Reel Rockers: 22 Classic Rock & Roll Movies

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  1. We salute the debut of Rainn Wilson's ''The Rocker'' with our list of the greatest, most rebellious, rawkin'-est films ever, including ''The Last Waltz'' and ''Purple Rain'' (but, sadly, not ''The Rocker'')

    By Simon Vozick-Levinson
    Aug 20, 2008


    One of the first fake rockumentaries and still the funniest by far. It helps that the Tap's tunes, while thoroughly ridiculous in content, are actually kinda terrific. (Like you've never air-guitared to ''Stonehenge''?)

    THE LAST WALTZ (1978)
    The Band were such an electrifying live act that a documentary capturing any of their shows would be well worth watching. But one directed by Martin Scorsese, with guests including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, and a merrily slurring Van Morrison, at The Band's final performance of all time? Instant classic.

    PURPLE RAIN (1984)
    Prince was already a major star after the success of 1982's 1999, but this semi-autobiographical movie and its killer soundtrack cemented his place as an all-time genius. It's an odyssey through the bizarre paradise that was Prince's brain at the peak of his powers — just sit back and enjoy the ride.

    KURT & COURTNEY (1998)
    Did Courtney Love have Kurt Cobain murdered? That's a pretty nasty accusation, and it's one of many in this controversial documentary about grunge's first couple. If nothing else, it's got plenty of fodder for the Love-haters out there.

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    Did you think the Metallica guys were overreacting tools when they went after Napster? Wait until you see the insane intra-band power plays they pull on each other in this documentary about the making of their 2003 album St. Anger. Napster creator Shawn Fanning should thank his lucky stars he was never a member of the band.

    SHINE A LIGHT (2008)
    Another concert doc from Martin Scorsese, this one showing the Rolling Stones of 2006 in all their formaldehyded glory. Dudes may look like walking skeletons these days, but give 'em some credit — those skeletons know how to rock.

    WOODSTOCK (1970)
    Don't take the brown acid! But do check out this documentary if you've never seen it. It's the next best thing to actually being present at the most awesome rock festival of all time. (Possibly even better, if you're not into the whole bathing-in-upstate-N.Y.-mud thing.)

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  3. A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964)
    The Beatles were absolutely irresistible in 1964, and their first movie is bursting with the fun of those madcap, moptopped days. The tunes, of course, are top-notch, but you might be surprised to see how well their comic timing holds up all these decades later.

    Is it possible to contain the infinite energy of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham on mere celluloid? Yeah, sort of, judging by this vaguely absurd documentary — a real-life Spinal Tap of sorts.

    THAT THING YOU DO! (1996)
    Tom Hanks wrote and directed this lovable comedy about an early-'60s band's adventures in one-hit-wonderdom. But the secret ingredient was that super-catchy title ditty, penned by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger.

    LA BAMBA (1987)
    Most people today know Ritchie Valens (whose real name was Richard Valenzuela) only as the guy who sang 1958's ''La Bamba.'' Lou Diamond Phillips' performance movingly fleshes out the life of the rock & roll pioneer, whose career was cut tragically short by a plane crash.

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    Intelligent, well-researched documentaries aren't necessarily very punk rock, but this is still an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to learn about the early days of the hardcore subgenre — or just people who seriously dig Black Flag and Minor Threat.

    Don't believe Dublin, Ireland, is a hotbed of slow-burning soul music? Just check out this ensemble dramedy, featuring Once guy Glen Hansard in a supporting role.

    Ah, the Sex Pistols. They only managed to put out one studio album before imploding, but that was one hell of an influential record. Director Julien Temple took a crack at the definitive Pistols documentary with participation from the surviving members.

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  5. SID AND NANCY (1986)
    Another product of the world's eternal fascination with the Sex Pistols is this cult drama about ''bassist'' Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Never has a codependent, drug-addled, ultimately lethal relationship been so compelling.

    SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)
    Yes, it's hilarious, but there's an important lesson lurking in Richard Linklater's comedy: Far too many private-school brats grow up in ignorance of the righteous riffs of Led Zeppelin and the Who. If only every stuffy elementary academy could employ substitute teachers like Jack Black!

    THE DOORS (1991)
    Who but director Oliver Stone could take on the tale of Jim Morrison (played by Val Kilmer) and his band of psychedelic voyagers? It's a wild, sensationalistic version of the Doors' story, but that's only fitting for such a wild, sensationalistic band.

    BACKBEAT (1994)
    A look at the days when the Beatles were five scruffy dudes playing clubs in Hamburg — and original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (played by Stephen Dorff) was still a force to be reckoned with for the soon-to-be-Fab Four.

    The personalities who created the glam-rock boom of the early '70s — David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan — were far too outsize for a traditional biopic. So director Todd Haynes distilled their careers into a trippy fiction starring Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers — plus Christian Bale as a reporter who sifts Citizen Kane-style through their conflicting memories.

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  6. 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002)
    An ode to the creative ferment of the U.K.'s ''Madchester'' scene, starring the incomparable Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, the impresario who brought the world Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays.

    A brilliant rock opera about a transgender East German singer trying to make it in the U.S., written, directed by, and starring the multitalented John Cameron Mitchell.

    WALK THE LINE (2005)
    Even if you don't like the Man in Black's music (and if so, what's wrong with you?), there's no denying Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon's remarkable performances in this Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash biopic

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  7. "Stop Making Sense", The Talking Heads live concert. Awesome!