Every decade or so, a film like ‘The Doors’ or ‘Almost Famous’ will try to revolve the rock-movie genre. But comebacks are rare these days. Still, if you dig deep enough, there are plenty of terrific rock flicks out there. Some have become cult favorites over the years, and some are just worth rediscovering. These are 12 Underrated Rock Movies That Deserve a Second Look.
'That'll Be the Day' (1973) and 'Stardust' (1974)
‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Stardust’ are two mid-'70s films about the early days of rock 'n' roll. Starring David Essex, who had a hit with ‘Rock On’ back in the day, ‘That’ll Be the Day’ features appearances from Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Just as American rock 'n' roll was hitting England in the late '50s, a young kid (played by Essex) on the verge of adulthood thinks about becoming a rock star. ‘Stardust’ continues the story in the '60s, when Essex gets a band together. That movie charts his rise and fall. It also includes the Who song ‘Long Live Rock’ before it appeared on one of their albums.
'Phantom of the Paradise' (1974)
A wonderful rock parody directed by Brian De Palma that’s essentially a retelling of ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ 'Phantom of the Paradise' is also an autobiographical story about the filmmaker being crushed by the big studio system when he was first breaking in. The movie features some great music by Paul Williams, who also plays an evil record executive.
'Tommy' was one of the first movies to tell a story with music and visuals rather than dialogue. The insane filmmaking talents of Ken Russell helped fuel this wild, vibrant and completely over the top adaptation of the legendary Who album that could never be duplicated by anyone else in a million years, ‘Tommy’ is one hell of a trip, and it’s worth watching just for Keith Moon’s cameo as Uncle Ernie.
'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (1978)
Many music fans who sat through ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ are probably reluctant to do it again. But it's a fascinating time piece from the ‘70s to watch now, in a train-wreck kinda way. Robert Stigwood, the mastermind behind ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ got the rights to 30 Beatles songs, and got the biggest stars in the world at the time, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, to star. How could it go wrong? Watch the movie, and it all becomes obvious. Donald Pleasance “singing” ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’? Steve Martin belting out ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’? Still, it's an interesting relic of its era.
'Eddie and the Cruisers' (1983)
‘Eddie and the Cruisers’ wasn’t a hit when it first came out, but it built a cult following over the years. It tells the fictional story of a rock singer who disappeares at the height of his fame. ‘Eddie’ includes the hit song ‘On the Dark Side’ by John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Rhode Island rockers that sounded an awful lot like a certain Boss from New Jersey.
In the early '80s, animation tried to appeal to adult audiences as well as kids, and it spawned some interesting work, like ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘American Pop.’ ‘Rock and Rule’ barely made it to U.S. viewers, which is a shame. The futuristic story features the voices of Deborah Harry, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
'Fear of a Black Hat' (1993)
There have been several films that have tried to recapture ‘This Is Spinal Tap’'s hilarious spirit. ‘Fear of a Black Hat’ is pretty much the hip-hop version of that. Just like heavy metal was the perfect music for a satire in 1984, by 1993 rap was begging for a parody like ‘Fear of a Black Hat,’ which borrowed some of its jokes from the eternal 'Spinal Tap.'
‘Velvet Goldmine’ is worth a second look because it covers an often-overlooked part of rock history, the glitter scene, and is loosely based on the story of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era. (Look for Ewan MacGregor as a character clearly based on Iggy Pop.) Writer and director Todd Haynes went on to make the great ‘Far From Heaven,’ but this ambitious attempt at capturing a moment in rock history is definitely worth checking out.
'Mayor of the Sunset Strip' (2003)
This fascinating documentary about legendary L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer profiles one of the scene's oddest ducks. At first, he comes off as pathetic, but as the documentary goes on, you grow empathetic and ultimately sympathetic toward him. It’s hard to make a meaningful movie about somebody who doesn’t have much depth, but George Hickenlooper somehow pulled it off in this standout movie that's likely more revealing than Bingenheimer would have expected ... or liked.
Many people complained that ‘The Runaways’ featured a story we’ve seen so many times before. But it's not the story that drives the movie, but its authentic look and feel. Director Floria Sigismondi tells the story of the '70s female rockers with great visual flourish, and Michael Shannon absolutely steals the show as the band's Svengali manager Kim Fowley, a performance so eerily close to the real thing, you forget that you’re actually watching an actor.
'Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?')' (2010)
These days, there are so many rock documentaries bypassing theaters and going directly to home video. Because of this, a lot of great movies are getting overlooked. Like 'Who Is Harry Nilsson,’ a wonderful tribute to one of music's all-time greatest songwriters, who tragically threw away his talents on booze and drugs. That’s a story we’ve heard a million times before, but this documentary covers the late Nilsson's life and career with such zeal, it makes you appreciate the remarkable talent that died along with the man.