The Best Movies In Which Musicianship Is A Key Plot Point

The life of a musician is no easy existence, particularly if he struggles to find an audience that understands and appreciates his work. The filmic interpretation of how a musician lives tends to go one of two ways: the musician is either very poor/depressed or very rich/depressed. Below are among the best of these depictions.

The Guy and The Girl in Once
The Guy and The Girl in Once
Once (2007): John Carney’s bittersweet movie about two people down on their luck in love is a testament to the power music has to bring people together (in a non-cheesy way). Referred to only as the Guy (played by Glen Hansard) and the Girl (Markéta Irglová), Once shows that, often, it is the struggle of poverty and the starvation of love that can lead to one’s most creative output.
Dan and Gretta in Begin Again
Dan and Gretta in Begin Again
Begin Again (2013): Again, John Carney shows his penchant for directing films about musicians with Begin Again, a story that centers around a failed music producer named Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) and a recently broken up with English songwriter named Gretta James (Keira Knightley, who surprisingly sings her own vocals). Again, Carney seems to favor narratives depicting love that can’t be fully realized between the two main characters. Dan manages to talk Gretta into recording her own album of songs upon hearing her sing at an open mic night. Broken-hearted enough to do it, Gretta accepts his offer to record in outdoor locations throughout New York City.
Not into it in Inside Llewyn Davis
Not into it in Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Easily the most melancholic film of the last decade, Inside Llewyn Davis is something of a horror story about being a musician. With the eponymous character (played by Oscar Isaac) never able to make ends meet, constantly getting in fights and having an affair with his best friend’s girlfriend that results in her getting pregnant and him having to scrounge the money for the abortion, it’s enough to make you want to suppress any creative leanings and just get an office job.
Alex and Sophie working on their song
Alex and Sophie working on their song
Music and Lyrics (2007): Frequently forgotten and often underrated when it is remembered, director Marc Lawrence (who seems to only enjoy directing movies that star Hugh Grant) taps into that rare story arc in Music and Lyrics: the washed-up 80s pop star. Loosely based on Wham! and the divergent career paths taken by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (the other guy), Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) falls into the Ridgeley category as former member of the duo PoP! struggling to gain a foothold back into the spotlight by writing a song for it pop star of the moment, Cora Corman. Enlisting the help of Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants and seems to have a natural flair for lyrics, Fletcher is able to come up with something really amazing–though potentially at the cost of losing Sophie’s love.
Parker Posey as the diabolical Fiona in Josie and the Pussycats
Parker Posey as the diabolical Fiona in Josie and the Pussycats
Josie and the Pussycats (2001): Yet another in the under ranked category, Josie and the Pussycats is often deemed hokey and/or simply bad. But how can any film with Parker Posey as the evil controller of subliminal product placement in music be anything but brilliant? Plus, it might have been Tara Reid’s proudest acting moment.
Michael Fassbender as "Frank"
Michael Fassbender as “Frank”
Frank (2014): Michael Fassbender (one of the few actors who would agree to be in a movie in which his face is covered for the majority of it) plays Frank, a genius of a frontman for the band Soronprfbs. In spite of the band’s talent, they are continuously marred by a curse: all of their keyboardists end up committing suicide. Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) happens to witness the attempted suicide of their latest keyboardist as he attempts to drown himself and is subsequently asked by Frank to join the band. In spite of how much the other band members dislike him, especially Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is in love with Frank, Jon documents their album recording via Twitter and ends up building them a large enough following to go to South by Southwest. The result is catastrophe paired with a commentary on music in the social media age.
The members of Spinal Tap
The members of Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap! (1984): Perhaps the most classic of all the films on this list, this mockumentary of a rockumentary follows the fictional members of heavy metal band Spinal Tap, David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls and Nigel Tufnel, as they try to go on tour in spite of marginal interest in their latest album, Smell the Glove.
The cast of Almost Famous
The cast of Almost Famous
Almost Famous (2000): Apart from the iconography spawned by this movie, Almost Famous is a statement on art taking precedence over love/a personal life and, conversely, love/a personal life taking precedence over art. The balance between the two seems an impossible one, especially when you’ve got the temptation of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) to contend with. Additionally, Almost Famous sheds light on a time when bands were still viewed as gods, as opposed to trivial footnotes in pop culture history.
Dancing to the beat
Dancing to the beat
Empire Records (1995): Not typically seen as a movie about musicians, so much as movie about working in a record store (alas, an obsolete profession), Empire Records does have a band in it that is key not only to the salvation of Empire Records, but to Gina’s (Renée Zellweger) character arc as well. Oh yeah, and GWAR is in it for a minute.
Ah, the decadence of Mozart and his era
Ah, the decadence of Mozart and his era
Amadeus (1984): Not only did this film bring the world “Rock Me Amadeus,” it made Mozart palatable for the 80s generation. And truly, there was no better time to showcase the decadence of Mozart’s style and time period. This tale of the tortured musician highlights the dark side of competition, with Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) plotting against the great Mozart (Tom Hulce) as he tries to ignore the fact that his own talent is inferior.