Interesting Films about Music and Musicians

Written by Tony Frame

Films about music and musicians can be riddled with clichés. Even the good ones have a lot of the same traits – the struggling artist who has an addiction problem or suffers from intolerable insecurity, they have success and that success amplifies their inner demons and they begin to lose their passion for their art, for life itself. In some cases they make a comeback, they find themselves, and the music becomes a catharsis for their troubles. They live to fight another day and become the legend that we know them as.

That’s not to say that musicians who struggled with addiction and hardship (and everything else in-between) shouldn’t have their stories told, but certainly Hollywood does have a habit of churning their stories out in such a way that they feel like imitations of previous hits.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the usual suspects when it comes to this genre. Movies like Walk the Line (2005) and Ray (2004). They’re good movies in their own right, but they shouldn’t serve as blueprints for what makes a good story about a musician and their music. Each artist has an individual story within the clichés, and it seems that Hollywood just doesn’t want to remain true to those individual stories, they just love keeping it simple and making it a good formulaic rags-to-riches story, with or without a sad ending.

In this article I’ll publish films about music or musicians that excel above the rest, films that operate outside the formulaic confines that we’re so used to seeing. I’ll update it every so often, so bear with me, it’s a work in progress…

Crossroads (1986)

Director: Walter Hill
Writer: John Fusco
Stars: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jami Gertz

This is a road movie in essence. Road movies are a genre unto themselves. If done correctly, and avoiding the usual clichés, they can produce great stories and backdrops, and provide excellent character arcs and social commentaries (think Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, True Romance et al).

Ralph Macchio plays a classical guitarist who is studying at Julliard, he’s something of a prodigy, but his love and passion for Blues is so overwhelming that he drops out of college when he befriends and old Blues legend called Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) and they make a deal to go in search of an elusive lost song.

It’s not all plain-sailing though; Willie berates his young sidekick’s Blues ability, saying that it takes more than just talent to make a great Blues player. Macchio (as fresh faced as ever in this movie, straight after his success in The Karate Kid), embodies the naivety and arrogance of his youthful character, who, despite his passion and talent for music, still has some growing up to do.

The constant bickering along the way with the two leads makes for great one-liners and witty and snappy dialogue. Jami Gertz (primarily known as Star in The Lost Boys) crosses paths with the two protagonists and she becomes the love interest in the story.

Now all the ingredients are in the pot you’d think that was it, but that’s only just the half of it. There’s something else in the story that keeps you intrigued – Willie keeps thinking back to his younger years, when he was just starting out, and when he made a lucrative deal at a crossroads in Mississippi. This was a pivotal turning point for him; success and fame soon followed after this deal but it was short lived, and now, years later, he feels cheated and is seeking out the crossroads and the person he made the deal with.

Walter Hill’s wide-shooting style (almost like a documentary) places you right into the drama as a viewer, keeping you engaged and entertained. Racism plays a role in the script as well, and it highlights black appropriation in music, which wasn’t really mentioned in mainstream movies in the ‘80s. The story is endearing in places but it moves at a good pace, and the performances from all involved are filled with passion. None of the musical ensembles are badly dubbed or out of sync and you don’t doubt the Karate Kid’s guitar playing ability.

What makes Crossroads a great little fable is the characters, their believability, and the music. I’m not a huge Blues fan myself (I prefer Jazz – Miles Davis, Chet Baker), but this proves that you don’t have to really love that style of music to appreciate its importance and value.

Ultimately, it’s the ending where it puts the cherry on top of the icing; without spoiling it for anyone, let’s just say that if you don’t appreciate the power of music, and guitar-playing excellence, then you will definitely feel a touch of goosebumps after seeing the finale.

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