In 1979, Jimmy Carter, at the urging of music producer Kenny Gamble and broadcasters Ed Wright and Dyana Williams, declared June Black Music Month. They wanted the world to acknowledge the serious influence of Black musicians, not just in the realm of “entertainment” but in business.
In 2016, President Barack Obama renamed the month African American Music Appreciation Month, stating, “I call upon public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate activities and programs that raise awareness and foster appreciation of music which is composed, arranged, and performed by African Americans.”
To that end, Shadow And Act has compiled a list of Black musically themed movies that showcase the breadth and depth of Black music; from gospel to scat, blues, pop, jazz, and hip-hop! The films, some fiction and some fact-based, also highlight and honor the inspiring, uplifting, complex people who create music. So, without further ado, please dig into the list below where you’re sure to find some old titles that will bring back fond memories as well as some new titles that are certain to become modern classics!
1. Dreamgirls (2006)
Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover
Based on the eighties-era Broadway smash hit starring Jennifer Holliday and Sheryl Lee Ralph, this is a flawed but sweet drama about a sixties-era girl group, The Dreams. Early in their career, they’re a backup group for the ambitious Jimmy Early (Murphy) but soon get their own act thanks to the vision of their manager Curtis (Foxx), a ruthless businessman with a penchant for anticipating audience tastes. The canvas then broadens to tell the stories of the women in the group as well as still spotlighting Jimmy, who doesn’t seem to know if he wants to be Marvin Gaye or James Brown.
Conflicts arise between the group when the statuesque Effie (Hudson) is pushed to the background behind the smaller, lighter-skinned Deena (Beyoncé) who Curtis believes will appeal to a white audience that is increasingly exposed to music through television appearances. Effie tries to go along for the good of the group initially but is resentful. Deeply hurt when she realizes Curtis is fond of more than just Deena’s singing, she becomes vocal about her feelings and is eventually pushed out of the group and forced to try and find another way to achieve her dreams of stardom.
The plot would be better if it more closely followed the characters and gave insight into the experiences that drove their growth. Besides Effie, we don’t get to see much. There is enough on the screen, however, to hold your interest. The stage performance sequences are thrilling and the costumes by Oscar-nominated Sharen Davis (Ray, Django Unchained, The Help) transform the women into sequined nymphettes, g0-go boot wearing mod girls, and everything in between!
Best of all is the music with Hudson’s passion and emotion driving numbers like “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which in large part garnered her Golden Globe and Oscar wins. There is Beyoncé’s stirring “Listen”, written specifically for the film, and the group’s warm rendition of “We Are A Family” will make you misty-eyed. Then, of course, is the rendition of the upbeat oh so danceable title song “Dreamgirls.”
2. The Wiz (1978)
Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Mabel King, Richard Pryor
Legends, legends, legends! The musical based mostly in the fantastical land of Oz, based on the 1939 original, The Wizard of Oz (which was itself based on the book by L. Frank Baum), is overflowing with multigenerational Black musical and acting talent including Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Mabel King and Richard Pryor. Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Wiz was nominated for four Oscars and gave the public unforgettable songs like “Ease on Down the Road”, “If You Believe In Yourself”, and “Home.” This was the first time that mega-producer Quincy Jones worked with Michael Jackson who was a budding, middling solo artist at the time. Jones’ experience working with Jackson on The Wiz is what made him decide to become the producer of Jackson’s next solo album Off the Wall, which became a bestseller. The duo went on to make history with Thriller, still the second best-selling album of all time.
3. Hustle & Flow (2005)
Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Paula Jai Parker, Elise Neal, Isaac Hayes
Before there was Empire, Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard teamed up on the southern fried musical drama Hustle & Flow. Southern hip-hop is the vehicle communicating the absurdities, oddities, and mundanities of life in the urban south as we follow Howard’s character Djay on his journey from a small-time pimp with baby mama drama to (hopefully) hip-hop star. Henson got to show a range that she normally doesn’t get to, playing the naive “h*e” with a heart of gold, Shug. Hustle & Flow is surprisingly funny, full of heart, and a really good time! Hardcore romantics also get one of those iconic and epically romantic, larger than life movie kisses between Djay and Shug.
Anthony Anderson, Paula Jai Parker, and Elise Neal round out the film, bringing excellent comedic timing and delicious melodrama.
4. NWA & Eazy E: Kings of Compton (2016)
Dr. Dre, Suge Knight, Ice Cube
This documentary wasn’t the most well-known out there but it’s a thorough, fascinating look at the evolution of rap from East Coast to West Coast. Featured are the players who nurtured the rap scene in California from the ground up, such as The Wrecking Crew, small-time distributor Steve Yano, Ice-T, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Macola Records, Jerry Heller and places like The Roadium Open Air Market where fans flocked to get music that they couldn’t get from mainstream record stores.
The film’s focus eventually settles on Eric Lynn Wright, who is more commonly known as Eazy-E. He was the charismatic driving force behind the early growth of the genre. A natural businessman, Eazy E and Ice-Cube got together and started Ruthless Records. The desire to make money was the primary reason Eazy-E and many of his friends entered the rap game. The documentary also points out the differing agendas that drove the rise of East Coast vs the West Coast rap beef.
Appearances by friends, acquaintances, business partners, etc., paint a picture of a complicated man with the natural ability to make and sustain relationships, and who understood the importance of his community to his success. It also discusses his death from AIDS, pointing out that it served as a wake-up call for the rap community that until then, believed the illness was the sole province of other communities in the United States.
5. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (2019)
Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Strickland, Robert Glasper
A blue note is a musical note that—for expressive purposes—is sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. The phrase is also commonly used as a shorthand for jazz music and was the name of the foremost record label for jazz music from 1939 to the present day. Blue Note Records was created at the dawn of the bebop era and it was Blue Note’s musicians who pushed musical evolution further, creating the hard bop sound.
In Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes, today’s jazz musicians tell us how they feel about the music and what it symbolizes for them. The film has copious amounts of archival footage, much of it from Blue Note Records itself due to a friendly relationship with the filmmaker, Sophie Huber. There is footage of trumpeter Clifford Brown, pianist Meade Lux Lewis, the iconoclastic Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. There are stills of Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. More than mere musicians, they were also gifted composers who gave the world such jazz classics as “My Favorite Things”, “Round Midnight”, “Kind of Blue”, “Joy Spring”, and much more.
The film indeed goes behind the notes, giving the viewer behind the scenes insights into even the creation of the label’s distinctive album covers (which were so important in the era before digital music) and the fun fact that the music was recorded in the living room of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s parents suburban New Jersey home for six years.
Connections between jazz and hip hop are highlighted, including jazz musician Idris Muhammad who plays on numerous hip hop recordings. A current example of a hip-hop artist for whom the influence of jazz is clear in their music is Kendrick Lamar.
6. The Five Heartbeats (1991)
Robert Townsend, Diahann Carroll, Leon Robinson, Harry J. Lennix, Michael Wright, Theresa Randle, Harold Nicholas.
Centered around a fictional R&B group, Robert Townsend’s soapy, satirical drama The Five Heartbeats, may not hit ALL the right notes plot-wise but it grooves in some great ways, giving viewers a look at the growing rhythm and blues scene in 1950’s America and the industry and social dynamics that came to shape the careers of its pioneers such as Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, The Temptations and others.
In the particularly “Townsednian” way, the film delves into the personal lives of the musicians, sensitively communicating the ways in which they are shaped by family and the way Black male friendships act as their boon along the way.
7. Krush Groove (1985)
Blair Underwood, Run-DMC, LisaGay Hamilton, LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow
Y’all, Krush Groove is soooo good! Most of this enthusiasm is on the strength of nostalgia and awe at how far hip-hop has come since it was released, but Krush Groove, besides a few moments of minor violence, is a really fun film!
A wet behind the ears Blair Underwood (Juanita, L.A. Law), Run DMC and Kurtis Blow portray aspiring rappers and record producers in the Bronx of the early eighties. It’s the backstory of hip-hop.
Loosely based on the story of Def Jam records, Underwood’s character, Russell Walker, is a facsimile of record industry mogul Russell Simmons. Run and DMC basically play themselves. The movie’s conceit is that Russell and his friend and business partner Rick (based on producer Rick Rubin), need cash to get their new record distributed. When they can’t obtain a loan from the bank they must turn to a sketchy street entrepreneur type character whom they eventually run afoul.
More prominently known as one of the ubiquitous women of ambiguous ethnicity in music legend Prince’s paisley patterned stable of protegees, Latina songstress Sheila E. is somewhat miscast here in the world of rap as the film’s female lead. However, her gamely performance, glamorous glittery costumes, and complete ability to make percussive instruments her b***h make up for most of that. Kurtis Blow, Beastie Boys, The Fat Boys and New Edition provide a pleasing soundtrack and it’s almost quaint to see a young LisaGay Hamilton as the object of a teen boy’s innocent affections. It’s just plain fun viewing for the whole family! I dare you to watch it and not smile and snap your fingers throughout the whole thing!
8. Amazing Grace (2019)
Aretha Franklin, Rev. James Cleveland
Speaking of uncontrollable finger snapping (and head shaking and foot stomping), in 1972 Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir recorded the best-selling gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace, over the course of two days. It was filmed by Oscar-winning Director Sydney Pollack.
Dressed like an angel, in a floor-length, long-sleeved white dress; her afro a halo, Franklin’s humility is on display as she sits at the piano listening to Cleveland’s intro. She’s a little girl again at one point, performing one of her father C.L. Franklin’s songs as he proudly looks onto from the audience. He later addressed the audience admitting he was “about to burst” while watching her.
Though it’s promoted more as a documentary, Amazing Grace is more “concert” film. There are no guest commentators, no archival images or footage. There isn’t editorializing as to why Franklin wanted to go back to her church roots at this point in her life with multiple Grammy Awards, and over ten chart-toppers under her belt. It’s just the woman, the choir, the music, and the audience.
Franklin performs “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”, “Precious Lord”, and of course “Amazing Grace.” She also covers “Mary Don’t You Weep” among other classic gospel songs. You will be amazed, you will be moved, you will be blessed!
9. Ray (2004)
Jamie Foxx, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, Aunjanue Ellis, Regina King
The Pacific Northwest isn’t often recognized as playing an important part of American music history but Ray Charles’ time in Seattle was pivotal in his evolution as a musician. In the biopic Ray, we see Charles’ maturation as a musician when he moved as a young adult from Greenville to Seattle to begin his music career. It’s also where he first met a very young Quincy Jones (played by Larenz Tate), and the two forged a lifelong friendship.
A strong portrayal of the connection between gospel and rhythm and blues, the non-patronizing focus on a disabled character, and standout acting performances make this otherwise standard musical biopic one of the best out there. Jamie Foxx does an eerily accurate impression of the musician and Sharon Warren as his mother damn near breaks your heart in scenes with the young Ray character. Then there is Aunjanue Ellis as the petty car smashing Mary Ann and Regina King as the sweet yet saucy man-stealing Margie, members of Charles’ group of backup singers, The Raelettes, to round it out.
10. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor
Singer Diana Ross was already a superstar as the lead singer of the now legendary girl group The Supremes when she took on the role of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues. Ross did so well in the role she garnered an Oscar nomination for her work. A film supposedly based on the life of Billie Holiday, it is more fiction than fact but works in part because of Ross’ impressive, heartfelt performance. It isn’t hard to imagine that Ross tapped into her own feelings as a budding singer during scenes when she is auditioning.
Lady Sings The Blues also works because it is written as a love story between Billie and the character Louis McKay (Williams). This film is one of the few depicting a man deeply in love with a troubled woman; there are plenty of stories showcasing the opposite! Ross and Williams have a sweet yet explosive chemistry that pulls the viewer in and makes you root for this gorgeous couple even though we know going in the ending will be a tragic one.
11. Bird (1988)
Forest Whitaker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, Bill Cobbs, Tony Todd, John Witherspoon
Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker died before the age of forty but was instrumental in the evolution of jazz as a musical artform and for changing the culture of jazz musicians. He played a pivotal role in making the public view jazz musicians as artists and craftsmen who put much thought into their work. Prior to that, they were seen as simply entertainers.
Much of Bird is dedicated to Parker’s romance with Chan Berg, who eventually became his wife (well… the main one) and the mother of his two children. Forest Whitaker does a fine job of capturing Parker’s celebrated passion and a mind that, frustratingly sometimes, did not know how to rest. His struggles with heroin and mental health are also colorfully dramatized as is Parker’s frustrations concerning how to get audiences to appreciate the type of music he was helping to fashion, and his frequent run-ins with the police. On the other side, there are his warm friendships with people such as jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and Red Rodney, the white musician Parker told everyone was albino in order to circumvent laws that prevented integrated bands from playing in the south.
For those looking to understand the roots of Parker’s demons or what his motivations were, you won’t find it here. However, you’ll find a personality that could easily disarm those with whom he came into contact. The film also does a good job of showing the way that music moved from the big band jazz of the thirties and early forties to the bebop era and then to the birth of rock in the fifties.
12. What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)
Angela Bassett, Jennifer Lewis, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Laurence Fishburne
It is difficult to watch this film without tearing up during the scene when Tina finally breaks free from Ike. She has escaped physically, but more importantly, she has broken free emotionally from Ike’s abuse and her own low self-esteem! Based on the memoir of Tina Turner, I, Tina, Angela Bassett gave the performance of a lifetime as rhythm and blues turned rock n roller Tina Turner transforming from a naive young adult to a full out rock star fighting for survival in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with her partner on stage and in marriage, Ike Turner (Fishburne).
Bassett threw herself completely into the role, taking on all of Turner’s familiar physical attributes and holding on to the femininity and vulnerability that Tina the woman always displayed despite her hard rocker stage persona.
What’s Love Got To Do With It is a movie about finding the strength to love yourself, the strength to rescue one’s own self and the courage to reinvent yourself even if who you become isn’t who society says you should be. Props to the beautiful Vanessa Bell Calloway, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Jennifer Lewis, and Penny Johnson-Jerald, who all turned in strong performances in supporting roles.
13. Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child (2010)
Another rock and roller, Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942 and had a wide array of musical influences, including the fifties and sixties guitarists like Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters.
The film is told completely in voiceover narration by Parliament Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins and accompanied by archival photographs, concert footage, and footage from interviews. There’s a great deal of footage from Hendrix’s appearance on the seventies talk show hosted by Dick Cavett whose shadiness was more than a little apparent despite Cavett’s overall reputation for affability.
Many of the photos are images of the many postcards and letters that Hendrix sent to his father after he left home; first for the Army, then to Tennessee where he began his music career in earnest working with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, then to New York City where he forged a partnership with musician Chas Chandler. The duo went on to the United Kingdom where Hendrix formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and quickly became a star.
Hendrix was renowned not just for his prowess on the guitar but his brazen performances–there is plenty of footage to prove it. To the amazement of many, he often played his guitar with his teeth. He famously lit his guitar on fire as a “sacrifice” in 1967 when appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. By the time he headlined at Woodstock in 1969, Hendrix was the highest paid rock musician in the world.
Watching all the footage in Voodoo Child, it’s easy to forget that what the self-taught Hendrix was doing was revolutionary at that time. Hendrix was also an innovator at the technical level. The way he used amplifiers and musical effects had not really been done before him. Rock itself was in its infancy and you can still very clearly hear its relationship to the blues in Hendrix’s song stylings.
14. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams
A grandstanding bandmate is the least of jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) worries in this impeccably shot film written, co-starred, and directed by Spike Lee. It features Ernest Dickerson’s rich and precise photography, Lee’s signature dolly shot, and Washington as Gilliam, a spoiled, vaguely immature, womanizing musician. The two women in his favorites folder are vampy Clarke (Williams) and the girl next door, Indigo (Lee). Bleek isn’t ready to settle down with either of them but they’re sometimes fine with settling for whatever he decides to give them. Bleek’s somewhat admirable Achilles heel is his loyalty to his childhood friend and incompetent manager Giant (Lee), who has a gambling problem that eventually threatens both Bleek’s life and his career.
Though the film suffers from a lack of focus (we never find out what any of the numerous characters want, or how Bleek finally is able to transform himself at the end), the number of interesting characters, great photography and music, and of course Washington, Snipes, Esposito, Robin Harris, and Charlie Murphy makes it more than worth it! One scene, which has to do with Bleek buying his girlfriends the same gift is a bit too much on the nose but works anyway and stays with the viewer long after the film is over.
A cool result of the film is actress Cynda Williams’ performance of “Harlem Blues” hitting the top ten on the R&B charts in 1990, after which she flirted with the idea of a singing career.
15. Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Ethel Waters, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk
God-fearing, long-suffering Petunia (played by the legendary Ethel Waters) is too good for her husband, the trifling Little Joe. Waters, with her bright, intelligent eyes, draws the viewer into her world almost immediately and is as believable outsmarting a couple of neighborhood hustlers as she is earnestly praying for Little Joe’s recovery from a gunshot and that he mend his ways.
It seems the angels do hover near Petunia because one shows up as Joe is about to kick the bucket, and intercedes on her husband’s behalf. In an unforgettable close-up, Petunia begs, “Lord, please don’t take Little Joe from me. I know how sinful he’s been lately, but I love him! And please forgive me for lovin’ him so much… If he goes now, the devil’s gonna get him for sure!” With that, Little Joe is soon on the mend, having gotten a second chance at turning his so far feckless life around.
Little Joe makes a half-hearted effort to mend his waywardness but ultimately can’t resist the debauched lifestyle. When they finally break up and Petunia bumps into Little Joe and his new chick Georgia Brown (played by Lena Horne) at da club, it is particularly satisfying to see the expert level shade she gives them both with nary a furrow of her brow or breaking a bead of sweat. Petunia has seemingly escaped the struggle of the love trap and is a better woman for it as she jubilantly sings, “If there’s honey in the honeycomb then baby there’s love in me!”
Cabin In The Sky also turns out to be a sweet Black romance that plants the Black actresses squarely at its center! Also noteworthy are appearances from Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong, and the inimitable Duke Ellington and his band in one of the most pivotal sequences in this classic film!
16. Hi De Ho (1947)
Cab Calloway, Ida James, Jeni Le Gon
Big band vocalist and all around badass musician Cab Calloway shows off some fancy jitterbug footwork along with an impressive baritone in service of the heavy and skillful use of call and response in this 1947 comedy drama. The plot, as much as there is one, swirls around a shady set of “freaks” who mainly come out at night, and a jealous ex out to make Cab’s character’s life as difficult and painful as possible. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously though and you’ll mostly be laughing and oohing and aahing at the dancing! Sure the acting and production value leaves a lot to be desired, and you have to forgive the fact that it seems like there was a brown paper bag test for the actresses, but Calloway’s charisma and all the fantastic old time big band swing will have you tapping your feet and bopping your head. At the end, you too will be a cool ski bi di bop hep cat!
17. Sparkle (1976)
Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, Dwan Smith, Mary Alice, Philip Michael Thomas
Sometimes a younger sibling isn’t guided toward success by the deliberate mentorship of an older brother or sister. Sometimes, it is precisely because they witnessed first-hand the mistakes and character flaws that led to failure in an older sibling that they manage to steer clear of them. That could very well be one of the themes of the big screen soapy drama, Sparkle (the remake, starring Whitney Houston came out in 2012). In it, a trio of attractive teen and twenty-something sisters in nineteen fifties Harlem pursue dreams of becoming singing stars. Outside pressures and their own personal demons intrude and threaten to destroy them all. The exemplary Mary Alice plays their mother and Philip Michael Thomas is scrumptious eye candy as Sparkle’s (Cara) brave and good-hearted boyfriend. The two of them are positively adorable.
Irene Cara’s beautiful face and phenomenal voice offset not great but believable acting in her role as a wannabe singer who loves her family and is falling in love for the first time. The dialogue isn’t great either but the soundtrack, by legendary musician Curtis Mayfield, is fire!! And you have to give Lonette McKee’s character, Sister, credit for being a woman who tries her best to share useful life advice with her younger sisters. This is another film where nostalgia is a driving factor in how much you’ll enjoy it but is a nice way to spend a couple of hours on a lazy day.
18. Fame (1980)
Irene Cara, Gene Anthony Ray, Debbie Allen
Irene Cara is front and center here as well as attending the prestigious High School of the Performing Arts (now known as Fiorello LaGuardia High School). As Coco Ramirez, an aspiring dancer, singer, and actress Cara does a good job of creating a character equal parts ambitious, naive, and vulnerable. Where she shines most though are in her singing performances, especially “I Sing The Body Electric”, the fun and fanciful “Hot Lunch”, the soul-stirring “Out Here On My Own”, and the title jam “Fame”, which hit number four on Billboard Hot 100 in August of 1980 and won an Oscar for Best Original Song that year.
Also notable is the cornrow and short shorts wearing Gene Anthony Ray as bad boy Leroy Johnson, whose sultry dancing brought the heat, and Debbie Allen in a small part as one of the faculty members. It is hard to find great dance films and Fame being as much a dance as well as a music film, is pretty darn great. It’s an ensemble vehicle that was able to entertain and give depth to its numerous characters. There isn’t one or two, but a slew of memorable, iconic scenes. The most prominent of which is the leg warmer, sweat pants, and leotard wearing students being so overcome with such passion for performing that they spill out onto the streets, pirouetting and arabesquing atop yellow taxis in Times Square.
Fame also tackled issues like abortion, coming out, diversity, and class issues intelligently without being preachy at a time when it was still risky to do so. It remains one of the best performing arts films of all time.
19. Bessie (2015)
Queen Latifah, Tika Sumpter, Michael K. Williams, Mike Epps, Khandi Alexander
Queen Latifah rules the screen in this HBO film about the life of the legendary rhythm and blues singer who lived an unconventional, unapologetic life. Directed By Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah), the film is a visual stunner even as it ends up being much broader than it is deep. Bessie is seen having three relationships; two with men and one with a woman but we don’t get to understand any of them with any type of complexity. There is also her friendship with Ma Rainey, her predecessor in the blues singing space and another formidable LGBTQ woman. Her battles with racism in the music industry and in life, sexual violence, racial violence, colorism, and the normal everyday struggles of trying to keep a career together are also touched upon.
Being a period piece, the costumes and set design alone are arresting for the viewer. Like many other biopics, it doesn’t go very deep but part of the fun is the music and the knowledge gleaned about struggles being overcome in order to be a legend that serves to inspire, regardless of how well the story comes out overall. Latifah under Rees’ direction imbues Smith with a sensitivity and sharpness that would more than likely be lost if left in less capable hands.
20. Quincy (2018)
Quincy Jones, Rashida Jones
Prolific and skilled music producer Quincy Jones has been part of some of the most historic musical projects in history. He gave Michael Jackson his first hit solo album with Off the Wall and went on to collaborate with him on the record-breaking Thriller. In the music business since he was a teenager in Seattle, he has worked with ALL of the greats including Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, etc. He has literally worked with anyone who was anyone since the 1940s and is unparalleled.
The documentary Quincy is really a love letter from his daughter Rashida, a filmmaker and actress in her own right, who produced and directed it. Perhaps that is why it has the intimate feel of looking through an old family photo album. It traces his evolution from teen musician to jazz composer, and finally his triumph as a pop music producer and composer of the soundtrack for television and film. It also explores his struggles to be taken seriously as a classical composer by the white establishment and the lifelong traumatic impact of losing his mother to mental illness as a young boy.
Quincy demonstrates not just Jones’ historical significance in the music industry, but also the traits that kept him there for so long: his incredible drive, work ethic, ambition, charisma, authenticity, and loyalty.
21. Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016)
Common, Denzel Washington, Cornel West, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath
There’s no question that the annals of jazz history are rife with tales of drug use and the story of John Coltrane is almost no different. Unlike those in his cohort, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, etc., Coltrane eventually came to be most known for his squeaky clean image as a deeply spiritual family man and deeply devoted and innovative musician. Chasing Trane is a standard issue documentary except that Denzel Washington, as John Coltrane, narrates portions of it. The documentary takes the viewer on a triumphant journey from his challenges with drug dependency (like his hero Charlie Parker) and overall mediocrity (including being fired from both Dizzy Gillespie’s and then Miles Davis’ bands due to his drug use) to his becoming a true family man and an artist of the highest order. Chasing Trane is truly a story of the triumph of will. Coltrane became a symbol of inspiration for his peers, and fans alike both personally and artistically. It’s a marvel how many of the commenters such as Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, and Cornel West, shake their heads in pure awe when discussing him.
There are interviews with his stepdaughters from both his first and second marriages as well as with his son with Alice Coltrane, his second wife and the true love of his life.
22. The Bodyguard (1992)
Whitney Houston, Bill Cobbs
It was the two lyrics heard round the world: “And I…” Houston’s soaring, near stratospheric declaration of love, at the center of the film The Bodyguard, eventually became one of the biggest hits in history. The song stayed on the charts for much of 1992 and into 1993 in the UK, America, Sweden, Japan, and pretty much everywhere else.
What her acting in The Bodyguard, a film about a music and acting superstar who enlists the protection of a former secret service agent when her life is endangered by a stalker, lacked, Houston more than made up for in her singing. In addition to “I Will Always Love You,” there were four other hits from the soundtrack of The Bodyguard: “Queen of the Night”, “I Have Nothing”, “Run To You”, and “I’m Every Woman.” It became the best-selling soundtrack album of all time.
Though it was her first foray into acting, Houston gave a solid performance playing a character she was very close to in real life–a larger than life superstar. Though mainly a thriller, the movie also delivered idyllic, though bittersweet, larger than life romance between the two lead characters. A perfect romantic thriller.
The Bodyguard is also historic in that Houston played a role rare for Black actresses, the glamorous, unequivocal romantic lead in a mainstream blockbuster film. In addition to impressive hits on the music charts, the film was super successful in its own right, grossing over $400 million dollars worldwide.
23. Homecoming (2019)
Beyoncé brings unapologetically Black American collegiate culture to Coachella in this intimate concert film! More than just entertainment, more than just documenting the first African descended women to ever headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Beyoncé went, saw, and owned Coachella when she appeared in the annual fest’s 2018 inception! The world-renowned singer didn’t go to Coachella as just a guest, conforming herself to its norms, but wholeheartedly brought a slice of Black culture that many non-Black Americans were until then, unfamiliar with, and a feeling of familiarity, representation, and pride for those who did. The overarching theme of her concerts (she performed the first two weekends of the three-weekend long festival) was Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As one of her dancers commented in Homecoming, “To have things that Black families value up on a stage for the world to see and understand a bit more, it’s just all a blessing!” That is, Black college fraternal culture replete with stepping and drumlines punctuated by a broad assortment of dances from the African diaspora.
Homecoming has black and white footage of rehearsals in addition to footage from the actual performances. The film also showcased Beyoncé as a wife, mother, manager, friend, and sister. There are peaks of Beyoncé wholly apart from all of those personas, as a woman grappling with her own challenges in the wake of birthing the twins, Rumi and Sir Carter.
Still, if there’s anything Beyoncé is great at it’s putting on an entertaining show that wows and pleases her audience. The performances include great songs, world-class choreography, glamorous costumes (that she admits she played a primary part in choosing) and incredible on-stage chemistry with her veritable cornucopia of dancers as well as her sister Solange, husband Jay Z, and her former Destiny’s Child bandmates Michelle Wiliams and Kelly Rowland.
Who do you think should write, star, and direct?