Top 20 Greatest Rock N’ Roll Movies of All-Time
In anticipation of Rock of Ages, we have rated the best rock n’ roll movies off all time. These are narrative films. Great documentaries like The Last Waltz and Stones in Exile deserve their own treatment and will get one someday soon. Meanwhile enjoy the list and do yourself a favor and make a point of checking out any and all of these great films that you might not have seen!
20) Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)
A great rock myth story. Initially a flop at the box-office, the movie was pulled out of obscurity just a year after its release when the soundtrack album suddenly started climbing the charts as the film was rediscovered on cable TV. Its resurgence was so profound that it ended up spawning a (bad) sequel. Ellen Barkin plays Maggie Foley, a reporter interviewing surviving members of the title band that dissolved after the alleged death of their lead singer, Eddie Wilson (Michael Pare), whose body was never recovered from the waters his car plunged into. As Maggie tries to solve the mystery – not only of Eddie’s death, but of the band’s never released second album that vanished from record company vaults the day after Eddie died – the audience becomes increasingly convinced that Eddie is still alive. The songs by John Cafferty are so strong that they are still in regular rotation on classic rock radio.
19) Control (2007)
This indie biopic stars Sam Riley in a head turning debut as Ian Curtis, the ill-fated lead singer of the groundbreaking and influential late 1970’s post-punk band Joy Division. Shot in black and white, this subtly told story of Curtis’ troubled life was based on the memoir Touching From a Distance by Curtis’ widow, Deborah (Samantha Morton). It focuses on the rise of the band, Curtis’ struggles with depression and epilepsy, his troubled marriage and his affair with journalist, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), culminating in his 1980 suicide. Riley, doing his own singing, and the other members of the cast who make up the band, flawlessly performed the bands signature songs. The soundtrack also features great glam & punk rock tracks of the era by artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music & The Buzzcocks.
18) Hedwig & the Angry Inch (2001)
Adapted from his hit off-Broadway rock musical, John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in this gem about a rock band fronted by Hedwig, an East German transgender singer. The title refers, not only to the name of the band but also the botched sex change operation that left Hedwig with a humiliatingly miniscule vestige of her former masculinity. Humiliation is a central theme of the movie and is used brilliantly to both comic and dramatic effect. While on a no-budget tour of America that includes a tacky seafood restaurant, Hedwig laments the success of her former protégé and lover, the rock idol Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) who stole cues and music from her and then left her in the cold. The soundtrack of all original songs (evoking Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie) written by Stephen Trask is so good it makes you wish this were a real band that could put out a follow-up album.
17) La Bamba (1987)
Lou Diamond-Phillips made his debut starring as Ritchie Valens in this biopic of the ill-fated rocker whose life was cut tragically short by a plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. A sleeper hit in the summer of 1987, the film brilliantly capitalizes on one of the chords that perpetuate the public’s enduring fascination with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe – a skyrocket to fame followed quickly by a down-in-flames death. The film has great supporting performances by Joe Pantoliano (perfect as Valens’ straight-talking manager) and Esai Morales who breaks your heart as Ritchie’s troubled brother. It also has great cameos by Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran and Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly.
16) Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Todd Haynes’ dazzling and surreal film about the British Glam Rock scene of the early 1970’s. The film, utilizing a non-linear style, centers around Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Myers) a Bowieesque rock star who has vanished from public view. Christian Bale plays a journalist retracing his disappearance from the vantage point of 1984. Ewan McGregor, in what he called a “birthday present of a part,” plays Slade’s fabulously charismatic collaborator and one-time lover, Curt Wild. Toni Colette plays Slade’s former wife, Mandy. A terrific soundtrack featuring glam-era greats like T-Rex and Roxy Music is woven into the fabric of the story ingeniously.
15) The Commitments (1991)
Alan Parker directed this well-crafted valentine to soul music. It’s a dramedy about the struggles of one Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) to form and manage a great soul band in the tradition of James Brown and Aretha Franklin in the very white city of Dublin, Ireland. Parker successfully pulled off the same trick here that he did with his 1980 film Fame. The music and settings are different but the movies, at their core, are very similar tales about the exhilaration, frustration and clashing of egos that young working class people experience while trying to make it in show business. As with Fame, the audience gets so invested in the story and characters that they experience the same feelings of triumph that the characters do when magic is created on stage.
14) School of Rock (2003)
An infectious musical comedy created by a perfect storm of talent: Directed by Richard Linklater, written by Mike White and starring Jack Black, in an ideal vehicle for the man who got his start as one-half (along with Kyle Gass) of the rock/comedy duo Tenacious D. He plays Dewey Finn, an aspiring rock star who poses as a substitute teacher and turns his fifth grade class into a rock band to win the Battle of the Bands. It’s got a fantastic soundtrack featuring some of the best rock music of all time including songs from The Doors, The Clash, The Who, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, T. Rex and David Bowie. The kids are charming and give a jump-out-of-your-seat-and-applaud performance at the end.
13) The Runaways (2010)
The story of the formation and disintegration of the groundbreaking 1970s all-girl rock band that gave the world Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Based on the book Neon Angel: A memoir of a Runaway by original lead singer Cherrie Currie (Dakota Fanning), the film focuses on the relationship between Jett and Currie. It’s a great showcase for the versatility of both actresses. Stewart is more than credible as Jett portraying her with due grit and confidence. And Fanning proves she’s not a little girl anymore as she effortlessly exudes the sexiness that Currie was required to bring to the table as dictated by the group’s svengali manager, Kim Fowley (a terrific Michael Shannon). The film is also a meticulously crafted period piece, perfectly evoking 1970’s Southern California.
12) Across The Universe (2007)
With a plot sewn together basically to illustrate one great Beatles song after another (33 in all), the movie was criticized by some as being trite and clichéd. But that is to miss the point, which is to pay tribute to the greatest rock band of all time. Ambitious director Julie Taymor boldly let the songs tell the story and the lyrics (more or less) be the dialogue as apposed to shoehorning the songs into a conventional film. Despite the unorthodox format, the cast (led by Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) still manage to turn in meaningful and visceral performances. A particular standout is T.V. Carpio with her heartbreaking version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Cameo appearances are made by Bono, Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Salma Hayek.
11) Crazy Heart (2009)
The great Jeff Bridges created yet another in a long line of indelible characters in this pic about a hard-living, aging country rocker named Bad Blake who was modeled after Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. Bridges won an Oscar for his performance as did T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham for their original song The Weary Kind which was performed by Bridges who did all of his own singing and guitar playing in the film. The strong supporting cast includes Robert Duvall as one of Bad’s old friends, Colin Farrell as a young country star and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who picked up an Oscar nomination of her own, playing a young journalist who falls for and forms a relationship with Blake.
10) The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s biopic of the iconic late 60’s/early 70s’ band that focuses on its enigmatic lead singer and driving force, Jim Morrison. The film wasn’t a critical or box office success but it was adored by many Doors fans, not least because of Val Kilmer’s astonishing portrayal of Morrison. He captures Morrison’s aura, energy and stage presence perfectly while also nailing his singing voice. Fans also enjoy the due given to the mystic side of Morrison – the shamanistic Lizard King who had visions in the desert and died under mysterious circumstances in Paris. And, from a musical standpoint, the scene of the band creating their hit “Light My Fire” really captures the creative spark that triggers great music.
9) Almost Famous (2000)
The film that Cameron Crowe was born to make. It tells a fictionalized version of his adventures as a teenager who faked his way into being a reporter for Rolling Stone. ‘Stillwater,’ the fictional band at the center of the story, is an amalgam of great 70’s bands (including Led Zeppelin & Lynyrd Skynyrd) that Crowe used to cover. It’s got a dynamite soundtrack highlighted by Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which sparks one the films’ best moments, and great performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson (in her Oscar nominated debut) and, not least, Patrick Fugit (also in his debut) in the film’s lead as Crowe’s doppelganger, ‘William Miller.’ The screenplay, with its seamless blend of comedy and drama won Crowe an Oscar.
8.) Purple Rain (1984)
The film that cemented Prince’s status as a superstar. Though saddled with some unfortunate 80’s wardrobe and plenty of less than stellar acting (with the exception of Clarence Williams III who is brilliant as Prince’s abusive father) the film is a triumphant blend of music and story – the songs inform the story and vice versa. Each musical performance and/or piece of music is perfectly placed, dramatically speaking. And every stage performance is brilliant. Prince won an Oscar for the film’s music which, of course, comes from the classic double Grammy winning album of the same name that is regularly ranked as one of the best albums of all time
7) Sid & Nancy (1986)
Film reviewers, Siskel & Ebert, summed it up best in their original review: “A great film. Powerful, hilarious, frightening, entertaining.” The movie tells the tragic love story of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), bassist of the seminal British punk rock band, The Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungeon (Chloe Webb). The film put Oldman on the map. There is always talk of actors becoming their characters, which is almost never true, but Oldman’s performance here is the exception. This goes beyond acting. It is more of an evocation of a real life.
6) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Adapted from the British rock musical stage play, The Rocky Horror Show, this film is the most (in)famous midnight movie of all time, still in limited release 37 years after its premiere. For decades fans have come to the theater dressed as their favorite character, yelled at the screen, acted out the movie as it played, and came equipped with rice to throw during the wedding scene and water pistols to simulate the rainstorm (among other accouterments). Tim Curry, in his debut, stars as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, an outrageous transvestite scientist. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick are Brad & Janet, the ordinary couple who find themselves in Frank-N-Furter’s Castle.
5) Ray (2004)
Taylor Hackford’s biopic of the late, great, Ray Charles who overcame blindness and racism to become one of the most important musicians in history. Jaime Foxx earned a well-deserved Oscar for his vivid and convincing portrayal of Charles. He nails Charles’ mannerisms, speaking voice and style of piano playing without ever devolving into mimicry (while Foxx did a lot of his own singing, his vocals were often morphed with Charles’). The film also features stand-out performances by Kerry Washington and Regina King as Charles wife and mistress respectively. Though it falls into some of the tired conventions of so many biopics, what sets this film apart is its truthfulness – its warts and all approach to both Ray’s life story and the acting performances that illustrate it.
4) Walk The Line (2005)
James Mangold’s excellent film about the early life and career of Johnny Cash is packed with great portrayals of real life people, from the Oscar calibre performances of it’s two leads, Joaquin Phoenix (who did all of his own singing and guitar playing) as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his eventual wife, June Carter (both nominated, Witherspoon won) to terrific supporting turns including Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley and a great cameo by Shooter Jennings as his dad, Waylon. Johnny Cash might have been a country singer but he was all rock n’ roll.
3) The Blues Brothers (1980)
An outrageously fun movie that LOVES music – the blues in particular, of course. Featuring the legendary John Belushi at the height of his powers as Jake Blues and a deadpan perfect Dan Aykroyd as his brother Elwood. The boys are on “a mission from God” to save the Catholic home they were raised in. They wreak havoc and break most laws to do so all while being the targets of a motley group that includes Neo-Nazis, a country-western band and a Mystery Woman assassin (Carrie Fisher) with a bazooka. They get help along the way from some of the greatest artists in music history, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway.
2) This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This hilarious film is probably the funniest mockumentary ever made. Directed by Rob Reiner and starring Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean as the fictional English heavy metal band, Spinal Tap, the largely improvised film lampoons the excesses and pretensions of hard rock and heavy metal bands as well as the demigod pedestal on which rock docs tend to place them. Though often called a cult classic, the film permeates well beyond that status having been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the U.S. Film Registry.
1) A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Everybody has seen the images of The Beatles being chased through the streets by hordes of girls. Those come from the opening sequence of this iconic film. Released at the height of Beatlemania it was much more than a cheap attempt to capitalize on the band’s popularity. It is an exceedingly charming and well made comedy starring the Fab Four as themselves – likeable lads traveling by train from their home town of Liverpool to London to appear on a TV show. Paul’s eccentric grandfather is along for the ride and gets into various misadventures that the band has to rescue him from. And then Ringo goes missing jeopardizing the show; Until, of course, he returns and the show goes on. A simple story, but a delight to watch. All of the Beatles acted well in it, with John, set as the quipster of the bunch, getting many of the funniest lines. They really could have been a comedy team not unlike the Marx Bros. The impact of this film, like The Beatles themselves, is huge and hard to measure. The Monkees, for one, owe their entire career to it. MTV can thank it for music videos. Even Scooby-Doo cartoons wouldn’t exist without it. Not to mention its influence on scores of future rock stars, filmmakers, movie stars and comedians.
Content from our partners
ScreenPicks is a subsidiary of AllMediaNY.com