Music On Screen

The Best Music Films of 2021 

Keep your watch list singing with these must-see titles. 

by Ben Boddez

From an embarrassment of riches when it came to musical documentaries to a barrage of movie musicals – not to mention a ground-breaking comedy special and some truly innovative uses of soundtracks – 2021 was easily one of the greatest years for music on screen. Quite a few of these titles are already racking up awards and attracting Oscar buzz, so bust out the big speakers and consider diving into any one of these music-related films.

The Beatles: Get Back

An expansive project four years in the making from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, this three-episode documentary covers the Fab Four’s studio sessions as they were making their final album on the verge of a breakup. Where many viewers were expecting drama, the genuine camaraderie and electric creative spirit between the legendary quartet on display overrides any lingering tensions and offers quite a few moments that mirror the most embellished scenes in a music biopic – but we have concrete proof that they were reality. Paul McCartney absentmindedly writing “Get Back” has to be seen to be believed.

Read our full review here.

Bo Burnham: Inside

An immediate sensation when it was released last May, subversive comedian Bo Burnham’s latest “comedy special” can only truly be called such in loose terms. Deconstructing the idea of the hour-long stand-up special, Burnham shot the entire thing in one room, with innovative special effects to make his deeply incisive and darkly hilarious songs resemble what we’re more used to. It’s also the most overwhelmingly relatable and highly cathartic depiction of pandemic life that will likely ever be made. Burnham’s vulnerable emotional state and the overarching sense of dread that hangs over the proceedings is hard to shake, but his satire is brilliantly written and unspeakably catchy. 

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry

We always hear quite a lot about the dangers of a rapid ascent to stardom at a young age, but we don’t often get such a comprehensive and eye-opening look at just how hard these effects can hit. Mostly chronicling the creation of Eilish’s debut album – which saw her become the second artist ever to sweep the “Big Four” categories at the Grammys – we see both an inside look into Eilish writing the biggest album in the world with her brother in her childhood bedroom and some troubling moments of distress as she over-exerts herself trying to meet the heroic image her fans created for her. 

CODA

One of the year’s most heartwarming films, the title’s musical angle doubles as an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults.” Starring teenage newcomer Emilia Jones as a promising musician whose work can’t be appreciated by her family – all played by actors who are deaf in real life – Ruby is pulled between spending life as a translator for her family’s fishing business and preparing for a Berklee audition. With a variety of incredible supporting performances – Troy Kotsur, who plays her father, should secure an Academy Award with a single scene – make sure you have the tissues ready. 

The Harder They Fall

Produced by Jay-Z and directed by British singer and producer The Bullitts, this Wild West shootout features an all-star cast including Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King and makes about as much use of the soundtrack as an Edgar Wright film. Switching up the formula with some hip-hop and reggae, including some original tracks from Kid Cudi, Koffee, The Bullitts’ brother Seal and Shawn Carter himself, the rhythms line up with each gunshot as the film sets out to highlight the stories of real-life Black cowboys and outlaws that history has overlooked for too long. 

In The Heights

With some stunning set-pieces and cinematography to frame the kind of street-stomping group choreography numbers that are hard to sit through without a smile, Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical focuses on something a lot more contemporary with the same hip-hop flavour. Detailing the many intersecting stories of the residents of the majority Dominican New York suburb of Washington Heights, tales of poverty and gentrification intermingle with dreams of making it big. 

A Man Named Scott

A must-see for any of his fans, this documentary paints a portrait of Kid Cudi as the man who opened the floodgates for hip-hop to become a deeply emotional medium. Recruiting an all-star cast of famous faces, friends and collaborators go through his seminal Man on the Moon albums track-by-track and talk about his lasting influence on culture while Cudi himself offers soundbites on dealing with the pressures of fame and his struggles with addiction. It shows why Cudi’s admirers often don’t talk extensively about his music when praising their idol. Instead, they credit him for saving their lives. 

Read our full review here. 

Summer of Soul
(…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Already one of the most celebrated documentaries of the decade, director Questlove’s first foray into filmmaking picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and seems to be picking up steam as it barrels towards the Oscar. A digital restoration of footage from the culturally monumental but curiously overlooked 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival – which featured performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King and other legends – the stunning performances and genre-defining musicality on display is interspersed with emotional interviews about the deep invigorating power of soul music. 

Read our interview with Questlove here. 

Tick, Tick … Boom!

Featuring a show-stopping performance from Andrew Garfield and helmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who previously played Garfield’s character on Broadway and makes his directorial debut, this movie musical follows the life of Jonathan Larson, a pupil of Stephen Sondheim and a visionary musical theatre writer and composer we lost too young. Larson – who also penned Rent, so you know the songs have that electrifying rock edge – wrote the musical about his own life as a struggling artist and features both satirical takedowns of the theatre scene and highly emotional beats about the late-century HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The Velvet Underground

Director Todd Haynes takes another road to the Oscars, putting together his first documentary, titled after the groundbreaking kings of bohemian culture that it focuses on. Featuring extensive interviews with the band’s surviving members, the stories behind creating a countercultural movement and the dynamic, genre-defying rock band that kickstarted it are ripe with historical context and pay loving tribute to the lasting legacy of Lou Reed. Witness the story of one of the original intersections of grungy power chords and high art. 

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