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Flashback Five – Essential Movies to Know Your Rock and Roll History

Flashback Five: A new release inspires our reviewer to flash back to other great movies from the genre.

Cadillac Records opens this week, a fictionalized look back at the history of Chess records and how it popularized the blues in America — and, along the way, helped invent rock and roll. Plenty of other movies have looked at the birth of rock and roll and the music scenes of the ’50s and ’60s; here are five of our faves.

1) I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

An early film from Robert Zemeckis ( Who Framed Roger Rabbit , Castaway ) I Wanna Hold Your Hand takes place on the day the Beatles first played The Ed Sullivan Show, as a group of Jersey teens without tickets try to get in to see the Fab Four play. You don’t get a lot of the nuts-and-bolts of music-making in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but you do get a great sense of the frenzy of feeling the Beatles provoked as they first hit America’s shores.

2) Dreamgirls (2006)

A thinly-veiled retelling of the Motown Records story and the rise and fall of the Supremes, this Broadway-to-big-screen adaptation features a great cast with big voices (including Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles). It also showcases some of the best acting in Eddie Murphy’s career, as James ‘Thunder’ Early, a music-maker who gets left behind when the sound changes.

3) The Buddy Holly Story (1984)

Earning an Oscar nomination for Gary Busey as the titular Texan rock and roller, The Buddy Holly Story was shot on a shoestring, but the passions of the filmmakers — and Holly’s classic songs — shine through in every scene. Busey also earns bonus points for doing all his own singing, something plenty of other films forgo in favor of voice-over.

4) Backbeat (1994)

Long before they were a pop sensation, the Beatles — John, Paul, George, Pete Best and American Stu Sutcliffe  — were just the best bar band in the world, performing in burnt-out-dives in Germany, fighting over girls and playing other people’s songs. With Ian Hart as a brilliant, acidic John Lennon and a great soundtrack played by an all-star band (including Dave Grohl of Nirvana, Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth) covering the Beatles, Backbeat depicts the early days of a legend.

5) Grace of My Heart (1996)

Tragically overlooked and amazingly moving, Allison Anders’ movie puts a fictional spin on the life and times of singer-songwriter Carole King. Illeana Douglas gets a job as a songwriter for a Phil Spector-like ‘Tycoon of Teen’ (John Turturro), falls for a reclusive surfer, pop-music genius (Matt Dillon) and has other successes and setbacks on the way to the ’70s. The music is great, but it’s Douglas’ journey, evolving as the music scene changes around her, that sticks with you.

Five Honorable Mentions:

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) with Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran was one of the first movies to take rock and roll to the big screen.

Love Me Tender (1956) kicked off Elvis’ acting career and put him on the road to megastardom from the earliest days of rock. Unlike the others, it’s not a rock history movie – but it’s historical value earns it a mention.

La Bamba (1987) told the story of Richie Valens, a breakout rock star of the ’50s who faced prejudice, wrote crackling hits… and who died alongside Holly and the Big Bopper in 1959. 

Walk the Line (2005) is the story of country legend Johnny Cash (with Joaquin Phoenix doing his own singing), but it’s also a great look at the early days of Sun Records and the cross-country touring that helped rock and roll take off.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) makes this list if only because it mocks — mercilessly, and brilliantly — almost every other movie on this list, with the kind of accurate, unflinching jokes you only get from loving what you’re making fun of.

For a review of Cadillac Records, click here.

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