The 50 Greatest Rock and Roll Movies of All Time

Read this list with a candle burning and you will fill your entire Netflix queue

50 Greatest Rock and Roll Movies
50 Greatest Rock and Roll Movies

    Editor’s Notes: Lights, camera, rock! Our definitive list of Rock and Roll Movies originally ran in February 2018. We’re revisiting it today as we celebrate Martin Scorsese and The Band’s epic concert film, The Last Waltz, which came out on April 26th, 1978.

    I’d argue that it’s easier to identify a rock and roll movie than define one. Looking through this list, there are docs and biopics, concert films and musicals, movies with flick-making and generation-defining soundtracks, and films that don’t seem to have very much to do with music at all. And yet, they all feel like they should be categorized under the old devil horns in some way. They boast a common ethos, carry a certain swagger, and feel rebellious in their own, often unlikely, ways. So, here they are: The 50 Greatest Rock and Roll Movies of All Time.

    For all these movies (and others) that rock, we salute them.

    –Matt Melis

    50. Baby Driver (2017)


    Let’s start our list right, with the most recent entry, one that’ll invariably go down as one of the greats in due time. Edgar Wright’s opus of fast cars, gun violence, and Hollywood romance is built around its soundtrack, and while it’s not exclusively a rock and roll affair (shout-out to Wright’s use of a Young MC deep cut), Baby Driver features the rare modern movie soundtrack that functions as the lifeblood of the film itself. From the crackerjack editing to the perfect scene-by-scene placements, rock music becomes an extension of the storytelling. And because of Baby Driver, a new generation has discovered the glories of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. What’s not to love? Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

    Song to Stream: “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

    49. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

    Phantom of the Paradise is Brian De Palma’s most whimsical and traditionally funny film. Good rock and roll has a sense of humor amid the cynicism and melodrama of the music. Phantom sardonically skewers the music industry, turning a record contract into a Faustian deal with the devil. Paul Williams brilliantly plays against type as the evil Swan and provides a wonderfully bizarre collections of tunes for the soundtrack, featuring faux ‘50s nostalgia with “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye”, the Linda Ronstadt-style country-tinged pop of “Special to Me”, the glammy “Life at Last”, and the gloriously cynical closer, “The Hell of It”. –Mike Vanderbilt


    Song to Stream: “The Hell of It” by Paul Williams

    48. That Thing You Do! (1996)

    That Thing You Do! hums with authenticity. Tom Hanks’ ode to ‘60s pop rock gets all the details just right. Top-notch set design and costuming paint the snappy tale of the one-hit Wonders. The interaction between the band members feels familiar to anyone who has spent time playing rock and roll with a group at any level of success. It’s the soundtrack that propels the film, with each tune perfectly recreating the popular sounds of the day from Merseybeat to surf rock to Motown girl groups. –Mike Vanderbilt

    Song to Stream: “That Thing You Do!” by The Wonders

    47. The Filth and the Fury (2000)

    If you ever saw The Great Rock ‘n’ Swindle, you know that it was kinda just that, less a documentary about The Sex Pistols and more an arty dupe (“presented as a mockumentary”) on the part of Malcom McClaren, who sought to control the narrative about the legendary UK band he managed. The Filth and the Fury, also directed by Julian Temple, is an equally biting but proper delving into the history of the Pistols, with interviews, live footage, and Swindle snippets that highlight the true trajectory taken by Rotten, Jonesy, Cook, Matlock, and Vicious, complete with all the scornful words and scathing performances the film’s title suggests. You never get the feeling you’ve been cheated watching this one. –Lina Lecaro

    Song to Stream: “Anarchy in the U.K.” by Sex Pistols

    46. Heavy Metal (1981)

    Dungeons, dragons, well-endowed barbarians, bad-ass female warriors, zombie pilots, spaceships, and robots: these are the things that teenagers on the fringe adore. So much of rock and roll is intrinsically tied to teenage lust, and the Ivan Reitman-produced Heavy Metal is 88 minutes of just that. Reitman even brings along SCTV cast members — arguably the most rock and roll comedy troupe around in 1981 — to provide the voices of intergalactic lawyers and nyborg snorting aliens. The gangbusters hard rock soundtrack features Cheap Trick, Blue Oyster Cult, and Sammy Hagar, making the midnight movie smoke like a Gibson through a Marshall. –Mike Vanderbilt


    Song to Stream: “Reach Out and Take It” by Cheap Trick

    45. Jailhouse Rock (1957)

    Despite the name and best-known (striped t-shirt) scenes, Jailhouse Rock is not really a “prison flick.” Elvis Presley’s character does go to jail, where he discovers his musical prowess and pursues it once he gets out, but his journey to stardom proves even more challenging than his time behind bars. His James Dean-ish “bad boy” character makes bad choices, and it all leads to an obvious journey of redemption. But this one ain’t about the story; it’s about the exhilarating music and its star, whose charisma was so off the charts that it was quite fittingly criminal. –Lina Lecaro

    Song to Stream: “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley

    44. Forrest Gump (1994)

    Most films dependent on pop songs count on them to take us to a specific place in time within the movie. The Forrest Gump soundtrack takes us through decades of time. There’s lil’ Forrest dancing to Elvis’ “Hound Dog”. Creedence leads the charge in Vietnam with “Fortunate Son” (a tic that has been used in countless films since). Forrest and Jenny reconnect in “Sweet Home Alabama”. An older Forrest finds himself “Running on Empty” all the way across America (and back again). The songs advance the movie, and you never know what you’re gonna get (I couldn’t resist). –Justin Gerber

    Song to Stream: “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

    43. The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

    The Buddy Holly Story may not get all the little details right (Holly’s main axe was a Strat, not a Tele), but rock and roll is less about hitting all the right notes and more about the essence of cool. Gary Busey is a revelation as Buddy Holly — a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination — even performing vocal duties on the Holly tunes featured in the film. Decades on, Buddy Holly’s influence on rock and roll music — from his songwriting to his recording and production techniques to his fearlessness — should be studied by every aspiring guitar slinger. Also, Paul Mooney is brilliant as Sam Cooke. –Mike Vanderbilt


    Song to Stream: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” by Gary Busey and Jerry Zaremba

    42. Big Time (1988)

    Tom WaitsBig Time exists somewhere in the overlap between concert film, dreamland, and carnival freak show. Waits and wife/songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan decided to record the last North American shows of a tour and release a mix of the footage as a concert film. While the production’s narrative or a precise account of Waits’ alter ego, Frank O’Brien, may be difficult to decipher, the film somehow seems to tap into a new dimension of the avant-garde performer’s songs as the emotive Waits, for example, sings “16 Shells from a 30.6” into a workman’s lantern while the film cuts to him banging on pipes with a hammer or, in another instance, struts along to a madcap version of “Rain Dogs” that resolves into a festive jig straight out of the old country (which one, who could say?). It’s over-the-top, bizarre, and one of the few concert films that leaves you feeling as though you understand a unique artist just a little better for having been thoroughly absorbed and confused. –Matt Melis

    Song to Stream: “16 Shells from a 30.6” by Tom Waits

    41. Tommy (1975)

    The Who’s Tommy began as an ambitious double album in 1969. Arguably the first “rock opera,” the plot is threadbare, filled with bizarre ideas (a pinball-playing messiah?) from the wild mind of guitarist Pete Townshend. Ken Russell was an inspired choice to bring the story of Tommy to the sliver screen in 1975. Russell’s bonkers visuals compliment Townshend’s concepts, and the film features two showstopping performances (Tina Turner’s “The Acid Queen” and Elton John’s “Pinball Wizard”) and an odd reading of “Go to the Mirror” by Jack Nicholson. The film is weird, over the top, and consistently takes chances — everything you want out of rock and roll. Play this one loud. –Mike Vanderbilt


    Song to Stream: “Pinball Wizard” by The Who and Elton John

    40. Sing Street (2016)

    John Carney’s 2016 romantic musical is “for brothers everywhere,” as the end credits explicitly state, and yet there’s something achingly universal about the ’80s-set coming-of-age story. As we watch the poor Irish teens band together around the futurist sounds of new wave — from Duran Duran to Hall and Oates to The Cure — we’re swept away by these affecting portraits of young passion. Of course, none of it would work without the gritty stakes that Carney wires to his fantastical story, all of which groove to anthems both vintage and original. No kidding: If you’re not singing or clapping along by the second act, you might want to check your heartbeat. Something’s wrong, pal. –Michael Roffman

    Song to Stream: “Up” by Sing Street

    39. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

    Nicholas Roeg’s eccentric sci-fi masterpiece doesn’t make this list simply because it stars one of the greatest rock stars of all time. The movie looks, sounds, and feels gorgeous and weird all on its own. But David Bowie’s performance might’ve been enough regardless. More than any of his other dramatic roles, this one, as a disconcerted alien, possesses everything that made Bowie a mesmerizing musical figure — his androgynous beauty, outsider charm, and uniquely detached demeanor that somehow draws you in deep. It’s the theatrical link between Ziggy and The Thin White Duke, and even though he was reportedly pretty coked out during this period, he shines throughout. Unlike Roeg’s work with Mick Jagger in Performance, this is a star vehicle that’s as purposeful as it is provocative. –Lina Lecaro

    Song to Stream: “The Man Who Fell to Earth” by John Phillips

    38. La Bamba (1987)

    “The Day the Music Died” will be remembered in infamy when a plane crash took the lives of the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. 1987’s La Bamba focuses on Valens’ short life, growing up in San Fernando Valley; his rocky relationship with his brother, Bob Morales; and his even shorter career that gave rock and roll fans “Donna”, “Let’s Go”, and the reworked Mexican folk song “La Bamba”. The film is a compelling and sad biopic, but the inspired casting of Los Lobos (as the voice and music of Ritchie Valens), Howard Huntsberry as Jackie Wilson, Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran, and Marshal Crenshaw as Buddy Holly turn La Bamba up to 11. –Mike Vanderbilt


    Song to Stream: “La Bamba” by Los Lobos

    37. Sid and Nancy (1986)

    Gary Oldman has given a lot of Oscar-worthy performances, has only been nominated twice, and will probably win for one he doesn’t deserve. If you want a performance more transformative without the aid of make-up (shots fired, Darkest Hour), look no further than his performance as Sid Vicious here. Coupled with an equally magnetic Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, the movie is chock-full of punk Sex Pistols, disastrous solo efforts, and a memorable moment (no spoilers) of Sid covering Sinatra’s “My Way”. Keep an eye out for a young Courtney Love as Nancy’s friend Gretchen, a consolation for not getting Nancy. –Justin Gerber

    Song to Stream: “My Way” by Sid Vicious

    36. The Wedding Singer (1998)

    I’ve been to several weddings and have yet to encounter a wedding band. Do they really even exist? Anyways, the love of music and the music of love dominate The Wedding Singer. Wedding band shenanigans aside (“Give me ty-yime…”), the movie features a hip-hoppin’ granny (“Rapper’s Delight”), an original love song whose performance is made possible thanks to Billy Idol (“I Wanna Grow Old with You”), Van Halen t-shirts, Flock of Seagulls haircuts, and a drunk Steve Buscemi living out his dreams. I know this much is true: The Wedding Singer is fun as hell, especially for us ‘80s kids. –Justin Gerber

    Song to Stream: “Love Stinks” by The J. Geils Band

    35. 24 Hour Party People (2002)

    These days, a pairing of Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan has people thinking of the Trip series. However, an earlier partnership brought forth an ode to Factory Records founder Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. The fourth-wall-be-damned look at the mogul’s rise and fall features discovery reenactments of Sex Pistols, Happy Mondays, and Joy Division (later New Order) to name but a few. It’s as close as many of us will ever get to The Haçienda, only without the nagging sweat and over-indulgence of drug use. Or maybe we actually want that, too. –Justin Gerber


    Song to Stream: “24 Hour Party People” by Happy Mondays

    34. Singles (1992)

    To be fair, Singles is more of an innocent meditation on the chaos of everyday romances than a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster. Even so, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 romantic comedy ably doubles as a surprisingly organic time capsule of Seattle’s alternative rock scene. Then-future titans Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains all make agreeable cameos, the platinum-selling soundtrack winds up enhancing the drama, and the music trivia that Crowe wedges into the proceedings only embellishes the film’s vibrant, lived-in experience. Besides, where else are you going to see Eddie Vedder dish out life-long career advice? Guy’s a grungy yoda. –Michael Roffman

    Song to Stream: “Waiting for Somebody” by Paul Westerberg

    33. Nashville (1975)

    Nashville isn’t a musical, but it is musical. The late, great filmmaker Robert Altman had his cast write and perform many of the songs featured throughout, infuriating the country music scene at the time. Oh, well. It paid off. Altman follows the lives of several musicians, both amateur and professional, in the titular city leading up to a major political rally, their music providing the soundtrack. Nashville is an experience and a long one at that (nearly three hours), but the finale is one of the all-time greats. My boy Keith Carradine would go on to win an Academy Award for “I’m Easy”! Justin Gerber

    Song to Stream: “I’m Easy” by Keith Carradine

    32. End of the Century (2003)

    Everything about the Ramones was a contradiction. Their music was fast and vociferous, but it was also super catchy, at its core, inspired by old timey, doo-wap, and pop. They looked more like bikers than punkers of the time. And each member was markedly different, yet they all went by the same fake surname. End of the Century is the definitive look at the game-changing New York punk pioneers who made simple-sounding music but were highly complex individuals with a contentious history and tense chemistry. Dee Dee, Joey, and Johnny have all met all their ends, but this unflinching film provides a poignant profile to cement their legacy. –Lina Lecaro


    Song to Stream: “Glad to See You Go” by Ramones

    31. Once (2007)

    By now, you know the story: a pair of performers joined with John Carney for a no-budget romantic musical about the power of song, and it became the kind of breakout hit that most filmmakers spend their entire careers chasing. What Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova accomplish onscreen is even richer than Once’s reputation, though; not only is the soundtrack an all-timer, but it’s also the kind of unabashedly romantic film that time and Hollywood have largely left behind. It’s utterly sincere in its intentions, a film about the absolute power of music to unite even the unlikeliest pairs. It’s far from the hardest-rocking entry on this list, but it’s as true to the spirit of the genre as any other entry. Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

    Song to Stream: “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova