Movies about musicians, whether biopics, fictions or documentaries, are a fixture in cinema, but judging by the flurry of activity over the past 12 months – with acclaimed films about Aretha Franklin, Freddie Mercury and Elton John among others – we are in an uncommonly busy period, if not a flat-out golden age.
Good news for music fans, but even better news for the music industry, where these films represent an increasingly vital revenue stream in an era of slumped record sales, bumping a band’s back catalogue and getting a new generation hooked on their work.
There is, of course, far more to these movies than money-spinning: a good biopic or documentary can bring the songs to life, and illuminate the struggles of their creators. But what do musicians make of this lively cinematic category? We asked six eminent songwriters – including a few who have scored movies, and others who have been the subject of movies – to each pick their five favourite music films.
Born in 1980 to an English mother and Italian father, Anna Calvi grew up in Twickenham and studied music at Southampton University, specialising in violin and guitar. Her eponymous debut album, released in 2011, was nominated for a Mercury prize, as were her 2013 follow-up, One Breath, and her latest album, Hunter: “A serious-minded collection of pop songs about desire… [that] recalls the films of Douglas Sirk,” said the Guardian in a five-star review. Calvi recorded a track for the 2015 sci-fi movie Insurgent and has scored the new season of Peaky Blinders.
Walk the Line
(Drama; James Mangold, 2005)
I watched this film about Johnny Cash’s early life and career before I was signed, and it gave me my first taste of what touring might be like. I remember thinking: ah, OK, that’s what to expect – driving around in great cars, hanging out with really famous singers and watching Elvis backstage. Sadly, touring for me is more about hanging out in a dressing room for hours and having cold rider food for dinner – not quite as glamorous. But this is a great film, and Joaquin Phoenix is really well cast as Cash – he’s got this bad-guy thing about him and seems a bit dangerous. And the songs are timeless.
(Documentary; Asif Kapadia, 2015)
Such a devastating and beautiful film. It’s interesting to see Amy Winehouse as a young girl with raw talent, and watch how, like a wave, she goes up and up and up and then crashes. As a viewer, you feel almost guilty to be watching her – she was watched enough – but this is a respectful portrait and I like that it celebrates her music. A lot of the time, in films about female artists, they only focus on the tragedy of their emotional lives and not enough about how amazing their craft was – and with this film you definitely get a sense of what an amazing singer and songwriter she was. She was much more than someone with addiction problems: she was a singular talent.
This is about an East German singer who has a botched sex-change operation and is left with an “angry inch” of flesh between her legs. Moving to the US, she gets involved with another singer, who steals her songs and becomes famous, while Hedwig, played by the director John Cameron Mitchell, ends up playing in a chain of seafood restaurants called Bilgewater’s. It’s a beautiful film that touches on Greek mythology and the origins of love, as well as gender identity. It’s a lot of fun too – a comedy with a serious message. And the songs are great.
(Drama; Oliver Stone, 1991)
I remember watching this, stoned, while at university, and I think you kind of have to be stoned to watch it, because it’s so psychedelic and weird. I’ve always had a fascination with Jim Morrison and regularly I ask myself: “What would a female Jim Morrison do in this moment?”, because I like his commitment to the moment as a performer, and his shameless expression of his sexuality, which, as a woman, I think is a nice thing to exploit. I don’t know how I would feel watching this film now, not being stoned, but at the time it seemed like a really romantic portrayal of a poetic artist.
(Drama; Damien Chazelle, 2014)
This is about what a music student who really wants to be great has to sacrifice to pursue greatness. It reminded me a little of my own experience at university, and how there’s such a difference between studying music, which is quite sterile, and then actually going out and doing it. You have to unlearn everything and just try to be honest, using your instrument to speak in a way that people can understand.
Andrew’s (Miles Teller) relationship with his music teacher in the film is very extreme, but I had music teachers at school who I felt really passionate about and who I wanted to get better for, so they would believe in me.
Neil Tennant co-founded the synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys with Chris Lowe in London in 1981 and went on to sell more than 100m records worldwide, including the hits West End Girls and Always on My Mind. The duo have released 13 studio albums, with videos directed by Derek Jarman, Bruce Weber, Wolfgang Tillmans and Martin Parr. Their latest EP, Agenda, came out in February. They headline Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park on 15 September.
The Young Ones
(Drama; Sidney J Furie, 1961)
A group of teenagers, led by Cliff Richard, rally together to stop a theatre being demolished. They succeed by putting on a show there. The Young Ones is a gorgeous fantasy, so optimistic and beautiful, about the potential of pop music for young people. It made me want to join a youth theatre, which I did a few years later, and it introduced the six-year-old me to the thrill of both pop music and theatre. They’re still thrilling me today.
(Documentary; Alan Yentob, 1975)
As a huge David Bowie fan who was at the last Ziggy Stardust gig – when he said he was quitting, I remember turning round to my friend and saying, “As if!” – this BBC documentary from a couple of years later felt very special. And very new. It’s the document of Bowie in America, and gets you so close. He’s so vulnerable, sniffing – obviously taking cocaine – and looks like an alien; but when talking Alan Yentob through his old tour outfits, he’s still something of a chirpy cockney lad.
The film also shows the sharpness and originality of his musical mind, especially when he’s directing his amazing backing singers through their parts. It’s fascinating to see him at work as a musician.
(Drama; Bob Fosse, 1972)
The story of singer Sally Bowles in the Weimar Republic, which came out late in 1972, into a very dreary Britain. I think of it as a glam-rock document, really: all those fantastic songs, confined to the stage, plus the brilliant makeup, in this frightening city. The notion of “divine decadence” was very intriguing when you were an 18-year-old student from Newcastle, recently arrived in London. It also had an impact on punk – look at Siouxsie Sioux: obviously influenced by Liza Minnelli. My friends and I would listen to the soundtrack in our Tottenham student flat, back-to-back with Lou Reed’s Transformer and Roxy Music’s second album. It had the same impact.
This was a BBC Omnibus drama about a young composer from Yorkshire, Eric Fenby, in the late 1920s. He reads that the composer Delius, also from Yorkshire, is now blind, partly paralysed and can no longer compose, with work left unfinished. Fenby manages to help him deliver those last works.
It’s an elegiac film about the painful process of creating music and the end of a creative life. It’s very emotional, unsettling and moving. Delius is an incredibly tragic figure, both fragile and brutal. Russell was brilliant at creating images to accompany music.
A film about this extraordinary, charming, unegotistical group of LA session musicians in the 60s and early 70s who played on everything, and didn’t publicly get proper credit. They made Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, they played the backing tracks for the Beach Boys, they’re on Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ and Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman (with Carol Kaye’s bassline). You realise all these records have a sound, and the sound is this band.
I wanted us to go to LA to make an album [2012’s Elysium] and record in Capitol Studios because of this film. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the process of making pop music.
Born in South Tyneside to a Pakistani father and an English mother of Norwegian heritage, Nadine Shah has recorded three albums over the past six years, including Love Your Dum and Mad (2013) and Holiday Destination, which was nominated for a Mercury prize in 2018. The 33-year-old is currently recording a new album and plays the Legitimate Peaky Blinders festival in Digbeth, Birmingham on 14 September.
20,000 Days on Earth
(Documentary; Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, 2014)
When you’ve got a favourite artist, you want to know everything about them, from their favourite colour to what they have for breakfast, and you get that with this Nick Cave documentary. It’s clear how every detail has been carefully and thoughtfully curated by him. I love the glimpse into the friendship between him and Warren Ellis when they’re discussing the time they met Nina Simone, and she said what she wanted to have after her gig: “I want champagne, cocaine and sausages!” They look like little boys when telling the story. It’s a beautiful insight into their world outside of music-making.
A really definitive film about an incredible woman. She’s mint – the end! But seriously: I’m obsessed with the model Nina Simone set out for women. She allowed us to sing in lower, stranger registers. She made politics a central part of her art. She was uncompromising. The way her daughter leads her story in this film also gives it a really special perspective. You can’t help but feel humble before her.
(Drama; Mark Herman, 1998)
A film that absolutely nails the experience of really wanting to perform – that feeling that you’re weird to do so when you’re not being encouraged – and of music being a brilliant form of escape. Even though I’m not working-class, the story described a world and an attitude to women I knew well.
It’s also about finding your identity through music, how you can find your own voice through singing other people’s songs. I used to do that myself as a child, trying to become Tina Turner by singing Private Dancer!
Years ago, I went to see this documentary with a friend, not knowing who Scott Walker was. When I came out of the cinema he was my new favourite artist. I’m absolutely not kidding! It was made at the time he made [2006 album] The Drift, and it sets out how he moved his career away from his early years, on his own terms. If you haven’t seen it, I swear you’ll be wanting to punch a piece of meat for percussion, as he does on Clara, by the end of it. It’s that good.
(Drama; Brady Corbet, 2018)
Natalie Portman plays a young teenage pop artist, Celeste, who starts making music after surviving a school shooting. Then it becomes a film about what the pop industry can do to people, what not to do within it, and about messiah complexes. It’s a really over-the-top, sinister film – it becomes almost alien. But it also reminds you to keep your ego in check, pull your baseball cap down, don’t get lost in the madness, and just keep working.
Wayne Coyne is the lead singer of the Flaming Lips, which he founded in 1983. The band has released 15 studio albums, including At War With the Mystics, which won two Grammy awards in 2006. In 2005 he appeared in a documentary about the Flaming Lips called The Fearless Freaks, and three years later released his own sci-fi feature film, Christmas on Mars. Born in Pittsburgh in 1961, Coyne grew up in Oklahoma City, where he now lives with his wife and baby son.
This film changed my life. I wouldn’t have known it existed if I hadn’t gone to see a terrible Don Johnson movie, A Boy and His Dog, in a double bill with my brother. We’d see anything in Oklahoma City to pass the time, and we were the only kids in the theatre, smoking a joint. Then the second film came on.
I hadn’t known this period of Pink Floyd. It opened up a new world of music to me.
I was 16, wanting to be a rock star, and they actually talked about how they made their songs. I went out and bought a Stratocaster like Dave Gilmour’s soon after. I still can’t believe I had the luck to see it.
(Documentary; Robert Frank, 1972)
This unreleased Rolling Stones documentary was a film you’d always hear about but know you’d never, ever see. Now I can watch it online anywhere within seconds. It’s better than you think. It shows just how insane their lives were while they were making some of their best music, in hotel rooms doing drugs, with all this weird shit going on. People who see them in stadiums now wouldn’t relate to those characters, but this proves they were always phenomenal, even in their craziest hours.
(Documentary; Michael Wadleigh, 1970)
By contrast, everyone had seen Woodstock: this movie played and played. I saw it late, expecting to just watch this bunch of weird hippies rolling around and Jimi Hendrix popping up at the end. But the performances were great: this turned me on to the Who, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker. The editing was so ahead of its time, so dynamic. Woodstock really made people realise that music isn’t just about hearing it: it’s about seeing it, and getting more of the personalities behind it. About getting more of everything.
The Kids Are Alright
(Documentary; Jeff Stein, 1979)
More than any other band, the Who put that thing in me that made me who I am now, and this documentary told their story in a way that really zapped me. That connection you see between Pete Townshend and Keith Moon: you rarely see people get so possessed by their music, their energy and connection to each other. Then there’s Roger Daltrey being this flawless singer, an angel, in the chaos of it all.
This documentary shows how much of the band’s exuberance is in their music, and when we’re watching their performances being constructed, I don’t see them being fakes – I see them making art out of their imaginations.
Urgh! A Music War
(Live music compilation; Derek Burbidge, 1982)
Oklahoma City was a test city for MTV, and this compilation of US and UK punk rock bands – XTC, the Cramps, the Dead Kennedys – came out around the time, and had that same spirit. One song each, blam-blam-blam. You didn’t know who was American and who was English and it didn’t matter – what did was every band was doing it themselves and looking bizarre.
And in a world where you knew you could never be the Beatles, here was John Cooper Clarke performing to 50 people and being fantastic. That felt huge. Seeing the energy coming off the audience when he made that effort really did something to me.
A musician and composer, Nitin Sawhney was born in London in 1964 and raised in Kent by parents who had emigrated from Punjab. He started as a comedy writer, working with Sanjeev Bhaskar on a sketch show that would eventually become Goodness Gracious Me. He has released 11 solo albums, including 1999 breakthrough Beyond Skin, and collaborated with Paul McCartney, Akram Khan and the London Symphony Orchestra. Sawhney has scored TV programmes, computer games and more than 50 films, including Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006).
(Drama; Anton Corbijn, 2007)
An incredibly bold portrait of Ian Curtis’s life, which manages to take his story away from mythology really convincingly. You’re shown a young man trying to balance life in music and his illness with a domestic existence, and the performances of Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife, Deborah, are very powerful.
I wasn’t a huge Joy Division fan when they were around – I was studying nearby in Liverpool – but this film absolutely captures the mood of that time, as does the black-and-white cinematography. It also nails that struggle of being an artist and a human being. That isn’t captured enough.
(Documentary; 1993, Tony Gatlif)
This film traces the evolution of flamenco, from its origins in India through Egypt, through eastern Europe to the west – “latcho drom” means safe journey. The director is Romany himself, and there’s no narrator, so the story is told through song and subtitles with no contrivance at all. You feel properly immersed in new worlds as a result – I play flamenco, and you feel the echoes of ancient traditions in it, but this is something else. The most powerful scene is of three women singing on a hilltop about how they’ve been disenfranchised. It’s unbelievably moving.
Searching for Sugar Man
(Documentary; Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)
A superb documentary about the once little-known American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, and his huge popularity in South Africa, which starts with a rumour about him killing himself by setting fire to himself on stage. His real story then reveals itself to be very different.
This film delves into mythology, how it develops, and the way we elevate musicians as beacons in culture. It’s also a film about an incredibly underrated guy, and how difficult it was to find lost stars before the internet took off. It couldn’t happen now.
I’ve played in heavy rock bands, funk bands, jazz bands, and this film captures the hilarious madness of touring life: the egos of musicians and managers, the pedantry behind getting the right things on riders, the bathos behind big epic concerts… I got lost in a labyrinth of corridors before getting to the stage once, just like Spinal Tap!
This remains a tour bus favourite because of the attention to detail, particularly in the actors’ performances. I couldn’t believe it when I realised that Michael McKean from Better Call Saul was the guy who played David St Hubbins. But of course he was. He was always that good.
(Drama; Clint Eastwood, 1988)
A beautiful film about Charlie Parker, played brilliantly by Forest Whitaker, and directed by an actor who’s obviously a big jazz fan. Bird really shows you how ludicrously gifted Parker was, how his mind worked on a completely different level, but also how much he got lost in self-loathing, and how addiction made everything fall apart. Parker was 34 when he died, but the coroner thought he was 60, looking at his body. By getting into the New York club scene and looking at aspects of racism, this film also shows just how much Parker achieved, given everything he was fighting against.
Anna Meredith was born in London in 1978 and grew up outside Edinburgh. She studied music at York University and the Royal College of Music and spent several years as composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Her debut album, Varmints, won the Scottish album of the year award in 2016. Last year she recorded the soundtrack for Eighth Grade, and her music was used in the films Dheepan (2015) and The Favourite (2018). Meredith’s new album, Fibs, will be released on 25 October.
Homecoming tells the story behind Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella show, which makes a huge statement about the importance of African American education and the college experience. It cuts through the idea of pop stars just arriving into culture, being presented to the world as if they’re just naturally talented and what they do is absolutely no effort.
Beyoncé works so hard! She’s on top of every detail – the choreography, the costumes, the lighting, the staging – and it’s so great seeing a woman so much in charge of her ideas. It makes you want to work harder.
This documentary is about the Leonard Bernstein-conducted recording of the score in the 80s, with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras. That soundtrack was a staple at home when I was growing up – we had this glossy, massive four-cassette tape box of it.
Bernstein is such an interesting person: temperamental, feisty, impatient, funny, smoking cigarettes in his red polo neck. And to see him conduct his music – this incredible, ambitious, interesting, crazy, heartbreaking music, which is never schmaltzy, but crunchy and angsty, and then with these moments of release – is really amazing.
George Michael: Freedom
(Documentary; David Austin & George Michael, 2017)
This was made before George died and released shortly after, so you can’t watch it without a lump in your throat. He’s such a brilliant musician, an effortless singer, but also just an ordinary, interesting guy with a natural gift.
I used to have this unhealthy habit of playing his songs when I was drunk and maudlin. I love how this film shows how he took control of his image early on, and how we see the lyrics to Freedom as being so astute, not vacuous at all. He’s also funny and filthy – the kind of person you’d love to have a drink with. It’s so sad that he’s not here.
A Mighty Wind
(Comedy; Christopher Guest, 2003)
A great mockumentary about a reunion of three folk bands that’s gently observed but also spot-on. I love how it quietly gets behind the scenes into the backbiting and the jealousy that leads up to their reunion concert, and I especially love the attitudes towards the shiny sellouts. The characters are so well done, too – the troubled former couple, the old-school trio, the Folksmen – but not every moment is mined for gags, which is what makes it work. You can tell everyone taking part genuinely loves music, and that’s why Christopher Guest always gets it right.
I was a teenager when I got into Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody was everywhere after it was on Wayne’s World. There’s so much joy in their music, a real not-giving-a shit-ness. It’s great to see them in this documentary being these normal, geeky people. You see all the mundanity that goes on behind the scenes of Freddie’s showmanship on stage, plus there’s the unexpectedness of hearing his gentle English accent. Then you hear him live, and see the sweat in his moustache, and it’s spine-tingling.