• Feature

Musical Movies That Aren't Musicals: A Short List

Photo Cred: Travis Brandner

Listen, we’re all going a little crazy right now. The world’s turned upside down, and we’re all doing our best to adjust, cope, manage, and… well, just exist at this point. For frequent CincyMusic readers, we know that music is an escape and a salve, and along with so many other things that we’ve had to give up in order to socially distance ourselves for everyone’s health and well-being, having to go without live shows is a particularly difficult thing. Hopefully you’ve been checking out all of our CincyMusic Live performances on Facebook supporting local musicians.

Some of us might have a little extra time on our hands, though, so I thought it’d be fun to make a list of some of my favorite films where music is a big focus. They’re not documentaries or live performances, though live performances might factor into the plot. I also didn’t include any biopics, because, honestly, I’ve not watched all that many recently. With this list, though, I’m happy to say, they’re all a little bit different from each other, so I think there’s something here for just about everyone.

Okay. Here we go.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Quite simply, a masterpiece of pop filmmaking. Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel series is an ode to growing up, kind of. It’s a faithful adaptation, but takes a few fun liberties with the source material. The film features Michael Cera at his most Michael Cera-ist, and has super fun performances from Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Brie Larson (all of whom have gone on to play superheroes in the Marvel and DC film universes). Plus, the fight sequences are incredible, bringing full-on video game mayhem to the big screen in a truly unique way. But the real star? The music. Both from Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb, and all of the other performances that were written by the likes of Broken Social Scene and Beck, music is the heartbeat of the entire thing. The soundtrack is worth checking out on it’s own merits, but trust me, you’re going to want to experience the visuals along with it.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

This one seems to have gained a bit of a cult following well after release, and that’s fine. However, it should have been a massive hit from the beginning, and I really don’t understand why it wasn’t. The Andy Samberg-led cast is impeccable. Sure, this is basically an hour and a half plus music video essay by The Lonely Island, it’s also a clever, over the top, straight up hilarious send up of the ridiculousness of pop stardom. Wolves attack the artist Seal. Snoop Dogg surprises everyone. Usher gets to perform with The Style Boyz. It’s shot as a documentary, and the conceit works from frame one. The rise, fall, and rise again of Sandberg’s Connor 4 Real is as mesmerizing as he needs to be, glimpses of The Style Boyz are amazing, the bonafide pop stars that show up in cameos and performances are perfect. It’s the most intelligent dumb movie about music to come out in years and it deserves your attention ASAP. Oh, the soundtrack is absolute *fire emoji*.


On the other end of the musical and emotional spectrum, there’s Once. It’s been awhile since I’ve revisited the film, mostly because it leaves me a wreck every time I watch. The soundtrack remains a beautiful, stirring, and still resonant piece of musicianship, and the cinema verite style and lo-fi shagginess of the film only enhances the feeling that you’re watching something in real life, in real time. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova crafted a timeless, soulful piece of modern cinema, and as much as their characters are central to the story, the music they create manages to become a character in its own right. It’s a cathartic film, and maybe doesn’t have the happiest of endings - but it has the right one.

That Thing You Do

I have no idea why, but at almost 8 years into our marriage, my wife and I only just discovered our mutual affection for That Thing You Do. We realized it was missing from our film library, so I fixed that pretty quickly (thanks, digital movies!), but then also realized there was a director’s cut available on Blu-Ray that I also picked up (thanks, curbside pick-up at Best Buy!). The movie itself is still as good as it ever was, and even though the director’s cut slows down the pace a bit, I have to say, I was shocked by how much more it added to the film. The evolution of the single, as well as the evolution of the band, The Wonders, nee, The One-Ders (or, The Oh-knee-ders), is striking, and the fact that their one hit somehow never wears out it’s welcome is strange testament to the quality of both the storytelling and the songwriting. Also, I really want Leo’s guitar, please. If you’ve not checked this one out in a while, there’s no better time like the present.

O’Brother, Where Art Thou?

I think at this point in human history, you either worship at the altar of the Coen Brothers, or you don’t. This film, rightfully, gained quite a bit of notoriety for it’s soundtrack as soon as it was released. It’s Old Timey and timeless at the same time. Some of the dialog and the politics are a little cringe-y in 2020, but if we chalk that up to being a product of the time period, it’s at least somewhat more palatable. The cast of the film would take a paragraph in and of itself, but it’s one of my favorite George Clooney performances, and Stephen Root’s weird, partially blind record maker is pure strangeness. Adapting Ulysses, updating it’s location to the rural south in the early 20th century… I don’t know why anyone thought it would work, but somehow, miraculously, it does. Thank goodness for that.

High Fidelity

Last, but certainly not least, one of my all-time top 5 favorite films. It’s one that celebrates music as much as it kind of makes fun of all the dweebs (like me) that really can’t function without it. So, basically, everyone reading this list. The soundtrack, again, is one of most incredibly well-curated pieces of pop music ephemera to see wide release (and really wouldn’t be replicated until we hit peak awesome soundtrack with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy). And, to be honest, maybe it’s also my favorite John Cusack film? It’s easily the one that I relate to the most, on several different levels. I’ve yet to check out the Hulu remake (though I am so intrigued by the casting and genuinely excited to see Zoe Kravitz’s take on the character). If you’ve not seen it, it’s brilliant. If you have seen it, watch it again because it’s brilliant. And do yourself a favor - if you can, get the soundtrack on vinyl. It somehow makes listening to it that much more fun.

Alright! We did it, gang. I hope you enjoy! Oh, and if you dig this list, my wife and I are going to share a “Kids Musical Movies That Aren’t Frozen 2” list with you soon.

Tell us, what are YOUR favorite films where music is just as much a character as the actual, uh, characters?