THE BEST MUSIC FEATURE FILMS – Evening Standard, 1 May 2020

With no gigs for the forseeable, music on screen is the best we can do. Aside from documentaries, concert films and musicals, music feature films are having a moment, with A Star is Born, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody all proving box office hits and sending their soundtrack albums into the top 10 in the past couple of years. Looking back a bit further, and assuming everyone can already quote This is Spinal Tap at will, here are some of the finest films in which the songs are the real stars.

Control (2007)

The brief life story of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis – married at 19, a father and voice of the classic debut album Closer at 22, dead at 23 – is told in exquisitely shot black-and-white by photographer and video director Anton Corbijn. Even the terraces of Macclesfield have a bleak beauty as the backdrop to Sam Riley’s portrayal of the withdrawn frontman, who is wrestling with depression and epilepsy and torn between his childhood sweetheart and a glamorous Belgian journalist. The music scenes are the ones that stick in the memory, however, with Riley nailing Curtis’s transfixing, manic performing style.

8 Mile (2002)

Many expected Eminem to go on to a glittering acting career after the release of this autobiographical tale of Detroit’s rap scene, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Song with Lose Yourself. Strangely, having adopted multiple alter-egos on his albums, trailer trash introvert Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith was the only one he could manage on screen. The rap battles are the best bits – verbally violent fight scenes in which the winner has the sharpest wordplay and the deadliest insults. They give Eminem a great stage for defending his supposed biggest crime: rapping while white.

Walk the Line (2005)

The story of Johnny Cash avoids the Man in Black’s patchier later career to follow a more traditional biopic trajectory: tragic childhood with a furious father, followed by sudden musical success which is tarnished by drug misuse and a stormy love life. Joaquin Phoenix does a fine job of replicating Cash’s cavernous baritone and intense manner, while her spirited performance as his love interest June Carter won Reese Witherspoon her only Oscar. Their stage duets are the uplifting highlights.

Purple Rain (1984)

The outfits! The motorbike! The hair! Morris Day being handed a mirror in the middle of a song! This showcase for the towering talents of Prince is very much of its time and works less well when the action moves away from the concert settings. He’s “The Kid”, trying to move up the bill in a Minneapolis club while his rival attempts to steal his band and his mum and dad yell at him. The songs, though, are unstoppable. The film works best as a showcase for the classic album, with that mighty title track forming an incredible finale.

I’m Not There (2007)

Bob Dylan’s cultural legacy is so large that in hindsight maybe it’s obvious that a film would require six different actors to portray different facets of his character. They include Heath Ledger as an actor with marriage troubles, Richard Gere as Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid, Marcus Carl Franklin as a black, train-hopping 11-year-old, and Cate Blanchett as the wild-haired folk musician going electric. Director Todd Haynes, who made his name telling the Karen Carpenter story using Barbie dolls, leads Dylanologists down a fascinating, meandering path.

Almost Famous (2000)

Instead of telling the story of a band, this is effectively the biopic of director and writer Cameron Crowe, who began his career as a naïve teenage music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. Maybe it’s a rock and roll version of When Harry Met Sally – substitute “men and women can’t be friends” for “rock stars and journalists can’t be friends”. While agonising about how much he can give away in print about Stillwater during long spells on the road with the fictional band (try getting that kind of access nowadays) sweet Patrick Fugit has his eyes opened and comes of age.

Dreamgirls (2006)

Former Destiny’s Child member Beyoncé Knowles is perfect casting as the singer who’s so stellar that she comes to dominate her girl group trio The Dreamettes, much to the irritation of plainer bandmate Jennifer Hudson. The story, originally a Broadway musical, is closer to that of Diana Ross and The Supremes, with Motown-style soul delivered with pizazz by them and Eddie Murphy’s James Brown-esque belter Jimmy Early. The music is so strong that three of the five Oscar nominations for Best Original Song in 2007 were from the film – though none won.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

The next time a band creates this much destruction getting back together it’ll probably be Oasis. It blew its budget on car chases, doesn’t have much of a plot between the songs and its Saturday Night Live origins mean it is very silly indeed, but The Blues Brothers is great fun and a treat for blues and soul fans thanks to an extraordinary range of cameos. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles all sing, and even the backing band contains members of Booker T & The MGs.

A Star is Born (1976)

The success of Bradley Cooper’s recent movie, with Lady Gaga as the ingenue outshining his grizzled rocker, will have sent plenty of people back to this version, though it isn’t even the original. Two previous films, from 1937, and 1954, set the tale in Hollywood. This one transposed it to the music world, with Barbra Streisand falling for and musically surpassing beardy drunkard Kris Kristofferson. Again it’s the concert sequence that’s most successful, with Streisand proving that her voice is one for the ages.

The Runaways (2010)

The brief career of The Runaways might not have been commercially successful enough to merit a biopic, but as an all-female rock band in the mid-Seventies they were pioneers. Dakota Fanning plays lead singer Cherie Currie, on whose memoir the film is based, with Kristen Stewart being cool as ever as Joan Jett. Michael Shannon is predictably good value too, this time playing their creepy svengali Kim Fowley. The inevitable drugs and egos meant their time together was over too quickly, which means the film doesn’t outstay its welcome either.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Without this one, there’d be no Spice World: The Movie. It’s The Beatles in full moptop cheeky chappies mode, before they went all weird in Magical Mystery Tour. It’s a delight to watch them sprinting around, hiding from fans, being rude to authority figures and appearing in musical sequences that paved the way for modern pop videos. It’s all held together by the loosest of plots – something to do with Paul McCartney’s grandfather – but the songs, as we all know, are pretty decent.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Michael Winterbottom’s eccentric, fourth wall-breaking film goes for the legend over the truth, and features Joy Division in a very different setting from the subsequent Closer. This one spreads its net far wider to cover the fertile period of the Manchester music scene that also brought us New Order, Happy Mondays and the Hacienda nightclub. Steve Coogan is the man in the middle as TV presenter and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, an eccentric who looks like the sensible one among some of rock’s wilder characters.