Musical Space: Films About Music

May 7, 2019


I’ve been talking lately about good film music, but what about films about music?  I imagine it’s difficult to do - what can a movie say about music that the music itself doesn’t already tell you? - but great directors have turned their cameras on music makers in lots of different ways.


Music biopics often fall flat for me - it’s hard to idolize a musician and tell an interesting story at the same time, but the Criterion Collection has some good ones: Sid and Nancy, about the Sex Pistols’ doomed bassist Sid Vicious and The Buena Vista Social Club, which brought some of Cuba’s best musicians to the attention of the world. Instead of riding on the fame of their subjects, these talk about the mixed-up cultures that the music came from.

Then there are concert films. It’s nice to see what master storyteller Ingmar Bergman does when adapting Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. And the concert film Monterey Pop (1967) shows how the visual aspect of Jimi Hendrix’s performances was just as intense as the sound.

(Music: Jimi Hendrix, “Rock Me Baby, Monterey Pop, 1967)


(This was the concert that put Hendrix on the map)

Some of my favorite music films are fictional. Good directors can really bring out the drama of characters confronting the problems of their musical aspirations. Those of the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train meet in Memphis on a fateful night to trace the beginnings of rock and roll. This is Spinal Tap is a cautionary tale of rockers who take themselves too seriously.

The bonus to all these is that the soundtracks are good too-- even if the film is in a foreign language, I can like it without reading the subtitles.

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listening list:

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Michel Legrand, “I Will Wait For You,” The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, (1964)


“The music was composed by Michel Legrand. The film dialogue is all sung as recitative, including casual conversation, and is sung-through, or through-composed like some operas and stage musicals. ”

The Magic Flute (1975)
Maybe Bergman is the perfect director to connect classical music with film.
W. A. Mozart, Overture, The Magic Flute (1791, Ingmar Bergman film 1975)

Quadrophenia (1979)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrophenia_(film)
The Who, “The Real Me,” Quadrophenia, (1979)


Opening sequence from the film - a rock opera.
Song describes an identity crisis; backdrop of the 1960’s Mods vs. Rockers rivalry

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Spinal Tap - Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight” This is Spinal Tap (1984)


In 2002, it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.[5]

Sid & Nancy (1986)
The Pogues - “Haunted “ Sid and Nancy soundtrack, (1986)


Final scene where Sid leaves the earth.

Mystery Train (1989)
Junior Parker, “Mystery Train” (1953),  Mystery Train Soundtrack (1989)


Love how everybody in the band is imitating train sounds.
Check out how the sax player fades by walking away from the mic.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
"Buena Vista Social Club" (Orestes Lopez, inventor of the mambo in 1937) Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

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