"Dramatic" means I've included no documentaries or concert films here. What fictional film can compete with the reality of Metallica in therapy?
ALMOST FAMOUS (Cameron Crowe, 2000) At 15, Crowe was on the road withthe Allman Brothers Band writing for Rolling Stone. This is hisstory, with the movie's Stillwater standing in for several bands,including the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The deluxe, way-over-budget movie got loads of respect but neverfound an audience in theatres despite, or perhaps because of, itspainstaking period recreation and exquisitely constructed classicrock soundtrack.
Frances McDormand gives a tremendous performance as the youngprotagonist's (Patrick Fugit) mother, as do Philip Seymour Hoffman asLester Bangs, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup as the leaders ofStillwater, and Kate Hudson in a star-making turn as the queen of thegroupies.
There are two movies where a Rolling Stone journalist is theprotagonist. This is the good one. The other one is Perfect.
AMERICAN HOT WAX (Floyd Mutrux, 1978) Okay, Alan Freed wasn't a rockmusician, but he played a crucial role as a pioneering rock 'n' rollDJ and a figure in the first payola scandals. Plus, the movieclimaxes with spectacular concert footage recreating the legendaryBrooklyn show where Jerry Lee Lewis torched his piano because he waspissed off that Chuck Berry was closing the show, not him. Berry andLewis came along for the recreation.
Tim McIntire gives a solid performance as Freed, even though he'sphysically all wrong, but the fun comes from the supporting cast:SNL's Laraine Newman as Teenage Louise, a Carole King stand-in, andJay Leno and the 20-year-old Fran Drescher jawing at each other asFreed's driver and secretary. For a great double bill, pair this withWhy Do Fools Fall In Love (1998), the biography of Frankie Lymon andone of the few rock history movies to acknowledge the existence ofMobbed-up music biz scumbags like Morris Levy, played by PaulMazursky.
BACKBEAT (Iain Softley, 1994) Critics often ask, "How many actorshave to turn down a studio picture before it gets to Stephen Dorff?"Here, however, he's a good actor in the right project, and he bringsstriking depth to Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles' first bass player, inthis portrait of the Beatles in Hamburg.
For movie purposes, Sutcliffe has a pretty face, an artsy German girlfriend (Sheryl Lee) and a tragic character arc, which is why we'llnever see a movie about Pete Best. This is Ian Hart's second shot atplaying John Lennon, following The Hours And Times, which exploredthe possible sexual relationship between Lennon and Brian Epstein.
THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (Steve Rash, 1978) One of the best things aboutthis film is its portrait of Buddy Holly as a rowdy rock 'n' roller,liberating his music from the relative politeness of his studio-boundrecords. (Holly was the first of rock's studio perfectionists.)
It was also the peak of Gary Busey's career (his one Oscarnomination), but a weird bad-luck charm for its principals. Busey waslast seen doing reality TV. Director Rash made his debut here, andnothing he's done since has come close to it. Of late, he's beendirecting direct-to-video sequels: Bring It On: In It To Win It,American Pie Presents Band Camp. For a plane-crash double bill, pairThe Buddy Holly Story with La Bamba.
THE COMMITMENTS (Alan Parker, 1991) Parker has made more musicalsthan anyone else currently working. This is the good one (though I'llentertain arguments for The Wall), and while there was thathorrifying period when you were likelier to hear The Commitments'Mustang Sally than Wilson Pickett's on the radio, we can't reallyblame that on the movie's dramatic effectiveness.
Based on Roddy Doyle's Dublin novel, it's about working-classdesperation - the basis of a lot of great rock and roll, that senseof "Well, strap on a Fender or go work in the coal mine." It'sutterly classic soundtrack of Memphis soul is played and sung by thefilm's cast.
HARD CORE LOGO (Bruce McDonald, 1996) It's an adaptation of MichaelTurner's novel about the near disastrous reunion of a legendary punkgroup for a limited tour, even as lead guitarist Billy Tallent (!)(Callum Keith Rennie) prepares to join a bigger and actuallysuccessful group stateside.
McDonald likes road movies, and this is his most precisely conceived,with a feeling for punk gone to rot when youthful rage hardens intomiddle-aged attitudinizing.
A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (Richard Lester, 1964) Andrew Sarris dubbed A HardDay's Night "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," and Lester, hereand in Help!, invented the music video as it would emerge 15 yearslater. You can't beat the soundtrack. Perfect double bill: Help!
I'M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes, 2007) Dylan times six, though none ofthem is actually named Dylan. I'm Not There is Haynes's third reallystrange rock biopic, if we count Velvet Goldmine as a Bowie bio inwhich neither Bowie nor his music ever appears. More on this when itopens November 30.
KING CREOLE (Michael Curtiz, 1958) and JAILHOUSE ROCK (RichardThorpe, 1957) Movies about Elvis Presley have generally beentele-films, unless we start including Nicolas Cage's weird Elvismoves as part of an ongoing metaphorical spiritual biography of theKing that exists only in Cage's mind. And movies starring Elvismostly suck, though they're not without their own moments of surrealpleasure.
But King Creole is damned near great. It was adapted from HaroldRobbins's one good novel, the early A Stone For Danny Fisher, anddirected by the man who brought us Casablanca and Mildred Pierce.It's a late film noir in the guise of a musical biography set in NewOrleans's Cajun underworld. If only they'd had Lieber and Stolleraround to write the songs, as they did for Jailhouse Rock, whichisn't a great movie, but what songs!
LIGHT OF DAY (Paul Schrader, 1987) In what may be Schrader's bestfilm, the characters seem to be living their lives rather thanillustrating thematic points. Of course, Schrader is from amiddle-class Midwestern family, so familiarity with the terrain hasto help.
Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett star as brother-and-sister rockmusicians. He's getting ready to settle for failure and a real job,and she's not. Both give strong performances, Fox avoiding most ofhis sitcom mannerisms, and Jett showing a surprising grasp ofcharacter. She could have had a straight acting career if she'dwanted.
Both stars do their own singing and playing, which isn't a surprisefrom Jett but is a bit of one from Fox. Gena Rowlands plays theirmom. (No wonder Jett's character wants to escape her family.) BruceSpringsteen wrote the title song in exchange for Schrader giving himthe film's original title: Born In The USA.
SID AND NANCY (Alex Cox, 1986) Sid Vicious was a crude lout and ajunkie, and he probably stabbed his girlfriend to death. And peopleremember him fondly?
Alex Cox (Repo Man) does an incredible job with London's punk milieuof the mid-70s, and has an improbable pair of stars in the thenunknown Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy, who has a voicelike a dental drill. And Courtney Love makes her first filmappearance!
Of course, calling Sid a musician is kind of stretching thedefinition. Pair this with Immortal Beloved, with Oldman asBeethoven, for a perfect double bill.
SUGAR TOWN (Allison Anders/Kurt Voss, 1999) Anders and Voss have aline in low-key rock movies, from 1987's Border Radio to Voss's NewYork Dolls and Gun Club documentaries and Anders's Grace Of My Heart,which asks, "What would have happened if Carole King had marriedBrian Wilson?"
Sugar Town is the best of them, a look at the lives of rock musicianswho used to be famous but now exist on the edges of the L.A .popscene working studio gigs, filling spaces in touring bands and tryingto explain it to their wives when a 13-year-old kid shows up on thedoorstep looking for Daddy.
Anders has a great feeling for the texture of lives. Thepast-their-sell-date rock stars are played by John Taylor (DuranDuran), Michael Des Barres (Detective, and best known for hisex-wife, Pamela) and Martin Kemp (Spandau Ballet). For a great doublebill, pair it with Laurel Canyon.
THAT THING YOU DO (Tom Hanks, 1996) It's the biography of a song, thetitle track written by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, ratherthan a film about musicians. In under two hours, it goes through thecomplete life cycle of a pop hit, from "Nice song" to "Do we have tohear this thing again?"
Hanks's one directorial effort has exquisite period recreations, goodperformances (Liv Tyler does her most charming work, and Hanks shinesas a record company weasel) and cheery cameos. Watch for JonathanDemme, Alex Rocco and Hanks's old Bosom Buddies co-star, PeterScolari.
THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Rob Reiner, 1984) At this point, I don't think weneed to say any more about This Is Spinal Tap. Perfect double bill:Hard Core Logo.
WHALE MUSIC (Richard J. Lewis, 1995) Maury Chaykin has more than 130credits over the last 30 years. This is his one lead (I think), andhe makes a meal of it, playing a once legendary rock musician (if youwant to think Brian Wilson, I'm not gonna stop you) who's holed up inhis mansion avoiding the world and trying to compose music that willsummon whales.
His life is disrupted when a runaway teen (Cynthia Preston) wandersinto his house thinking it's empty. Astonishingly, this is the onlyfeature film by director Lewis, who's been doing television in thedecade since, including 37 episodes of CSI.
STUFF THAT MISSED THE CUT
Ray and Walk The Line have fine performances, but neither Ray Charles nor Johnny Cash is a rockmusician to my ears. And if I were going to include Cash, I'd have toinclude Payday, with Rip Torn's great performance as a country singerliving a rock-and-roll lifestyle.
Great Balls Of Fire is just wrong, though the Jerry Lee Lewissoundtrack, all his classics recorded anew for the movie, isastonishing. Val Kilmer makes interesting choices as Jim Morrisson,but Oliver Stone seems to have swallowed and accepted the Doors'mythology wholesale.