Hollywood loves to make movies about itself, but what about America’s other massive entertainment industry? Plenty of movies feature popular music, but far fewer venture to take an interesting, insightful look at the harsh recording business that produces those same pop hits while tossing aside smaller musical acts. There’s certainly no shortage of stories within the industry to be told, but these movies about the music business tell them in a novel way, creating compelling characters, stories and even jokes while still showing us something fascinating about how the music gets made.
1. Almost Famous
Director Cameron Crowe drew from his own experiences as a teenage music writer for Rolling Stone in order to tell this story about… a teenage music writer for Rolling Stone. The young writer here follows a fictional ’70s band nearing the cusp of potential fame but plagued by internal conflict amongst the band members and even a tight-knit group of followers, all of whom become something like a dysfunctional family of oddball outcasts who, despite their differences, can still belt out a moving rendition of “Tiny Dancer.” With his story of a single band seen through the eyes of a teenager new to music world, Crowe captures a piece of ’70s music and the excitement of dreaming big, even if those dreams won’t necessarily come true for a band like Stillwater.
2. This Is Spinal Tap
A studied parody of rock documentaries and of the world of rock music itself, Rob Reiner’s classic rockumentary about a fictional hair metal band is filled to the brim with quotable lines (“These go to 11,” to name the most obvious) and memorable set pieces (Stonehenge!) that make it ideal for music fan looking for some well-observed belly laughs. At the center of it all are the self-serious members of the titular band Spinal Tap, whose pretensions are constantly, hilariously undermined by their own conformity (as revealed in videos of their earlier performances), stupidity, their heightened sexuality (“This one’s called ‘Lick My Love Pump.'”) and a steady decline in their fame. This is the world of rock music, where silly bands are given too much license to think of themselves as high art before an inevitable downfall.
Michael Fassbender stars from beneath a giant paper-mache head as Frank, the unorthodox leader of an equally unorthodox alternative band that by chance recruits the unfortunately orthodox wannabe songwriter Jon, who struggles to come to grips with Frank’s creative process and many eccentricities, even as he gives up his “nest egg” for the sake of this band. The film transforms from a character study of its two leads into a biting satire of modern independent music and music festivals when the band gears up for Austin’s South by Southwest festival, where Frank’s idiosyncratic music sounds out of place among sanitized twee-pop acts and emptyheaded hipsters. While the ultimate lesson in Frank is to leave creativity to the creatives, it also shows the disappointing sacrifices a band may have to make in the digital age to make themselves palatable to a larger audience.
4. Love & Mercy
It’s easy to define the Beach Boys by their early image of sun-and-fun bubblegum pop, but the California band created some of the most emotionally honest, orchestrally dense pop music of all-time, thanks primarily to the studio genius of former member Brian Wilson. This biopic of the enigmatic, mentally ill Wilson uses two actors to capture him at two points in life. John Cusack plays a middle-aged Wilson whose life is changed when he meets a woman who can pull him out of his lengthy depression and free him from an abusive quack psychiatrist, while Paul Dano captures the genius of the younger Wilson who made Pet Sounds before succumbing to mental illness. The latter captures his studio genius with stunning realism while simultaneously showing the toll his own creativity takes on his internal state.
5. 24 Hour Party People
Director Michael Winterbottom infuses the true story of Factory Records, the unlikely company that formed in Manchester in the late ’70s and helped bring the pioneering independent music of the region to wider audiences. Beyond name-dropping more than a few influential local acts like The Sex Pistols and Joy Division, this is a movie about the surreal, drugged-up world of the man behind Factory Records, Tony Wilson, played hilariously by Steve Coogan, who creates music history almost by accident before his personal and professional lives eventually crumble under the weight of his very modest success.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers made sure to get every period detail right in this gloomy look at the life of a struggling artist during the New York City folk music scene of the early ’60s. The titular Llewyn Davis, brought to touching life by Oscar Isaac, more or less wanders around the city crashing on the couches of friends who only barely tolerate his nasty outlook and enduring depression over the death of his past collaborator. Though the Coens work in many surreal, hilarious conversations, the mood of Inside Llewyn Davis is uniformly pessimistic, confronting the hard truths of a music world that just doesn’t care, as Llewyn routinely sabotages himself in pursuit of a dream that will never come to fruition, no matter how moving his renditions of folk classics are.
The excesses of Nashville’s country music industry comes to represent the excesses of 1970s America as a whole in the crowning ensemble achievement from director Robert Altman. A sprawling cast of characters swirl around each other on the hectic weekend of a political convention and myriad musical performances of original songs that are as catchy as they are silly. There’s a lot of hypocrisy and silliness on display throughout the film as well as a few real human emotions and the simmering threat of violence. Despite all the goofy patriotism and overproduced nonsense of the Nashville Sound that defined country music at the time, Altman sees the hope and optimism underlying all the bread and circuses of the music industry and the political process, which turn out to be more closely related than anyone would like to admit.
8. Beyond the Lights
Beyond the Lights is, first and foremost, a love story, but the film has plenty to say about its music industry backdrop as well, as it confronts the familiar perils of pop stardom with refreshing originality that sometimes borders on over-seriousness. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays an emerging pop star who contemplates suicide before a romance with honest cop Kaz helps her overcome her depression and learn to forsake the wishes of the record company suits that seek to control her in favor of exploring her own creativity and singing songs that express how she feels instead of the ones the company writes for her.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!