15 Best Movies by Musicians

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Surprisingly, film and music forms can become a blurry place, especially with the advent and proliferation of music videos in the 1980s. The power of the image is crucial in establishing the credibility of a particular musician. In some cases, the image is inseparable from the music. This is where the medium of film becomes crucial, as the musician can take their built-in image and expand or, in some cases, subvert it to fit the new medium. 

Today, we’ll look at some of the best film projects by musicians. Whether it be movies about them, their music, or the musician’s passion project, these are all strange and unique works that expand upon the musician’s talents. The movies don’t have to be explicitly about the musician’s music, per se, but they should interestingly incorporate their musical persona. 

1. Tommy (1975) 

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

British eccentric Ken Russell directs this 1975 rock opera oddity, an adaptation of The Who’s fourth album of the same name. The film follows a psychosomatically deaf, mute, and blind boy who becomes a self-proclaimed pinball wizard, leading to a religious movement. Released in a then-state-of-the-art five-strip stereo process called Quintasound, the film’s critical and commercial success would lead to many rock operas popping up in its wake.  

2. Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) 

Photo Credit: MGM.

Speaking of rock operas, Alan Parker’s playful adaptation of Pink Floyd’s opus of the same name is one of the most visually dazzling films ever made. The film follows the journey of a young boy as he experiences alienation at school, disillusion after going to war, and a lack of guidance from his father. An awe-inspiring multi-media experience, this is one rock opera that must be seen and heard to be believed. 

3. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) 

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Richard Lester directs The Fab Four in their screen debut, which follows The Beatles as they try to make it to a television performance despite Paul’s grandfather causing trouble and Ringo getting arrested. Heavily inspired by the French New Wave, the film is as playful and joyous as The Beatles’ music from this period, making it not only an excellent document of a band at a certain point in their career but also one of the greatest films ever made by a musical group.

4. UHF (1989) 

Photo Credit: MGM.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s comedy epic follows the misadventures of George Newman, a lay-about loser who inherits a UHF station and becomes a community savior with his off-the-wall and bizarre television programming. Featuring many parodies, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rambo, and The Beverly Hillbillies, ‘Weird Al’ takes his sardonic style from music to film with ease.

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5. Head (1968) 

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

BBS Films co-founder Bob Rafelson directs and co-writes with Jack Nicholson, of all people. This psychedelic head rush of a film follows The Monkees in a near-plotless series of escapades through 1960s counterculture. A scathing critique of capitalism ran rampant in the late 1960s, it remains one of the few contemporary Hollywood films to deal with the Vietnam War as it was happening. It is one of the best films of the 1960s.

6. 200 Motels (1971) 

Photo Credit: MGM.

The only film ever directed by musician Frank Zappa, this 1971 mockumentary follows the hectic world of rock musicians as they tour the world in search of bad drugs, awful sex, and pocket change. It features former Beatles member Ringo Starr in an extended role and is the first film ever shot on video to be released in theaters.

7. Local Legends (2013) 

Photo Credit: Motern Media.

Indie musician Matt Farley channels the go-for-broke energy of his music with this opus about the nature of creativity and the power of maintaining one’s creative drive in the face of adversity. The film follows a semi-autobiographical account of Farley’s struggles as a musician and a filmmaker, working tirelessly to keep his creativity alive. It is one of the most essential documents on creativity ever to be released to the silver screen.

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8. Human Highway (1982) 

Photo Credit: Shakey Pictures.

A collaboration between Neil Young and DEVO, this bizarre sci-fi musical odyssey follows a diner owner who plans to set his restaurant on fire to collect insurance money. His plans go awry, however, as a nuclear leak from the town’s power plant sends bizarre customers through his diner. One of the stranger films on this list, it feels akin to Young’s bizarre musical experiments of the mid-to-late ’80s. Check it out.

9. This is Spinal Tap (1984) 

Photo Credit: Spinal Tap Productions.

This entry is a bit odd as, at the time of the film’s release, Spinal Tap was a fictional band. However, at the time of this writing, Spinal Tap is a real band, embracing the humorous aesthetics established in this film in their music. It goes without saying that this musical comedy from When Harry Met Sally filmmaker Rob Reiner is one of the funniest films ever made.

10. Big Money Hustlas (2000) 

Photo Credit: Non-Homogenized Productions Ltd.

The Insane Clown Posse writer and star in this riff on blacksploitation films of the 1970s. Your reaction to reading that sentence will determine whether or not this film will be for you. Proceed with caution. 

11. Space is the Place (1974) 

Photo Credit: North American Star System.

Sun Ra is the main creative force behind this experimental film, where he plays himself. In the movie, he plays jazz so well that he defeats the devil and saves the African American community through his immaculate jazz skills. An oddity in the decade of oddities, this film is worth it for its Afrofuturist aesthetics and beautiful Sun Ra score. 

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12. True Stories (1986) 

Photo Credit: Gary Kurfirst Pictures.

With the help of his band Talking Heads, David Byrne makes this unique mockumentary film about the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, and all of the strange and wonderful people who live there. It is an oddly comforting film featuring some incredible music from Talking Heads.

13. House of 1000 Corpses (2003) 

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

It was a film so gritty and violent that it took three years and multiple cuts to finally get a theatrical release. Rob Zombie’s directorial debut carries the spirit of his music, following a hapless group of teenagers who stumble onto the house of a group of serial killers. It feels as if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were refracted through the lens of MTV, which is by no means an insult. It is visceral, raw filmmaking that will scare the daylights out of you.

14. The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

Photo Credit: Arcade Pictures.

Porting over his love of the Shaw Brothers kung-fu films of the 1970s, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA directs this hyper-violent throwback film about a slave in feudal China who becomes a blacksmith to protect his village. Heavily stylized, this will appeal to fans of the Wu-Tang and exploitation films alike.

15. Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Using the cache from the success of his film Purple Rain, Prince decided to make a $30 million homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Following Prince as a swindler in the French Riviera trying to woo a woman who’s just inherited $50 million, one feels the seams showing a bit, but boy if this isn’t a blast from start-to-finish. In usual Prince fashion, when anyone else would zig, he zags.

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