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Hitting the Right Note: Ten Musical Movies That Make First Chair

By Laura Fries

Whether you are looking for inspiration or entertainment, you can find that and more through this sampling of musical films—a cross section of soul, rock, classical and Broadway, fiction and documentary.

Fantasia1. Fantasia

Princesses and furry forest animals make their appearances, but “Fantasia” is designed to introduce classical music through a visual story. Deems Taylor hosts the film, in which portions of The Nutcracker Suite, Rite of Spring and Pastoral Symphony, among others are set to extraordinary traditional cel animation segments. A combination of live action and animation, the film uses traditional animated images like Mickey Mouse as well as abstract and literal interpretations of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music.

Beethoven Lives Upstairs2. Beethoven Lives Upstairs

Classical composers often seem unapproachable beings, their stories told and retold but rarely lensed from a child’s perspective. “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” is a delightful film about a young boy who discovers that the noisy upstairs neighbor is none other than Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven is composing his Ninth Symphony, which sounds pretty scary to young Christopher. Soon, Christopher gets to meet the ornery and mysterious man and comes to see the softer side of his eccentric neighbor.

Mr. Holland's Opus3. Mr. Holland’s Opus

This poignant film follows the career of Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) a high school music teacher over thirty years as his desire of composing a symphony is born, fades and finally comes into focus. Mr. Holland tries to connect with his students through music. To do that, he uses all means possible, even if it makes other teachers unhappy to hear rock music blaring out of the classroom. Over the span of decades, we see Mr. Holland struggle as support for art and music education in public schools dwindles. His own frustrations also mount as personal problems force him to put his dreams on hold. A great reminder that life isn’t about the direction you take--it's about the direction you give.

Amadeus4. Amadeus

Yankees versus the Red Sox. Lakers versus the Celtics. The Mozart-Salieri rivalry clearly demonstrates that music can be just as competitive as sports. This 1984 film from Milos Forman is an interesting study in musical genius, jealousy and creativity under pressure. The film follows Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, two talented music composers in 18th century Vienna. Among other issues, including some of Mozart’s most noted works, the film explores what it means to test yourself to your limits and the cost of being so driven. Superbly acted and visually stunning, the emotional foundation of Mozart’s music comes to light. Mature themes make this a better fit for young adults.

The Commitments5. The Commitments

Jimmy Rabbitte wants to be the best manager of world’s greatest band. The problem is convincing his friends that working class Dublin needs a Soul band. He collects a rag-tag group of musicians and singers who, for a few short gigs, are in fact, the greatest band in Dublin. They bring down the house with their covers of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Wilson Pickett until egos, jealousy and work schedules break them apart. (The chemistry between the cast was so authentic, they actually toured as real group for a time after the film’s 1991 release.) Language and situations make this a better selection for older audiences, but know that heavy Irish brogues make most of the expletives hard to understand.

Once6. Once

A guy-meets-girl story with a twist, this small independent movie made a big splash at the box office and Oscars for its subtle, understated story and fabulous soundtrack. An Irish street musician and part time vacuum repairman (simply known as guy) meets a Czech flower seller (known only as girl) and discovers a shared passion for music. Although their cultural differences and personal relationships initially cause problems, their musical collaboration produces a remarkable portfolio of original, heart-felt songs. Soon, they’re both forced to realize what it will take to fulfill their musical dreams. This drama, filmed in almost documentary like simplicity makes viewers think about how to discover and nurture talent as well as and how far one would go to pursue a passion.

Music from the Inside Out7. Music from the Inside Out

Sometimes it’s best to go directly to the source. This documentary interviews various members of the Philadelphia Orchestra about what it means to be a professional orchestra member. How does it affect your life? What inspires people to play for a living? What kind of snacks do you stash in your case during a performance? These and other questions are what director Daniel Anker explores in this documentary designed for younger viewers. Through concert footage, interviews and illustrations, viewers really get a feel for what it means to play music for a living.

Young at Heart8. Young at Heart

Ask your kids to imagine their grandparents rocking out to Nirvana or singing The Ramones in the shower. If they roll their eyes and scream that it’s impossible for the older generations to appreciate rock and roll, watch “Young at Heart,” on your next family movie night. This documentary follows a group of senior citizens from Northampton Massachusetts, who for the last 25 years, have been getting together to belt out the latest rock ‘n roll songs. We’re talking grunge, and even heavy metal. British filmmaker Stephen Walker, who saw the group perform in London, has captured their odyssey on film as they struggle to understand the meaning behind songs like Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” while dealing with their own health issues as they prepare for a sold out show in their hometown. The average age is 81, the oldest is 92, but they all are indeed young at heart.

Impromptu9. Impromptu

Kids may not think of classical music as having the same devoted fans of say, rock and roll. But in 1830s France, the top composers including Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt were the celebrities of the day. This delightful comedy looks at their early fame as well as the real-life relationship between outspoken female novelist George Sand (Judy Davis) and the much more demure Chopin (Hugh Grant). Through biographical data and a director’s true appreciation of Chopin’s music, viewers get a great feel for what is was like to be an artist at the top of the game. Worth watching for the scenery and music alone, James Lapine’s highly-acclaimed film features an outstanding supporting cast including Emma Thompson, Julian Sands, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

Ray10. Ray

With artistic genius often comes self-destruction. Ray Charles was no exception. Young Ray had it tough from the start, going blind at the age of seven, but was continually motivated to pursue his musical passion. Starting with a small southern following, Charles went on to become a world famous musician. His legendary pioneering style that included everything from gospel and jazz to country and classical is just as fresh today as it was in the 60s. Jamie Foxx simply transforms into Charles in this Oscar winning performance, sensitively exploring his troubles as he fights racism as well as his own personal demons including drug addiction. Ray Charles had the script translated into Braille and gave it his stamp of approval before he died in mid-production of the film.  


About the Author
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about television and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.


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