The 10 Greatest Rock and Roll Movies

May 16, 2002 (Updated Jun 4, 2002)

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The Bottom Line More than just concert videos, these films provide the best inside looks at artists that helped shape music and the world around them. Should this list go to 11?

This is not a list of great musicals. The first person leaving a comment about the greatness of Rod Steiger as poor Judd will be dealt with severely. Instead, this is my list of the top 10 films that are either rock and roll documentaries or fictional movies that use rock music as the primary plot element.

Also, every band and their mother has put out a collection of videos or a concert video. Please don't scathe me for neglecting a particular one. Our music tastes are bound to differ, plus I can't see everything. However, if you have a great documentary in mind I've missed, please let me know.

10. Almost Famous - I'm going to risk getting raked over the coals for not putting this one any higher. I really do love Cameron Crowe's quasi-biopic on himself, and the emotion of the rock fan has probably never been better exemplified than by Kate Hudson as Miss Penny Lane. However, I have found this film doesn't stand up to re-watchability as well as I might have expected. It is far too mainstream a film to allow that stale quality to go completely unforgiven. So here it is at number 10 and we're moving on.

9. Meeting People is Easy - Leave it to Radiohead to make the rock and roll documentary an avant garde film. This documentary looks at the tour and rise to superstardom that followed Radiohead's epic 1997 album "O.K. Computer." This film stands out from most rock documentaries in that the life of the rock star is very much played down. Band members express their thoughts on the boredom of being on the road and the pressures that come with mass critical and commercial success. Less attention is paid to the actual music and concert footage, and instead we are treated to a look at the lives of the boys that make up one of the greatest bands on the planet.

8. The Filth and the Fury - Julien Temple got his second chance to tell the story of the Sex Pistols, this time not being watched over by Malcolm McLaren as was the case with "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle." This time the story is told from the point of view of the surviving band members and viewers are finally given a chance to see the times and places that helped to create the Sex Pistols and the punk movement they helped get rolling. Quite alot of this footage is pretty raw, in particular the concert stuff, but it is fascinating all the same. Temple also uncovered some previously unseen interviews with Sid Vicious that....well yeah, he is still a pretty complicated guy.

7. Rock and Roll High School - Oh yeah, more punk rock!!!!!
Directed by Joe Dante ("Gremlins" "Piranha") and produced by the great Roger Corman, this film defines what has always worried parents about rock and roll. The Ramones are able to conquer the fascists leaders of the local high school with some of their special brand of punk rock.

6. This Is Spinal Tap - I'm not sure what to say about this film. It is one of the greatest comedies as well as one of the greatest rock films of all time. Rob Reiner ("The Princess Bride" "A Few Good Men") directs this mockumentary about the fictional metal band Spinal Tap. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls tell of life on the road, opening for a puppet show and the never-ending list of drummers as this film provides laughs from the first moment until the credits roll.

5. Don't Look Back - Famed rock documentarian D.A. Pennebaker provides one the most intimate looks at Bob Dylan ever captured with this film made during Dylan's 1965 British tour. Dylan is just making his transition from folk hero to rock superstar, making this film important from a historical sense even if it hadn't turned out as perfectly as it did.

4. Last Waltz - Legendary director Martin Scorsese helmed the filming of the last ever concert of The Band. This is perhaps the greatest one-night assembly of musicians ever captured as the Band are joined on stage at one time or another by Neil Young, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell and of course Bob Dylan. However, the highlight of the film musically has to be the studio performance of "Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris as the featured guest. The music for this film is first rate, but the interviews with band members (Robbie Robertson in particular) do tend to ramble. That said, this is one of the essential concert films.

3. Stop Making Sense - Watch this film. I don't know what else to say. Director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") collaborated with David Byrne to create the quintessential concert film. Filmed over the course of three consecutive days of shows everything about this film is pure magic. Plus David Byrne wears a suit that could double as a tent.

2. Hard Day's Night - This movie is just non-stop fun. You can tell the Fab Four had an absolute ball making this film which is many ways is the first music video. Expected to be nothing more than a quick cash-in on the Beatles' popularity at the time, the film seduced anyone and everyone who saw it and made the Beatles even bigger than they were before. Appropriately enough, the film itself gives us a glimpse at Beatlemania, a good history lesson for people who like me who unfortunately were born far too late to take part in all the fun.

1. Gimme Shelter - No...not Woodstock! If I want to see T&A all over the place I'll buy Cinemax. This documentary follows the Rolling Stones on their "Let it Bleed" tour as they come closer and closer to the infamy that became Altamont. For those not in the know, the Stones had plans of their own Woodstock-esque festival near San Francisco. The unfortunate decision to employ Hell's Angels as security backfired and a patron of the concert was killed. Oops! Seriously, this film is a fascinating look at the not only the event that many say ended the 1960's, but at the band itself. The Beatles were no more and the Stones were firmly making their claim to the greatest band in the world. This incident earned them an infamy that is some ways they have never overcome.

Films I love but didn't make the cut:
High Fidelity (The hardest cut to make, but I wanted more documentaries.)
Tommy (A bit too bizarre.)
CB4 (Not a rock film, but absolutely hilarious.)
Help! (A bit too silly)
Rattle and Hum (I just can't get into everything U2 was trying to do with this one.)
Dazed and Confused (Not a rock movie in the strictest sense, but it made much use of 70's arena rock.)
The Doors (I just can't completely trust Oliver Stone to tell the whole truth.)
The Wall (Keep in mind I found "Tommy too weird)

No way in Hades I'd give these films any consideration:
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ("Stayin' Alive" isn't the only reason to hate the Bee Gees.)
Pump Up the Volume (80's teen crap is still crap. Did Confucius say that?)
Footloose (See above.)
Rock Star (Marky Mark and the Crappy Bunch)

Let me know what you think. Family Values Tour comments need not apply.

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