A rock guitarist since the 1970s, Kelley has been a fan of rock, blues and jazz since the 1960s.
Rock and roll movies are almost as good as rock and roll
The best movies are always hard to pick, and movies about rock and roll are no different. Many of the films on this list say something about the process of creating rock and roll, while others explore the kind of people who produce it and what this process does to their lives. The other films simply show the end product, that is, a rock concert we can watch as we bang away on our air guitars.
Now here's the countdown for the 15 best rock and roll movies!
15. School of Rock (2003)
It could be said this movie was made for kids, but even if it was, you gotta love its spirit. School of Rock stars Jack Black, who plays lead guitarist Dewey Finn. He gets kicked out of his band and has to form another band to pay the rent. So Finn finagles a job as a temporary teacher at an upscale elementary school. Unfortunately, the only thing Finn knows how to teach is Rock Band 101, which he does with some fifth graders. The resultant band, named School of Rock, enters a battle of bands competition, but loses. Nevertheless, the crowd loves the band, because they kick ass, like all great rockers.
14. Get on Up (2014)
Chadwick Boseman portrays soul singer James Brown in Get on Up, directed by Tate Taylor. Brown, variously known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Soul Brother Number One, passed away in 2006. This biopic covers many of the major events in Brown’s life, including his several entanglements with law enforcement, most notably the high-speed car chase and drug bust for which Brown served two years in prison. Boseman, who did his own singing and dancing in the film, does an excellent job of playing Brown, a stern disciplinarian regarding his supporting musicians, singers and dancers. They did it his way or they were fined or kicked out of the group. For the most part, critics liked the film, particularly Boseman’s convincing performance, though some complained about omissions. However, if the movie had included all of the incidents in the life of James Brown, it would have been as long as Ben Hur.
13. Jersey Boys (2014)
Jersey Boys is a film adaptation of a stage production about four young crooners who form a rock group in Belleville, New Jersey in the middle 1950s. The movie is narrated by Tommy DeVito, founding member of the Four Lovers, who later became the Four Seasons. Directed by Clint Eastwood who also helped produce it, the film covers the various dramatic interludes in the lives of these four guys, particularly lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young). Throughout the film, the Four Seasons perform hit songs from the lengthy oeuvre of the Four Seasons. The major complication in the flick is when Valli discovers that Tommy has accumulated $150,000 in gambling debts, and the mob wants the money or else. So Valli agrees to keep working as a solo singer until he repays the money. As a finishing touch, the film ends as the movie’s version of the Four Seasons performs a musical number as if they were acting in the stage play, and they also talk to the audience.
12. Ray (2004)
In this biographical musical, Jamie Foxx plays rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles. Foxx won numerous awards for his performance in the film, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie begins by showing incidents during Charles’ childhood, including when his brother drowned in a bathtub and Charles losing his eyesight at the age of seven because of disease. Performances of many of Charles’ hit songs are included in the film too. Particularly touching is a rendition of Ray’s signature hit, “Georgia on My Mind.” Also included in the flick are scenes in which Charles uses heroin; in fact, the climax of the movie is when Charles agrees to finally kick the habit in 1965, though for the rest of Charles’ life he used alcohol and marijuana to help him stay off junk. Unfortunately, Charles died of liver disease before he could see the movie, but he did read the screenplay and, though he found it inaccurate in places, liked it for the most part.
11. The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers are Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who developed these characters while performing a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1978. Soon a band of established musicians was formed to back-up the Blues Brothers. Then, in 1980, Aykroyd and Belushi made the movie, which features numerous blues and soul artists such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin. And, as the cops chase the Blues Brothers, who are on a “mission from God,” more cars are crashed than any movie ever seen. The Blues Brothers—these original ones—were great fun, and could actually sing and dance. What a concept!
10. The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by rock enthusiast Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz is a documentary film about the farewell performance of The Band (formerly Bob Dylan's backup band) at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the venue of innumerable fabulous concerts in the 1960s and ‘70s. Twenty or so special guests added their musical talents to the concert, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters and Neil Young. Perhaps more than anything else, the movie highlights the career of guitarist/singer Robbie Robertson, one of the film’s producers. The movie is often hailed as one of the best concert films of all time.
9. Tommy (1975)
Based on an album produced by The Who in 1969, Tommy is a so-called rock opera based on the story of a kid named Tommy, who sees his stepfather kill a man involved in an adulterous liaison with Tommy's mother. Traumatized by the event, Tommy goes into shock and becomes that deaf, dumb blind kid who “sure plays a mean pinball,” as described in the album's song “Pinball Wizard.” Lead singer Roger Daltrey plays Tommy and many other stars appear in the production: Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner and Ann-Margret. Tommy won the first ever Best Rock Movie Award as presented by the Rock Music Awards.
8. The Rose (1979)
There’s never been a biopic about the life of Janis Joplin, but The Rose came very close. Actually the original name for the film was Pearl, the title to Joplin’s last album, but the Joplin family didn’t want to sell the rights to the producers, so the story became a fictionalized one. Anyway, Bette Midler plays this troublesome, Joplin-like character who struggles with alcoholism and the stress of being a famous rock star. In the third act, she returns to her hometown with disastrous results, as Joplin herself once did. Midler was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
7. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody is filled with rock and roll biopic clichés, as well as historical inaccuracies, as virtually all rock biopics seem to have; nevertheless, the film grossed nearly one billion dollars, making it the highest grossing rock biopic of all time. Generally a good movie, it got mixed reviews from critics, though Rami Malek’s portrayal of rock legend Freddie Mercury is considered excellent, and he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his laudable effort. Of course, since Queen is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, having produced numerous classic hit tunes such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions,” “Somebody to Love” and “We Will Rock You,” even if this flicker had been a stinker, hundreds of millions of folks probably would have been happy with it.
6. The Doors (1991)
Val Kilmer played many choice leading roles in the 1990s and into the turn of the twenty first century, and one of his better portrayals was that of Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, one of the most inventive rock groups of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the film, director Oliver Stone did a crafty job depicting the counterculture, hippie movement and explosive music scene of the 1960s. But, since Stone added much fictionalization to Morrison’s biography, particularly regarding his “Lizard King” persona, the film wasn’t well received by other members of the Doors, notably keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who has heavily criticized Stone’s cinematic inventions in this flick. Nevertheless, The Doors is exciting and enjoyable and ends on a positive note, as Kilmer’s version of Morrison, after dying in a bathtub in Paris, is shown singing “L.A. Woman” during a recording session.
5. Almost Famous (2000)
Then there are movies about people who write about rock stars. Almost Famous is about an aspiring journalist named William Miller who snags a $35 writing assignment with Rolling Stone magazine. All Miller has to do write about the band Stillwater, a fictitious group, as they tour about the country, without letting anyone know he’s only 15 years old! The story is an autobiographical one, since Russell Crowe, who also penned the screenplay and directed the flick, worked as a writer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Almost Famous lost money at the box office, but for the most part critics loved it.
4. Monterey Pop (1968)
The photography in this movie isn’t the best, but since the event it covers is such a seminal one in the history of rock and roll, how can it not be on this list? Monterey Pop was filmed at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, launching, in a sense, the beginning of the storied Summer of Love and the hippie ethos of the Haight-Ashbury district in nearby San Francisco. Hendrix and Joplin and just about every major band from the San Francisco Bay Area played at this event. This movie evinces a freedom, openness and optimism that never should have waned. Well, at least we still have the movie.
3. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
A Hard Day’s Night came out during the peak of Beatle mania in 1964, when the Beatles were quite possibly even more popular than Jesus. (Hey, John Lennon intimated they were.) The film was made in black-and-white, and aren’t we glad for that! Everything about the film—the photography, music, dialogue, action, jokes— was perfect for highlighting the Beatles’ talents. The movie also stressed how trapped the Beatles were by their own fame. Wherever they went—girls screamed. This flick was a classy forerunner of all rock videos, as well as the plethora of rock movies to follow.
2. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
in-your-face as rock and roll can be, movie producers must satirize it and/or parody the rockers themselves. Almost certainly the best of that genre of films is This Is Spinal Tap. Done as a kind of “mockumentary” of rock and roll documentaries prevalent at the time, the movie taps into just about every aspect of rock and roll’s numerous clichés – over-indulgent behavior, pretentious showmanship, reverence for the electric guitar and groupie worship. Rob Reiner directs the movie, and it’s written by Reiner and the members of Spinal Tap—Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer.
1. Woodstock (1970)
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was called, was three days of peace, love, dope and the music as presented by more than 30 bands. Even without a movie being made this was a phenomenal event and certainly one of the greatest in the history of rock and roll. The movie was beautifully photographed and its usage of multi-screen elements seemed revolutionary for the time. Another thing to remember is that immense music festivals were commonplace in those heady times, though Woodstock was certainly the best. Alas, there will probably never be another Woodstock (disregarding the sequels, of course), unless we can, somehow, “get ourselves back to the garden.”
© 2013 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 09, 2015:
Thanks for the comment, Mills P. I'll have to check out "High Fidelity." Maybe it belongs here. Later!
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on April 08, 2015:
I did one of these lists years ago when I wrote for Epinions. Good choices, but I had High Fidelity near the top as well.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 03, 2014:
Thanks for the comment, GuitarGear. I'll have to check out "Crossroads/1986" one of these days. And thanks as well to you, tiagodamiao, and you're right "School of Rock" is very funny. Later!
Walter Holokai from Youngstown, Ohio on December 03, 2014:
Woodstock was by far the best! Great hub Kosmo! I also loved Crossroads/1986 which featured Steve Vai & Ry Cooder.
Tiago Damião from Torres Novas on December 03, 2014:
I love Rock and Roll! School of rock is so funny!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on February 11, 2014:
Thanks for the comment, Paul Fisher. "Woodstock" is definitely the best of the bunch. Later!
Paul Fisher from United Kingdom on February 11, 2014:
Nice selection! I'm glad Woodstock is there on top.
Vani on January 13, 2014:
I feel like Empire Records, Wayne's World 1 & 2 as well as Detroit Rock City (focused on KISS fans) should get shout outs as well! :) Also, The New Guy was a funny movie with an awesome funk feel - not relevant, I know, but I adore it!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 31, 2013:
Thanks for the comment, Glimmer Twin Fan. I'll have to check out "Rock & Roll High School," and if I really like it, I'll put it to this list. I've done that kind of thing before. As for "Gimme Shelter," that movie was too much of a bummer to end up on this list. Everything about the Altamont concert is something to forget, not remember or reward in any way. Later!
Claudia Mitchell on January 31, 2013:
Interesting list. I would have to bump one or two of them and add "Rock & Roll High School" (can't go wrong with the Ramones) and "Gimme Shelter". "The Last Waltz" is one of the best. Thanks for this cool hub.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 30, 2013:
Thanks for the comment, tebo. The rock opera about Tommy the Pinball Wizard is definitely a rock and roll classic. Later!
tebo from New Zealand on January 30, 2013:
Great list and I might have to check out some of the ones I don't know. I love that Pinball Wizard song - thanks for explaining it.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 30, 2013:
Thanks for the comment, GuitarGear. As I wrote before, I certainly haven't seen all the concert films or films based on albums either, so I have some work to do. Later!
Walter Holokai from Youngstown, Ohio on January 29, 2013:
Great list! I'd also include Floyd's "Live at Pompeii" from 1972 and also "Crossroads" from 1986 which featured an original musical score by Steve Vai and Ry Cooder. Vai played the devil's guitarist in the movie and I'm a big Vai fan. Thanks for the list. Seeing these movies on your list makes me want to see them all again which I will do. Thanks for a great hub!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 28, 2013:
Thanks for the comment, Joyus Crynoid. I must admit there are many concert films I've never seen. Perhaps "Live at Pompeii" is one of the best, for all I know. If I can, I'll check it out one of these days. Later!
Joyus Crynoid from Eden on January 28, 2013:
Great list Kosmo. My own top ten would include many of the same, but also Pink Floyd's 'Live at Pompeii'.