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Flickreel’s Top 5 Factual Music Films

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  1. Searching For Sugarman

In 2012, one of the most extraordinary true stories hit our screens in the form of Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary film Searching For Sugarman. The story follows the search for the mysterious 1970s Detroit-based folk singer Rodriguez. His music career was short-lived, with only two well-received but non-selling albums. However, unknown to Rodriguez, his musical story had continued in South Africa where he became an icon and inspiration for generations of music lovers. Long rumoured to have committed suicide, a few fans decided to seek out the truth of their hero’s fate. What follows is a remarkable and heartening story in which the truth that’s uncovered is almost too good to be true. Sadly, Bendjelloul took his own life shortly after the movie’s release and it would prove to be his only feature as a Director but he will always be remembered for this beautifully crafted film which boasts one hell of a soundtrack.

  1. Walk The Line

When a musician’s biopic is done well and accurately, there is nothing more enjoyable and satisfying for music and movie lovers alike. And in 2005, James Mangold took country legend Johnny Cash to the big screen and achieved just that. The film focuses on Cash’s early life and his romance with fellow country singer June Carter, telling a fascinating story as we see his difficult childhood in deep Southern America and subsequent rise to international country music star. But what stands out in this picture are the performances of its two main actors: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Phoenix does not simply impersonate Cash, he seems to actually inhabit him both as a performer and a human being. Whilst Witherspoon plays the role of his greatest love with heart-breaking conviction; totally deserving of her Oscar. This movie may be slightly predictable at times, but its incredible collection of songs are impressively sung by Phoenix himself, which is another reason for its inclusion here.

  1. Ray

From one biopic to another, Ray tells the story of legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles. His life was eventful to say the very least: he went blind at the age of seven, shortly after witnessing his younger brother drown. On top of this, he was to battle with racism and segregation along his path to stardom. But Charles found his calling and his gift as a pianist, and after touring across the 1960s ‘Chitlin’ circuit, he soon took the world by storm. Director Taylor Hackford was blessed with this incredible true story, and he used the material intelligently – taking 15 years to make the movie, and consequently it feels less of a generic biopic and more a powerful portrait of an extraordinary man’s life. This is largely down to Jamie Foxx’s performance, who displays his prowess as an actor with a deep understanding of the character and uncanny impersonation. He hit the road with this one.

  1. Control

Anton Corbijn’s feature length debut Control tells the story of Ian Curtis, the enigmatic lead singer of Manchester’s Joy Division. Sam Riley portrays the role with exactly the right blend of charisma, energy and warmth, making for a compelling performance. Shot entirely in black and white, the cinematography adds to the haunting mood, and suits the brooding sounds of Joy Division perfectly. We all know how this one ends, and seeing the context of his romantic troubles and his sufferings with illness and depression, we experience the trauma even more deeply. At times, it’s not an easy watch, but there are some great moments to be cherished as one of Manchester’s finest ever bands and frontmen performed their way into our ears and our hearts.

  1. The Pianist

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist tops our list as the best factual music film. Set in Warsaw during the Second World War, the Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman finds himself at a struggle to survive in the most deadly of wars. Adrien Brody picked up the prize for best actor at 2003’s Academy Awards – richly deserved as he embodies the spirit of Spilzman, turning in one of his best performances to date. There have been some incredibly emotional films based on World War II over the years, but none quite as realistic and personal as this one. We see a man who has everything, then loses it all: his family, his friends and his piano. We are on the edge of our seats rooting for the protagonist as he escapes Nazi camps and eludes capture by living in the ruins of Warsaw. The standout scene is towards the end, when the Nazis know they are losing the war: Spilzman comes face to face with a piano for the first time in many years and is allowed by the Nazi soldier to play the instrument he has been deprived from for so very long. For four straight minutes there is no dialogue, just Chopin Ballade’s No.1 echoing out from the old piano, and it’s almost as if time stands still – but ultimately, the war does not. Life, it seems, is put into perspective by the hammering of a few black and white keys. The power of music.

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