From time to time, we all need a drop of inspiration and a guitar story to make us dream big. From Hollywood-romanced biographies of famous performers like Johnny Cash, Spinal Tap, Ritchie Valens and even a stylized Django Reinhardt to epic journeys in search of musical success, lost love or a new reason to live – I’ve gathered the greatest guitar movies I’ve ever seen in a very personal top – feel free to add your own!
10. School of Rock (2003)
Ever since I saw him in “High Fidelity”, I thought Jack Black really deserved a feature movie – and it had to be a musical! My wish was granted three years later, when Jack portrayed Dewey Finn, a rock star wannabe sinking into debts.
Desperation pushes him to take up a substitute teacher job at a private school. He ends up teaching the kids’ history… rock history! From there to a Battle of the Bands contest, it’s only a small step.
9. La Bamba (1987)
Richie Valens had a short, but skyrocketing career: he rose from humble origins to the top of the charts, providing rock’n’roll a fresh sound and one of its first evergreens – “La Bamba”, before tragically losing his life in a plane crash at the age of 17.
The movie chronicles Richie’s ascent to fame and his relationship with Donna, his beautiful girlfriend who inspired him to write a ballad in her name.
8. It Might Get Loud (2008)
This was a movie I wanted to see after the very first glimpse of the trailer. Three legends like the Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White only come together once in a lifetime. The movie didn’t let me down even though I had sky-high expectations – and that’s because of great playing (of course) and breathtaking imagery.
My personal highlights: Jack White building a guitar from scratch in his backyard; the Edge playing in his music room in Dublin, overlooking the river; Jimmy Page telling the story of how Led Zeppelin was first overlooked by music reviewers and unveiling behind-the-scenes details of epic recording sessions. I think “It Might Get Loud” is a movie every guitar player should see – that’s why I recommend it to all my students.
7. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen created a fictional character to mirror the legendary Django Reinhardt, the heart and soul of gypsy jazz. The movie presents the story of Emmett Ray, an unknown but brilliant guitar player.
It’s the 1930s and jazz is in full bloom, dreams of fame and fortune swirl in Emmett’s mind, while his life is turning into a complete mess because of his alcohol abuse and irresponsible ways. He is obsessed with Django Reinhardt, whom he actually gets to meet in the film.
6. Walk the Line (2005)
I’ve enjoyed the musician biopics all my life, and after seeing this one I was really surprised by how little I knew about Johnny Cash’s story.
From the tragic death of his brother (an event that marked his childhood and shadowed his adult life) to enrolling in the air force and discovering his songwriting skills out of solitude, it’s all captivating and unexpectedly well presented in this fairly recent Hollywood classic.
Reese Witherspoon is fantastic in the part of June Carter, Cash’s second wife, and life-long muse and companion. Reese and Joaquin Phoenix (who plays Cash) recorded the songs for the soundtrack themselves.
5. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
I tried not to include documentaries and concert movies in this selection, but the impact this film has had on an entire generation of guitarists makes it impossible to overlook.
It chronicles the 1982 comeback tour of Spinal Tap (the loudest band in the world at the time) with its amazing ups and controversial downs. This movie is said to have done for rock and roll what “The Sound of Music” did for hills
4. August Rush (2007)
Finally, a movie that you can watch with your kid if he/she is an aspiring guitarist, without having to worry about “drugs, sex and rock’n’roll”.
This is more like love, inspiration and sweet pop-rock, well mixed in the story of Evan, an orphan boy with an exceptional talent for music. As he discovers his incredible gift (he has perfect pitch, learns to play guitar in one night and writes incredible songs), he sets out to find his parents, both musicians who had given up their careers… and each other.
3. The Guitar (2008)
Controversial, inspiring and, on top of everything, breathtaking. A young woman loses everything in one day: she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness and given only two months to live, she gets fired from her job and dumped by her boyfriend.
Instead of giving up, she gives in: she moves into the loft apartment of her dreams, makes the most of her credit card decorating it and fulfills a life-long wish: learning to play electric guitar.
2. Once (2006)
Two unknown, but passionate musicians meet by chance and fall in love with the sound of their music as they write, rehearse and record soul-shattering songs. She has a child and a husband far away, he still hurts for his lost lover.
Still, in the midst of a creative storm, their hearts start beating at the same tempo, although their lips and life paths never really meet…
1. Crossroads (1986)
Blues, guitars, worn-out strings and old stories, Steve Vai in an epic performance, dusty roads and a pact with the devil – these are the ingredients of a guitar movie you’ll never forget.
Its producers found the perfect recipe and strummed the right strings, so to say, by creating the storyline and choosing the music with no detours. Regarding the legendary duel scene: Steve Vai played both guitar parts while acting as Jack Butler, the devil’s guitarist. Ry Cooder was the one who recorded the slide parts for young actor Ralph Macchio.
Other movies worth seeing for a guitarist (or any musician, for that matter) are “Rock star“, “Almost Famous“, “Across the Universe” and “The Runaways“, based on Joan Jett and The Runaways’ story.
I must remind you this post contains my opinion only and the movie selection is based solely on subjective criteria. What’s your personal top 10 of greatest guitar movies ever?