I watched HEARTS BEAT LOUD recently, as part of my ongoing commitment to seeing all movies about music, and loved it. LOVED it. Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons have excellent and real chemistry as a sort of irresponsible single father and the hyper-responsible daughter about to go to college. Ted Danson, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane, and Blythe Danner provide solid support in various smaller roles.

The writing by Brett Haley and Marc Basch manages to be expressive without schmaltzy, tart without turning sour. Haley’s direction is similarly assured. Light, honest, and unfussy capturing the moments needed without being intrusive. However, the camera never feels passive either. There is a skill in it, but the confidence not to show off and overwhelm the story. However, I know the biggest reason I loved it is the music.

I am now and probably has always been a sucker for movies about music. Not musicals, mind you. I’m hit or miss on those. But a movie about the creation and playing of music? You’ve already got me 78% in love with your movie before the first frame. I know this to be true. However, a life lived unexamined is no life at all. So the question becomes not IF it is accurate — it is—but rather, why? Why am I such an easy mark for movies about music?

Movies About Music: Hearts Beat Loud
Sasha Lane and Kiersey Clemons share a quiet moment between the notes in HEARTS BEAT LOUD (Courtesy of Gunpowder and Sky)

A Peek Behind The Curtain

A lot of movies about creating either fall victim to obvious falsehoods or to overestimating the audience’s interest in that creation. That’s why writing is notoriously difficult to capture on-screen. And why Hollywood loves to make movies about making movies but audiences rarely flock to them.

When we see a novelist writing, maybe the viewer can catch a line or two over their shoulder. However, that gets old in a hurry. Even a well-written line won’t land the same as if you read a book that contained that line. Similarly, watching an actor repeatedly say a line with different inflections or accents? If you are big on the craft of cinema, perhaps this might hold some punch. Otherwise, though, again, the attention wavers, the interest wanes.

Making music, however, transcends that and so, in turn, do movies about music. For one, you can hear the product as it is being worked on. Even without context a riff or snippet of lyrics can bring forth emotions. You can observe music being created before your eyes and find it compelling in success or failure. Developing a beat, finding the right merger of music and lyrics, harmonizing for the first time all have an action to them that intrigue. Seeing a sentence written and deleted might give viewers insight, but it rarely raises the heartbeat.

In many ways, music is the only art form who’s creation can be just as satisfying for an observer as it can be for the creator. Additionally, each iteration can be just as much of a charge to take introns as the eventual final product. The first draft of a novel or 18 cuts of the same scene simply cannot manage that some kind of thrill onscreen.

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Few Faces, Many Steps

Another advantage of movies about music is that we get to know the participants on a very intimate level while still following them through an intricate process. When it comes to writing, the focus is intimate but the steps are few. Think, write, revise, repeat. Also, these steps do not look all that different unless the movie puts a lot of effort into changing locations, adding external complications, and generally piling on contrivances.

Making a movie about making movies, on the other hand, can create multiple problems. If you choose to focus on a character intimately, say the lead actor, the process is simple: rehearse, act. I don’t mean to imply acting itself is simple only that, from the standpoint of capturing it on film, it appears so. Same with writing above.

If you choose to go the opposite direction, to really capture the complexity of bringing a movie to life, you get the complications naturally but lose the intimacy. Movies about music can give you the best of both worlds. With a small cast, you can reliably capture how it is to make and perform music. However, you can show this small cast go through multiple hoops. Learning instruments. Choosing the right sounds.

Writing music. Writing lyrics. Trying the lyrics out. Tweaking. Seeking out collaborators. Recording. Performing. As noted in the previous paragraph, each of these steps can be done dynamically. So you end up with intimacy, complexity, and dynamism while still being fairly faithful to the process of making music.

Movies About Music: BEGIN AGAIN
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo lean like nobody’s business in a scene from BEGIN AGAIN. (Courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment)

Plot Connections

The creation of music onscreen can reveal the circumstances of the characters’ lives in a way that does not feel obvious or heavy-handed. I’m not sure of the alchemy of it, but I know this is true. When the boys in SING STREET rip into “Drive It Like You Stole It,” it gives you a deeper insight into their lives even though you already know what is being referred to. THE COMMITMENTS and 8 MILE have songs that dig into the reality of their economics and social existence. Even something like SCHOOL OF ROCK’s titular song lets us into the pressure the kids feel to live up to expectations in a way just seeing dad be mean doesn’t.

Movies about music can use songs to reveal that which was hinted at but unconfirmed and deepen that which is obvious. Part of it is an external experience. We have been trained by years of music exposure to know that songs can be obvious and still compelling or metaphorical and still be inviting. We don’t decry semi-autobiographical music in the same way we react to semi-autobiographical writing or filmmaking. Thus, music can be an avenue to a deeper understanding of the movie’s characters without us rejecting it as facile or overly fussy.

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The Feel

I like to feel melancholy.

Well, not in general. But I like art to make me feel melancholy. I love the taste of the bittersweet in my mouth when a piece of art really earns it.

It seems impossible to have movies about music that do not bring forth that feeling. Sometimes it is the triumph of running away to England mixed with the sadness of leaving behind one’s family and friends in SING STREET. Other times it comes early with Jack Black realizing what a mess he has made of his life and his friendships in SCHOOL OF ROCK. Still, others let us mourn what could have been but wasn’t as with BEGIN AGAIN.

They reflect what we all to know to be true but rarely wish to acknowledge. Any step forward inevitably requires us to move beyond something. Finding a romantic partner means making decisions together, no longer just doing what you want. Having kids means living life in service of a small person and limiting your financial and physical freedom. Graduating means leaving behind friends. And so on. We trade good and bad all the time and movies about music seem to get that more consistently than most other genres.

Movies about Music: Patti Cake$
Siddharth Dhananjay, Danielle Macdonald, Mamoudou Athie, and Cathy Moriarty (seated) take a stroll in Patti Cake$. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

It’s Often Real, Man

If one could make a compelling movie within a movie, why not just make the compelling movie on its own? Why burn off an excellent book in service of a film? Even if you were willing to “waste” the object, you obviously cannot read a full novel on-screen or show an entire movie and still have time for the film itself or hold an audience’s attention.

Movies about music are not constrained by the same parameters though. For one, most songs are three minutes long. Most albums around 40 minutes. That means you can play an entire album—albeit not consecutively—of songs over the course of a two-hour film and still have room for story. Check out SING STREET to see. Each song the band makes themselves they play in full in the middle of the movie often diegetically.

It becomes even easier when you consider the music is often used non-diegetically, meaning it can be used to soundtrack scenes without literally being heard or performed by the characters at the same moment. For instance in BEGIN AGAIN, we hear Greta (Keira Knightley’s character) sing her version of “Lost Stars” but most of the action is on her watching videos of her boyfriend (Adam Levine) and her in happier times.

Finally, there’s the soundtrack. In this way, movies about music can double dip if the song is good. It makes the movie feel more alive and authentic. However, it can still be sold outside the context of the movie as part of a soundtrack album or digitally. I cannot think of a single novel written in a movie or film made in a movie (barring documentaries about making those objects or fictional films depicting their creation) that manages the same trick ever, never mind often.

HEARTS BEAT LOUD Pulses With Good Vibes

Beyond My Understanding

I love music, but I cannot create it. Writing, I can do in several mediums — sort of, at least. I have picked up a camera and filmed things and some of the stuff I filmed people actually liked. I don’t think I can act particularly well but if you need someone to be sarcastic on stage, I can pass. But music? Beyond my ability to play trombone and tuba until high school? I got nothing. I’m tone deaf and have never had a talent for writing music or lyrics, regardless. So creating it has an almost mystical fascination for me.

It’s like watching someone perform an incredible physical feat. I could tell you every step along the way and yet, I could never duplicate it myself. The talent, the magic of it… I simply have no capacity for it. Music could spring randomly from the ground and I would feel just as able to make it as I do now.

Movies about Music: THE COMMITMENTS
Angeline Ball and Maria Doyle Kennedy crone in a scene from THE COMMITMENTS. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

The Power of Music

But I still love it. For me, no other art carries as much power to transport for me. I hear a song and I can feel like I felt when I heard it most significantly. “The Real Slim Shady,” of all songs, makes me remember driving back from a prom party late at night. Winding through the woods. The feel of the wind through the open windows. The smell of forest and the start of a heat wave. And that song, I assure you, has nothing to do with any of that.

Listening to a song I have not heard in years is like welcoming a former version of myself back into my body. Or several someones. Songs have the capacity to carry memories both happy and sad, triumphant and tragic. The same song that makes you remember the taste of your first kiss reminds you of the last time you held her hand. The tune that recalls the rush of victory sometimes calls forth the smell of the hospital room where you learned you broke your leg at others. A few notes and you are in his arms again. A few more and you are kneeling by a coffin.

Music can be everything all at once and often is. A song you connect with is like being every version of yourself past and present all at once. It’s touching the infinite.

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The Pair

So you take that kind of incredible experience, that kind of art, and you place into the context of my favorite medium, film. Put me in a theatre with the lights off, the world quiet. Everyone around me focused on the same screen, giving themselves over to the same story.

You have all of that: the community, the anticipation, the sense of being separate from the world. Then a guitar string is plucked. A piano key tapped. Breath moves through a clarinet. Fingers draw a bow across cello strings. And I can feel it. I can feel the theatre change. I can feel myself change. Even if just for that one note, that one second. Something incredible, something that still wows me, becomes somehow even larger, wraps me up even more tightly.

An average movie about music finds its way into my bloodstream in the way an average movie about anything else cannot. Will not. It writes itself with indelible ink on my heart.

To put it as reductively as possible, it is the peanut butter meets chocolate of my art appreciation.

Movies About Music: 8 MILE
Marshall Mathers (who you may know as Eminem) shows his gratitude as only he can in a scene from 8 MILE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Movies About Music Recommendations

Here are some quick hits if you too would like to fall in love with movies about music. There are so many more.

  1. THE COMMITMENTS – Probably the most honest depiction on this list of the way some bands are great but just cannot make it work. Plus, I love the music in this movie. Bonus points if you seek out the Roddy Doyle novel that inspired the film.
  2. SCHOOL OF ROCK – Jack Black is fun. The kids are very good child performers. Joan Cusack is her usual unappreciated self. The ending strains reality. But maybe sometimes it does really just take a Battle of the Bands to make thing all work out.
  3. PATTI CAKE$ – Probably the weakest selection on my list here, but Mamoudou Athie’s performance as a hermit and musical genius Basterd is surprisingly sweet and layered. Plus, the ending is great: three friends dancing at the edge of a Jersey pier to their own song on the radio. That bittersweet feeling I mentioned above? That ending gives you a doozy of one.
  4. 8 MILE – The plot is paint by numbers but Eminem’s vulnerable performance as Rabbit and an especially good soundtrack made this a welcome surprise upon receipt. We all want another helping of mom’s spaghetti, don’t we?

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And The John Carney Three

  1. ONCE – The story of two singer-songwriters falling in love — but perhaps not staying that way — in Ireland. The music is beautiful. The relationship sweet and tender.
  2. BEGIN AGAIN – The second of John Carney’s music movie trilogy, it is regarded as the weakest by Carney himself. You may recall him blaming Knightley for that in the press a few years ago.
    However, I think he’s too harshly judging his own work. It is the most inventively directed of his three films — the scene where Mark Ruffalo’s character produces Knighley’s song in his imagination is excellent. It does a great job of capturing a modern New York City that felt alive and not at all touristy. I was particularly susceptible to that as it was the last movie I saw before I moved out of the City, probably to never live there again.
  3. SING STREET – Young Irish teens form a band, fall apart, fall in love, and leave home all set to a mix of 80’s classic and original songs that feel incredibly authentic to the time. The depictions of the way families can destroy and save is particularly affecting.
Movies about Music: School of Rock
The cast of SCHOOL OF ROCK beckon you onward. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Other Movies About Music Titles You May Wish to Check Out

I can’t blurb them all but here is a list of some other great movies about music.

And so on. Now go off and enjoy!

One Comment

  1. […] I have come out very strongly in favor of movies about music, movie biopics are frequently another matter entirely. I am always excited for them and, […]

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