The Best Rock Movie From Every Year: 1955-2021
From the birth of the rock era, movie studios wanted capture the music's energy and appeal on the big screen. To choose the best of the bunch, as you'll see in the below gallery, we picked one rock movie from every year from 1955 until the present day.
The first batch of rock films fell into a few categories. They were either depictions of teenage culture and juvenile delinquency with the music used to underscore the societal ills (often telling of the rise of a young man with a checkered past who overcomes all obstacles to become a singing sensation) or they featured scenes in a nightclub with a few rock 'n' roll stars performing their latest hits.
Elvis Presley's bid to conquer Hollywood allowed rock movies to function more like traditional musicals. While the bulk of his 31 films are mostly used as punchlines these days (Tickle Me, Harum Scarum and Clambake to name three particularly awful examples), his earliest efforts were serious attempts to make him a real actor. He even received praise from his colleagues for his preparation and willingness to learn the craft.
The Beatles' screen debut, A Hard Day's Night, arrived only a few months after their introduction to U.S. audiences, and with it came something new to rock movies: critical raves for a script that allowed the four members to be their natural selves and director Richard Lester's French New Wave-influenced direction, which captured the rush of Beatlemania in all its glory.
Over the next five decades, the definition of the rock movie has broadened to include documentaries, filmed concerts given a theatrical release, biopics, adaptations of major albums and movies where the soundtrack perfectly complements the action on the screen -- like in the works of directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Crowe. And in some cases, an effective soundtrack helped bring entire sub-genres of music to wider audiences, like The Harder They Come (reggae), Saturday Night Fever (disco) and John Hughes' mid-'80s teenage movies (college rock).
This also led to debate among our staff as to what counted as "the best" rock movie in a given year. For example, does, say, an average-but-popular movie with a hits-filled soundtrack prevail over a well-made story of a fictional band or a documentary? We admit our choices were more inspired by gut feelings than any steadfast approach. So we've also handed out honorable mentions to some of the other major rock movies of particular years. And for those years where we felt the second-place choice was as equally culturally significant as the winner, we've included separate entries for those at the end.
You can check them all out below.