Standing as two of the world’s best-loved art forms, film and music are eternally intertwined. Musical soundtracks have been essential to driving emotional elements and drama in film since its inception, while the addition of visual media to music has helped the art reach new heights (and new audiences) for decades. But what about films with plots that center around music itself? The best movies about music and musicians showcase the struggles of self-expression, and the thought processes behind some of the greatest artists of all time. Here, we’ve assembled a wide assortment of our favorite music-based films, aimed at everyone from casual fans to hardcore music nerds.
A classic Saturday Night Live sketch turned full-length feature, The Blues Brothers follows comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as Jake and Ellwood Blues, a pair of trouble makers who set out to raise money to save the orphanage they grew up in from foreclosure. Though the main characters are fictional, a who’s who of famous musicians from multiple generations are featured in the film, including guest appearances from greats like James Brown, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Chaka Khan.
Johnny Cash’s early days are captured superbly in Walk The Line, a biopic about the life and times of one of country music’s most powerful voices. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress) as his wife and fellow musician June, the film largely centers on Cash’s rise to fame, providing an interesting insight into the Man in Black accompanied by many of his most classic songs.
This film about a young white rapper from Michigan largely mirrors the real-life story of controversial musician Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers III), who also stars in the role. While the film is compelling, it’s the music in 8 Mile that really sells it, among the best to ever grace a soundtrack. Eminem nabbed the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the now-classic Lose Yourself, and the film’s soundtrack debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 upon release, eventually becoming the fifth best-selling album of the year.
For fans of the Beach Boys’ musical mastermind Brian Wilson, this film is a must watch. A biographical drama that follows the singer and lead songwriter through his mental breakdown and back again, the film follows Wilson as a young man (played by Paul Dano) and middle-aged (John Cusack), with distinct segments set in the 1960s and 1980s. The ’60s scenes in the film closely re-create Wilson’s famed methods while recording Pet Sounds, showcasing the forward-thinking sensibility of one of pop music’s most intriguing geniuses.
Another Cusack classic, High Fidelity stars the gregarious actor as a music-obsessed record store owner in Chicago reliving his past love affairs. An excellent ensemble cast rounded out by actors such as Lisa Bonet and Jack Black is complemented by an equally enthralling soundtrack that features classic works by legendary songwriters such as the Kinks and Bob Dylan, but also highlights lesser-known (but critically beloved) bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and Beta Band.
Director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical story based on his own time as a teenage Rolling Stone journalist embedded with an up-and-coming classic rock band, Almost Famous offers an interesting and comical glimpse into the chaotic ’70s rock scene. As expected, the soundtrack for the film — which includes a who’s who of classic artists, from Simon & Garfunkel to Led Zeppelin — is fantastic. In fact, the film won the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack in 2001.
Widely regarded as one of the best films of the mockumentary genre (if not the best), Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap provides a hilarious look inside the world of the fictional British heavy metal band of the same name. A full album of original material was written (and later performed) for the film, with such hits as Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight and Gimme Some Money — not-so-subtle digs at the generic state of big-label rock in the early ’80s.
Ray tells the story of legendary pianist and songwriter Ray Charles, played impeccably by musician-actor Jamie Foxx, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. The film is filled with numerous Foxx-sung renditions of Charles classics, one of which was even remixed by Foxx and rapper Kanye West to create a hit single after the film was released. Unlike many music biopics, the film was written and shot while Charles was still alive, though the musician passed away of liver disease just a few months before he was scheduled to attend the premiere.
The story of musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is given a heavy dose of drama in this adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play of the same name. Highlighting the rivalry between Mozart and older Italian composer Antonio Salieri, the critically acclaimed film won eight Academy Awards — and 32 other awards in other competitions, including the Grammys — upon its release. Amadeus features excellent performances of some of Mozart’s classic compositions, played to perfection by London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.
Rapper Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father in this visceral portrayal of the formative years of West Coast gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. The film was the inspiration for Dr. Dre’s third studio album, Compton, and features many of the group’s classic cuts. A compelling tell-all that follows the intriguing chemistry behind some of hip hop’s most iconic performers, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2015.
A romantic musical about a busking songwriter who works as a vacuum repairman, Once was the darling of both music and film critics when it hit screens, helping to launch the careers of real-life musicians/co-stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008 for Falling Slowly.
The Coen Brothers’ black comedy about a struggling folk singer in 1961 is propelled to great heights by a wonderful script, great performances, and excellent live recordings of traditional folk songs. Starring Oscar Issac alongside musicians such as Justin Timberlake, Chris Thile, and Marcus Mumford, the film — like most Coen Brothers projects — garnered serious critical acclaim upon release, including nominations for both a Best Sound Mixing Oscar and a Best Original Song Golden Globe.