The smell of buttery popcorn is wafting through movie theaters again, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to head back to the cinema. If you're still in stay-at-home mode, might we suggest catching up on some fantastic movies about music? Here are a few we love to help you get started.
Get On UpWatch It On: Apple TV, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime
Chadwick Boseman portrayed several iconic Americans in his short career, including Godfather of Soul James Brown. Catch his powerful performance in the 2014 film Get On Up, where he captures the full range of Brown’s emotions as a man shaped by childhood poverty and abuse. You’ll hear songs like "I Got You," "Out of Sight," and "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag." You’ll be reminded of the incredible energy and skill both men brought to their craft.
Hedwig and the Angry InchWatch It On: Apple TV, Hulu, HBO Max, Prime Video
Based on a 1998 musical, this flamboyant film couples comedy and drama as it follows the main character Hedwig from East Germany to America. Challenges abound as Hedwig wrestles with gender and identity, and someone else takes credit for the music that should have propelled this fictional character to stardom.
Inside Llewyn DavisWatch It On: Apple TV, Amazon Prime
Picture yourself kicking around the Greenwich Village folk music scene in 1961, sporting a brown corduroy jacket and a guitar strapped across your chest as you stick out your thumb out for a ride. You’ve just entered the world of Llewyn Davis, the fictional character with genuine talent who can’t catch a break despite working hard to make it happen. See how he fares in this 2013 film directed by the Coen brothers. It’s got an impressive cast that includes Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake — plus an adorable ginger cat.
Landfill HarmonicWatch It On: Vimeo On Demand, iTunes
After an environmental engineer with a musical background noticed that kids in a Paraguay community were playing in a nearby landfill, he decided to give them a better alternative: music lessons. When there were more students than instruments, he found discarded objects like tin cans and forks that could be used to make homemade versions. How he started the Recycled Orchestra is the subject of this fascinating 2015 documentary that’s all about creating hope, confidence, imagination, and beautiful music.
Latcho DromWatch It On: iTunes, YouTube
Maybe you’ve got a bad case of wanderlust after six months of trying to help beat back COVID-19 by staying home as often as possible. You’ll appreciate this French film, whose title translates as “Safe Journey,” even more. Released in 1993, the documentary examines life for the Romani people, who move from place to place amid persecution. It’s filled with music and dance from myriad places from India to Spain.
Love & MercyWatch It On: Apple TV, Epix, Hulu, Prime Video
Your mind may shift into full-on relaxation mode when you hear iconic Beach Boys tunes like "Wouldn’t It Be Nice." But life for band leader Brian Wilson was anything but smooth sailing. Wilson wrestled with mental illness, exacerbated in later years by a cunning therapist with control issues. It’s a topic at the center of this 2014 dramatic flick with a nimble cast that includes Paul Dano, John Cusack, and Paul Giamatti.
OnceWatch It On: YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime
Filmed in Dublin, the 2007 Irish flick stars a pair of real-life musicians whose songs written together mirror actual changes in their relationship over time. The woman, who immigrated from Czechoslovakia, sells flowers; the man fixes vacuums and plays street music at night. The film folds together their individual struggles and collective journey, with music as the elegant through line.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the WorldWatch It On: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
Odds are, you’ve never considered the impact of Indigenous music on the sounds that come out of your speakers. And you probably didn’t make it to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian during its “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture” exhibition. But you can watch the 2017 documentary inspired by the exhibit, which features dozens of musicians from Steven Van Zandt to Buffy Sainte-Marie talking about Indigenous influences in their work.
Searching For Sugar ManWatch It On: Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play
Imagine enjoying a short-lived musical career, then learning years later that your music had made you a megastar in another part of the world. That’s what happened to a folk singer in the early '70s, who only learned he’d gained stardom after a pair of fans in South Africa heard rumors of his suicide and sought to find out if it was true. The 2012 film is a joyful reminder that you don’t always recognize the depth of your own talents, or know the impact you’ve had on others.
ShineWatch It On: Apple TV
Music buffs never tire of delving into creative personalities and all the ways they’re shaped by internal drives and external pressures. For classical pianist David Helfgott, who began life as a child prodigy under the tutelage of a demanding father, life is filled with flashes of music and mental illness. Geoffrey Rush portrays Helfgott in this Australian film released in 1996.
Sound of NoiseWatch It On: Apple TV, Tubi
Hilarity ensues when a tone-deaf cop tries to nab a group of anarchist percussionists going around the city making music with objects in unconventional places, like a hospital operating room. The Swedish film with English subtitles, which was released in 2010, is a whimsical counterpoint to all the talk of anarchy playing out in nightly newscasts.
The CommitmentsWatch It On: YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes
What happens when an Irish guy decides he’s going to get the boys together and start an R&B band? If they’re mostly white, clueless when it comes to soul music, and inexperienced in the ways that fame can screw up friendships, life gets messy. Watch it happen in this 1991 film based on the book by Roddy Doyle.
The Punk SingerWatch It On: Apple TV, IFC Film Unlimited, Prime Video
Feminist activist Kathleen Hanna, who fronted the band Bikini Kill, was a pioneer of the '90s Riot Grrrl movement. Director Siri Anderson spent a year filming Hanna for this 2013 documentary that’s also filled with archival footage examining Hanna’s life and career, including her many creative outlets — including spoken word poetry, zines, and dance punk.
Western StarsWatch It On: Apple TV, Hulu, HBO Max, Prime Video
Whether you’ve seen Bruce Springsteen play sold out stadiums, the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, or Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, you’ve never seen anything like this 13-song concert performed in a nearly 100-year-old barn where Springsteen performs with Patti Scialfa, a band, and full orchestra. Springsteen wrote the screenplay, and directed the 2019 film with Thom Zimny, weaving in plenty of archival footage and storytelling.