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The 10 greatest rock and roll movies of all time

“There used to be a way to stick it to the man. It was called Rock ‘n’ Roll. But guess what. Oh, no. ‘The Man’ ruined that too. With a little thing called MTV.” – Dewey Finn (School of Rock)

Whilst this may have been uttered in a wild rant by Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s comedy School of Rock, the sentiment of the monologue is, unfortunately, true, with the genre of rock and roll commercialised into a commodity of 21st-century capitalism. With its own liberal philosophy demanding an end to worldwide greed, whilst insisting on a love for all mankind, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

The maintenance of such a philosophy along with the exploration of alternative, experimental music typifies the very best rock groups of all time, including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Joy Division and Prince. Similar rules apply when considering the very best films that portray the world of rock and roll, with an appreciation for the spirit, style and attitude of the genre a necessity in order to be considered among the greats. 

Featuring stylistic interpretations of music masterpieces, alongside bio-pics and comedies, let’s examine the very best rock and roll movies, each included under strict counter-cultural criteria.

The top 10 best rock and roll movies:

10. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

Contextualising the struggle of LGBTQ rights within a historical text whilst simultaneously forging a unique creative path of rock, John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of his own stage musical is a classic piece of modern cinema. 

The musical follows a genderqueer East German rock singer who falls in love with a younger man, the beautiful and stylish Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) only for him to steal her music. Formed by Cameron Mitchell as an exploration of his own feelings of sexuality, the writer and director creates a truly touching story that radiates love and individualism. Later commenting, “Labels should be about freedom as opposed to tying people to another set of rules”, Hedwig and the Angry Inch speaks to the very essence of rock. 

9. Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)

The Who’s fourth studio album, Tommy, was unique for a variety of reasons, none more fascinating than the fact that it was the first-ever album credited as a “Rock Opera”, meaning it tells a distinct story told in song. 

Its story is shared with Ken Russell’s eccentric film of 1975, following Tommy, a deaf, dumb and blind boy who has exceptional skill at playing pinball. As his fame grows to enormous levels, his senses return and he becomes an evangelical figure of hope and self-discovery. Displayed in totally excessive style from The Devils director Ken Russell, Tommy is a powerful psychedelic experience that examines religion and contemporary society with wit and a wild passion for pinball. 

8. Pink Floyd – The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)

Re-establishing the band’s connection with their true fans, whilst excavating into their own identity simultaneously, Alan Parker’s, The Wall is a treat for the retinas, a feature-length thrill of animated psychedelia and live-action drama. 

Depicting walking hammers, monstrous creatures and apocalyptic visions each working to metaphorically represent existential concepts of war and fascism, Bob Geldof stars as a rock star building an internal and physical wall to block out the outside world. As Alan Parker stated, “It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before – a weird fusion of live-action, story-telling and of the surreal”.

7. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

In setting up Factory Records in 1976, Tony Wilson’s impact on the history of Manchester’s music scene was set in stone, even if he didn’t know it at the time. 

Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People chronicles this journey, and pulses with electrical energy as well as a sense of humour that distinctly belongs in the north of England and the rock and roll genre. Steve Coogan stars as a faux Alan Partridge, to adopt the role of Tony Wilson, alongside a host of English comedy talent, in this thoroughly enjoyable comedy-music escapade that enjoyably details the origins of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays.

6. School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003)

With his own alternative philosophy that closely ties together with the essence of rock, Richard Linklater amplifies a generational message in School of Rock, to embrace individuality and reject the status quo.

Protagonist Dewey Finn (Jack Black) is representative of these ideals, a slacker living on the sofa of his best friend’s apartment who still holds a soulful passion for his youthful love of rock. Jack Black’s frenetic electricity permeates through the film, creating an ode to the passion and joy of making music, no matter your age. Loaded with classic genre bands such as The Clash, The Doors and The Velvet Underground, School of Rock is an enthralling film that will make you want to take up guitar and stick it to “the man”. 

5. Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984)

One of music’s greatest ever performers, Prince, gives fire to Albert Magnoli’s 1984 film Purple Rain, an emotional musical based on the life of the singer himself. 

Depicting the struggles of a young rocker named ‘The Kid’ living under the weight of his manipulative parents whilst he enjoys success with his band The Revolution, Purple Rain is a surprisingly heartfelt film led by a sensational score and style. Captured by cinematographer Donald Thorin, known for Midnight Run and Head of State, the film manages to easily capture Prince’s charisma alongside his immaculate dress sense. 

4. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

Cult classic and an ode to the spontaneity of youth, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous stars Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel and Jason Lee, telling a culturally resonant story that remains pertinent today. 

A powerful coming of age story, Crowe’s film follows William Miller, a high-school boy given the opportunity to tour with a rock band and report on their growing success. What he witnesses is less musical history, and rather the disintegration of a band through drugs, sex and general disagreement. Permeating themes of young love, greed and naivety, Almost Famous is a pertinent story released at the dawn of the new millennium when the genre was being handed down from true creatives to commercial-minded businessmen. 

3. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Anton Corbijn doesn’t just come to Control as a seasoned director of feature films, rather he earned his salt in the industry directing multiple music videos for bands including Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and Nirvana. Though, most importantly, he also served as Joy Division’s original photographer. 

As such Corbijn is able to paint a vivid portrait of troubled frontman Ian Curtis, perfectly captured in gritty monochrome glory as the tragedy of his short life is beautifully explored. An ode to the power and grace of Curtis’ songwriting and performance, Control also delves into the torment of the frontman’s private life and presents a critical opinion on the industry that both made him and helped break him. 

2. Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)

There’s a reason why The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter or the Talking HeadsStop Making Sense aren’t on this list of seminal rock and roll classics, as these films aren’t about rock, they are rock. So why is Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning Woodstock on this list? Well, it’s a film as interested in sharing the experience of the genre as it is depicting the historical importance of Woodstock itself, reflecting the style and sentiment of the iconic ’60s festival. 

“It looks like some kind of biblical, epical, unbelievable scene,” the Grateful Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia utters about the celebration of euphoric escapism, fueled by drugs, music and free love. Wadleigh’s expansive documentary captures a moment in time in which, for one moment, the greatest ever rock performers were in one place, including Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Nash & Young, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. The excitement and thrill of the event and of rock history permeate through the film. 

1. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)

The comedy of Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap balances on a satirical knife-edge, relying on a sharp knowledge of the music industry, something that writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer each undoubtedly shared. 

Endlessly quotable, This is Spinal Tap follows a fictional ‘70s band on tour in America as they experience a serious commercial decline and is as hilariously funny as it is genuinely enthralling. Featuring original songs, ‘Sex Farm, ‘Big Bottom’, and ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’, with each one being performed by the fictional band, Rob Reiner creates a vibrant organic environment led by improvisation and a cinema vérité style.

So ingeniously does it ride the line of satire, and so lovingly does it embrace the world of rock and roll, that you’d be forgiven in thinking that Spinal Tap was a real group, if a totally absurd one at that; but then what rock band isn’t. 

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