Some of the best pieces of cinema have been defined by music – whether they be biopics focusing on musical stars, movies starring musicians branching out or simply films with a totally killer soundtrack. There are a whole host of ways that music can make the difference between a killer or a filler film in your collection and here we celebrate them in all their glory. Remotes at the ready…
50 Boyz N The Hood (1991)
A modern American classic. And all the more resonant when you consider that L.A’s infamous ‘Rodney King riots’ took place in the same city just one year later.
Ice Cube and Cube Gooding Jr. (back when he was cool) star in a powerful coming-of-age film that inspired a host of brash, “inner-city gang wars” copycat movies; but none of them were as smart or memorable as director John Singleton’s masterpiece.
49 The Blues Brothers (1980)
Sure, Jake and Elwood’s soul covers (most famously, of Solomon Burke’s ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’) are karaoke-esque at times – but this John Landis-directed comedy caper is propelled by a genuine reverence for black America’s musical past; hence the cameos from Cab Calloway, James Brown and Ray Charles.
But crucially that reverence never gets in the way of the comedy, and ultimately it’s the film’s sheer energy and escalating exuberance – the bazookas, SWAT teams, stacks of totaled cars – that make it irresistible.
48 The Filth And The Fury (2000)
With a title inspired by a howlingly neurotic Daily Mirror headline, this is where the Sex Pistols get to tell their side of the story.
Julien Temple’s 1979 debut The Great Rock And Roll Swindle caught the punk zeitgeist’s tail end and offered a ramshackle glimpse into the Pistols’ lives, albeit from a skewed Malcolm McLaren perspective.
This second documentary on the band set out years later to get their take on events and – although punks would balk at the word – contextualise their influence in a broken Britain.
47 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Although not strictly a music film per se, this – like all John Hughes’ movies – brought indie music to the mainstream.
From the ubiquitous “chick-a-chick-aahs” to the gratuitous use of The Beat, The Flowerpot Men, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and of course The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ in the museum scene, ‘FB’s Day Off’ seamlessly weaves iconic music into its goofy plot.
46 The Future Is Unwritten (2007)
Released five years after Joe Strummer’s death, Julien Temple’s nuanced tribute to the much-loved Clash man featured some unexpected talking-head contributions (Johnny Depp, John Cusack) as well as some all-too expected ones (Bobby Gillespie, Bono).
Admirably, Temple makes no attempt to sugar-coat Strummer’s various contradictions and hypocrisies – this is an affectionate documentary, but not an uncritical one.
Best music moment: There’s some great archive footage early on, of Strummer laying down vocals, a capella, for ‘White Riot’.
45 Monterey Pop (1968)
The precursor to the more famous Woodstock film caught the essence of the 1967 festival – and the summer of love – and set the bar high for concert documentaries to come.
The film boasts an enviable cast including The Mamas & The Papas, Otis Redding, Canned Heat, The Who and The Animals , but not The Grateful Dead, who deemed it too commercial a project.
Best music moment: Hendrix burning and smashing his guitar at the end of ‘Wild Thing’, of course.
44 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Richard and Karen Carpenter were the ultimate clean-cut, brother and sister act responsible for buckets of pleasant MOR, but behind the scenes lay a dark story of depression and anorexia. This film tells that story.
Or at least it did, until Richard filed a lawsuit banning its distribution, which may have been down to the use of Barbie dolls to depict Karen’s illness, or the accusations of homosexuality. Either way, it’s a short but not-so-sweet document as doomed as its subject.
43 Live Forever (2003)
We’re still waiting for the definitive Britpop film (though No Distance Left To Run comes close) – but Live Forever is a solid love-note to the era, even if it relies too heavily on Liam Gallagher’s show-stealing quotes, playing it for laughs rather as opposed to examining the true cultural impact, and never dwelling on the darker side (the rampant heroin use, for example).
Best music moment: You’ve heard all these songs a thousand times before, but the Oasis and Blur tunes still set the pulse racing.
42 The Importance Of Being Morrissey (2002)
Directors Tina Flintoff and Ricky Kelehar corralled an impressive cast of talking heads for this fawning celebration of the cantankerous Smiths legend – Bono, Noel Gallagher, playwright Alan Bennett and (weirdly) Harry Potter author JK Rowling were all on hand to sing Moz’s praises.
Obviously your attitude to the film will depend on your tolerance for Morrissey’s own sour world view – Tony Blair and the Royals come in for a kicking – but there are illuminating insights into the great man’s life and work.
41 Walk The Line (2005)
Planned and filmed while the man in black was still fresh in his grave, Walk The Line nevertheless does a near-perfect job of capturing his tumultuous life.
Joaquin Phoenix captures a man wrestling his demons and knocking out a legendary career simultaneously while Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for long-suffering wife June. Just don’t blame them for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Best music moment: Halfway through ‘Jackson’ when Cash stops and asks June to marry him.
40 Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman Karen O’s soundtrack to 2009’s fantastical Where The Wild Things Are got a nod in the Grammy nominations for ‘All Is Love’, a track written by herself and bandmate Nick Zinner.
O’s ex Spike Jonze directed the take on Maurice Sendak’s book for kids which combined live action, animatronics and CGI to tell the story of Max, a nine-year-old boy who discovers an island full of ‘wild things’ who make him their King.
39 Part Of The Weekend Never Dies (2008)
An ode to excess and life on the road, this Saam Farahmand-directed documentary followed Belgian brothers Soulwax as they took their dance music spectacular around the globe.
Using just one camera to capture the action on and off-stage over 120 shows on a vast worldwide tour, interviews and cameos include James Murphy, Klaxons, Erol Alkan and Peaches – making for a film that’s chaotic, hedonistic, sexy and exhilarating.
Best music moment: The spine-tingling sight of thousands of gurning clubbers bouncing in unison at giant warehouse raves.
38 8 Mile (2002)
Eminem’s first foray into film saw him playing ‘Rabbit’, a white Detroit rapper so closely modeled on himself as to be almost autobiographical.
A gritty, underdog tale in the Rocky Balboa mould, boxing is swapped for battle MC’ing as our man fights through poverty, prejudice and a broken home to reach the top of his game.
37 Loud Quiet Loud: A Film About The Pixies (2006)
For Pixies fans, the band’s 2004 reunion was a momentous event. The band themselves were a little less enthusiastic, and that tension comes through in this illuminating backstage documentary.
Featuring a dramatic moment in which the band confront drummer David Lovering over his rampant drug use, the film otherwise captures an often-overlooked truth about life on the road: musicians often don’t have a whole lot to say to each other.
Best music moment: The hits sound as mighty as you’d expect, but the live footage is not the most compelling part of the film.
36 Scott Walker 30 Century Man (2006)
There aren’t many films in which you can see a musical legend pondering the correct way to punch a joint of pork – but then Scott Walker is hardly your typical artist, and 30 Century Man demonstrates exactly why such flights of fancy make the pop idol-turned arty recluse so revered.
A-list stars queued up to get involved – David Bowie acted as executive producer, and interviewees include Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and Johnny Marr.
35 ATP All Tomorrow’s Parties (2009)
Hailed by its makers as “post-punk DIY bricolage”, this documentary of the bi-annual ATP festivals brought film-making into a new dimension.
Combining footage from the fans and the musicians attending the events, on a multitude of formats from Super8 to camcorder and mobile phone, it features everyone from Fuck Buttons to Belle & Sebastian.
Best music moment: Butlins’ security guards screaming at extreme noiseniks Lightning Bolt as they play an impromptu gig outside the resort’s pub.
34 The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2006)
Depressive singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is one of those artists who’s more interesting to read about, or watch a film about, than actually listen to (even if Kurt Cobain did call him the “greatest songwriter on earth”).
Fortunately, this documentary, while never exactly easy viewing, tells his unhappy story in sensitive style, in the process winning director Jeff Feuerzeig a Sundance award in 2005.
Best music moment: ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’.
33 Blur: No Distance Left To Run (2010)
A retrospective retracing of the band’s life and times in the ever-so-slightly melancholic light of their 2009 reunion tour. With behind-the-scenes tapes anchored by fresh accounts and witterings from the four band members, it sets the scene on one of the greatest reunions in recent times – and if any of it looks slightly fraught then fear not: six years later, we all know how this one actually panned out…
Best music moment: Choice cuts include Alex trudging through reams of Japanese radio station idents (“Hi, I’m Alex, the stupid one from Blur…
32 The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
It’s one of the great misfortunes in life that Bill Murray was never a songwriter. So music fans should instead make do with this slice of Wes Anderson movie magic that features wonderful David Bowie covers from Brazilian musician Seu Jorge and a golden soundtrack.
Murray plays an off-the-wall, Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer for whom murderous pirates and a killer fish are only the start of his troubles. His career is in tragic decline and his personal life is in disarray.
31 Juno (2007)
A teen coming of age movie at its core – Juno’s clear regard for its soundtrack and various band references within the film make it a must-see for anyone of an NME bent.
Juno herself loves Patti Smith, Iggy and The Stooges and Mott The Hoople. The adoptive-dad-to-be declares he once opened for Kurt Cobain-favourites the Melvins. Together they dig through old mix tapes, share songs and delight in cult horror flicks.
Alternative indie rock sits firmly at the heart of the film. And it’s a film with a huge heart.
30 The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
The best music movie that most people have never seen – largely because it’s not available on DVD – this charmingly haphazard documentary captures the leading lights of the US glam-metal scene – Poison, WASP et al – just as it was starting to slide into self-parody.
Featuring an endless parade of drunken, semi-coherent rock star idiots, the viewer is left with an inescapable impression of: “This is why grunge had to happen.”
Best music moment: The Megadeth footage rocks fairly hard, but it’s the rambling interviews that you’ll enjoy the most.
29 Beastie Boys; Awesome I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006)
Here’s a neat concept: borrow a bunch of video cameras, dispense them to 50 super-fans at a live show and give them one instruction: “Just keep filming”.
Frame-perfect editing of the ensuing hundreds of hours of footage ensures that this innovative “fan’s eye view” (including one punter’s comic rush to and from a urinal) of a Beastie Boys show at Madison Square Garden is unlike any other live DVD you’ll ever see.
Best music moment: Cameo appearances include Doug E. Fresh and DMC (of Run DMC). Oh, and Ben Stiller rapping along with his missus.
28 Justice: A Cross The Universe (2008)
Listening to their music is like being thrust into the thumping heart of a great, demonic robot. So it’s only fitting that this raucous documentary encapsulates the wild, strobe-infested days of French DJ duo Xavier and Gaspard on tour.
Their Led Zeppelin-esque adventures with guns, groupies, cops and million-dollar mansions may have been ‘accentuated’ for the camera, but the result is still a thrilling slice of rock ‘n’ roll that makes you want to go out tonight and get utterly obliterated.
Plus, it’s funny, fast-paced and sexy. What’s not to like?
27 Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
The video accompaniment to Neil Young’s classic 1979 live album of the same name, this film really needs a DVD release.
Capturing Young at his creative peak, where shows would veer from electric to acoustic at the drop of a pick, this is one of the definitive concert films.
Best music moment: ‘Like A Hurricane’ performed like a, well, hurricane.
26 Heavy Metal In Baghdad (2007)
Gotta give it to those Vice documentary guys. From True Norwegian Black Metal through to the more recent Guide To Liberia, they know how to consistently produce some of the smartest, most balls-out filmmaking online.
Flying into the Baghdad war zone to trail Iraq’s only heavy metal band Acrassicauda, their heart-in-mouth mission is best summed up by presenter (and Vice founder) Suroosh Alvi: “This is risky, it’s dangerous. People would say that it’s really fucking stupid for us to be doing this. But, y’know, heavy metal rules.”
25 Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2002)
Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers have played on more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined.
However, it took this stunning 2002 documentary to pull them out, blinking, into the limelight to get the credit they deserve, for the likes of ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ and ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.
Best music moment: The modern day Funk Brothers hooking up with Chaka Khan for ‘What’s Going On’.
24 Woodstock (1970)
There’s an argument that Woodstock – the festival – would never have accrued so much cultural and historical significance, had it not been for Woodstock the movie, which won an Best Documentary Oscar in 1970.
23 American Hardcore (2006)
Based on the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, this is the definitive documentary on the fiercely politicized movement that threw up such incendiary bands as Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat in the early-mid 80s, and – mysteriously – ended up mutating so far, we ended up twenty years later with Owl City.
If bald heads, screaming, tattoos and “beatdowns” are your thing, then… well, you’ve almost certainly already seen this.
22 Singles (1992)
This being a Cameron Crowe film, Singles took the self-lacerating, counter-cultural rage of grunge and made it as safe and saccharine as an episode of Friends – which incidentally launched two years later, and surely took a few tips from this film, with its cast of quirky-yet-clean-cut young apartment-dwellers.
21 The Last Waltz (1978)
Martin Scorsese’s film captures The Band’s 1976 farewell concert at San Franscisco’s Winterland Ballroom – but thanks to a host of special guests (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan), it also documents, more broadly, American folk-rock in its high pomp.
The gig was a debauched affair, with Scorsese as well as the musicians indulging in heavy cocaine use backstage. Legend has it a large lump of coke – visibly hanging from Neil Young’s nose – had to be edited out in post-production.
Best music moment: ‘The Weight’ takes some beating.
20 Pretty In Pink (1986)
Inspired by and featuring the Psychedelic Furs track ‘Pretty In Pink’, this quintessential John Hughes movie is a story of teenage love, high school troubles and social cliques that’s both of-its-time (its time being the ’80s) and in thrall to the cosy certainties of ’50s America.
The film also features New Order tracks ‘Shell-Shock’, ‘Thieves Like Us (Instrumental)’, ensuring that the soundtrack has aged well, even if the on-screen drama hasn’t.
Best Music Moment: Psychedelic Furs – ‘Pretty In Pink’.
19 Glastonbury (2006)
From the opening mud squelches onwards this documentary does what all great docs do – makes you wish you were right there in the thick of it.
Composed by Julien ‘Filth And The Fury’ Temple from live footage, interviews and stuff sent in by punters, it’s the ultimate postcard from the world’s greatest festival. It doesn’t claim to cover the sprawling bender in minute detail, rather offers a snapshot of the experience.
18 Love & Mercy (2015)
Director Bill Pohlad’s sensitive biographical film about the Beach Boys’ songwriting genius, Brian Wilson, takes place at two key stages in the iconic musician’s life: Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) portrays Wilson at his 1960s creative peak, while John Cusack plays him as he endures a personal crisis in the 1980s. Love & Mercy bounces back and forth between the two eras effortlessly, offering an enlightening portrait of a troubled but well-meaning man who is preyed upon by questionable therapist Dr.
17 Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
If you ever wondered why Radiohead went all leftfield and electronic on ‘Kid A’ – rather than taking the baton from U2 as the biggest band in the world – look no further than this on-tour documentary, which captures the full horror of the promotional treadmill that ‘OK Computer’ set them on.
It’s an anti-tour film, exposing the tedium rather than the glamour of being on-the-road.
16 Gimme Shelter (1970)
Borrowing its title from one of the greatest tunes of all time, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the essential music documentaries.
Recorded fly-on-the-wall – which seemed revolutionary at the time, honest – it follows the Stones at the height of their ‘70s excess, from playing Madison Square Garden to the unfortunate death of a fan at Altamont. One of the camera operators was an unknown rookie called George Lucas.
Best music moment: ‘Brown Sugar’ live, ‘Wild Horses’ in the studio, ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’… it’s one long music moment.
15 Pulp Fiction (1994)
John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman star in the film that sees violence, comedy, crime and pop culture collide as mobsters, a boxer and a gangster’s wife find that their stories inter-link.
The soundtrack was a hit in itself, reaching Number 21 in the US billboard charts. With no score written for the film, Quentin Tarantino chose rock, soul and surf tracks to accompany the movie.
Best Music Moment: Dick Dale’s version of ‘Misirlou’ during the opening credits.
14 No Direction Home (2005)
You don’t have to be a rabid Dylanologist to enjoy Martin Scorsese’s high-minded documentary about Bob Dylan’s career between 1961 and 1966.
Sure, it’s enormously reverent – but any fears of fustiness or tedium are expelled by some genuinely illuminating archive material, including newly-discovered colour footage of the infamous “Judas” moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall concert, May 1966.
Best music moment: For curiosity value (rather than musical quality), the grainy footage of Dylan’s high-school rock band is a highlight.
13 Dazed And Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s love-note to his mid-70s schooldays pulls of the neat trick of making you nostalgic for a time you (probably) never even lived through.
Even if you’ve never smoked reefer, attended a keg party, or ‘hazed’ a freshman, you’ll still feel a pang of recognition from this heartfelt hymn to discovering the joys of girls and guitars.
Best music moment: When Mitch comes home after losing his virginity, puts his headphones on, and immerses himself in Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’.
12 Stop Making Sense (1984)
The highest-ranking concert movie in our list, Stop Making Sense was shot over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, during Talking Heads’ 1983 ‘Speaking In Tongues’ tour.
What’s noteworthy is how far it deviates from the norms of live performance footage. By largely avoiding crowd shots and quick jump-cuts, the film represented an arty counterpoint to the growing clichés of MTV, which had launched three years previously.
11 Dig! (2004)
Controversial Ondi Timoner documentary Dig! tracks the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols over seven years.
10 High Fidelity (2000)
Those of us who’d loved Nick Hornby’s book, set in London, initially bridled at the all-American film version, transposed to Chicago. But the characters, especially John Cusack’s list-making lead, lost none of their essential warmth in the adaptation.
After all, geography is unimportant – this is a film that speaks to anyone who’s ever obsessed over music to the detriment of actual, y’know, human relationships.
9 This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can we say that hasn’t already been said? Scenes from …Tap get quoted so many times, yet somehow the spoof rock doc never gets stale, perhaps because it’s so true to life: Eddie Van Halen once confessed, “Everything in that movie [has] happened to me.”
The sharpness of the performances – especially Christopher Guest’s dim-but-lovable Nigel Tufnel – is even more impressive when you consider that much of the dialogue was improvised. Now, if only they hadn’t done that awful reunion tour…
8 Don’t Look Back (1967)
More than a tour documentary, this film finds Dylan inventing the modern idea of the mercurial rock star: combative, awkward, refusing to be caged by critics or fans.
It’s full of mesmerising scenes – Dylan taunting the Time Magazine journalist, Dylan playing ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ to a hotel room full of awestruck onlookers. Has any musician ever oozed charisma like the man born Robert Zimmerman does in Don’t Look Back?
7 Quadrophenia (1979)
Bursting with violence, drugs, sexual longing and despair, Quadrophenia – loosely based on The Who’s 1973 rock opera – is often dismissed as a mod film, but its appeal is universal.
The character of Jimmy Cooper speaks across generations to anyone who’s ever felt young, lost, and hungry for self-definition. The fact it’s accompanied by the best music Pete Townshend ever wrote only magnifies the film’s deathless power.
Best music moment: Jimmy’s climactic, cliff-top Lambretta ride, soundtracked by ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ .
6 Trainspotting (1996)
Released in 1996, the height of Britpop, Danny Boyle’s breathtakingly distinctive film caught a unique moment in British culture: youthful, confident, alive with possibility.
Wisely, though, the Britpop bands on the soundtrack – Sleeper, Pulp etc – were played down in the film itself, and it was two veteran US acts (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed) who accompanied the film’s most vividly memorable scenes.
Best music moment: When Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ kicks in as Renton abandons his mates to go straight. Instant goosebumps.
5 Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
The greatest puzzle about Metallica’s in-the-studio documentary is that they allowed it to be released at all, since it’s more ‘warts-and-all’ than Motorhead’s Lemmy – a startling, wince-inducing insight into the band’s ego-driven petty rivalries.
There’s more to it than mere psychodrama, though. The film also raises some awkward questions about creativity. What happens when the songs dry up, and what used to come so easily, is suddenly agonizingly difficult?
4 Almost Famous (2000)
Former Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe based the script on his on experiences, and while you could argue it offers a sterilized version of ‘70s rock’n’roll, the film doesn’t shy away from portraying guys in bands as deeply flawed (Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond bellowing “I am a golden god!” – originally a Robert Plant quote – is one scene that sticks in the mind).
3 Control (2007)
Erstwhile NME photographer Anton Corbijn swaps his stills camera for video, to produce one of the finest music biopics to grace the screen.
Stunningly shot in black and white, the modern classic focusses on Joy Division and the band’s enigmatic frontman Ian Curtis, who commited suicide aged just 23.
2 Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
You don’t need to be a gumby old-school metal fan to appreciate the desperate poignancy of this award-winning documentary, which follows the exploits of a has-been rock band as they endure repeated humiliations – empty gigs, missed trains – before finally achieving vindication, of a sort.
Much like The Wrestler, which came out the same year, the message is an unexpectedly nuanced one: follow the dreams of youth into middle-age, sure – but be aware that there’s a heavy price to pay.
1 24 Hour Party People (2002)
As celebratory as it is comical, 24 Hour Party People bows at the altar of Manchester’s legendary, pioneering indie scene – while never being afraid to add a mischievous dash of the surreal to liven up proceedings.