Top 14 new movies about music
Top 14 new movies about music

Audiovisual: 14 Must-see New Movies About Music Coming In 2014

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Decades of music videos, documentaries and theatrical biopics have schooled us in the fact that sometimes film can be the best means of understanding music. The ties between the cinema and the concert hall have always been strong, but 2014 is on track to take things to another level. Music-lovers have a delicious menu of new movies to sample in the upcoming year, and there's something for everyone to enjoy. Godfather of soul James Brown is getting a big Hollywood studio story, Jimi Hendrix's early days will be stylishly retold, reclusive pioneer of Nigerian dance music William Onyeabor has been tracked down, and the sound of Miami soul gets its day in the sun. It's going to be a profound and exceptionally dope year, and without further ado Okayplayer proudly brings you our 14 most-anticipated, fast-approaching movies about music. Let's start the show.

1.Get on Up

It’s crazy to think that 2014 will mark eight years since James Brown left us for the great funk gig in the sky, but Get On Up will at least give us the chance to relive some of The Godfather’s skyscraping stage presence and give younger fans a good look at Brown’s rise to fame. The biopic charts Brown's rise out of poverty in rural Georgia and onto the world’s greatest stages and was produced by Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger. Chadwick Boseman stars in the role of Brown with a supporting cast that includes Jill Scott, Aloe Blacc, Craig Robinson and The Roots crew’s own Black Thought. Judging from the trailer’s emphasis on JB’s legendary live show it’s a good bet this will be the grooviest motion picture of the year. The funk drops on August 1st.

2.Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton

It’s a cold fact: hip-hop wouldn’t be what it is today without Stones Throw Records. Born out of legendary DJ Peanut Butter Wolf’s basement in 1996, the label’s roster reads like a hit parade of Okayplayer artists: J Dilla, Madlib, Aloe Blacc, J Rocc, MF Doom, andDam-Funk are just some of the many who have released material with ST. In the wise words of Questlove, Stones Throw has never stopped in its push to “cultivate an underground.” Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is a must-see for hip-hop heads of all stripes. The doc includes a crew of artists the likes of Kanye, Tyler the Creator, Talib Kweli, Common, Mike D and Flying Lotus dropping perspective on the work Stones Throw has put in to bring true notes to the masses. Check the nation-wide screening schedule here.

3.All Is By My Side

Die-hard Jimi Hendrix fans have heard this train a comin’ for a while now. All Is By My Side chronicles the experience of the greatest guitarist of all time as he grew from a struggling R&B sideman into a stone free sensation and stars Andre 3000 as Jimi. From the looks of things in the clip above he’s nailed the psychedelic god's easy style and hazy gaze. Still, the production has netted its fair share of shade. Hendrix's ex-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham has spoken out against the script and Jimi's estate dealt the operation a harsh blow by refusing to license any of the artist's actual music for use in the film. Still, guitar-lovers should be pleased to hear that Mr. Benjamin practiced his six-string for hours on end to prep for the part and cinephiles will recognize writer and director John Ridley from his work on 12 Years a Slave. The film just hit the rounds at SXSW and should be seeing a wider release in the near future--haters and critics be damned!

4.Untitled James Brown Documentary

Moviegoers are getting a doubleshot of the Godfather of Soul this year, but when it comes to funk too much ain’t enough. News just broke of the addition of Alex Gibney’s (see also: Finding Fela) still-untitled James Brown documentary to the Tribeca Film Festival lineup. The film is still filed under work-in-progress status but will focus on Brown’s early life and career from 1933 to 1974--a time that saw some his very best material released including Ain’t It Funky, There It Is, and The Payback. Stay tuned for future details on the doc as they drop.

5.Time is Illmatic

Finally after 20 years the story behind Nas’s masterful debut record Illmatic is going to be told in full. Rumblings of a documentary devoted to the LP's 20th anniversary have made the rounds for months and now it's been confirmed that Time is Illmatic is a done deal. The One9-directed doc will open the Tribeca Film Festival (with Nas giving a full performance of the album afterward) and give us all a deep look at both the making of Illmatic and the fiery beginnings of Nas’s career. From the past influence of his musician father Olu Dara to the LPs ongoing legendary place in the library of hip-hop, Time is Illmatic will take us inside both the recording booth and Nas’s own head. It ain’t hard to tell we’re hyped for it.

6.Finding Fela

Finding Fela is a mesmerizing look at Africa's first rock star; Fela's life and legacy and importance is delineated in never-before-seen-footage as well through the eyes of the artists (led by the brilliant Bill T. Jones) wrestling with his story as they create the Broadway musical FELA! The film pays special attention to the social commentary of Kuti’s music and the impact he had on life not only in Nigeria but across the entire African continent. Questlove and Paul McCartney-- along with Kuti’s children Femi, Yeni, and Seun--all make prominent appearances and speak to the incredible power of the music. Director Alex Gibney does a masterful job of capturing the essence of a story that spans continents and generations. The result is the definitive film on this musical giant--and a banging soundtrack of FK grooves makes this essential viewing. Full disclosure: OkayplayerOkayafrica, and Knitting Factory Entertainment were all behind the production of this one!

7.Fantastic Man

The music and myth of William Oneyeabor continues to spread, much to the delight (and mild confusion) of DJs and dancers everywhere. The Nigerian-born Onyeabor released eight albums of futuristic funk between 1977 and 1985 and then quickly disappeared into a fog of rumors and hearsay. Fantastic Man focuses on record label Luaka Bop’s attempt to recover Onyeabor’s catalog and bring it to the masses, and takes us on a trip through dusty Nigerian record sheds in search of the man behind the music. The doc is a perfect counterpoint to Finding Fela and gives us a look beyond afrobeat into Nigeria’s incredibly diverse sonic past. Femi Kuti, Damon Albarn, and Dan Smith (aka Caribou) sing Onyeabor’s praises even as they bemoan his reclusive nature. “It’s hard to get into this man’s mind,” music historian Ed Keazor tells us, “and that’s probably part of his genius.”

8.Hustlers Convention

Thanks to the recent work of Kanye, Common and Jamie XX we’ve all had a proper review lesson in Gil Scott-Heron and his status as forefather of hip-hop. But there’s another black poet out of Harlem that’s just as much the architect of modern MCing and his name is Jalal Mansur Nuriddin—AKA Lightnin' Rod. Nurriddin's 1973 album Hustlers Convention was a key moment in musical black poetry and charted the territory that rappers would later travel in a pretty straight line; the combination of Lightning Rod's hustler's toasts backed by a funk soundtrack courtesy of Kool & The Gang pretty much drew the blueprint for the first rap records. As a foundational member of the Last Poets, who were active as early 1967, it's even arguable that Jalal directly influenced Gil himself. The Hustlers Convention documentary is filmmaker Mike Todd's project to give the record its proper due. Chuck D is reigning as the film's executive producer and interviews with KRS-One, Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Lightnin' Rod himself round out the doc.  Footage from the first ever live performance of the album (which took place earlier this year at London’s Jazz Café) is also slated for inclusion. Production is due to wrap in the summer and Todd told us that hopes are high for a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The break is so loud it hushes the crowd!

9.Kill the Trumpet Player

Don Cheadle is ready to run the voodoo down. The Crash and Hotel Rwanda star has reportedly been practicing trumpet for the past three years in preparation for his upcoming role as jazz demigod Miles Davis in Kill the Trumpet Player. But don’t call it a biopic, at least not around Cheadle. He recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the flick “won’t try to give a broad overview of Davis’s life and give short shrift to this man’s story,” but instead focuses on the chaotic years following the horn man’s 1975 Newport Jazz Fest performance in which he nearly left music forever. Ewan McGregor and Zoe Saldana co-star, and Cheadle himself will be making his directorial debut. With the word that Miles’s frequent bandmate Herbie Hancock is also attached to the project, it’s safe to say this one’s gonna swing.

10.N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton

Battering rams. The PMRC. Dope-dealing. AIDS. Reagan, the FBI and hip-hop: it’s all here. Director F. Gary Gray (you may know him from classic flicks like Friday and Be Cool) is at the helm of N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton, a biopic that will tell the tale of rap’s most dangerous group and LA’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Casting for the roles of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and yes, Arabian Prince, is already underway, and apparently Ice really wants his son to play him. The MC-turned-actor also confirmed that no actual members of N.W.A. will appear onscreen, not even in cameo roles. Still, with Gray’s filmmaking pedigree, Cube’s blessing and rumblings that Dre’s Crucial Films production company is attached, it sounds like N.W.A. story is in the right hands.

11.Take Me to the River

Any film project that involved Hubert Sumlin, Snoop-Dogg, Booker T, Mavis Staples, Terrence Howard, Robert Plant and a roster of legend session players would be essential viewing. Take Me To The River, a deep and historically-focused look into the legacy of Memphis labels Stax and Hi Records, takes things even further. Directed by Martin Shore, the film borrows much from the format of last year's fantastic Muscle Shoals and puts timeless music in a timely context. Shore doesn't shy away from the racial unrest that defined Tennessee in the '60s and '70s, and gives us a look at a new young cast of rappers, singers and players who are aspiring to keep Memphis forever on the map. Snoop proves to be the pivotal guru of the entire film, sharing knowledge of Memphis past and present between recording takes. The world premiere at SXSW was a hard-grooving night, and a wider release will be "representing Memphis" nationwide real soon.

12.The 78 Project

For the last three years writer Lavinia Jones Wright and director/producer Alex Steyermark have been crisscrossing the North American continent making something special. Taking a page out of music historian Alan Lomax’s book, the two have used a 78 RPM acetate disc recorder to track one-take performances in the homes, churches, barns and fields of America. 78 recordings date back to the 1930s and have preserved timeless performances from the likes of Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. “The equipment itself was sort of the focal point around which these performances would emerge,” Steyermark told Billboard. After releasing multiple webisodes and a limited-edition vinyl of the beautiful, dusty recordings, The 78 Project film is finally a reality. The doc debuted at SXSW to mass acclaim and a wide theatrical release is on its way.

13.The Case of the Three Sided Dream

There might not be another jazz musician so instantly recognizable as Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Blind since infancy, Kirk plunged himself into the search for new sound and usually took the stage with three or more saxophones at a time, harmonizing with himself in ways that jazz had never known. Kirk’s incendiary style as both a horn player and an activist determined to elevate the cultural status of jazz (which he referred to as “Black Classical Music”) is getting its day in the cinematic sun thanks to the work of director/producer Adam Kahan. The film takes its title from Kirk’s seminal double-LP The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and features original animations, super-8 home movie material and network footage from Kirk’s 1971 Ed Sullivan Show performance with fellow jazz legends Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes and Archie Shepp. NYC-dwellers can catch the doc at the IFC Center during the Blue Note Jazz Festival and we’ll keep you posted on the details of a wider release.

14.Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound

The syncopated soul of the '60s wasn’t simply a Stax and Motown affair. In cities all across the country producers, singers and sidemen were making top-notch R&B despite Detroit and Memphis’s domination of the charts. With its blend of gospel church, Caribbean and horn-heavy marching band stylistics, the Miami sound of Deep City Records is the perfect example of criminally underappreciated soul. The label that brought us Betty Wright’s "Clean Up Woman"also turned out cut after cut of dynamite soul from under the stormy South Florida skies before money trouble shuttered its doors. The first black-owned label in the state’s history, Deep City was founded by friends Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall and developed a sound that fit perfectly between the southern swamps and shining sea. A certified-fire reissue collection, Eccentric Soul, brought some overdue attention to Deep City, and now the Dennis Scholl, Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle-directed documentary will deliver more of its due. Keep an eye out for a mass release later this year.

Top 14 new movies about music

Honorable Mention #1 Keep On Keepin’ On

More than any other modern genre, heritage and the musical bond between teacher and student is fundamental to the existence of jazz. With that in mind, first-time director Alan Hicks followed 93-year-old trumpet legend Clark Terry in his work to teach what could be his final student. Terry has played with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Baise and mentored both Miles Davis and Quincy Jones in his day, and Keep On Keepin’ On shows him giving lessons and sharing wisdom with blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin. The film is a perfect snapshot of two musicians who have committed everything they have to jazz--one at the bright dawn of his career and the other in his dimming twilight. It premieres at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but copyright issues just got the doc's trailer taken offline and wider theatrical plans seem murky at best. Here's hoping Terry and Kauflin's tale gets told in full soon.

Honorable Mention #2 Sexual Healing

If you're wondering what's going on with Julien Temple's Marvin Gaye biopic Sexual Healing, you're not alone. Shooting was reportedly suspended last June and the hoped-for April 1st release date (the 30th anniversary of Gaye's tragic death) has come and gone. Still, the story of a musician as complicated and crucial as Gaye demands being told, and this early footage of Jesse L. Martin in the leading role is enough to keep us hopeful. Sexual Healing's script focuses on the making of Midnight Love, the last and most comercially successful album of Marvin Gaye's career. The man's life story is a legendary one of self-discovery, persistence, triumph, drug abuse, recovery, self-doubt and disaster all set to the pounding beat of R&B's finest material. S. Epatha Merkerson and Dwight Henry co-star as Marvin's parents, but word that the film stalled at only 70% completion makes us wanna, ahem, holler. Here's hoping the production gets back on track and we get the chance to see a completed version soon. Would next April be too much to ask?