I love movies about music/musicians, and I had heard great things about the movie Once, but didn’t get around to seeing it until recently. It’s about a singer/songwriter who performs on the streets of Ireland while working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop by day. He meets a piano player and they collaborate to bring their musical aspirations to life.
The storyline of artists struggling to develop their God-given talents pursue the dream in a world where the deck is stacked against them never gets old for me. It also brings to mind the reality of how committed one must be to overcome those odds. I once asked vocalist Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” what she did when times in the music business got tough. She stated simply, ” I went out and got a job.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but it’s never easy.
The movie also avoids so many of the typical movie clichés, making it more real and believable. It’s magical in its understated simplicity.
And the storyline mirrors the career of the musician who co-wrote the soundtrack and who played the lead role in the movie, Glen Hansard, who dropped out of school at age 13 to perform on the streets of Dublin and is now a successful songwriter and Academy award winner.
So you say you love music. That’s great. But when time are tough, you must ask yourself, “How committed am I and what am I willing to do to overcome the obstacles in front of me?
Here’s a performance of the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” at the Sundance Film Festival.
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.
Here’s a more extensive list from UC Berkeley