Firstly, this is my list. Not yours. So you can take The Commitments, Velvet Goldmine, or whatever sixteen hour Beatles documentary you downloaded, and shove it somewhere dark and hidden. These are the top ten movies (that aren’t musicals) that have meant something to me at some random point in my life. Ten magnificent movies, and not one that I have seen less than three times.
And not only are these movies not musicals, but I also shied away from films that don’t relate, in some way, to a musical artist or band that I’m a fan of. Otherwise this list may never have got made. So as good as a film like Whiplash is (and it’s fucking dynamite) it didn’t qualify here.
Who cares. Here’s my Top Ten Music Movies that Aren’t Musicals:
- Walk The Line (2006)
I watched most of the films on this list because I was a fan of the artist, but there are three films that were more or less my introduction and led to me delving deep. Johnny Cash is now someone I greatly admire, but when I went to see Walk The Line at the cinema I think it was mainly because my girlfriend at the time fancied Joaquin Phoenix. Fair enough, though – the man is a legend. And the film was pretty decent, too – bringing a total legend to life on the screen.
- Amy (2015)
I know there’s some controversy regarding this one. But for me it did a great job of bringing some context to an unfairly maligned young woman at the same time as documenting what a once-in-a-lifetime performer she was. I don’t think you can avoid being moved at the scenes that show how truly vulnerable she was, and how much her music meant to her. It’s already a classic.
- Ray (2004)
The second of three films that introduced me to an artist, this gets the nod over Walk The Line because of how fucking good Jamie Foxx is in it. Also, because it did more than introduce Ray Charles to me – it gave me a way in to a whole genre.
- Marley (2012)
What made this documentary so special was the way it didn’t shy away from the uncomfortable side of this icon’s history, speaking to family about his issues as well as the things that made him exceptional. But it’s also just so full of warmth, so vibrant, so alive. And it does an amazing job of showing who he was as a person, who he was as a musician, who he was as a political figure, and what he meant to the world. So good.
- Biggie and Tupac (2002)
There are so many films about these two hip-hop gods. Whether focused on one of them or both, the stuff out there varies wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous. Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary is the best of the best, the most investigative, and the least speculative. And it’s probably helped by the bumbling British man behind the camera asking questions of gangstas and cops who could snap him like a twig.
- Mistaken For Strangers (2013)
I know what you’re thinking. I can’t so a top ten without including The National in some way. But I think you’d probably assume the same about Radiohead and I left Meeting People Is Easy out because, frankly, I think it’s a bit shit. Mistaken for Strangers, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. Starting as a straight up music doc, it soon becomes clear that this is more a mockumentary, and later an exploration of brotherly love and the difficulty of living in the shadow of a famous sibling. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.
- 8 Mile (2002)
I’m almost embarrassed to put 8 Mile so high on this list. Almost. Then again, I watched this probably once a week in the year after it was released and the rap battles still give me a chill when I see them today. Yes, the cheese factor seems more apparent nearly twenty years later. But honestly, this film had everything I needed in 2002. What a fucking soundtrack, too.
- Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
While Ray and Walk The Line encouraged me to explore artists I was already kind of aware of, Searching For Sugar Man introduced me (and many others) to an artist who had never been on my radar. As well as that, though, it is a masterclass in filmmaking. It is a film that doesn’t work anywhere near as well after spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it don’t read anything else and stick it on. It is good from the start, but be patient. It’s about to blow your mind.
- Five Years (2013)
This highlight among the millions of Bowie movie achieves its superiority by focusing in on a small period of the artist’s career rather than trying to outline his whole life. It looks at his creative processes and how he was in the studio, not at who he was shagging and how many lines he’d had that morning. It focuses on his genius and not gossip. It deserves its high placing on the list for that scene when it shows him working on ‘Right’. Such an amazing insight.
- Control (2007)
It should surprise nobody that my favourite film of all time is about music and, specifically, Joy Division. Sam Riley is unbelievably good as Ian Curtis. And like the Bob Marley doc above, this film is so good because it doesn’t try and make its protagonist into a one dimensional hero but, instead, explores the facets that made them who they are. Curtis was a struggling young man and Curtis was a genius. That’s all on display in Control.
Words by Fran Slater