If you’re not one of the estimated half-a-million music fans thumbing your way to the California desert for this weekend and next weekend’s annual Coachella Festival, we’ve pulled together a wide array of movies, docs and concerts to fulfill your musical desires without the crowds and desert heat. Here are 20 musical films covering the past 45 years of music; from the legendary rock icons and the pioneers of punk and new wave to the synth-laden pop of the Eighties and early hip-hop kings with some cool jazz thrown in for the wine-and-cheese crowd.
We start things off with the biggest and most famous music festival of all-time. It was 1969 and the peace-and-love generation spent a weekend together—at least 500,000 of them did—listening to musical artists who have become symbols of a bygone era when the message, the music, the artists and the audience were a single entity. This time-capsule of a film would also win the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” a year later.
This year's Coachella headliners AC/DC are now in their 40th year together and here's the Aussie band, who brought an aggressive punk energy to their hard rock foundation, in all their pre-Back in Black glory with lead singer Bon Scott leading the way during their 1979 Highway to Hell Tour. Scott would pass away only months after this Paris concert, but the band shocked the world by returning that same year with new lead singer Brian Johnson and the release of their monster landmark album, Back in Black. Still, for many fans, things were never the same without Bon and this is the only full concert released from that era.
Return now to the late Seventies/early Eighties when largely unknown punk and/or new wave bands like X, The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, Devo, The Police, Joan Jett, Dead Kennedys and The Go-Go's were earning their stripes in tiny overcrowded sweaty nightclubs. It was the birth of the mosh pit, it was the rebirth of rock & roll, and it's all captured in this 1982 cult film that has been saved from extinction by the Warner Archive Collection.
Arguably the most popular and successful band of all-time, Led Zeppelin did things their own way. At times bombastic and self-indulgent onstage, the mighty Zep was also one of the most versatile and talented bands to ever hit the stage or the studio. Calling them a hard rock band minimizes the vast spectrum of music that came from Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and the late great John Bonham. While this 1976 concert film, taken from their three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1973, includes the often ridiculed "fantasy segments" of the four members and their burly manager Peter Grant, it also shows the explosive nature of the band onstage. From "Rock & Roll" to "Whole Lotta Love," here are two hours of classic rock bliss.
Jimi Hendrix. The name alone brings visions of electric guitars being teased, cajoled, bitten and even set on fire. He was a musician's musician who left his contemporaries in the Sixties—and all those who followed—in jaw-dropping awe. Released a few years after his untimely death in 1970, Jimi Hendrix is a powerful rockumentary featuring fellow artists like Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend, as well as various bandmates and friends, when all the memories were still fresh. In short, Hendrix's contribution to the evolution of rock music can never be overestimated.
Posthumously narrated entirely by John Lennon himself through the use of audio recordings covering his years in the public eye makes Imagine one of the most unique and intriguing documentaries ever made about an artist. The fact that this particular artist happened to have led the world's most famous rock band before shedding his former Fab Four skin to intimately reveal himself throughout his solo career makes for a roller coaster ride that ends in violence and tragedy. A fascinating portrait of one of the 20th Century's most powerful and influential music artists.
In this controversial 1970 fantasy/thriller, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger made his acting debut as an eccentric former rock star who takes in a gangster on the run and introduces him to his lifestyle, including psychedelic drugs and sexual adventures with his two live-in lovers, including Anita Pallenberg (the then-real life girlfriend of the Stones' Keith Richards). In fact, during the production, rumors quickly flew that Jagger and Pallenberg were not "acting" during their sex scenes, which led to a rift between Richards and his Stones' partner. It's all in keeping with the scandals and innuendo that has always swirled around the bad boys of rock. Performance is now available on Blu-ray, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.
Like many of director Ken Russell's films, 1975's Lisztomania is anything but a straightforward biopic about noted 19th Century composer Franz Liszt. Through Russell's lens, Liszt is the first "rock star," playing before screaming women and bedding those women as well. So it's no surprise that real-life rock star Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who, plays Liszt (just as he played the title role in the movie adaptation of the band's Tommy the year before, also directed by Russell). And where else would the Pope be played by a former Beatle (Ringo Starr)? Add in a film score from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and you've got another interesting musical fantasy from a unique filmmaker.
He's the King. He's Elvis. He's the man who singlehandedly gave imitators--short, fat, bald, tall and skinny ones—a way out of the unemployment line. But, like Santa Claus, there's only one Elvis. And with so much written and said about him in the nearly 40 years since his death, the actual Elvis Presley has often been lost to the parodies. So take a gander back to his 1972 tour to see where some of those parodies came from, because here's Elvis with the big rings, the capes, the martian collars and don't forget those karate kicks! Beautifully shot onstage and off, Elvis On Tour is now available on Blu-ray for those needing their fill of the King in HD.
Before the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion bands took over America, The Four Seasons were the biggest band in the States. Jersey Boys is Clint Eastwood's movie adaptation of the hit Broadway play about the guys from the wrong side of the tracks who manage to take their music to the top of the charts despite jail stints and with a little help from the mob. Led by the soaring soprano of Frankie Valli and the songwriting of Bob Guadio, the movie is filled with the brilliant pop stylings of an era that doesn't seem to ever really go away.
She was the Queen of Tejano, which combined pop, rock, polka, R&B and Latin influences into a musical fusion that she brought to the masses. And in a performance that brought recording artist Jennifer Lopez into the superstar stratosphere, Selena is a tale of triumphant and ultimate tragedy that is bolstered by an infectious soundtrack that will leave you celebrating the life of this budding star who was taken much too soon.
In a memorable film debut, Whitney Houston plays a pop superstar who is threatened by one of her many fans. Enter Kevin Costner as... you got it... her bodyguard. A box office hit in 1992, pulling in $400 million worldwide, The Bodyguard Soundtrack was even bigger, winning three Grammys on its way to becoming the biggest selling soundtrack of all-time; a distinction it holds to this very day. In the little-known fact world, some might be surprised that it was Houston's co-star Costner who recommended the singer record Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," and the rest is music history.
By 1984, Prince had already made himself a star with his irresistible blend of dance, funk and rock, but with that year's release of Purple Rain in theaters (and the album of the same name) Prince was now a bonafide superstar and cemented his place in music history (unlike so many of his Eighties' brethren). A rock musical about a troubled musician's relationship struggles with the world around him—most specifically his parents and girlfriend—Purple Rain actually captures a musical moment in history and one artist's ascent to the top of the music world. Also check out Prince's other films, Under the Cherry Moon and the Purple Rain semi-sequel Graffiti Bridge.
In 1985, Warner Bros. brought the burgeoning hip-hop world to theaters with Krush Groove, a film loosely based on the early days of Def Jam Records and producer Russell Simmons. Featuring a who's who of that era's hip-hop community, including Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, along with actor Blair Underwood in his film debut and recording artist Sheila E., who had a hit with her debut album the previous year.
When you think pop music you obviously think of Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. Okay, maybe not. But in the world of movies, these two can be transformed into a has-been pop star from the Eighties and a houseplant-sitter with an undiscovered gift for lyrics. Plus the video of the Grant character's former group, PoP!, is a classic recreation that'll take you right back to when we all wanted our MTV. A fun and breezy rom-com that touches on the craft of songwriting and fleeting fame ("We did actually break up in 1992, so, technically, I'm a Nineties has-been.")
The film adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, Rock of Ages is a fun musical ride through the budding romance of two wanna-be musicians—Sherrie and Drew—with side stories of a struggling nightclub and the arch-conservative wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the town's mayor (Bryan Cranston) who is trying to keep superstar hard rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise in a surprisingly effective performance) from appearing in her town. All of this is done through the spandex and hair music of Eighties rockers like Def Leppard, Journey, Scorpions, Poison, Foreigner, Guns N' Roses, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Bon Jovi, David Lee Roth, Twisted Sister and Whitesnake. Nothin' but a good time.
Speaking of hair, Mark Wahlberg sports quite a bit of it as a tribute band singer who idolizes Bobby Beers, the lead singer of Steel Dragon, the heavy metal legends he kneels at the altar of. With his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) at his side in all her own rockin' attire, the tribute singer gets a taste of real stardom when he's tapped to replace his idol in the real Steel Dragon. Discover what happens when an average guy is thrust into the dizzying heights of stardom without a parachute. Seemingly a far-fetched scenario, the movie was inspired on the real-life tribute band singer Ripper Owens who was actually brought in to replace Rob Halford as the lead singer of heavy metal greats Judas Priest.
Singer/comedian Bette Midler was at her bawdy best during these 1979 concert performances, mixing a musical repertoire from the illustrious songbooks of such rock legends as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen while engaging with her own Harlettes or assuming the character of Delores DeLago, America's most tasteless lounge singer. Midler is a whirlwind onstage as she moves from singer to comedian without missing a beat.
And we'll wrap things up with a couple powerhouse films that focus on the world of jazz and those who love it. First up is Bird, the 1988 biopic of jazz great Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. Directed by jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood, who saw Parker perform when the future Academy Award winner was merely a teenager, Bird is as visually compelling as jazz itself, as the past and future overlap in its exploration of Yardbird's soaring skill and destructive excesses. Forest Whitaker is startling as Parker, winning "Best Actor" at the Cannes Film Festival and receiving a Golden Globe nomination, while the film claimed a "Best Sound" Oscar.
A fictional account of an expatriate jazz musician in Paris during the Fifties named Dale Turner, played by real-life jazz great Dexter Gordon who received an Oscar nomination for his performance and won the Grammy for his work on the film's soundtrack. Round Midnight follows the relationship between Turner and a devoted fan who attempts to keep his idol away from a path of alcohol destruction. The character of Turner is said to have been based upon a few different jazz artists—namely Lester Young and Bud Powell and Gordon himself. Winner of the "Best Score" Oscar.
And that's it for our cinematic suggestions, whether you're at Coachella this month or just needing a laugh or a cry, it's all about keeping the music alive on your life's journey.