Biopics, fictions, and documentaries about musicians have long been a staple of the moviegoing experience, but judging by the flurry of activity over the past year, which has included critically acclaimed films about Aretha Franklin, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John, we’ve entered an unusually active period, if not a flat-out golden age, for these types of films.
Good for music fans, but even better for the music industry in a period of slumping record sales, where these films represent an increasingly essential cash stream, boosting a band’s back catalog and introducing a new generation to their work..
Even if you don’t care about moneymaking, a decent biography or documentary may bring the songs to life and provide light on their authors’ hardships. Musicians, on the other hand, aren’t so sure. In order to get a better idea of what these six renowned songwriters had to say, we asked them to select their top five favorite music films.
Anna Calvi, a violinist and guitarist who was raised in Twickenham by her English mother and Italian father, was born in 1980. She attended Southampton University to further her education in music. She was nominated for a Mercury Prize for her debut album, which was released in 2011, as well as its follow-up, One Breath, which was released in 2013, and her most recent album, Hunter: According to the Guardian, “a serious-minded collection of pop songs about desire… [that] evokes the films of Douglas Sirk.” Calvi has scored the new season of Peaky Blinders and contributed a track for the 2015 sci-fi film Insurgent.
1. Walk the Line(Drama; James Mangold, 2005)
Before I was signed, I saw this film about Johnny Cash’s early life and career, and it gave me a taste of what touring would be like. For a little moment in my life, I thought: “OK, that’s what to expect,” and then realized that I was wrong. Sadly, for me, traveling is more like spending hours in a changing room and eating cold rider cuisine for supper. In spite of all that, this is an excellent picture, and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash is spot-on. In addition to that, they’re classics.
2. Amy(Documentary; Asif Kapadia, 2015)
This film is both heartbreaking and stunning. It’s fascinating to see Amy Winehouse’s rise and fall as a young singer with raw talent, like a wave. A spectator may feel a little guilty about seeing her because she has already been the subject of so much attention, but this is a respectful portrait and I appreciate that it honors her music. With this film, you get a clear sense of how talented she was as a singer and songwriter, which is something that isn’t always the case with films on female artists. This is a good example. Despite her addiction issues, she was an exceptional artist.
3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch(Drama; John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
It’s a story about an East German singer who had a “angry inch” of flesh between her legs after a failed sex-change operation. With her new life in the United States, Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) finds herself working in a seafood restaurant chain named Bilgewater’s and stealing songs from another vocalist. Films like this one touch on Greek mythology, the genesis of love, and gender identity in a lovely way. Even though it’s serious, it’s also hilarious. And the music is excellent, too.
4. The Doors(Drama; Oliver Stone, 1991)
I recall watching this when high in college, and I believe that’s the only way to appreciate its trippy weirdness. Because I admire Jim Morrison’s commitment to the present moment as a performer and his frank display of his sexuality, I frequently question myself, “What would a female Jim Morrison do in this moment?” At the time, it felt like a romantic depiction of a poet, and I’m not sure how I’d feel today if I weren’t stoned.
5. Whiplash(Drama; Damien Chazelle, 2014)
To achieve excellence in music, one must be willing to make sacrifices in order to do it. As a student, I was reminded of my own university experience, and the stark gap between studying music and really performing it. You have to get rid of all you’ve learned and just talk in a way that others can comprehend.
However, I had music professors at school who I was passionate about and wanted to get better for, so they would have faith in me like Andrew’s music teacher does in the film.
6. Neil Tennant
In 1981, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe created the synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys in London, who went on to sell more than 100 million records worldwide, including the classics West End Girls and Always on My Mind. The pair has released 13 studio albums, including videos directed by Derek Jarman, Bruce Weber, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Martin Parr in the past decade. Agenda, their most recent album, was released in February. On September 15, they will headline Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park.
7. The Young Ones(Drama; Sidney J Furie, 1961)
To save a theater from demolition, a group of adolescents, led by Cliff Richard, band together. In order to succeed, they put up a show. The Young Ones is a wonderful vision about the possibilities of pop music for young people that is both positive and beautiful. My desire to join a youth theater led me to do so some years later, and it introduced me to both pop music and theatre as a six-year-old. Today, they’re still awe-inspiring me.
8. Cracked Actor(Documentary; Alan Yentob, 1975)
A few years after the last Ziggy Stardust concert, when David Bowie announced he was retiring, I turned around to my friend and remarked, “As if!” in reference to this BBC documentary. Moreover, this is a brand-new development. As a record of Bowie’s time in the US, it’s an invaluable resource. Even though he’s so fragile, sniffing (clearly doing cocaine) and looking like an alien, when chatting about Alan Yentob’s previous tour clothes, he’s still a cheeky cockney guy.
The film also demonstrates his musical mind’s sharpness and creativity, particularly when he is directing his incredible supporting vocalists through their sections. As a musician, it’s amazing to watch him in action.
9. Cabaret(Drama; Bob Fosse, 1972)
Late in 1972, Sally Bowles’ narrative in the Weimar Republic was released into a gloomy Britain. When I think about it, it’s a glam-rock record: all those beautiful songs and the brilliant makeup in this terrifying city. When you were an 18-year-old student from Newcastle who had recently arrived in London, the idea of “divine decadence” intrigued you. Liza Minnelli’s effect on punk music may be seen in the work of Siouxsie Sioux. During our time as students in Tottenham, we would play the soundtrack back-to-back with Lou Reed’s Transformer and Roxy Music’s second album. Similar results were achieved.
10. Song of Summer(Drama; Ken Russell, 1968)
Eric Fenby, a young composer from Yorkshire, was the subject of a BBC Omnibus drama that aired in the late 1920s. Delius, a Yorkshire composer, is now blind, partially paralyzed, and unable to compose, leaving behind unfinished works. Finally, Fenby helps him finish the last of his projects.
Musical creation and the end of a creative life are featured in a heartfelt elegy. Emotional, unnerving, and moving are all words that come to mind. Delius is a terrible figure who is at once vulnerable and ruthless. Russell was a master at producing visuals to go with music..
11. The Wrecking Crew!(Documentary; Denny Tedesco, 2008)
The story of a group of LA session musicians in the 60s and 70s who played on everything but didn’t get the recognition they deserved is the subject of a new documentary. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walking, and Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman all include their bass lines. You begin to notice that each of these albums has a distinct tone, and that sound is this band.
Because of this film, I wanted us to record an album in Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen about the making of pop music.
12. Little Voice(Drama; Mark Herman, 1998)
It’s a film that gets it right when it comes to wanting to perform but being discouraged from doing so, and how music can be a wonderful way to escape. A world and an attitude toward women that I was familiar with, even though I’m not working-class, were vividly represented in the novel.
Also, it’s about discovering who you are via music, and how you can do that by singing other people’s songs and finding your own unique voice. In my youth, I tried to emulate Tina Turner by belting out Private Dancer as a child.