Notable Portrayals of Musicians & Composers in Film

Written by Daniel Kielman on

The Playground has previously posted a list of some of films worth watching in which our favorite instrument, the Piano, was featured prominently. Following up on that post, I’d like to share some notable films that not only featured pianos, but are about the process, the art of composing. The composing may not be limited to just the piano in some cases, as writing is a universal technique that applies to different instruments and mediums. I’m going to try to pull some different films that weren’t used in the previous articles, so no Shine or Five Easy Pieces here, as much as I may love them. Without further ado, here are a few films that relate to musicians composing and why they’re worth seeking out if you haven’t seen them before.


Amadeus (1984)

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It’s difficult to not talk about composing and not include one of the most acclaimed films about one of the most acclaimed composers of all time: Milos Forman’s epic Amadeus. The film centers around the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as he struggled to make a living off of his musical gift and prodigious output, but notably is told through the eyes of his fellow composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri saw the brilliance in Mozart’s music and how ahead of his time Mozart was, even though Mozart suffered incredible debt and nowhere near the acclaim he would accrue posthumously. Related to composing, there is an extraordinary final sequence in the film where Mozart composes his unfinished “Requiem“ on his deathbed as he dictates the notes to Salieri. It should be noted that historians have by and large proven that this sequence did not happen. However, as a scene about passion and dedication for one’s music, the suspense is captivating. Amadeus was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 8, including Best Picture.

 

Ray (2004)

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Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic Ray, based on the life and times of groundbreaking blues pianist Ray Charles, still holds up today. Much was made at the film’s release of Jamie Foxx’s performance as the legendary pianist, and while all the singing in the film was done by Charles himself, it’s still Foxx at the piano and performing some of the signature riffs. While there are discrepancies in the film, it does largely track some of the modern roadblocks musicians face on their travails, addressing the studio strife Charles faced when wanting to own the master recordings to his songs and the struggles of performing in venues that spoke against values he stood for. One brilliant portion of the film, that is largely considered true, is the creation of Charles’ legendary song “What’d I Say” completely impromptu as his band was wrapping up a performance but the venue demanded more music. The result was a blues riff Charles created on the spot and became an influential classic.

 

Once (2007)

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The charming breakout Irish Musical slowly found a cult audience when it was released and has been turned into a broadway play recently. It also made stars of the leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, both musicians who tried on their acting chops. The film tells a somewhat simple story about musicians and their relationships. Without giving too much away, the film revolves around composition almost entirely as the two leads write songs that express what they are going through, used as narrative and thematic devices throughout the film. The stellar song “Falling Slowly” has grown to have a life of its own, people playing it on piano and guitar, even winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

 

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

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Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play two fictionalized jazz performers living in Seattle, Jack and Frank Baker. The pianists are trying to make ends meet and decide to hire a singer, Susie Diamond, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, to revitalize their careers. The film is more of the screwball romantic comedy type but is worth revisiting. While the movie consists largely of covers that the band performs, it speaks to the art of performance in this area, addressing the conflicting views members of a band may have on what direction they want to do, evidenced by Frank, who wants to perform crowd-pleasers while Jack wants to perform jazz standards that both of them would enjoy. The film may not focus on a classical composer from the history of music but instead offers music as a story-device and setting for melodrama that is charming if you go in with those expectations.

 

A Song to Remember (1945)

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The life of Polish composer Frederic Chopin is portrayed in this 1945 film by Charles Vidor. It was nominated for a number of Academy Awards at the time, including Best Actor for Cornel Wilde in the titular role, along with a variety of musical nominations. Some of the accounts in the film may not be historically correct (notice a trend here?), the melodrama is not necessarily enticing for everyone, but the music and story beats of Chopin’s life are explored in an interesting way in this early Hollywood entry. The big moment worth watching in the film is near the end when Chopin begins hemorrhaging as he performs “Polonaise” for the very first time, some exquisite piano-playing on display.

 

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988)

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We’ll close out with a documentary on one of the most important Jazz pianists of the 20th Century, Thelonious Monk. This 1988 documentary explores the music of the composer, making use of some incredible performance footage of the musician. It also makes it clear that Monk always intended for his music to speak for itself and doesn’t provide any clues to what any of it may have been intended to be about. Amongst rehearsal and performance footage are interviews with his friends, family and fellow musicians, who discuss some of the obstacles and ideas that Monk faced during his life. But it’s the performance footage that really makes this movie captivating, shot in crisp black & white, of Monk on the road, in concert, performing the music that he will continue to be known for.


Any films about composers that you think stand out? Let us know in the comments below!

Daniel Kielman

About Daniel

I’m a photographer and filmmaker from California who manages all things video for Simply Music. Not only am I passionate about photography and film, I’m a lover of music, live shows, and running wherever my feet will take me.

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  • Gordon Harvey

    One of the more enlightening films about musicians in my memory is A Late Quartet. It was a bit laboured at times (and the playing, despite apparently extensive coaching, looked pretty fake) but it was a great insight into the unique dynamics of a string quartet and how they prepare their performances.