The best music docus, star biopics and concert films ever committed to celluloid
From Wagner to Elvis, Cliff to Cobain, and Walker to Ryder, a multitude of musicians have stepped out of the studio and on to the big screen – often, it must be said, to disastrous effect. But sometimes the union of sound and vision produces magical movies and, to prove it, our film and music teams join forces to find the 20 best ever.
First off, an apology. Nowhere in this list of fantastic films about musicians will you find This is Spinal Tap. As much as we love Christopher Guest’s mockumentary, the band never actually existed (sorry to break it to you, Tap fans). Instead we’re celebrating great films – dramas and documentaries – about real musicians. We’ve polled our film and music writers for their personal favourites and looked beyond the obvious to include films about jazz, films about opera, films about country music, and films about Gilbert and Sullivan.
Why? Partly to coincide with the release of One Direction: This is Us – while that movie is far more engaging than anyone at Time Out could have imagined, it’s nice to remember that credible musicians command the big screen treatment at times. And party because, well, we just couldn’t resist raiding the vaults and turning up the volume. Here we offer you 20 creative feats which mix the greatest of contemporary arts forms: music and film.
20. The Future is Unwritten Julien Temple, 2006 Julien Temple had already given us two wildly different Sex Pistols films – The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (1999) – but this memorial to his friend, former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, is his best. Temple made some good choices: using Strummer’s voice from his BBC World Service show as a form of narration; interviewing friends and colleagues around campfires; and digging up dynamic footage from his personal archive.
19. Rust Never Sleeps Neil Young, 1979 This tour film is one of the last great things Neil Young did before his experimentalist ’80s meltdown. In hindsight, you can see that was on the cards in the outsize stage furniture, Woodstock samples and Young’s reinvention of his crew as Star Wars-style creature ‘Road Eyes’.
18. Elgar Ken Russell, 1962 In 1962, the BBC arts strand Monitor gave the tyro Ken Russell his first break, and he wrote and directed this 60-minute chronicle of the untrained son of a shopkeeper who became the greatest English musician since Purcell. If you’ve long considered Russell over-reliant on superficial excess, this makes for instructive viewing. The sequence of the young Edward Elgar riding a white pony along the Malvern Hills to the strains of the ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ simply makes the heart soar.
17. Notes from a Jazz Survivor Don McGlynn, 1982 Only 48 minutes long, but a prime contender for the greatest jazz doc ever made. Back in the ’50s, Art Pepper’s quicksilver alto sax made him a legend, but his lifestyle destroyed his body and landed him in jail. Here we see him in 1981, cleaned up and playing his heart out in an LA club. It’s the jazz life encapsulated.
16. Sweet Dreams Karel Reisz, 1982 Country chanteuse from humble beginnings makes it big, marries badly and pours her pain into her songs. Sounds obvious? Actually, the great thing about veteran director Karel Reisz’s biopic is that it never pushes the melodrama too far, instead allowing the aching tug of Patsy Cline’s recordings and Jessica Lange’s gutsy central performance to carry the movie. Still seriously undervalued.
15. The Devil and Daniel Johnston Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005 Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary is that rare thing, a biopic that neither deifies nor demonises its subject. Johnston is a naive, comic book-styled artist and American singer-songwriter whose heroically lo-fi aesthetic has earned him a cult following. Through interviews, personal film archives and gig footage, the movie builds an intimate, hugely affecting portrait of the man and his music.
14. The Decline of Western Civilization: Parts I & II Penelope Spheeris, 1981, 1988 Penelope ‘Wayne’s World’ Spheeris’ rockumentaries are both classics. Part I is a study of LA punk at a key stage in its development, featuring some of the only footage filmed of the likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Germs, X and Fear, and marked by the youth, innocence, naivety and occasional stupidity of the bands and fans interviewed. Part II, on the other hand, features American metal at the peak of its self-indulgence, with Ozzy Osbourne, WASP, Aerosmith, Megadeth, Kiss and Motörhead espousing the virtues of excess to hilarious and depressing effect.
13. Bound for Glory Hal Ashby, 1976 Let’s be frank, had small-town dustbowl troubadour Woody Guthrie never decided to pick up a guitar, Bob Dylan would probably be doing shift work in the Meatpacking district and Billy Bragg sure wouldn’t have had a road in Barking named after him. Starring David Carradine, Bound for Glory stands as perhaps the jewel in the crown for one of New Hollywood’s most underrated figures, Hal Ashby. For a music biopic, it’s an uncharacteristically elegiac and sombre film which manages to evoke the work of directors such as Leone, Ford, Altman and Malick. Haskell Wexler scooped an Oscar for his gorgeous camerawork which perfectly captures the unease of 1930s Depression-era America and which inspired Guthrie to spread his message of working-class upheaval.
12. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man Stephen Kijak, 2006 This intriguing celebration of Scott Walker’s life in music explains, without destroying any of the man’s eerie mystery, just how a ’60s heartthrob falls out of the charts and into obscure, experimental musicianship. Even over 40 years it’s one almighty transition from boyband member to a deep and dark-thinking ambient noisemaker who orders befuddled percussionists to punch pieces of raw meat harder and with less rhythm than their already random slaps. In spite of worship from all the talking heads (Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, David Bowie), Walker would rather hide from sight and unsettle old fans by being himself than become a gurning Jagger figure.
11. Rude Boy Jack Hazan, David Mingay, 1980 Rude Boy tells the story of listless young punk Ray (played by listless young punk Ray Gange), who scores a job as a roadie for The Clash and loses it as a result of his ideological inertia. Set pieces with Ray talking to the various members of the band about life, the universe and socialism.
10. The Last Waltz Martin Scorsese, 1978 Scorsese's lustrous concert film of The Band's last stand at Winterland, San Franciso, 1976, is a testament to a bygone era. The Band bowed out with an all-star concert featuring, among others, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton. And then they invited Scorsese to film it all. Apparently, even the director didn't expect the resulting visuals to be quite so lush. But they are. And the musicianship is exquisite. Them were the days.
9. Bird Clint Eastwood, 1988 Only a few minutes of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker in performance survive on film but, right from the opening scenes of Eastwood’s labour of love, it’s clear he has an absolutely firm grasp on the man, his music and their place in the world. The film was woefully underrated on its release but now perhaps this biopic will be seen as the masterpiece it always was.
8. Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould François Girard, 1993 Glenn Gould was the prodigiously gifted Canadian pianist who gave up the concert stage to concentrate on the electronic media of records, radio and TV. Surely among the most inventive musical biopics ever committed to celluloid is French-Canadian François Girard’s brilliant 1993 offering Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould. What’s so distinctive about this multi-faceted hybrid of drama and documentary is that we never once see its subject tickling the ivories. You have to wait until after the end credits to see so much as a picture of Gould himself, though you do get to hear his frequently jaw-dropping records on the soundtrack, and actor Colm Feore does an uncanny job of capturing his distinctive speech patterns. Instead, the thesis is that Gould’s singular genius is simply unknowable on an emotional level, so we’re given a series of different outside views allowing us to put together our own mosaic of the man. Why 32 short films? To replicate the structure of Gould’s signature piece, his alpha and omega, Bach’s The Goldberg Variations – different versions of which launched his career in 1955 and unexpectedly closed it in 1981, a year before he succumbed to a stroke at the age of 50.
7. Be Here to Love Me Margaret Brown, 2004 ‘I think my life will run out before my work does,’ Townes Van Zandt once said. ‘I designed it that way.’ Van Zandt is one of those men who, because he was a profoundly talented singer-songwriter rather than, say, a bus driver, managed most of the time to pass himself off as merely ‘troubled’. But it was much worse than that, as Margaret Brown’s superb film gently illustrates. He finally ran out of road on the first day of 1997 at the age of 52, after a series of deeper and deeper rock bottoms. This isn’t an ordinary clips-and-quips documentary. There is no omniscient narrative voice: instead, the story is pieced together using songs, interview audio, still photos and old camcorder footage; wise, worldly eulogies from Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris; and the painful recollections of friends, ex-wives and children.
6. Monterey Pop DA Pennebaker, 1968 The first great rock festival film, and still one of the best, DA Pennebaker’s doc captured for all time the warm, breezy spirit of the all-too-brief summer of love, along with a plethora of top-notch performances from an epochal line-up. Hard to select highlights, but they include Jefferson Airplane Otis Redding, The Mamas and the Papas and, very memorably, Jimi Hendrix. The laurels, however, are stolen by Ravi Shankar, whose closing 20-minute raga rightly wins an ecstatic ovation from the legendarily star-studded audience.
5. Topsy-Turvy Mike Leigh, 1999 Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan film is arguably also his finest; an improbable (to those not especially enamoured of the pair’s operettas) masterpiece that manages the rare feat of making us understand how much the world has changed since the historical era on view. But more importantly, this superbly performed account of how The Mikado came about is a spot-on (and inevitably self-reflexive) study of the creative process in all its messy complexity. Oh, and it actually makes the music seem pretty good, after all.
4. 24 Hour Party People Michael Winterbottom, 2002 Steve Coogan is the unreliable narrator as the Factory Records boss and Granada TV reporter Tony Wilson, setting the tone for Michael Winterbottom’s frenetic tour through the Manchester music scene of the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s via Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, New Order and the Happy Mondays. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is very funny and never more so than when spoken by Coogan as Wilson – ‘a minor character in my own story’ – who frequently breaks the narrative and addresses the audience, even at one moment pointing to the real Tony Wilson in a two-second cameo. The film manages to feel utterly real while still freely admitting that it’s trading in myth-making.
3. Gimme Shelter David Maysles/Albert Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin, 1970 Brothers David and Albert Maysles couldn’t possibly have predicted the events that would unfold as their cameras rolled on a chilly December day in 1969 during a free Rolling Stones gig at the Altamont Speedway, nor the sociological significance the finished film would assume. The American filmmakers were unaware of what they’d recorded until they went back through their footage. Haunting, prophetic, and entirely essential viewing.
2. Don’t Look Back DA Pennebaker, 1967 It seems a shame to leave Martin Scorsese’s epic and mind-blowing No Direction Home documentary on Bob Dylan off our list, but without DA Pennebaker’s film from four decades earlier, there would be no No Direction Home. Nor would there be Todd Haynes’ newer film, I’m Not There, in which Cate Blanchett’s turn as Dylan in the mid-’60s is heavily indebted to the musician’s energetic, petulant and wired appearance in this film of his 1965 tour of Britain. Most memorable are his weird encounters with the press, from the journalist at the beginning of the tour who asks him to put an exact figure on the number of protest singers in existence in the world at that very moment to the corpulent, odd character from Time magazine who sits in near-silence listening to a rant from Dylan about their differing interests and who looks as if he’s enduring an encounter with a being from another planet – which isn’t so far from the truth.
1. Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story Todd Haynes, 1987 Not to be confused with the distinctly ropey TV movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, which emerged two years later, this is Todd Haynes’ version of the fragile American singer’s story – told with emaciated Barbie dolls, archive footage, fake talking heads and ample, unauthorised use of The Carpenters’ music. If all this sounds a little mocking, even distasteful, for the story of a young woman whose fame and success contributed to her early death from anorexia, the important thing to stress is that Haynes walks an interesting tightrope between irony and sincerity. Certainly, there’s an element of wink-wink knowingness and satire to this extraordinary and inventive film, but his target is never Karen Carpenter. Rather, Haynes has in his sights the hackneyed machinery with which so many filmmakers, reporters and documentarists deal with the troubled lives of artists. Indeed, Carpenter herself emerges as a sympathetic figure, the tragic heroine of the piece. And the sadness of Carpenter’s story is never lost along the way.