Music can be much more than background, and the Mill Valley Film Festival has long acknowledged that, by showing movies where song and instruments play starring roles. In this year’s lineup, for instance, composer-violinist Jenny Scheinman presents Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, which melds string music with Depression-era footage from America’s small towns; she’ll appear at the festival on October 10 along with musical collaborators Robbie Gersoe and Robbie Fulks. To set the mood for that and other treats, here are examples of musical treasures from cinema’s past.
20 Feet From Stardom This fascinating film, about the lives and aspirations of backup singers like Darlene Love and Judith Hill, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2014 and the Grammy for Best Music Film in 2015.
Amy From the opening sequence where she sings “Happy Birthday” at a fellow teenager’s party, there is a sense of foreboding: what is going to happen to this pint-size girl with the superstar voice? Amy Winehouse’s rise and fall and her untimely death at 27 are heartbreakingly explored in this film that won both Best Documentary Oscar and the Best Music Film Grammy award in 2016.
Buena Vista Social Club In the 1990s, Ry Cooder went to Havana to help produce a record by legendary Cuban musicians, a project that wound up reviving the music of their pre-revolutionary past. The seamless soundtrack includes Cooder’s son Joachim along with Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer. Director Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated film won 20 awards and was nominated for 10 others worldwide.
Gimme Shelter This 1970 counterculture artifact, co-directed by Charlotte Zwerin and Albert and David Maysles, records the run-up to and action at the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in Tracy, where a fan was killed after the audience became violent and Hells Angels were acting as security.
Scratch Produced in 2001, this was one of the first feature-length documentaries about the hip-hop DJ and turntable movement, from its inception in the South Bronx of the ’70s to its rise in San Francisco. Interviews with artists help illuminate the differences between rap and hip-hop and DJs and MCs.
Searching for Sugar Man Two Cape Town fans explore whether rumors of the death of musician Rodriguez — obscure in his native U.S. but a sensation in South Africa, unbeknownst to him — are true. Both the plot and the all-Rodriguez soundtrack are haunting, and the film won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2013.
Some Kind of Monster “This is not a concert film,” the trailer begins. “… This is something else.” The movie goes behind the scenes with heavy-metal band Metallica as they grapple, through group therapy, with 20 years of emotional history.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston Home movies, performances, audiotapes, and interviews are interwoven to tell the story of Daniel Johnston, a singersongwriter who, while revered by the likes of David Bowie and Kurt Cobain, spent time in psychiatric institutions, struggling with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The 2005 film won a Documentary Directing award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Last Waltz Scorsese’s film is about much more than the Band’s farewell show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976 — it includes interviews tracing their 17-year history, plus performances by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and many more.
What Happened, Miss Simone? This 2015 Netflix movie about “high priestess of soul” Nina Simone debuted at the Sundance Film Festival; afterward, John Legend did a tribute performance. The film, which includes previously unreleased footage and interviews with family and friends, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award.
Movies About Music
8 Mile The title evokes the divide between Detroit the city and its suburbs — and the distance white rapper B-Rabbit (Eminem) wants to bridge to make it in a predominantly African American music genre.
Almost Famous Based loosely on Cameron Crowe’s experience as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, this semi-autobiographical 2000 film portrays a young journalist coming of age while on tour with a famous band in the 1970s.
Crazy Heart Inspired by Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel, the movie stars Jeff Bridges as country singer Bad Blake, trying for one last shot at love and redemption.
High Fidelity The 2000 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel is a love song to vinyl, as played by John Cusack in the role of Chicago record store owner Rob Gordon.
Mr. Holland’s Opus Glenn Holland takes a temporary high school music teaching job as he tries to compose an unsurpassable original piece that will stand as his legacy. The all-star cast includes Glenne Headley, Olympia Dukakis and William H. Macy, with Richard Dreyfuss in the title role.
Once The story in this megahit is simple: in Dublin, Ireland, a vacuum cleaner repairman and a flower-selling Czech immigrant are musicians who collaborate — and find lovely music and a kind of love as a result. With a $150,000 budget, the movie grossed $23.3 million; it also skyrocketed Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to fame, with a Grammy soundtrack nomination and an Oscar win for the song “Falling Slowly” in 2008.
Straight Outta Compton The 2015 biographical drama traces the rise and fall of gangsta rap group N.W.A. Three key members — Eazy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were involved in the production, which grossed over $200 million on a budget of $50 million, and Ice Cube is played by his real-life son.
The Doors Oliver Stone’s 1991 take on the famed ’60s rock band portrays lead singer Jim Morrison, played flawlessly by Val Kilmer, as he struggles with addiction on his way to stardom.
The Visitor An undocumented immigrant helps a seemingly washed-up professor find his soul through playing the drums. Richard Jenkins was nominated for Best Actor in the 2009 Academy Awards.
This Is Spinal Tap This classic 1984 Rob Reiner comedy about fictional band Spinal Tap was dubbed “the funniest rock movie ever made” and brought mockumentary to another level. Who can forget the miniature Stonehenge or the band getting lost backstage?
Whiplash A gripping story about a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) at a music conservatory who is challenged to the breaking point by his hardened instructor (J.K. Simmons). Simmons’ performance won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.