Hollywood is at its best when it produces movies that inspire. With respect to movies about music and musicians, here are a dozen that inspire me:
1. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) (Jeff & Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer)
Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors and is extremely versatile. Characters seem real and the movie avoids relationship cliches and stereotypes that so often leave the viewer less than satisfied.
2. For Love or Country (2000) (Andy Garcia)
Garcia portrays Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. All musicians talk about how important our art is to us, but this movie makes you ask the questions, “How much do I really love music and what would I do to pursue it?”
3. Swing Kids (1993) (Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale)
Compelling story of a movement of young kids who used Swing dance and jazz as a form of rebellion against the Nazi movement in pre-WWII Germany.
4. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) (Richard Dreyfuss)
Some might find this movie corny or sappy, but I love it. The movie really captures the essence of what makes great music teachers great – The ability to reach into the core of each student individually and give them what they need and to grow as a musician and as a person.
5. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) (James Cagney)
The most iconic performance by James Cagney in his portrayal of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, especially when you consider that Cagney was known as a tough guy, gangster type in most of his movie roles.
6. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) (Gary Busey)
This movie captured the excitement of the early days of rock and roll. Though Busey’s career never lived up to its potential, he turns in a great performance here.
7. This is Spinal Tap (1984) (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer)
Every cliche of the ego-driven rock star is exposed here – some real laugh out loud moments and don’t underestimate the value of the musical talents of the leading actors here in making this movie work.
8. Walk the Line (2005) (Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon)
It’s difficult to portray flawed celebrities in a way that makes you understand both why they were beloved and how they could be despised at times. This film “walks that line” wonderfully.
9. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) (Sissy Spacek, Tommie Lee Jones)
Like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn’s story had an unpleasant side (primarily her relationship with an abusive husband) that needed to be a part of the mix if the movie was to be credible. Likeable for many of the same reasons.
10. A Mighty Wind (2000) (Ensemble Cast)
It’s clear that the cast and creators of this movie, who have also put together a string of satirical films with a cult following (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) had a clear affinity for the folk music movement of the 1950′s and 60′s while understanding how the personalities easily lent themselves to jest. Heartwarming and funny and not far from an accurate portrayal of the mindset of the folk musician.
11. The Five Pennies (1959) (Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong)
Danny Kaye was one of the most likeable and engaging celebrities on the screen or off. Movie features a fun performance by Louis Armstrong.
12. The Blues Brothers (1980) (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd) Though the movie resorts to car chases and the storyline gets slow at times, this movie stands the test of time for 2 reasons: a plethora of cameo appearances by legendary blues & R&B musicians; and the chemistry and playfulness of the lead actors in their most lovable and enduring roles/characters.
Here are a few others that I haven’t seen that are highly regarded:
Sid & Nancy (1986) Gary Oldman delivered a powerful performance portraying Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.
Bird (1988) The troubled life of brilliant and groundbreaking jazz saxophone player Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Directed by jazz aficionado and musician Clint Eastwood.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) Diana Ross gives an Oscar-nominated performance as jazz vocalist Billie Holliday.
Ray (2004) Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles.
Round Midnight (1986) Dexter Gordon gives a critically acclaimed performance as an aging jazz saxophonist.
Amadeus (1990) The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart garnered 8 Academy awards.
Shine (1996) Based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott.
I discussed in a previous post a report by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) regarding the effect of the No Child Left Behind Act on the classroom that discussed the shift in education resources toward subjects that are assessed via standardized tests. CEP also provided recommendations based on their findings, one of which was to encourage the states to “Consider including measures of knowledge and skills in art and music among the multiple measures used for NCLB accountability,” based on their research that indicates “What gets tested gets taught.”
That brings up a touchy subject that gets debated in the academic world – How do you implement tests for the arts that truly capture artistic aptitude and competence? By definition the arts are about creativity, and standardization can discourage creativity. How would Charlie Parker or Pablo Picasso have performed on a standardized arts test? My fear is that standardized testing for the arts would drive the move toward memorization of facts rather than creative application, which is essentially what the arts are all about and the greatest benefit of arts in our schools (see item #5 of the 9 Common Lessons of Music Education that Translate into Success).
These thoughts led me to the emphasis on memorization in education. As a parent of a 12 year old, I can say that education today is similar to my education experience in that regard. Let me preface my remarks by saying that I believe that unless we find a way to transfer artificial intelligence to human beings in real time, memorization will always be a part of the education experience. But Social Studies, Science, and Religion (in private schools) are almost exclusively an exercise in memorization at the elementary school level. Math and grammar are of course a hybrid of memorization and application.
My point is that as the access to information becomes closer and closer to instantaneous with mobile devices that can access the web, the importance of memorization is diminished. Our schools are doing a relatively good job of addressing the importance of technology and familiarizing our children with computers and the web, from what I can gather. They are not, however, addressing the “creativity/memorization ratio” in terms of time spent on these skills in the classroom relative to their importance in the 21st century.