Movies That Rock: Cinema's All-Time Great Rock 'n' Roll Movies

To get you into the proper mood for Questlove's new doc "Summer of Love," here's our countdown of the best movies that rock and/or roll!

Matt Lissauer

By Matt Lissauer

Movies That Rock - "Summer of Soul"

© Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

There are movies that rock and movies that roll, and Questlove's new doc gives you some soul. The Root's band leader steps out from his drum kit with, "Summer of Soul," his acclaimed directorial debut. The film generated a great deal of buzz in January when it debuted at Sundance. Now, this weekend it's hitting select theaters and Hulu.

Questlove's jawn brings to screens the forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The same summer hippies flocked to upstate New York for Woodstock's "Summer of Love," downstate in the city, another revolution was happening. This music festival brought to the Harlem streets some of R&B's hottest acts of the day. This included artists like Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and more. It's a shame time forgot the Harlem Cultural Festival. Thankfully, it's finally getting its long-deserved due.

Let's keep the music and soul going. Here are our picks for more rockin' and rollin' movies to watch. This includes biopics, hot docs, and just some all-time great stories with a killer backbeat. Oh, and of course, our list goes to 11!

  • 1This Is Spinal Tap
    Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean in "This Is Spinal Tap."

    © Embassy Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

    We couldn't have a list of movies that rock without Rob Reiner's seminal 1984 mock-rockumentary. Filmmaker Marty Di Bergi (Rob Reiner) takes us behind the scenes on a tour gone wrong. Hard rock band Spinal Tap is one of England's loudest bands. Yet we follow them along as their popularity wanes, the venues get smaller, and their fan base more niche. Reiner's classic comedy even rang true for actual performers. Real-life rockers like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper have actually admitted to such antics as getting lost behind the stage.

    This Is Spinal Tap Poster

    This Is Spinal Tap

    Music / 1984 / R

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  • 2Almost Famous
    Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous."

    © DreamWorks / Courtesy Everett Collection

    Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical rock movie follows a teen writer as he lands the gig of a lifetime. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is trying out to be the new writer for Rolling Stone. His assignment? Hit the road with the not-yet-famous band Stillwater on their cross-country tour. Crowe had a similar gig as a teen. And like Miller, he too came of age during his embeds. Crowe based the fictional Stillwater on the many bands he actually covered. This included acts like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Now, try to imagine any one of those road-weary bands belting out Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" on their tour bus.

    Almost Famous Poster

    Almost Famous

    Music / 2000 / R

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  • 3The Doors
    Val Kilmer in "The Doors."

    © TriStar Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

    Oliver Stone's biopic of '60s icon Jim Morrison and his band was perfectly cast and wonderfully acted, even if it was largely historically inaccurate. "The Doors" focuses mainly on the man behind the legend, and it's Val Kilmer's performance that truly shines the brightest as he becomes the late Lizard King. His singing performance, especially, was so on-point that even real band members were thinking they were hearing the real Morrison on certain vocal takes.

    The Doors Poster

    The Doors

    Biography / 1991 / R

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  • 4Gimme Shelter
    Mick Jagger in "Gimme Shelter."

    © Cinema 5 Distributing / Courtesy Everett Collection

    Questlove's "Summer of Soul" teaches us about another 1969 music festival. And, by all accounts, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a jovial affair, just like its cousin upstate. But it wasn't all peace and love in 1969. Later in the year, the West Coast tried to put on their own show with the Rolling Stones, until it all came crashing down. Albert and David Maysles rock doc "Gimme Shelter" takes us through all the fire and fury. Interesting side fact: a young George Lucas was one of the camera operators. The concert took place in December of 1969, and in many ways, the free spirit of the '60s died that night, in the final weeks of the decade.

    Gimme Shelter Poster

    Gimme Shelter

    Documentary / 1970 / PG

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  • 5Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
    Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story."

    © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

    Following a spate of music biopics in the early '00s (most particularly 2004's "Ray" and 2005's "Walk the Line"), the format was more than ripe for parody. Enter this musical comedy from producer Judd Apatow and director/co-writer Jake Kasdan. "Walk Hard" explores the fictional life and times of country crossover star Dewey Cox, an amalgamation of the lives of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Brian Wilson, and others.

    "Walk Hard" could have easily gone the way that many parody films of the day did go, as just another "[Blank] Movie." But it was handily steered in the right direction by Apatow and Kasdan. In spite of its critical success, "Walk Hard" struggled in theaters. It later found a cult audience at home. Its soundtrack was, in many ways, better received and more successful. Like the film itself, the songs perfectly reflected and satirized the styles they were aiming to jab.

    Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story Poster

    Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

    Comedy / 2007 / R

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  • 6School of Rock
    Jack Black in "School of Rock."

    © Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection

    Jack Black schools a class of pre-teens in all things rock; and man, can those kids play! Sure, in real life Black would have gotten some hard jail time for impersonating a school teacher (the film actually does briefly touch on this), but that doesn't matter. The chemistry between Black and the kids was enough to overshadow any plot holes.

    The filmmakers also scored a major win, securing rights to a Led Zeppelin tune ("Immigrant Song"). The band had been notorious for holding on tight to its songs and rarely allowing their use in commercial media. But, front-man Robert Plant liked where and how the song was being used. As such, this wouldn't be the last time cinema would get the Led out, especially with "Immigrant Song." You can hear the song's heart-pounding drums and guitar once again aptly included during a thrilling action sequence in "Thor: Ragnarok."

    School of Rock Poster

    School of Rock

    Comedy / 2003 / PG-13

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  • 7Purple Rain
    Prince in "Purple Rain."

    © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

    There are movies that rock, but Prince's grandiose "Purple Rain" is in a class all its own. Part fantasy auto-biopic, part steamy romance, and part glam concert, "Purple Rain" is a musical event unlike any other. It also features one of the greatest rock 'n' roll endings of all time. Prince would go on to win an Oscar for the film (Best Original Score). The film itself was a total smash, as was its companion album, and its tour. And, we're all still trying to decipher the meaning behind the epic title song. Sadly, we recently lost Prince's on-screen father, Clarence Williams III. But for both Prince and Williams III, what a film legacy to leave behind.

    Purple Rain Poster

    Purple Rain

    Drama / 1984 / R

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  • 8A Hard Day's Night
    The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night."

    © United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection

    The Beatles play caricatures of themselves in a faux day in the life of the biggest band of the '60s. "A Hard Day's Night" is a musical mix of madcap comedy and early cinéma vérité. It also features many of the band's biggest songs, as heard on the film's companion soundtrack. And that itself would become one of the band's best-selling albums of all time. The film, and its swinging style, would go on to inspire shows like "The Monkees," movies like "Spice World," and many, many music videos to come.

    A Hard Day's Night Poster

    A Hard Day's Night

    Comedy / 1964 / G

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  • 9Tommy
    John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend and Elton John in "Tommy."

    © Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

    The Who's rock opera about "deaf, dumb and blind" Tommy Walker is more than just a story about a boy who sure plays a mean pinball. It's a spiritual journey. In 1975, the band turned their epic album into a musical film event. Frontman Roger Daltrey starred as the titular Tommy, while the rest of the band filled out supporting roles. Also appearing were a host of top talent from the era, like Ann-Margret, Tina Turner, and Jack Nicholson. Elton John even cameoed as the Pinball Wizard, wearing his trademark big loopy glasses and 7-ft. tall platform shoes. The stars performed the songs live on set to give the film an extra layer of authenticity. The popularity of both the album and film led to an equally successful Broadway revival in 1991.

    Tommy Poster


    Musical / 1975 / PG

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  • 10Woodstock
    An audience member against a sea of people in "Woodstock."

    © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

    "Woodstock" (the film) is a movie that rocks, rolls, and packs in the soul. Those that missed the event of a generation got the chance to experience it a year later on the big screen. And for those that went, they got the chance to relive its glory, presumably sober this time. The film's use of split-screen was revolutionary for its day, giving you the sense that you're watching the concert event in real-time. Interesting side note: A young Martin Scorsese helped edit the film. It was also on this project where he met his own soon-to-be long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

    Woodstock Poster


    Documentary / 1970 / R

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  • 11The Last Waltz
    Levon Helm in "The Last Waltz."

    © United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection

    We close our list of movies that rock with the concert film of concert films. "The Last Waltz" opens with a simple title card: "This film should be played loud!" Ok, then!

    Following on from his editing work on "Woodstock," Martin Scorsese took to the stage at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom to document the final performance of seminal folk-rock band, the Band. Joining the Band was a handful of special guests. This included friends and contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, the Staple Sisters, and more.

    Beautifully staged performances were intercut with behind-the-scenes reflections from The Band members, as they recalled their beginnings and pondered their legacy. Upon release, no one would have known that this film would become one of the greatest rock and roll documentaries of all time. Just the same, no one could have guessed that seven years later the Band (sans Robbie Robertson) would get back to the stage and tour once again. So, it wasn't the Band's last waltz after all, but they're forgiven.

    We leave you with arguably one of the best moments from "The Last Waltz." Here the Staples join the Band for a soulful and powerful rendition of the hit "The Weight." Rock on and enjoy!

    The Last Waltz Poster

    The Last Waltz

    Documentary / 1978 / PG

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Related tags

Summer of Soul

About the Author

Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.

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