Seven Movies About Music You Haven’t Seen

Over lockdown, I got tired of the usual Netflix fare and embarked on watching a wider variety of movies including, horror of horrors, movies with subtitles. And I found a bunch of great stuff. Here’s a round-up of films about music and musicians I enjoyed (order from weirdest to least weird) that you might not have seen. If you have seen them all, congratulations on being cool.

And if you want a list of all the musical movies I’ve watched recently, you can find it here.

Ashik Kerib (Sergei Parajanov)

Sergei Parajanov is one of the wildest and most original filmmakers of all time. He’s best known for the masterpiece The Colour of Pomegranates. Ashik Kerib is in a similar style and follows the story of a musician as he tries to raise enough money to impress the father of his bride-to-be. If you can ignore that the actor has clearly never seen a musical instrument before let played one, it’s a fun ride.

You can find it on YouTube in okay quality. But I’d recommend finding a higher quality version if you can.

The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

Iranian cinema was on one hell of a tear in the 90s. Kiarostami gets all the plaudits in the west. But Mohsen Makhmalbaf is my favourite. He packs his movies with visually arresting scenes and they are so heartfelt they even touch a cynic like me.

The movie is about a blind kid, Khorshid, with outstanding hearing. He’s employed to tune instruments before they leave the factory and needs to convince his boss to give him an advance so his mum doesn’t get evicted. Unfortunately, Khorshid keeps being distracted by music (he’s particularly obsessed with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) and is constantly wandering off track despite the best efforts of his buddy Nadereh.

I absolutely love this movie. Images from it are burned into my brain. I relate to being diverted from money-making activities by music and there’s a scene I think about every time I tune an instrument.

Two warnings. Firstly, the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense (instruments don’t get tuned at the factory by a kid with perfect pitch for starters). Secondly, thanks to the Iranian penchant for casting non-actors, the performances from the adults are so wooden you could carve a tanbur out of them. Luckily, the two kids in the lead roles are great.

There’s a watchable version on YouTube but you can pick up a much better version on Amazon. And it’s well worth it just for the colours. I also highly recommend A Moment of Innocence and Gabbeh.

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)

This is the only film on the list with proper Hollywood actors in. It’s set in an impossibly grand resort in the Swiss Alps and stars Michael Caine as a retired composer rebuffing attempts from the Queen to perform for her and Harvey Keitel as an aging director trying to come up with an end for his movie.

Paolo Sorrentino’s music choices – whether sublime or ridiculous – are always outstanding. Youth is no exception, taking in acapella Old Testament horniness, post-rock grandeur and electro grooviness. It also features cameos from Mark Kozelek and Paloma Faith.

Félicité (Alain Gomis)

Félicité follows a singer in Kinshasa, DRC trying to raise money to pay for treatment for her son after a traffic accident. The film deals with contrasts. It explicitly talks about the contrast between night and day. The movie itself is split in two with a realist first half and a dream-like second half.

But the most exciting contrast comes in the music. Félicité sings in a sweaty bar back by the Congolese rumba of the Kasai Allstars. While l’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste play the music of Estonian contemporary composer Arvo Pärt while bathed in blue light. As the band’s music becomes increasingly driving, thudding and distorted, the orchestra’s music becomes more ethereal.

And if you want more Arvo Part, the man himself shows up in the documentary Sounds and Silence.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda)

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a gem of French New Wave cinema by the loveable genius Agnes Varda. It follows the pop star Cleo in real time as she hangs around her kitten filled apartment, rehearses new music and tootles around Paris while waiting for the results of her cancer test.

As I Open My Eyes (Leyla Bouzid)

I was promoted to check out this movie when I found out the soundtrack was by the outstanding oud virtuoso Khyam Allami. As I expected, the music is excellent and combines traditional Tunisian sounds with copious amounts of rocking out.

The movie centres on a young woman who fronts a politically outspoken band in the run up to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution which kicked off the Arab Spring.

They Will Have to Kill Us First (Johanna Schwartz)

They Will Have to Kill Us First is a documentary following musicians who fled the north of Mali after the takeover by hardcore religious nutjobs Ansar Dine who banned music. Most notably, Songhoy Blues who go from exiled local band to playing the Royal Albert Hall over the course of the film.

For another perspective, check out Timbuktu. A fictional account of a musician who choses to stay in the extremist held region while doing his best to stay out of their way.

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