Movies lend themselves to artistic visions. The camera lens follows, captures, releases, and follows a story again and again. Moving pictures are poetry in motion that keeps our attention through their dreamscape and hellscape. Awake for the life flashing before our eyes, we become engrossed in a second life and can live many lives through cinema. The slice of life found in films can take many forms, but directors are apt at seeing beyond audiences’ disbelief. Movies help us see these ideas and emotions commingle and intermingle frame by frame, picture by picture, and sound by sound.
Music influences many movies’ modus operandi. They set a tone intrinsic to the story and the characters’ fall from grace and rise to redemption. Music also sets themes in stone just as easily. John Williams composed the Star Wars saga soundtrack with memorable themes such as “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” and the “Main Theme” during the opening, scrolling credits. Classical music plays with our emotions; “Beautiful Dreamer” contrasts fantasy and dark reality from the Joker in Batman (1989). Films about music are about the poetry between the lines and the classics, with their composers, gave some of the best soundtracks of their lives.
Updated on September 12th, 2023, by Danilo Raúl: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
10 A Late Quartet (2012)
The little masterpiece called A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman, gathers so many talents that we can’t grasp how it went unnoticed by the Academy in 2012 when it was released. Starring Christopher Walken, Catherine Kenner, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the film tells the story of a string quartet named The Fugue who have been together for 25 years.
After one of their members announce his retirement due to an incurable disease, the fallout of the knowledge threatens to drive the quartet apart as ego clashes and long-simmering resentments rear their ugly head to disrupt the longstanding relationship between the talented musicians.
9 Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist (2013)
Real-life Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was a wild figure in 1830 London as his music and way of playing the violin broke every era’s norm. It’s fair to say he was one of the first rockstars of the time, as his defiance of established musical standards gained him one too many enemies in cultural circles in London.
Real-life violinist David Garret took on the role in Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist and woos everyone with a nuanced performance that never touches upon supernatural elements; it paints Urbani, the man who made Paganini famous, as an actual demon unwilling to let his golden goose go for something so menial as love.
8 August Rush (2007)
Freddie Highmore has been pumping bangers since he was a small child. In 2007, he was directed by Kirsten Sheridan in August Rush, a film that pairs him up with the likes of Robin Williams, Keri Russell, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In the movie, we follow the story of Evan, a musical prodigy with a gift to understand and direct music like the best.
He’s mentored by a man known as The Wizard, who crafts the August Rush persona for him, making him rub shoulders with renowned institutions such as the Juilliard School and the New York Philharmonic, while his birth parents are looking to get their boy back in the family home.
7 Death in Venice (1971)
Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) is a fictional writer in this adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, A Death in Venice. He is surrounded by impending death in the Italian city due to a cholera outbreak that is nonchalantly dealt with. On top of that, Aschenbach has heart disease, limiting his peace even more.
He finds new life in the tourist and youthful Polish boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). While the film does not focus on a music composer, it does feature classical music from Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Modest Mussorgsky. The abstraction and the objectivity of Gustav’s emotions are understood through the music. They lull the viewer into the story of a repressed and troubled artist and the dying longing of a disciplined man.
6 Lisztomania (1975)
Spearheaded by Roger Daltrey, lead singer of rock band, The Who, Lisztomania recounts the world’s first rock star, Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. The surreal and loosey-goosey biographical comedy was inspired by German Romantic and literary critic Heinrich Heine’s coinage, which described accounts of women rushing the stage during Liszt’s piano performances.
The film includes synthesized versions of Liszt’s music and composer Richard Wagner, made by progressive rock band Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman. Pre-dating Beatlemania, Ringo Starr naturally makes an appearance as the Pope.
5 Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a 30-year-old John F. Kennedy High School music teacher and an aspiring composer in Mr. Holland’s Opus. He created his symphony during major changes in American society, similar to how Forrest Gump did in its vignettes of each era.
The film features many pieces of non-Western classical scores, including the title track by Holland called “An American Symphony” composed by Michael Kaeman. Despite the screenplay and Dreyfuss’ Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, the orchestral music by Kaeman won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 1997.
4 Immortal Beloved (1994)
In this historical drama, Gary Oldman plays German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven. Through a series of flashbacks, private letters, and his biographer Anton Schindler, the film attempts to unravel the mystery behind Beethoven’s Unsterbliche Geliebte, or Immortal Beloved.
Oldman’s performance is passionate and perverse; a staunch bout of dissonance for the prim classicists.
3 Amadeus (1984)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is given a fictionalized rivalry with Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham from Ray Bradbury’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit). Amadeus is a debauching musical genius (listen to his “Leck mich im Arsch” or “Lick me in the arse”) while Salieri, once a devout Catholic, has his nose turned up to the sky in renouncement to God for gifting such a man with more talent than him.
Rather than suffering from a God complex, or taking responsibility for his prowess, he plots to murder Mozart. The film has been considered one of the greatest ever made, winning many awards. Both actors were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor; Abraham took home the gold, but both lived the music.
2 Shine (1996)
Australian concert pianist, David Helfgott (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) was a budding musician who suffered mental breakdowns and was institutionalized most of his life. His father was both an advocate and abuser, teaching and tormenting David into perfection and compliance.
Rather than settle in his father’s controlling nuclear family dynamic, David continued to compose and perform his music, eventually finding his way to America. Rush won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Shine and is the tragic triumph of a true-blue virtuoso.
1 The Pianist (2002)
Adrian Brody plays Holocaust survivor and Polish-Jewish pianist and composer, Władysław Szpilman, in 2002’s The Pianist. The film is based on Szpilman’s autobiography of the same name, recounting his time living with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland.
His survival and story are both remarkable and terrifying. Every note he strikes with his keys is bittersweet tears of joy, a celebration of life’s easily fleeting beauty.