The story of a musician’s life is inherently cinematic; inevitably, there will be highs and lows, and the artistic process is often something that is exciting to see lived out on screen. It takes more than a great soundtrack to make a great music movie, although having terrific songs never hurts. It is most important that the audience empathize with the musician and invest in seeing them succeed.
The 2010s featured many great films about the reality of being a musician. For this list, both real and fictitious musicians have been considered. Here are the top ten best movies of the decade about being a musician.
Rather than tell the story of Sir Elton John in a traditional way, director Dexter Fletcher chose to make a dazzling musical fantasy that uses Elton John’s songs to show what he went through. The film hits all the beats that a great biopic needs, as it explores the root of Elton’s love for music and the struggles he faced when entering the industry, but rather than settle for normalcy, the film uses elaborate musical numbers to make its themes clear. Taron Egerton gives a breakout performance, and although he’s pitch perfect in recreating Elton John’s mannerisms, he’s able to offer his own interpretation of the iconic music.
What’s most impressive about Rocketman is that it matches each song thematically to a key point in Elton’s life; the sequence set to “Crocodile Rock” is an exciting look at Elton’s first big gig, “Tiny Dancer” is a tender ballad of loneliness, and “Rocketman” is a triumphant return from a moment of doubt and self-hatred. The choreography and visuals are stunning, and the film manages to fulfill the requirements of both a biopic and a musical.
9. Straight Outta Compton
F. Gary Gray’s smash hit biopic explores the ways in which musicians use their work to enact real change. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) are all touched by police brutality and racism on a daily basis, and they use these experiences to create music that speaks to their identity. What Gray does brilliantly is explore the friendship between these three men over the years, and how controversies and conflicts caused them to grow apart.
The concert sequences are electrifying, and the historical recreations feel authentic. All three central performances are strong, but Mitchell in particular gets a lot to do as Eazy-E faces his tragic fate. The film wouldn’t have worked as well as it did if it wasn’t for the genuine affection between the characters, and even the earlier scenes of the group messing around as they record their first album are important in establishing the relationships. Covering years of history, Straight Outta Compton is a thorough exploration of the influence that N.W.A. had.
Frank is a film that shows the quest for artistic perfection that exists outside of the mainstream, and uses its oddball characters and their peculiar problems to explore the fulfillment of creating great music. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is a mysterious band leader who wears a paper mache head at all times, and it’s his unusual appearances and strange philosophies that draw in Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician who is drawn to Frank’s radical new way of creating songs.
Frank shows that there isn’t one clear path to success, and the dark humor from director Lenny Abrahamson gives the film a decidedly twisted edge. Fassbender gives one of the most surprisingly great performances of his career, and does a great job at exploring the serious psychological issues that Frank faces as he masks his identity. Complete with a great soundtrack full of strange songs including the brilliant “I Love You All,” Frank is an engrossing exploration of the search for greatness.
7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The Lonely Island often spoofs trends in pop culture and music, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a hilarious and insightful look at the extremes of the constant news coverage of modern pop stars. Told in a mockumentary style, the film follows Conner4real (Andy Samberg), the breakout star of a boy band who is embarking on an ambitious solo career. Sometimes cameos from pop culture figures and celebrities can be distracting, but with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping the constant appearances by well-known figures help to make the film’s satire even more apparent.
The film really stands out due to its soundtrack; the songs are obviously exaggerated versions of modern pop music, but the clever ways in which they satirize genre trends make the film even more entertaining. It’s a relentlessly paced film with constant sight gags, but the heart of the story, which revolves around Conner reconnecting with former bandmates Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), is never lost. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping bombed during its initial release, but thanks to a passionate fandom, the film is beginning to become a modern cult classic.
Youth is a unique film in that it is about an artist reflecting upon their life’s work and questioning whether the sacrifices they made for their music were worth it. Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a composer of classical music who stays at a resort in the Swiss Alps while on vacation with his best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) and daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz). After Fred is approached by a representative of the royal family who requests him to perform at Prince Phillips’s birthday ceremony, the legendary composer goes on a journey of self-discovery as he reflects upon what success really means.
Director Paolo Sorrentino adds a surrealist quality to the story, inserting elaborate dream sequences throughout that give the film a unique tone. While it is often somber, there are also moments of levity, particularly when it comes to the humorous banter between Fred and Mick. Caine gives one of the best performances of his career; he is sensitive and understated, and brings a heartbreaking sense of humility to this musical genius. While it’s certainly nontraditional, Youth is a shattering depiction of the pressures an artist faces.