010)
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-wife of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, can actually sing. But if you’ve seen her in the film Duets or as a guest star on Fox’s hit TV show Glee, you already knew that.
Okay, so it may not be one of the best movies ever made (It received a 4.5 out of 10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but it does feature some good music. The song “Coming Home” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011, and the title track also received some accolades.
Country singer and Grammy winner Tim McGraw lends some credibility to the cast, along with Paltrow and co-star Garrett Hedlund, who both took guitar lessons to contribute some authenticity to their respective roles. See if you can also spot Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s guitarist Neal Casal in Gwyneth’s back up band.
Best Songs: “Coming Home” “Country Strong”
9. The Commitments (1991)
The dialogue is a little hard to follow at times with the characters’ thick Irish accents, but this 1991 film based on a novel by Roddy Doyle features killer musical performances of some of the most popular classic Motown and R&B hits. Although the cast was chosen for their musical abilities over their acting skills, the film has received mostly positive feedback from critics and fans.
Best Songs: “Mustang Sally” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”
8. Crazy Heart (2009)
As a musician myself, I thought that this movie had a real-feel with the main character Otis “Bad” Blake’s down-and-out story. Jeff Bridges plays a has-been, alcoholic country music star, and really brings some heart to the character by playing guitar and singing himself. Bridges also won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Actor for the role.
The music is composed by industry veteran T Bone Burnett, among many other various skilled songwriters. Musical performances by Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Waylon Jennings and Lightnin’ Hopkins add to the charm of this heartwarming film.
Best Songs: “The Weary Kind” “Hold on You”
7. That Thing You Do (1996)
Academy Award winner Tom Hanks wrote, directed and starred in this fictional tale of a Beatles-esque band that rose to quick success in 1964 with a catchy, one-hit-wonder song. The film (also starring Aerosmilth front man’s daughter Liv Tyler), grossed over 34 million dollars worldwide, and even spawned a Billboard hit – reaching #41 on the Hot 100 with the title track.
Actor Johnathon Schaech as the lead singer of The Wonders didn’t actually sing on any of the faux band’s tunes in the film, but rather, lip-synced to Candy Butchers’ vocalist Mike Viola’s recorded tracks. Another interesting note is that the bass player is never given a character name in the movie, and referred to in the credits as T.B Player. Strange. I thought that bass players ruled?
Best Songs: “That Thing You Do” “Little Wild One”
6. Rock Star (2001)
Inspired by the true story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, who was plucked out of a Judas Priest tribute band to sing with the real deal, Rock Star stars Mark Wahlberg as Chris “Izzy” Cole, a young and talented singer in a band that honors the fictional group Steel Dragon.
Wahlberg doesn’t really sing any of the vocals, but the film does feature some killer real life musicians such as Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society), Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Foreigner), and Steelheart’s Miljenko Matijevic providing the actual vocal track for Wahlberg’s character.
Best songs: “We All Die Young” “Colorful”
5. Almost Famous (2000)
Set in 1973, this film follows an aspiring music writer who gets hired by Rolling Stone magazine to join the tour of the fictional band Stillwater. Although there aren’t many original songs featured in the movie by the band, the soundtrack includes some great classic rock tunes, and the film gives a fly-on-the-wall insight to what it was like to tour in the early 70’s.
Among the songs highlighted are “Sparks” by The Who, “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes, and an iconic scene with the main characters singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus. Not included on the soundtrack, but are still heard in the film, are such legendary artists as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin…as well as many others.
Best Songs (by Stillwater): “Fever Dog” “Love Thing”
4. School of Rock (2003)
Singer/guitarist Jack Black of the rock duo Tenacious D looks right at home in this film about a struggling musician who takes over a substitute teaching job with a class of talented band kids. The enthusiasm that Black brings to the role comes across as really genuine, and the kids are no slouches on their instruments either.
The fictional band School of Rock is made up of real child musicians who are proficient at their respective instruments, as well as being talented actors. The story follows Black transforming the students from band nerds into rock stars, with the goal of winning an upcoming “Battle of the Bands” competition that offers a $20,000 prize.
The movie takes you on a journey of what it’s really like to learn a song when you’re first starting out. It accurately captures the true nature of what it’s like to be inspired by music, to practice, and to deliver a passionate performance.
Best Songs: “School of Rock” “Edge of Seventeen”
3. Dreamgirls (2006)
Based on the 1981 Broadway play of the same name, Dreamgirls follows the career of the female Motown singing group Dreams, who are primarily based on 1960s icons The Supremes. Comedian Eddie Murphy and American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson were both nominated for an Acadamy Award, with only Hudson taking home the golden trophy.
The movie features over two dozen songs, with the standouts performed by Dreams‘ members Hudson, Beyonce’ Knowles, and Anika Noni Rose. Murphy and actor/singer Jamie Foxx both lend some musical credibility to their roles as well.
Best Songs: “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” “I Am Changing”
2. The Blues Brothers (1980)
With quite possibly the greatest cast of musicians ever assembled in one film, The Blues Brothers ranks among one of the best movies ever made. The characters were taken directly from the popular Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who also contributed to the writing and the music of the film.
Such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and James Brown all make appearances in a cameo role, and offer up classic, one-of-a-kind performances that have gone down as some of the greatest musical moments in movie history.
Best Songs: “Soul Man” “Think” “Rawhide”
1. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
With a slew of catch phrases (“These go to eleven” “None more black” “What’s wrong with being sexy?”), Rob Reiner’s brilliant take on the rise and fall of a stereotypical 80’s metal band is the holy grail of movies about rock stars. Musicians universally adore this flick, and have even been known to say that the further that you get in your music career, the more the elements of this fictional tale become reality.
Best Songs: “Big Bottom” “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”