The 25 Best Music Movies on HBO Max, Ranked

Moulin Rouge
20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, 2001

Remember when Bruce Springsteen lamented that there were 57 channels and nothin’ on? With the May 27 launch of the WarnerMedia subscription service HBO Max, cord-cutting viewers -- already spoiled by the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, CBS All Access and Apple TV plus -- can browse more than 10,000 hours of curated programming crossing all genres and demographics. All it takes is $14.99 a month, a screen and a creative password.

And nestled among the Friends reruns and those D.C. Comics superhero movies: dozens and dozens of music-themed options, courtesy of the vast WarnerMedia library and select third-party acquisitions.

Relive a bygone era with glorious old-school musicals such as An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Or just wax nostalgic for you know, February, as the classic concert films Monterey Pop (1969), Woodstock (1970) and Wattstax (1973) -- as well as stand-out documentaries and behind-the-scenes projects such as Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019), Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), Justin Bieber’s Believe (2013), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976) and Shakira in Concert: El Dorado World Tour (2019) -- offer a chance to see some of the all-time greats up close during the current lockdown season. (Even Springsteen himself is present and accounted for, via 2019’s Western Stars. 

That leaves us with a healthy dose of modern-era music movies, which range from highly pedigreed best picture Oscar nominees to one of the most infamous cult classics of all time. (You’ll know when you read about it.) But before you queue, you must review. Here’s how the most notable music movies available on HBO Max stack up...

25. Rock the Kasbah (2015)

Sadly, this is not a Joe Strummer biopic. Instead, the Clash classic song is somehow the basis for a listless and casually offensive misfire in which a weary music manager (Bill Murray, miscast) stranded in Kabul teams up with a prostitute (Kate Hudson) to help a Pashtun teen become the first woman to compete on an Afghanistan version of American Idol. Pass, I beg of you.

24. Rock Star (2001)

Sorta-based on the story of Judas Priest, the drama focuses on a blue-collar cover-band singer (Mark Wahlberg) who gets a chance to take over as the front man for his favorite heavy metal band. Jennifer Aniston is stuck in the thankless girlfriend role. The flick is fairly slick and soulless, while the artist formerly known as Marky Mark doesn’t even do his own vocals.  

23. Pure Country (1992)

Country music star George Strait made his movie debut in this middling drama, playing a mobster who may have killed Jimmy Hoffa. Kidding! He’s a disillusioned country singer who heads back to his hometown where he strives to be a working-class everyman. The best-selling soundtrack has aged better than the movie: To quote People magazine, “If it were any cornier or mushier, it would be chowder.”    

22. The Phantom of the Opera (2005)

A low note for the music of the night: This turgidly paced screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular and epic musical lacks romance and danger. It stars then-newcomer Gerard Butler as the disfigured musical genius haunting the Paris opera, and Emmy Rossum as the woman who falls for him.  

21. The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (2000)

Dame Judi Dench plays a newly widowed woman who tries to reunite her former (mostly) all-girls swing band from World War II. They reunite, they perform, they learn third-act life lessons. Despite the delightful performances from the Dame (as well as Olympia Dukakis, Leslie Caron and Ian Holm), the outing is fairly lightweight and thoroughly predictable.   

20. Joyful Noise (2012)

The incomparable Dolly Parton took a decade-long hiatus from big-screen acting, only to return to this middling comedy. She’s the director of a local choir who clashes with its newly appointed leader (Queen Latifah) as the group heads into a national competition. Guess how things end! But at least we get to hear Dolly sing.   

19. The Fighting Temptations (2002)

Prediction: This amiable-enough comedy won’t be part of Beyoncé’s video montage when she starts racking up lifetime achievement awards. She actually took second-billing to Cuba Gooding Jr. in this story of a disgraced NYC executive who returns to his hometown and tries to lead a choir group to victory in a gospel competition in order to land an inheritance. 

18. Yesterday (2019)

Ah, if only our current problems really did seem so far away. A sleeper hit, this comedy posed the question of what would happen if the Beatles never existed. Answer: A struggling musician (Himesh Patel) would pass off the band’s music as his own and start palling around with Ed Sheeran. As shaggy and sweet as one of the Beatles’ early hits, though it’s a long way from Fab.  

17. Les Miserables (2012)

Your tolerance for this big-budget adaptation of the iconic Broadway musical -- about the long redemptive arc of former thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the officer Javert (Russell Crowe) chasing after him in 19th century France -- depends on your tolerance for earnest wall-to-wall singing at a high volume. Featuring Anne Hathaway in a well-deserved Oscar-winning performance. 

16. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018)

The sequel, featuring the music of ABBA, is actually superior to its 2008 original. That’s what happens when you cast Cher as a diva grandma who takes a private plane from Las Vegas to a Greek Island.  

15. A Star Is Born (1976)

The titular star here is one Barbra Streisand (fine, she plays a character named Esther Hoffman), who strikes it big in the musical world after striking up a relationship with an aging rock star (Kris Kristofferson, in a role once offered to Elvis Presley). The piece de resistance is Streisand singing her hit ballad “Evergreen.” Otherwise, feel free to skip this mawkish and overly long remake desperately missing the required sizzle.  

14. Josie and the Pussycats (2000)

A peppy girl band (Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson) unleash their claws when they learn their ascent to stardom is not what it seems. Surprise! This comedy, based on the popular cartoon series, is actually quite the pleasant and smart (if imperfect) pop confection and early-'00s time capsule.   

13. Xanadu (1980)

We’re talking Spandex, roller-skating and Gene Kelly. Magic, baby! Actual plot: A Greek goddess (Olivia Newton-John) inspires the partnership between an aging musician (Kelly) and a young artist, who open a roller disco palace titled Xanadu, of course! This legendary turkey of a movie can definitely not be described as good but you need to see it to believe it.   

12. Hairspray (2007)

John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Queen Latifah and Zac Efron star in this exuberant musical set in 1960s Baltimore. You can’t stop the beat, and trust me, you don’t even want to try. 

11. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

How does a cliché-laden Queen biopic go from problematic to Oscar-winning blockbuster? Five words: Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.  

10. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Enjoy the simple story of a nerdy boy (Rick Moranis), a put-upon girl (Ellen Greene) and a man-eating, talking plant from outer space. No doubt this pitch-black musical comedy -- adapted from the off-Broadway show -- has the goods, thanks to toe-tapping musical numbers and perverse cameos from Steve Martin, John Candy and Bill Murray. Plus, Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs, as the voice of the plant dubbed Audrey II, gives a killer performance.  

9. A Star Is Born (2018)

I maintain that this fourth A Star is Born iteration peaks after Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga belt out an electrifying version of “Shallow” on that stage. Still, the two pour their hearts and souls and vocals into their performances.    

8. That Thing You Do! (1996)

After starring in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 in consecutive years, Tom Hanks decided to direct and write (and take a supporting role) this ultra-appealing and winning comedy about a small rock band in the 1960s riding a fleeting wave of stardom. The catchy titular hit was written by the great Adam Schlesinger, who tragically died from the Coronavirus in April. 

7. La La Land (2016)

How strange that this dazzling, candy-colored original musical will probably be remembered as the film that didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar because of Envelope-Gate. But please don’t overlook the fact that the story of Ryan Gosling’s jazz musician and Emma Stone’s aspiring actress falling in love in Los Angeles can still leave viewers floating on air.  

6. School of Rock (2003)

Jack Black turns it up all the way to an 11 in his seminal role, portraying a disheveled bum of a heavy-metal guitarist who finagles his way into a plum teaching job. The fun begins when he turns his bright young students into a totally awesome rock band -- who turn against The Man and learn why the legend of the rent was way hard-core. Good times, every time.   

5. Rock N Roll High School (1979)

In this low-budget anti-establishment classic, a teen (P.J. Soles) and her friends recruit the Ramones to get even with their stick-in-the-mud principal. Youthful rebellion never feels so right as when Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky storm the school and raise hell. To quote Jack Black’s Dewey Finn character in School of Rock, it’s so punk rock!!!   

4. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

The 21st century's wave of musicals can all be traced back to this Baz Luhrmann-directed extravaganza, featuring 20th century music colliding with a 19th century Paris setting. As for the story, a writer (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with an ethereal and doomed singer (Nicole Kidman) at a nightclub. Wait till you see the dancers do the can-can to Nirvana.   

3. Quadrophenia (1979)

Behold the film version of The Who’s 1973 rock opera of the same name, in which the rebellious Jimmy (Phil Daniels) seeks solace with his clique, his scooter riding and his drugs — only to be left dismayed. Though the story is appropriately on the incoherent side, watch and listen up anyway, as the soundtrack includes “The Real Me,” “I Am the Sea” as well as doo-wop classics from The Chiffons and The Ronettes. Plus... Sting!  

2. Selena (1997)

The heartbreaking tale of Selena Quintanilla, the Grammy-winning Tejano singer who was murdered by the president of her fan club in 1995, remains one of the great tragedies in music history. What makes this biopic soar is Jennifer Lopez, who electrifies in her movie debut. She beautifully captures Selena’s stage persona as well as her spirit.  

1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

One of the best movies in any genre and in any period. Period. In 88 minutes of pure bliss, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr take their fans on, well, a hectic day in the life in England. Filmed in black and white during the height of Beatlemania in 1964, the irreverent comedy shows rock n roll at its most life-affirming. And the soundtrack — “Can’t Buy Me Love” “I Should Have Known Better,” “And I Love Her” and the title cut, among other classics — will still hold up in another 56 years.  


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