I've been pretty badly under the weather all weekend, which of course means that while my kid was sleeping, my husband & I ordered take-out and watched Drumline. Duh. I remember loving it upon first seeing it, and having some personal stake in it. I met a lot of folks who were in the movie through the Southeast District of Tau Beta Sigma, and I now know a lot of colleagues who performed in the movie as well.
What I still love about that movie is that it provides some of the most accurate depictions of what it is actually like be a part of such an ensemble. Not flawless, of course, but better than most. Seeing that I'm not just a marching sister but a veteran director now, my husband asked me throughout the movie, "What would you do if one of your students did that?" I found myself in total agreement with most of what Orlando Jones says. Watching the students at camp holding up their knees prompted me to demonstrate to my husband the difference between corps style marching and traditional style (pro tip: traditional style is much, much more difficult to master).
That sort of authenticity is rare in movies about music. Most movies dramatize the experience of being a musician or a director and get all of the difficult parts wrong. I learned this in middle school, when I excitedly told my middle school band director (a personal hero of mine) that I'd just seen Mr. Holland's Opus. She told me she hated the movie, that the guy complained about staying after school constantly, and that he didn't really teach the kids, he just sort of somehow "inspired" them to use the right articulation and play in tune. (Admittedly though, I've totally borrowed the Minuet in G/Lover's Concerto shtick from the movie and used it as a mini-lesson plan for my kids.) But she was right. And the piece that was "premiered" at the end of the movie, that Mr. Holland had been working on all of his life? The "American Symphony"? It's awful. It must have been refuse from some hack composer that the producers paid very little to use in the film.
Typically, for great music films, you have to turn to documentaries. I've been pretty lax in keeping up with music documentaries lately, but I've got quite a few on my list -- What Happened, Miss Simone?, A Band Called Death, NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, Amy, 20 Feet from Stardom, and many others. Aside from movies documenting the real deal, what sort of music movies are really worth anyone's time? I've been warned pretty strongly by friends and directors I trust against sappy movies like August Rush, as well as films on the other side of the coin, like Whiplash. So what music movies -- not musicals, per se, but movies about making music -- do I love?
Like I said earlier, the movie actually captures the spirit of the college band. Again, not all of the details are totally correct (and KKPsi brothers would NEVER let anyone else get that close to an actual ritual), but it did represent the experience. Using lots of actual bands helped tremendously. And moreover, Orlando Jones's Dr. Lee character has a pretty decent music ed philosophy, as well as some important questions: is the marching band just there for entertainment, or for educational purposes? On the whole, our professional community hasn't quite solved that problem in nearly a century. In the end, Dr. Lee tries to bring what he believes are some classics into the repertoire with more modern favorites, something I can definitely get behind. And (self-plug!) any existing Dr. Lees might want to read an old post of mine if they believe there is no real musicianship in hip-hop.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
I'll lay it on the line here: Moulin Rouge! is my favorite movie. It has been since I was 18 years old and I first saw it in theatres. Obviously, you'd never show it in secondary classrooms, but throughout college, more nuance of this seemingly nuance-less film got through to me upon each viewing. This is a film about music making. An imagined version of Erik Satie is one of the company characters (although the real Satie would NEVER have rushed the stage out of the orchestra pit to sing along with the actors). The film follows many of the ideals of Puccini's La Boheme, so much so that someone thought it would be a good idea for Baz Luhrman to stage his own production of that opera in the mid-2000s, and a lot of exact plot points from Verdi's La Traviata, right down to the throwing of the money at Satine's feet. And the colors and the choreography and the anachronism -- and of course Ewan McGregor's goofy grin -- I love just about everything about this movie. And it follows my favorite genre of movie: not horror, not comedy, not musicals even, but the "let's put on a show" movie. In fact, I would refer to Moulin Rouge! as the definitive "let's put on a show" movie. Either that or...
The Muppet Movie (1979)
"Singing and dancing and making people happy..." You wish to tell me this is not a music movie? You would be incorrect. This one I have shown in my classrooms, dozens of times, even creating a comparative worksheet between The Muppet Movie and 2011's The Muppets, using Venn Diagrams and identifying figures of speech. (Hey -- we all need time-consuming lessons here and there. Also the worksheet doesn't look correct in the Box.com link, but it looks better upon downloading it to Word!) I think that the Electric Mayhem are the most accurately portrayed band in all of movie-dom. Another classic of the "let's put on a show" movie genre, and admittedly, maybe the actual definitive movie of the genre.
Although I am no music history scholar, and we know much of the Mozart v. Salieri rivalry was dramatized, this movie deserves its place in the pantheon of great film. It set the template for films about classical musicians, and should divest anyone of the idea that classical composers were automatically more pious or religious just because they were employed by churches. More than just giving us the salacious details of a composer's life, this movie actually attempted to dig into Wolfie's creative process, which is more than almost all movies and even most major musical biographies do. The recording of the soundtrack was beyond legit and one of the most commercially successful classical recordings ever, performed by the The Academy of St. Martins-in-the-Fields and Sir Neville Marriner, who sadly just passed away. The movie brought back an interest in classical music to the general public, and also brought us Falco's version of "Rock Me, Amadeus" (which has a wicked key change at 2:39, heard below). Not only was this a great film, but it also served as a musical ambassador. Just don't show it to your students.
The School of Rock (2003)
In the early aughts, I really hated Jack Black for reasons I could not properly identify, and thus I really wanted to hate this movie. But I can't. It's brilliant. Of course the plotline is absolutely bonkers, but at least they staged it in a private school where someone might actually get away with such things. It's funny, hopeful, and it also gives a great deal of credit to the students who had prior classical musical training as well. You have to love something that demonstrates how academic musical skills are transferable to a popular music setting. That and I think Joan Cusack's character in the movie might be my patronus.
Wayne's World (1991)
Another movie I've been lax on seeing but has been recommended to me is Wayne's World 2, which covers a great deal more music making and dealing with artists. Until I make time for it, I will gladly call the original one of my favorite music movies. Wayne & Garth don't much get into guitar technique discussions, but the scene in the music store when Wayne is confronted with the NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN sign is one of my favorite in all of cinema. (I am sure that every music teacher has a riff they want to ban in their classroom; the ones banned in mine currently are the drum beat to Snoop Dogg & Pharrell's "Drop It Like It's Hot" and the keyboard line to 2Chainz's "I'm Different".)
While almost all of these films are not suitable for classroom viewing, they are always easy to watch because they respect what performers and directors go through. In addition to my list of documentaries, Brassed Off! (about a working class British brass band) and Miles Ahead (which had some questionable reviews and seems to be more along the lines of a salacious details biopic, but alas) are also at the top of my music movie viewing list. And not just because they both feature Ewan McGregor. Shut up!
What are your favorite movies about making music? Who seems to get the process right, rather than patronizing what we do?