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You know by now that February is Black History Month, a time that can be spent learning more about the lives of Black individuals who have made important contributions to our culture, including (for our purposes here) Black musicians.
Below, a list of films that tell the stories of six celebrated musicians in narrative and documentary formats, including movies about legends who have passed on, like James Brown, and musicians like Travis Scott, who are making music history as we speak. They make for good watching, no matter what month it is.
Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl?: The Life and Music of Robert Johnson
Watch It On: YouTube and Amazon Prime
Blues legend Robert Johnson was just 27 when he died in 1938 of still-unknown causes. (Theories include murder by poisoning, syphilis, and aortic dissection.) In the years since, his reputation as a master musician and an influence on generations of performers has only grown. Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? tries to teach viewers about the enigmatic Johnson through a variety of techniques: narration by Danny Glover; dramatic re-enactments (with blues guitarist Keb’ Mo’ portraying Johnson); period photos and videos of Black life in the South; soundbites about his music and legacy by the likes of Robert Cray, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards; and recollections of the man by artists who knew him and performed with him, like Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards. The film ends with the viewer wanting more — not because the film doesn’t do a good job with its subject matter, but because Robert Johnson is a fascinating subject whose story ended far too soon.
Get On Up
Rent It On: Google Play, iTunes, and Amazon Video
Chadwick Boseman’s short but celebrated career included portrayals of several historic figures, such as Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson, but we’re talking about music here, and his role as James Brown in Get On Up is a professional high point. Boseman plays the Godfather of Soul in all his charm, intensity, arrogance, and appetites, and he does all of his own dancing, though only some of the singing. It’s a film that gives the audience both the joy of a quality film and the sense of regret that we won’t get to see more of its star. (And if you want more of Boseman in a musical role, don’t miss him in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. It’s his final performance, and it’s a great one.)
Watch It On: Netflix
The only film on the list directed by its subject, Homecoming is primarily a concert film, showing Beyonce Knowles’ two shows at the Coachella music festival in 2018. Along the way, we get a glimpse of practices, as well as snippets of Knowles’ family life with husband Jay-Z and three kids. It’s hard to pick a favorite between the concert footage and the rest of it; the rehearsals and the personal insights show a vulnerable, relatable side of a woman who usually seems larger than life, but damn, her performances at the festival are incredible, making a number of film critics call Homecoming one of the best concert films of all time.
Watch It On: HBO Max
It takes a ridiculously good performance to make you forget that you’re watching a feature film and not a documentary, which is why Jamie Foxx took home a well-deserved Academy Award in 2005 for playing Ray Charles in this Taylor Hackford film. Ray doesn’t pull any punches on its subject — Charles’ problems with women and drugs are on full display — but the crux of the film is that Charles overcame those things (along with midcentury systemic racism and nearly lifelong blindness) to become one of the great figures in American music. The musical scenes, featuring Charles classics like “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind” are nothing short of mesmerizing.
Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly
Watch It On: Netflix
It’s appropriate that this documentary opens with its subject on a roller-coaster. Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly is a frenetic trip through the life of the rapper. Most of the film is composed of footage shot in 2017 through 2019, in the run-up to and aftermath of the release of Astroworld, Scott’s triple-platinum, award-nominated third album. Moments in the recording studio, concert footage, hanging with friends, and being a new father to his daughter, Stormi, are interspersed with home movies of Scott as a kid and clips of performances from before he got famous. It’s all very entertaining, and we certainly get a sense of how far he’s come, even if we still don’t know him very well by the end of the film. But like a roller-coaster, the movie is a hell of a ride.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Watch It On: Rent It On: Google Play, iTunes, and Amazon Video
All biopics take some liberties with their subjects; What’s Love Got to Do With It? perhaps takes more than most, but it’s still a gripping portrayal of one of the most beloved female figures in popular music, Tina Turner. Angela Bassett puts all of her considerable talent, energy, and power into her portrayal of the singer, and Lawrence Fishburne’s Ike Turner is chilling and iconic. For a more comprehensive and accurate rendition of Turner’s life story, check out her autobiography, I, Tina, (co-written with Kurt Loder, of all people), but What’s Love Got to Do With It? does just what it’s meant to: give us a sense of all that Turner has accomplished, and what she had to endure to become the legend she is today.
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