Music and cinema have always been tightly connected, even before films could be shot with sound and scored. The musical experience is often linked to a visual representation, for example through the annotations on a score like in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“by the brook”, “thunder, storm”), or through a composition inspired by paintings like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
When popular music from the 20th century defined the album as an established musical form, it often turned to visuals to enhance the musical experience of the album itself. This was done in its simpler form through album covers and booklets, which connected the music of an album to a series of images.
Musicians soon realized that the film media could be exploited as well, and not only by filming live concerts, but also by adding some elements of storytelling; for example, in the Sixties The Beatles first experimented with music videos, a form of visual storytelling which would become its own art.
Certain albums also offered another resource to cinema: narrations or even complete stories that could be adapted by a film or at least inspire one. A great example of this opportunity was given by the so called “rock operas”.
This list looks at various examples of how an album has inspired, more or less loosely, a feature film.
10. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1978, directed by Michael Schultz and produced by RSO founder Robert Stigwood. Stigwood had already produced Saturday Night Fever, and his company had released many scores from 1970’s films; in 1974 he bought the right to use various Beatles songs, and initially turned them into a musical Broadway Show called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road.
Felling that the songs could be further exploited, he gave musical expert Henry Edwards the task to write a script from them. The result was this 1978 comedic feature, which uses all of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s songs (except for Within You Without You) and many others from Abbey Road.
This peculiar and confused feature stars many familiar faces such as the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the reformed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell, Aerosmith, Earth, Wind and Fire and many others.
While ultimately a failed project, the film stands as a great homage to the magnificent repertory of the Fab Four; a cult film whose flaws only make it more memorable for the fans of all that is camp. As Perry Seibert of Allmovie said, “quite possibly the silliest movie ever conceived”.
Nightwish are a symphonic metal band from Finland. They have been active since 1996 and have garnered a vast fan base in Europe and over the seas as well; they are the most successful Finnish band worldwide.
Their seventh album, Imaginaerum, was released in 2011; as their previous works, it was heavy with orchestrations inspired by great film score writers, and presented a mixture of operatic style, gothic metal and fantasy elements. The album was very well received in the world of metal music. The band also produced a film of the same name, which tells the same basic story of the album but develops it with more characters and a more complex story.
The film was directed by Stobe Harju and was released in 2012; clearly inspired by the creative universes of Tim Burton and David Lynch, it tells of a dying old man, a former musician, and his journey inside his mind through a series of memories and fantasies. The film is heavy with CGI and stereotypes from the gothic metal world, but it is a must-watch for the fans of the group.
8. Magical Mystery Tour
Over the course of their career, The Beatles often experimented with visual renditions of their music, and some of their projects are the first example of what was to become music videos.
They also took part in various movies, sometimes as actors in somebody else’s film (like John Lennon in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War), more often in movies built around them and their music. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which took its title from one of their songs, was an enormous success, and gave the world a great depiction of Beatlemania in its peak stage.
A year after, A Hard Day’s Night, another film of theirs was released, Help!, a comedic adventure whose songs were later assembled in an album of the same name. Magical Mistery Tour is their 1967 follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it was also adapted in a television film for the BBC.
The film was a critical disaster and did not achieve the success of many others projects by the group. It was shot in an atmosphere of great freedom, and with a mainly improvised script. The result can be described as messy, but it still gave the world some memorable musical performances of classics such as I Am the Walrus or Penny Lane.
The great musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice was first staged in 1978 in the West End, but was originally conceived as a concept album, which came out in 1976. The success of the album and later of the musical made many production companies interested in a film adaptation, which was only realized in 1996.
The director was Alan Parker, who had already proven his sensibility for music-driven films with Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982), Fame (1980) and Bugsy Malone (1976).
The original director was to be Ken Russel, director of Tommy, and then Oliver Stone, with Michelle Pfeiffer slated to star; the production eventually went with Parker, and credited the script to him and Stone.
Madonna starred in the film alongside Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce; the former played Ché, an everyman who learns of Evita’s death and then becomes a witness to the most important moments of the woman’s life, and the latter as Peron.
A great success in 1996, the film won many awards, including best song at the Academy Awards, and Best Musical or Comedy and Best Actress at the Golden Globes, although today it may be mainly remembered for the masterful rendition of some of the Lloyd Webber-Rice songs (such as Don’t Cry for Me Argentina), or for its Guinness certified record of most costume changes in a film, rather than for its uneven quality.
Steven Wilson is the leader of the cult progressive rock band Porcupine Tree; his first solo album came out in 2008, called Insurgentes (after the Avenida de los Insurgentes in Mexico City). It was accompanied by a documentary, called Insurgentes as well, which was directed by Danish visual artist Lasse Hoile.
The film is a road movie about the recording sessions for the album, but it is also highly experimental with narration and with its visuals, and tries to recreate the artistic atmosphere around which Wilson worked in his travels; its main theme is inspiration, and the places, both physical and not, from which artists get it. The countries Wilson visited and that appear in the film are Mexico, Sweden, England, U.S.A., Denmark, Holland, Finland.