Smells like music cinema


Here is a selection of documentary and fiction films concerned with different genres of music, from country, disco, folk and hip hop to house, punk, metal, reggae and soul. It offers a unique platform from which to appraise the creative and social dynamics operating across these different musical subcultures, as well as acknowledging the exchange and movement between them. These films underline the idea that music, in all its endless permutations, can enrich our identities and transform both musician and listener into the somebody they want to be.

DELVE DEEPER: Dip into more music blogs

#1 Bob Marley — ‘Marley’ 2012 | Soul Shakedown Party

Bob Marley’s humble life and inspirational character is honoured in this superb account of the reggae legend, as told by his family and friends in new interviews spliced together with invaluable archival footage.  Poorly understood by the mainstream, this documentary succeeds in outlining the principles, aesthetic lineage and personal magnetism of this great innovator.


#2 Amy Winehouse — ‘Amy’ 2015 | Help Yourself

Amy is a detailed and sympathetic study of the charisma, controversy and talent that drove the late superstar Amy Winehouse. Filled with archival footage that reveals the brutal scrutiny that celebrities are subject to nowadays, the film is layered with Winehouse’s own feelings on her success and struggles.

#3 Nirvana — ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ 2015 | Smells Like Teen Spirit

Independent yet insecure, restless and fatigued – Kurt Cobain and his creative output was propelled by a mass of contradictions. Montage of Heck shows a driven and enthusiastic young Cobain that slowly came undone as his experiences turned into internalised suffering. Issues with family, drugs and depression shaped his potent and personal sensibility — yet ultimately his story of success wreaks misfortune and neglect.

#4 | Brian Jonestown Massacre — ‘DIG!’ 2004 | Going to Hell

DIG! follows the development and rivalry of the immensely creative yet self-destructive Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the more professional Dandy Warhols.  A classic tale of success and dysfunction unfolds as one band becomes an international sensation, while the other is revered but marginalised.

#5 Bikini Kill — ‘The Punk Singer’ 2013 | Rebel Girl

The Punk Singer chronicles the development of Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna: her artistry, fight against sexism and misrepresentation in the media, and her personal life. Looking through all the career success and struggles, ultimately this film is a valuable document about an enduring courage and commitment to principle.

#6 WuTang — ‘Rock the bells’ 2006 | C.R.E.A.M.

Rock the Bells is an eye-widening backstage drama following the ultimate Wu-Tang fan and his attempt to reunite the clan for the first Rock the Bells festival concert. Pressure mounts until this dreamer is confronted by an explosive crowd of tens of thousands waiting impatiently for him to deliver the next to impossible.

#7 J Dilla — ‘Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records’ 2013 | Donuts

This portrait of one of the most respected labels in hip-hop music, and its inimitable founder Peanut Butter Wolf, is a great primer in the dynamics of the independent music scene. Includes interviews with Common, Kanye West, Dâm-Funk, Questlove, Talib Kweli and Madlib about their respect for Stones Throw Records.

#8 Charles Bradley — ‘Charles Bradley: Soul of America’ 2012 | Strictly Reserved For You

Soul of America tells the heart-rending story of Charles Bradley’s career transition from struggling James Brown impersonator to world-famous contemporary soul singer. With a debut album listed in Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of 2011, Bradley’s performances are electrifying — fuelled by a lifetime of struggle that has been held together by an abiding belief in music.

#9 Beastie Boys — ‘Awesome; I … Shot That!’ 2006 | Sabotage (live in Glasgow)

One of the most innovative concert films of recent years, Awesome; I… Shot That!  dexterously weaves together the experiences of 50 audience goers armed with consumer camcorders by the Beastie Boys for a sold-out Madison Square Garden  performance in 2004.

#10 Prince — ‘Purple Rain’ 1984 | Diamonds and Pearls

In his debut feature Prince played a troubled, talented and seductive young musician struggling to keep his romantic life, band and family together. Riding his guitar like it was his screaming motorcycle on wet city streets, Prince’s chart-topping soundtrack pushes the groove with a restless tension throughout — the way that only he could.

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What You Want: Music Cinema‘ screened at the Australian Cinémathèque 2 September until 2 October 2016