Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
In recent years, biopics of music royalty have been all the craze. Films about Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and myriad others have been made in large numbers in the last few years. This weekend, another such film releases as Baz Luhrmann takes a look at the life story of Elvis Presley. While I haven’t seen nearly enough of the best biopics to make this list, I could really only list Amadeus and La Vie en Rose without scraping the bottom of the barrel. That said, I can expand the list to movies about music and easily create a list. Matter of fact, my list ended up being twice the size that I should have. As such, I took out some musicals: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Pink Floyd – The Wall, Dreamgirls, and the aforementioned La Vie en Rose. That left me with only six films. The one that lost out happens to be a film I covered recently, Victor/Victoria. Like Torch Song Trilogy, another film I considered, that film is less about music as a subject and more about music as a setting. The same could be true of Cabaret, which failed to make the list on the musical basis.
Five titles remain and those titles are below, three are biopics and two are biopic-adjacent, but are not films about real people, though they take place in and are about music in a broader sense. One of them is still classified as a musical, but considering it’s a musical biopic about music, I decided to include it even though I didn’t include the less “musical” La Vie en Rose. What’s also surprising is that this is my first list since the original few where I haven’t covered any of the five films previously.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Of the musicals I included on this list, the earliest of them is this Michael Curtiz film about the rise to fame of entertainer George M. Cohan. James Cagney who many were familiar with from his many typecast mobster roles, sings and dances his way through the film in one musical number after another. It follows his humble beginnings on the Vaudeville stage through his myriad Broadway successes, culminating with is receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal for his career from President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom he had just emerged from retirement to play in a Rodgers and Hart musical.
All of the songs in the film were written by Cohan and long before Broadway started doing jukebox musicals on the regular, this film showed them how it was done. If you had only known Cagney from his roles in crime films, discovering that he could sing and dance had to be a pleasant surprise. Cagney’s own life story didn’t mirror that of Cohan’s, but you wouldn’t know that from the gravitas he brings the performance. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, this is one that would be well worth your time.
While I tried to stick with films about music that featured real life people, two of this list’s entries are about fictional individuals. Nashville is one of them. Robert Altman’s comedy-drama ensemble film sets its action in its titular city in the five days leading up to a political rally for a fictional, populist politician. The film maneuvers through the city looking at the life and work of several people who were in the country and gospel music industry prevalent in the city.
While the cast doesn’t feature a lot of huge names, some great actors make up the cast and their performances are terrific. Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, and Barbara Harris are among the bigger names gracing the film, but keep an eye out for 23-year-old Jeff Goldblum in only his third feature appearance. Even if you aren’t a fan of country music, there’s plenty of drama and wonderful acting to keep you engaged for one of Altman’s very best films.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The second film about the country music industry and the second about a real person, Coal Miner’s Daughter looks at the life of Loretta Lynn from her early teens living in poverty to her success as one of the most influential female country artists of all-time. Directed by Michael Apted from a script by Tom Rickman based on Lynn’s autobiography, the film is a fascinating look at Lynn’s life and the challenges she faced getting where was.
The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it was Sissy Spacek’s sensational performance as Lynn that took home the film’s only Oscar. Although Spacek had delivered strong performances before and after this film, this one stands above the rest as the pinnacle of her career. Able support from Tommy Lee Jones as her husband Doolittle help make the film something special with a wonderful short turn from Beverly D’Angelo as fellow country music icon Patsy Cline.
Based on his own play, Peter Shaffer adapted his tale of the rivalry between young musical upstart Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and established court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). As the lascivious and immature Mozart becomes the toast of Vienna, Salieri works to undermine him and ensure his downfall, but cannot overcome the more impressive talents of the younger composer.
With 11 Oscar nominations, Amadeus won eight of them, including Best Picture. A sumptuous, period revenge drama, the film looks at one of the most prominent composers in history and the jealousy of a man whose own life has been dedicated to the cause without similar success. Hulce and Abraham are tremendous together and apart and their performances rank among the best of the 1980s. Back when double lead performances were acceptable and even common, Abraham won the Oscar over Hulce and although I do appreciate Abraham’s work, it was Hulce who felt more deserving, but I suppose Salieri had to win at something.
That Thing You Do! (1996)
There is no question that Tom Hanks is a great actor. His chameleon-like performances have varied over the years, but his approachable, every-man style has made him into his generation’s James Stewart. What most audiences don’t realize is that Hanks was also a fine director. Having only made two films, it’s difficult to assess his prowess as a filmmaker, but at least with this film, he made a pretty damned good one. That Thing You Do! This is the second fictional tale on my list and it follows the rise to fame of a boy band in the 1960s that became a one-hit wonder.
A fascinating look into the backstage lives of a pop band not dissimilar from groups like The Beatles or The Monkees, Hanks’ film gives us the wonderful title tune as well as some genuinely impressive performances from a cadre of young actors. Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Jonathan Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and Charlize Theron are all wonderful. Hanks also appears in the film as the band’s manager and he wisely knows how to stay out of the way of his young fellow actors. The drama and bitterness behind the scenes as the band tours and begins to clash is deftly handled giving audiences a view into the backroom drama they don’t normally get to see.