Rock on Film Club
On a Year of Watching Music Movies
The thing about my weekly music movie club is that it was not intentional. It started back in the early weeks of the first lockdown because I wanted to watch the 1991 concert documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, as one does. I don’t know how to illegally download movies, but I knew my friends did. I reached out to my friend Amanda, one of the biggest Madge fans I know, and her torrent-happy boyfriend Max. Yes, they could find me Madonna: Truth or Dare and yes, we could watch it together over Discord.
The first call was rough. It was March 26, 2020, two weeks after the stay-at-home order began, back when we were all baking bread and telling ourselves it would surely be over in a month or two. Back in the first lockdown, we were all still figuring out how to socialize virtually. On our first Discord call, Amanda shared her screen with me. We yelled at each other through the microphones in our laptops, a grainy black-and-white image of Madonna in a cone bra buffering as my Internet lagged. We enjoyed it enough to keep going, with Amanda suggesting Desperately Seeking Susan for the week after, continuing in the Madonna vein.
This time we came up with a better idea: Hitting play at the same time on our respective devices, then chatting in the Discord general chat thread, so that we could actually hear what was happening in the movie and talk at the same time. Max joined in this time, as well. I hadn’t seen Desperately Seeking Susan since my mom showed it to me as a kid. As an adult, I was overwhelmed with the pastel colour palette and every single one of Madonna’s outfits, dying of laughter at the line, “How do you use the birds?”.
For the week after, I suggested another ‘80s movie, the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, one of my favourite movies as a punk freak teen, which neither of them had seen before. Noticing a theme with our cinematic choices, the Discord chat got renamed: Rock On Film Club. Since then, we’ve watched a music movie almost every week, give or take, one of the few reoccurring social events I’ve had throughout the long thirteen months of the pandemic.
While music movies are generally considered box office poison, they hold a special place in my heart as both a music and movie fan, seeing how the two combine in one film, with the best music movies often being about something more than the sum of their performances. For Rock On Film, we’ve become pretty loose with what counts as a music movie, but they can generally be broken down into six categories:
1. Musical: The most obvious category of music movie. A narrative that hinges around songs performed by the characters that advance the story. This is, personally, the least interesting kind of music movie, since it uses song as a narrative device, but doesn’t necessarily comment on music or genre itself, which I am much more interested in.
2. Biopic/Performance Movie: The second most common type of music movie. A biopic is a straight-ahead portrayal of a musician’s life. A performance movie is about a fictional musician’s rise to fame or notoriety that centres around multiple scenes of live performance as central to the narrative. An example of a biopic would be 1997’s Selena, while an example of a performance movie would be 1984’s Purple Rain.
3. Concert Movie/Documentary/Mockumentary: The next most popular subcategories. Concert movies are movies that are strictly performance footage, like 1984’s Stop Making Sense. Documentaries often combine performance footage, narration, and either the musicians themselves or related talking heads waxing poetically on their art and history. Mockumentaries are fake documentaries about musicians either real (2002’s 24 Hour Party People) or fake (1984’s This is Spinal Tap).
4. Starring/Directed By A Musician: Often but not always about music, this type of film still features a musician in a major way as either a lead actor, director, or both. For instance, Desperately Seeking Susan stars Madonna, while Under The Cherry Moon stars and was directed by Prince.
5. Pop Star Cheese: Technically a combination of categories 2 and 4, but popular and prevalent enough that they deserve their own subcategory. These are the movies that star of the moment pop musicians and are the most obvious cash grabs. Examples include 2001’s Glitter, starring Mariah Carey, which is objectively bad, and 2002’s Crossroads, starring Britney Spears, which is Actually the Peak of Cinema.
6. Any Other Movie Where Music is Central to the Story in a Major Way: The type of music movie I am the most interested in and which is, coincidentally enough, the least common. These are movies where music is central to the story, but aren’t necessarily about famous musicians. They can also be pretty standard movies narratively, but with an interesting and important soundtrack. Examples of this category include School of Rock, about a musician pretending to be a substitute teacher and enrolling a group of 5th graders in a battle of the bands, and Muriel’s Wedding, which uses the music of ABBA to great effect.
Obviously, these are generalizations, but after a year of watching music movies, it’s wild that most of them generally fall into one of these six categories. While a lot of music movies are made by no-name directors, there are exceptions, with Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes being the most notable.
While I haven’t been able to go to concerts for the past thirteen months, watching music movies has kept me connected to something that has brought me so much joy in my life. Almost every week, I text the Discord chat, “fuck I miss concerts” only to get “same :((((” in response. Watching Stop Making Sense had me dancing around my living screaming “JAMES BROWN!” while watching 24 Hour Party People made me want to do party drugs in a massive club.
All I can do is hope that these fantasies–to be in a crowd, to have my ears ring the next day, to see a band on-stage again, live and in front of me–aren’t fantasies for too much longer. Until then, I have Rock On Film Club.
Every Movie We’ve Watched for Rock On Film Club, Ranked From Worst to Best:
High Fidelity (2000, Stephen Frears): John Cusack stares directly at the camera and whines for two hours. When we were watching this, Amanda texted the char, “low-key this guy has incel vibes” and she is NOT WRONG. 1.5 stars.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010, Edgar Wright): Sadly, the obsession of many a Grade 9 tumblr kid has aged POORLY. I remember loving this at 15, but at 25, all you can think about is how Scott’s a piece of shit, the cringe-level dialogue, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ness of it all. 1.5 stars.
Glitter (2001, Vondie Curtis-Hall): I watched this while I was high and it still wasn’t very good. 1.5 stars.
Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder): I was very surprised to learn that Marilyn Monroe has a voice. Too long! 2 stars.
Camp Rock (2008, Matthew Diamond): I remember when this premiered on Family Channel. It’s wild that Joe Jonas used to be the hot one, when now it is objectively Nick. Poor Kevin. 2 stars.
Selena (1997, Gregory Nava): This movie suffers from “Made for TV” ‘90s energy, especially the tonal shift of the very end, even though it was released in theatres. Made only two years after her tragic death, this movie spends far too much time on Selena as a child and not enough as an adult. The outfits are great though, and Jennifer Lopez as Selena was a good casting choice. 2 stars.
What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993, Brian Gibson): Another “Made for TV” ‘90s energy flick. Angela Bassett stars as Tina Turner, while Laurence (then going by “Larry”) Fishburne plays her abusive husband, Ike. The performance scenes are genuinely great, but the way that the film handles the violence towards Tina feels unnecessarily exploitative. 2 stars.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011, Jon Chu): BEIBER EATS A TIM HORTONS DONUT OUT OF A TRASH CAN IN THIS! Also, did you know that Beiber was a child drum prodigy? This is honestly a pretty fun watch, but is not objectively good in any sense. 2.5 stars.
Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006, Liam Lynch): Dave Grohl plays the Devil?! This movie is funny if you are on drugs or are a classic rock fan or both. A pre-fame Amy Adams has a 10-second cameo in this and the credits list her as playing the role of “Beautiful Woman.” 2.5 stars.
Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991, Alek Keshishian and Mark Aldo Miceli): At two hours long, this definitely feels like they could have trimmed off some of the fat, but is pretty amazing footage if you are even a casual Madonna fan. A combination of concert movie and documentary, this movie follows Madonna on her iconic 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, which changed the pop musical touring landscape as we know it FOREVER. 3 stars.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978, Steve Rash): Gary Bussey plays Buddy Holly?! This was one of the first music movies where an actor learned how to play guitar and sing specifically so that the performance scenes could be recorded live. 3 stars.
8 Mile (2002, Curtis Hanson): Better than it should be, but still not amazing. Brittany Murphey has like, eight lines of dialogue but still manages to give the most impactful performance. “Lose Yourself” is the CREDITS SONG?! 3 stars.
Rocketman (2019, Dexter Fletcher): As soon as the child version of Elton John starts singing “The Bitch Is Back” your brain is like, “Oh, so THIS is what this movie’s going to be.” Wild costumes. It’s okay! 3 stars.
Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe): I have a complicated relationship with this movie because, I too, was something of a teen rock journalist, nowhere near the level of Cameron Crowe, but I was trying regardless, so this movie hits me where it hurts. PENNY LANE! 3.5 stars.
Behind the Candelabra (2013, Steven Soderbergh): Biopic about the relationship between piano diva Liberace, played by Micahel Douglas, and his much younger live-in lover, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Like the majority of gay cinema, this movie is brutally sad. 3.5 stars.
Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle): J.K. Simmons plays an abusive music teacher who yells at his students for 100 minutes. Very good, very tense, and DEFINITELY a horror movie. 3.5 stars.
Purple Rain (1984, Albert Magnoli): Narratively speaking, this also suffers from “Made for TV” syndrome, but the performance scenes are God tier, so it evens out. 4 stars.
Under The Cherry Moon (1986, Prince): Prince’s acting sequel and directorial debut following Purple Rain. It’s a black-and-white homage to classic films from the ‘30s and ‘40s and uses the song “Kiss” in a way that is literally perfect. Honestly, I’d argue that this is the superior Prince movie. 4 stars.
La Bamba (1987, Luis Valdez): Lou Diamond Phillips stars as a 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, who was tragically killed in the “Day the Music Died” plane crash along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in 1959. As far as straight-ahead music biopics go, this is one of the better ones. 4 stars.
Straight Outta Compton (2015, F. Gary Gray): An excellent biopic chronicling the formation, rise, and eventual fall out of the members of Compton rap group N.W.A, which featured Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre. This one works well, since it also addresses the police brutality N.W.A fought against, as well as the FBI investigation that followed them after it. 4 stars.
Xanadu (1980, Robert Greenwalf): Roller skates, disco, Greek mythology, Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly?! This is so bad it’s good. 4 stars
24 Hour Party People (2002, Michael Winterbottom): Hilarious mockumentary about the Manchester punk and alternative scene in the ‘80s through the eyes of Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan. This movie is so fucking funny. 4 stars.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn): Cult 20-minute-long documentary interviewing metal fans outside of a Judas Priest concert. Watch it on YouTube. 4 stars
Rock’n’Roll High School (1979, Allan Arkush): This movie is about a teenage girl obsessed with The Ramones so naturally I love it. This scene lives in my mind rent-free. 4 stars.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982, Alan Parker): Fairly unconventional art movie based on the score/concept for the album of the same name. It could have been much worse than it is, and the animation scenes are genuinely great. 4 stars.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone): Lonely Island made a mockumentary based on Justin Beiber: Never Say Never and it is so ridiculously funny and good. 4 stars.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman): The colours! The outfits! MADONNA!!! 4.5 stars.
Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes): Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a David Bowie-like figure, Toni Collette plays his wife, Ewan McGregor plays an Iggy Pop-like figure, and Christian Bale plays a glam-rock loving repressed homosexual teenager. Watching this movie was the first time I ever heard “Baby’s On Fire” by Brian Eno. 4.5 stars.
I’m Not There (2007, Todd Haynes): Seven different actors play different incarnations of Bob Dylan and it’s actually way more engrossing than it sounds. 4.5 stars.
True Stories (1986, David Byrne): Byrne actually wrote and directed this movie himself about a Texas town celebrating its sesquicentennial. One of those “quiet and subtle but makes you aware of how strange and beautiful being alive is” movies. 4.5 stars.
Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme): The concert movie of all concert movies! To be honest, I am not the biggest Talking Heads fan (especially in comparison to my Byrne-obsessed boyfriend), but there is no way you can watch this and not have a great time. 4.5 stars.
Green Room (2015, Jeremy Saulnier): A punk band finds themselves playing a show for a group of neo-Nazi skinheads who then try to murder them. One of very few movies that understands undergound punk culture in a very real and knowledgeable way. 4.5 stars.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020, Frank Marshall): One of the best standard music documentaries of all-time. I went into this being like, “Yeah, I guess The Bee Gees were pretty big,” and left being like, “The Bee Gees were iconic pop songwriters and vocalists who changed the course of music literally forever.” 4.5 stars.
Singin’ In The Rain (1952, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly): One of the very few musicals on this list, this movie holds up surprisingly well, and all of the song-and-dance scenes are mesmerizing to watch. 4.5 stars.
Crossroads (2002, Tamra Davis): The peak of cinema. No other opinions will be tolerated. Directed by Mike D’s wife! 5 stars.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982, Lou Adler): A young Diane Lane and Laura Dern star as members of The Stains, an all-girl punk group who go on to gain massive commercial success while on tour with real-life members of The Tubes, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash. This movie rips so fucking hard and is the literal narrative precursor for 2001’s Josie & The Pussycats. A double bill of the two of them would be the best afternoon of all-time. 5 stars
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, the Coen brothers): This movie follows the week in the life of a struggling folk musician, played by Oscar Isaac, who has started to fucking hate music. It’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, who was Bob Dylan’s mentor but never gained commercial success. This might be the most realistic movie about how it actually feels to be a musician, which is mostly terrible. 5 stars.
Gimme Shelter (1970, the Maysles brothers): One of the greatest rock documentaries of all time. Follows the tragic 1969 Altamont Speedway concert headlined by The Rolling Stones, which ended in the death of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old Black man in the crowd at the hands of the local Hell’s Angels gang. 5 stars.
Hedwig & The Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell): John Cameron Mitchell stars as Hedwig, fronting an unsuccessful rock band while her ex-lover, Tommy Gnosis, gains critical success off of songs they wrote together. The cinematic equivalent of “Hurt people hurt people.” One of my favourite movies of all time. 5 stars.
School of Rock (2003, Richard Linklater): I saw this when I was 8 years old and it IMPRINTED on me. A very sweet comedy about Jack Black doing a fraud and teaching children how to empower themselves through playing music. I sob uncontrollably every single time I watch the montage scene. This movie has held up EXTREMELY well. 5 stars.
This is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner): I saw this when I was too young to understand satire and didn’t get what all the hype was about. As an adult, this is a perfect parody of heavy metal, but also… musicians are actually like this. Made even better when you learn that most of the script was improvised. I couldn’t pick a favourite joke if I tried. 5 stars.
Muriel’s Wedding (1994, P.J. Hogan): A young Toni Collette stars as Muriel Heslop, a going-nowhere 20-something who lives at home and steals money from her parents. Contains the line, “Since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to an ABBA song. That’s because my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as Dancing Queen.” :’) 5 stars.
That’s all for this week! Were there any music movies on this list that you object to my rankings of, or didn’t see a favourite of yours? Even if you just have a recommendation, leave a comment down below. Let’s make this a sharing space! If you enjoyed this newsletter, don’t forget to like, subscribe and share it. The next newsletter will come out the week of April 26. Until then, take care of yourselves and each other.