Music Movie Round-Up: Films You Don’t Want to Miss


Gibson SG guitar against an amplifier. (Courtesy Eric Openshaw)

By Heather Graham, Assistant Copy Chief, Arts Writer


In his book “High Fidelity,” author Nick Hornby wrote, “What came first, the music or the misery?” as his hopelessly romantic protagonist, record store owner Rob, revisited his failed relationships to figure out where he had gone wrong. With this popular storyline, “High Fidelity” was adapted into a movie starring John Cusack in 2000 and recently into a gender-bent Hulu Original series starring Zoë Kravitz in 2020. Was Hornby’s “emo” examination of music and love the first music-related storyline in film? No. Was it a catalyst for my love of music movies and bad love songs? Absolutely. 

Movies like “High Fidelity” and “Empire Records” (1995) made me want to work in a record store. “Airheads” (1994) inspired my ill-fated quest to be a radio DJ. Movies about real-life bands and musicians like “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and “The Runaways” (2010) were my top picks for weekend movie marathons, and recently “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) and “Rocketman” (2019) have joined the line-up.

Even “School of Rock” (2003) found its way into my list of must-see music movies without hesitation. Movies like “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) and “Almost Famous” (2000) are often the top picks, but my own list, like Hornby’s playlist, always felt a little less predictable. Out of the wide array of music-based movies, here are my definitive favorites that, if you haven’t seen, you should check out.

“That Thing You Do!” (1996)

Meet “The Oneders” — that’s pronounced like “wonders” not “oh-NEE-ders.” Tom Hanks makes his directorial debut while writing and starring in this film, following the rise and fall of a fictional one-hit-wonder band. This small-town group breaks into fame with one great song and is subsequently pushed into the whirlwind of the industry, complete with fancy executive record label parties, drugs, women, stadium shows and all the stressors that come with fame.

The character development, relationship building and the conflicts between the fantasy and reality of being a famous musician make this film a great watch. Plus, the Oneders’ hit song is super catchy and will be stuck in your head for days. 

Top-Billed Cast: Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, Tom Hanks

Directed by: Tom Hanks

Watch it: Google Play

“Josie and the Pussycats” (2001)

Based loosely on the Archie Comics band of the same name, “Josie and the Pussycats” is a hilariously tongue-in-cheek view of the music industry and the marketability of girl bands and boy bands. When boy band Du Jour mysteriously disappears in a plane crash, Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) and her friends are suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “next big thing.”

Subliminal mind control, product placement, the pressures of fame, and industry politics threaten to destroy the Pussycats, but mishaps, hijinks and friendship prevail. I love this satirical story and all the pointed ridiculousness of the film. The film itself was a commercial failure but has been regarded more recently as a cult success.

Top-Billed Cast: Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, Gabriel Mann, Paulo Costanzo, Missi Pyle, Parker Posey

Directed by: Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan

Watch it: Hulu, HBO Max

“Whiplash” (2014)

This psychological drama received critical acclaim, including the top Audience and Grand Jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

The film follows the struggle of a determined jazz drummer and his toxic, abusive relationship with his perfectionist drum instructor at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory. This film is intense and uncomfortable at times, with the instructor throwing chairs, physically assaulting and berating the drummer in front of the rest of the ensemble for struggling to keep tempo. There are legal battles, lost hope, defiance and confrontation that create a heavy tension — the acting is incredible. This film is not as light-hearted and fun as other movies on my list but definitely worth the watch. 

Top-Billed Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Watch it: Amazon

“Coyote Ugly” (2000)

Including this film on my list often surprises people — there’s more to the plot than what meets the eye. Singer-songwriter Violet (Piper Perabo) leaves her comfy New Jersey home with her dad and moves to New York City to try to make it as a songwriter. After a bumpy start, she lands a job in a bar, starts performing and builds her confidence as a musician.

There’s romance, including a scene where Violet’s beau sets up a room of cardboard cutout celebrities as a mock audience to help her overcome her stage fright. There’s also a short cameo from country singer LeAnn Rimes at the end.

Top-Billed Cast: Piper Perabo, Adam Garcia, Maria Bello, Melanie Lynskey, Bridget Moynahan, John Goodman, Tyra Banks, Izabella Miko

Directed by: David McNally

Watch it: Google Play

“Bandslam” (2009)

“Bandslam” hits just a little different for me because the protagonist isn’t in the band, but managing it. The main character, Will (Gaelan Connell), is obsessed with music — specifically David Bowie, writing letters to the star like a journal.

When Will’s mom gets a new job and they move to a new school, Will meets Sa5m (the 5 is silent) and Charlotte. He then starts managing Charlotte’s rock/ska band I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On to help them compete in a battle of the bands called Bandslam. In the end, Bowie responds to Will’s letters, making a cameo in the film that was his final film appearance before his death in 2016. This movie is probably one of my favorites.

Top-Billed Cast: Aly Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens, Gaelan Connell, Scott Porter, Lisa Kudrow

Directed by: Todd Graff

Watch it: Amazon Prime, YouTube

“Raise Your Voice” (2004)

Lizzie McGuire goes to music school? Well, not exactly. In this film, Hilary Duff plays Terri Fletcher, a teenager with dreams of being a professional singer. After applying for a music program where she could win a large scholarship to help her with that dream, her brother and dad fight over whether she should go. When her brother dies in a car crash later that night after the fight, Terri blames herself for her brother’s death.

She attends the program, but struggles to overcome her trauma and find her voice again. Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes both give this film a pretty low rating — it’s definitely not amazing, but it is enjoyably fluffy and uplifting. Sometimes that is all you need a movie to be, so I keep it on the list for those days.

Top-Billed Cast: Hilary Duff, Rita Wilson, David Keith, Jason Ritter, Oliver James, Rebecca De Mornay, John Corbett

Directed by: Sean McNamara

Watch it: Amazon, Hulu

“Bandwagon” (1996)

Finally, this film is probably my favorite music movie. Written and directed by former drummer for The Connells, John Schultz, “Bandwagon” debuted at the 1996 Sundance Film festival before being picked up by Lakeshore Entertainment as their first film.

The film follows the ’90s band “Circus Money” through the gritty life on the road, playing in dirty clubs and bars and trying to “make it.” Self-discovery and breakdown resonate as these four guys, who hardly know one another, embark on the rock-n-roll journey through the less than glamorous independent music scene. I saw this film as part of Sundance local programming and fell in love with it in all of its ugliness and misery mixed with the music and hope. It’s really hard to find but well worth the hunt. 

Top-Billed Cast: Lee Holmes, Kevin Corrigan, Matthew Hennessey, Steve Parlavecchio

Directed by: John Schultz

Watch it: Amazon DVD

Honorable Mentions

I have a general soft spot for Disney Channel movies — it’s something about the combination of bad acting from young actors, cheesy plotlines and wholesome happy endings. When it comes to music movies, these Disney films don’t fail me. 

“Camp Rock 1” (2008) and “2” (2010)

Starring the young Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, this super cheesy but oh-so-fun pair of films follow an aspiring singer and her time at a music camp where she finds her voice. The sequel centers around the campers reuniting to save their music camp from being squashed by a more corporate music camp across the lake.

Both films really push the themes for being honest and true to yourself and your own voice in the face of teenage peer pressure. Camp Rock was watched by 8.9 million viewers on the night of its premiere and is currently the third-highest viewed Disney Channel Original Movie of all time, so I guess I’m not the only one who really enjoyed it. 

Top-Billed Cast: Demi Lovato, Joe Jonas, Meaghan Martin, Maria Canals-Barrera, Daniel Fathers, Alyson Stoner

Directed by: Matthew Diamond

Watch it: Disney+

“Lemonade Mouth” (2011)

Based on a Mark Peter Hughes novel with the same name, this DCOM favorite follows a group of five high schoolers who meet in detention and form a rock band to compete in a music competition called Rising Star against the school’s popular “bro-rock” band Mudslide Crush.

In typical Disney fashion, there is a heartwarming theme of standing up for one’s values and overcoming personal adversity with the help of friends. I love the songs in this film and have even added several of the actors’ personal music to my playlists. 

Top-Billed Cast: Bridgit Mendler, Adam Hicks, Hayley Kiyoko, Naomi Scott, Blake Michael

Directed by: Patricia Riggen

Watch it: Disney+


I’m still not really sure which came first, the music or the misery — “High Fidelity” never really seemed to come to a conclusion about it either. What I do know is that I love movies about the self-discovery and self-destruction of making music. I love the hope, and the talent, and the gritty behind-the-scenes moments that make it rough as hell. These films remain on my list as I re-watch them, but I always have room for more of this genre of film. 


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