This year was full of shockingly good — and not-so-shockingly bad — music-based films, from stellar documentaries on gone-too-soon icons to biopics that defied the often creativity-stifling genre form. And then there were the bombs — movies so bad they only lasted two weeks before being booted from theaters (sometimes there is no amount of synergy *ahem* that can save a bad script.)
But we’ll get to that. First, let’s look at the five biggest successes of the year:
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
The HBO doc about the Nirvana frontman startled fans with something many believed did not exist: new insights into the revered and still-mourned grunge rock prince, who died in 1994. Director Brett Morgen wove Cobain’s old home movies, journal entries and drawings into the narrative so viewers felt they were hearing new revelations from the artist himself. Courtney Love and Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor, also provided fresh, often painful, insights into his struggles with fame, critics, jealousy and, his ultimate undoing — drugs. Cobain and Love’s daughter, Frances Bean, executive produced the documentary, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s the closest thing to having Kurt tell his own story in his own words.”
Straight Outta Compton
Though the Hollywood Foreign Press Association shocked critics with its complete snub of Straight Outta Compton for this year’s Golden Globes awards, the film did nab a SAG nomination for its cast earlier in the week. There could be plenty of other awards opportunities in the coming months for the biographical drama about hip-hip group N.W.A as well. Helmed by Friday director F. Gary Gray, Compton became the highest-grossing film ever by an African-American director and put N.W.A. back in the Billboard 200‘s top slots for the first time since the early ’90s. With its foot on the gas from the first frames, we follow the crazy ride that a young Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren embarked on as they rose from obscurity to gangsta-rap royalty before the violent and racially fraught backdrop of South Central L.A.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Though it was the streaming network’s first original documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? is not a Netflix-and-chill kind of flick. It’s more a draw the blinds, pour yourself a glass of wine and let your soul float off to sea experience, especially for Nina Simone die-hards. In his review for Billboard critic Carl Wilson called the film “musically ravishing, emotionally harrowing and politically rousing” and quoted the artist saying, “I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I perform, I want them to be to pieces.” The movie, which tracks the artist’s career from musical prodigy in North Carolina to internationally renowned superstar, from racism whistleblower to victim of spousal abuse, certainly left audiences in pieces as well.
Love & Mercy
It seemed unlikely that a Beach Boys biopic could offer anything more than another bubble gum soundtrack from the boys of summer, even if it centered around the shockingly sad true life story of Brian Wilson. But alas! The film, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as different-era Wilsons, pulled off a perfect balance of how-did-that-get-made music nerd revelations and a gripping redemption tale of Wilson’s triumph over abusive father figures to become one of the most revered musical geniuses of all time.
The most well-reviewed of them all, this look back at Amy Winehouse‘s all-too-short life has left everyone destroyed in its wake. Like Montage of Heck, this doc utilitizes archival footage of the artist herself to such effect that we feel that we’re hearing her tell her own story from the other side. Director Asif Kapadia uses video shot by Winehouse’s best friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and other confidantes who were by her side as she rocketed to fame faster than her generation had ever seen — only to be brought down even faster by a drug habit introduced by ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil.
Ricki and the Flash (just to see Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield duet on some Doobie Brothers); Pitch Perfect 2 (for the audacity of its tagline, “We’re back, pitches!”); A Christmas Melody (because, though it doesn’t premiere until Dec. 19, a new Mariah Carey Hallmark movie cannot go wrong — even if it really, really tries to).
Jem and the Holograms is the automatic winner with a bullseye, lasting only two weeks on the big screen and ranking as the worst opening ever for a major studio release playing in at least 2,000 theaters. By the second week it was reported that the film was averaging $160 per screen.
We were going to put Zac Efron’s disappointing We Are Your Friends DJ melodrama on this list as well, but… $160 per screen! That’s a mic drop for Jem.