Musicians speak their own language...like lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, and every other profession. Language doesn't just mean quarter notes and treble clefs. The language of music is rich with inside jokes, folklore, and elaborate tales of mythic proportions as well.
Think about this: a student begins learning an instrument and develops good habits of practicing. With practice, anything they strive to do becomes easier. And with this progress comes a sense of accomplishment and pride. Then human nature kicks in, and the student becomes a slave to their good habits. They begin to play their instrument for the rewards it brings, and they naturally seek out albums, movies, documentaries, books, blogs, and anything else that has to do with their newfound passion. This is the process musicians go through all over the world. If the musician persists to the professional level, they will quickly find that every other musician they meet shares a similar experience. Those other musicians often listen to the same records, read the same books, know the same stories, and have seen the same movies.
In the world of professional musicians, the following five movies are must-see films. These comedies contain the bulk of inside jokes shared between musicians in rehearsal, in the studio, and on the road. If you are working hard to take your musicianship to the next level, watching these films can count as “practice time,” and you'll impress your music teacher at the next lesson!
Christopher Guest has developed a cult following for movies like Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. But the movie that started it all is This Is Spinal Tap, commonly referred to as just Spinal Tap. No other comedy has infiltrated musician culture more than this one. This spoof “Rockumentary” about an aging British rock-n-roll band trying to tour America is filled with timeless one-liners that are repeated by musicians daily. Quotes like “This one goes to 11” are over everyone’s head except for those who have seen the movie. Some version of every situation in the movie happens to musicians throughout their careers. From getting lost backstage to mix-ups with stage props to issues with security at the airport, this movie connects with the musician experience in a deep and hilarious way.
Released in 1994, Airheads went mostly unnoticed while it was playing in theaters. Years after its theatrical release, this classic Los Angeles story about the Sunset Strip in the early 1990s and a band willing to do anything to be heard (including breaking into a radio station with squirt guns) found a cult following among musicians. The line that is referred to most often is “Who would win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?” Lemmy refers to Lemmy Kilmister, the singer for the band Motorhead. In this scene, the singer for the imaginary band, The Lone Rangers, answers his own question by saying, “Trick question. Lemmy is God.” Lemmy’s music with Motorhead is part of the foundation of heavy metal music, and as such, real fans consider Lemmy a god. Now, this whole exchange makes no sense to anyone outside of fans who know and appreciate this genre and this time period in music history. It is definitely an insider’s movie, but filled with laughs and heart for the whole family to enjoy.
If you want to laugh from the deepest parts of your stomach while also being treated to a music history lesson, then Walk Hard is a must-see movie. This unique comedy featuring John C. Reilly cleverly blends fact and fiction. Walk Hard was created to poke fun at the music biography genre when Ray, based on the life of Ray Charles, and Walk the Line, based on the life of Johnny Cash, were both huge hits. The movie is packed with great rock-n-roll history and trivia, but the best moment is seeing Jack Black play Paul McCartney during the Sgt. Peppers era of The Beatles.
Of all the movies on this list, That Thing You Do is the most family-friendly and critically acclaimed. Tom Hanks wrote, directed, and starred in this film, so no matter what, that alone should spark everyone's curiosity. That Thing You Do taps into the experience of bands that go from obscurity to stardom in the blink of an eye. It follows a fictional band called The Oneders and their hit song “That Thing You Do.” The story takes place in the 60s and parallels bands of that era, like The Beatles. The cast of this movie is exceptional, and to this day the film has timeless charm and heart.
Have you ever heard of Emmet Ray, the second greatest guitarist in the world? Woody Allen’s ode to the magic that was the Parisian music scene in the 1930s is a masterpiece for all musicians, especially guitarists. It follows a fictional virtuoso guitarist played by Sean Penn. He is considered to be the second greatest guitarist in the world next to the real-life guitar legend of the era, Django Reinhardt. The story sheds light on an incredible time for music, when “Gypsy Jazz” was taking over the “Hot Clubs” of Paris and musicianship was at an all-time high. As with many other Woody Allen movies, you will laugh, cry, and scratch your head all at the same time.
One thing all of these movies have in common is that they were box office disasters. Each one of these “classics” lost money in their initial release, but went on to become highly profitable over years of support from avid fans spreading the word. The takeaway from this truth is that movies like this are meant for a very small audience—a specific interest group that will truly appreciate the humor and storytelling. In this case, that specific group is musicians.
At SoundLife, we work hard to give our students a true musician’s experience, especially for those students who take their instrument and their band seriously. These movies are part of that experience. We hope the whole family can gather together with some popcorn, enjoy these classics, and pass on the timeless jokes from generation to generation.