25 Music Movies & Series to Watch on HBO Max
WarnerMedia's new streaming service HBO Max launched this year and it comes with a massive library of stuff. It's launch was a bit rocky, but the service is now available pretty much everywhere including, finally, Roku and Amazon Fire.
Though the name makes it sound like a new version of HBO GO or HBO Now (and it is), it's much more than that. In addition to Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos and the rest of HBO's stable of shows, it also has the full Studio Ghibli collection, pulls from The Criterion Collection, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, DC Universe, Looney Toons, and more. There's also a bunch of non-HBO sitcoms and TV series (Friends, The OC, Alan Partridge), lots of classic Godzilla movies...it goes on. And as you may have heard, HBO Go will premiere all of Warner Brothers' 2021 movie slate -- including Dune and the new Matrix -- on the same day they hit theaters.
There is also a lot of music-related programming, from classic documentaries, musicals, and television series, and with new titles still being added. We went through HBO Max's deep library and picked out 25+ movies and shows you can watch now, including movies featuring The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Bee Gees, Bowie, Ramones, and Nirvana, to a couple of funny folk duos, one cute Muppet, and much more.
Getting HBO Max onto your television is another story While it's still not available on Roku, the service was just added to Amazon Fire TV. Subscriptions are also a bit confusing -- you may already have one if you are a cable subscriber or an ATT mobile customer. Head here for help in that department.
But once you're in, there really is a lot to watch. Our musical picks are below.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
One of the most successful hitmakers of the last 50 years, the Bee-Gees are usually just thought of for their late-'70s run of disco classics but this very entertaining documentary does a lot to shed light onto Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb's entire career. Director Frank Marshall charts the brothers' rise from their teenage start in Australia to their move to England to be part of the '60s British beat group invasion, to their funky falsetto reinvention in '70s that made them one of the biggest groups in the world. While the film puts the blame for their eventual fall from the charts on the 1979 Disco Sucks movement -- ignoring the stinkbomb that was the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie they made with Peter Frampton in 1978 -- and mostly sidesteps drugs, it does much better at capturing the group's magic in the studio, like how Saturday Night Fever hit "Stayin' Alive" was created with a looped drumbeat from "Night Fever." The film also smartly widens the lens to interview their backing band, studio engineers and a few famous fans including Justin Timberlake and a couple of guys who know something about working with family -- Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart could've used another half hour -- Maurice and Robin's death's are a bit yada yada'd in a rush to the end credits -- and a little more grit, but you'll never think of them as just a disco band again after watching.
One of the greatest documentaries ever made, music or otherwise. Albert and David Maysles were hired to film The Rolling Stones' 1969 U.S. tour including a free concert in Altamont, CA with Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and more. Through the Altamont show's poor planning and other factors, however, tension builds throughout the day between fans, the bands and the Hell's Angels who were hired as security, before things erupt into violence. Many people consider this the death of '60s idealism caught on film.
Don't Look Back
Before Monterey Pop, Pennebaker was behind the lens for this thoroughly entertaining documentary on Bob Dylan. Don't Look Back is as iconic as it gets, with a level of access to the artist (in 1965) that we'd never see again, as Dylan travels across England in 1965, wowing audiences and playing the press for his own means. In addition to the up-close-and-personal look at a famously cagey Dylan, Don't Look Back is also massively influential from a filmmaking perspective -- the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence, that opens the film, alone is a touchstone for music videos to come.
Spike Lee directed this filmed version of David Byrne's hit Broadway show which was adapted from his 2018 American Utopia tour, featuring 16 "untethered" musicians bringing to life songs from throughout his career, including many Talking Heads classics. Byrne said it was his most ambitious stage show since Stop Making Sense and the result on screen is one of the most glorious, vibrant concert films in quite some time. Read our full review here.
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars
Bruce Springsteen's 2019 album Western Stars had his style of Americana backed by sweeping strings, and this concert film has him performing those songs backed by a full orchestra -- in a barn in New Jersey.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years
When David Bowie died just a few days after his 69th birthday, it was a shock to the world. He'd been so prolific, having recently created musical Lazarus and just released great new album Blackstar. What we didn't know was he'd been suffering from liver cancer and was well-aware of his own mortality. Francis Whately's 2017 documentary chronicles his 2010s creative rebirth (The Next Day, Lazarus, Blackstar), traveling back to his final tour, the secret recording sessions for The Next Day, and through the making of Lazarus and Blackstar, with interviews from collaborators Tony Visconti, Reeves Gabrels and more.
Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club, the 1997 self-titled debut from the ensemble of Cuban musicians assembled by Juan de Marcos González and Ry Cooder, became a worldwide sensation in 1998 and Wim Wenders' Oscar-nominated 1999 documentary gives us a closer look at the amazing musicians and personalities involved, and the country that made them. Framed around the rapturously received shows in Amsterdam and and at NYC's Carnegie Hall in 1998, the film follows musician and producer Ry Cooder around Havana as we meet the musicians. The music is fantastic, of course, but so are the personalities we meet, like BVSC's breakout singer Ibrahim Ferrer, 90-year-old singer/guitarist Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo ("the Cuban Edith Piaf"). Wenders captures a real sense of place as much as he does the amazing music it produced.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
Having had a long, varied and acclaimed career in music, Linda Ronstadt narrates her own story in this enjoyable 2019 documentary from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet). As you might expect from a documentary where its subject is actively involved, The Sound of My Voice keeps things surface level and mostly controversy-free, but it's very watchable, featuring lots of rare footage, including from the days when her backing band included a pre-Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey, plus interviews with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and more.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about Kurt Cobain and heard every last piece of music he ever recorded, along came 2015's Montage of Heck. Over 20 years after his death, the film used Cobain's personal journals, drawings, and previously unheard recordings to reveal details about his life that were previously unknown to the general public. The film uses animation to help the stories, really making you feel like you're right there with Kurt as he's growing up in Aberdeen. It's worth watching and rewatching, and there plenty of treasures to be found on the soundtrack too. [Andrew Sacher]
Flight of the Conchords
Flight of the Conchords, aka Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement aka "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo" were already a hit on the comedy circuit when HBO approached them to turn their act into a series. Working with News Radio's Paul Simms, Clement and McKenzie created a wonderfully absurdist musical series built around setlist faves like "Leggy Blonde," "Business Time" and "Bowie's in Space." The show is also a real time capsule of mid-'00s NYC, from it's many Williamsburg and LES locations, to the many indie comedy mainstays who show up as featured performers (Eugene Mirman, Aziz Ansari, Kristen Schaal, and more). Rhys Darby often steals things as the band's unflappable, clueless manager, Murray.
Tenacious D & School of Rock
Before HBO had Flight of the Conchords, they had Tenacious D. Jack Black and Kyle Gass are well-known now, with the D playing big theaters, but in the late-'90s they were part of LA's alt-comedy scene that surrounded Mr. Show (on which Black was a regular performer). With help from David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, Tenacious D became its own show, briefly, in 1999. Like the Conchords, Black and Gass' songs ("History," "Kyle Quit the Band") became the basis for the 15-minute episodes of the show. Also like the Conchords, Tenacious D plays to empty rooms, but unlike them, Tenacious D have the bravado of stadium rockers. Hidden away on Friday late night, Tenacious D became a cult hit with college kids, stoners and Mr. Show fans, but only lasted six episodes. But those six are great! Look out for John C Reilly as Sasquatch. Black would become an even bigger start a couple years later with a music-themed film tailor-made for his energy -- School of Rock -- which is also on HBO Max. Alas, Tenacious D's feature film, Pick of Destiny is not.
If you need more comedy folk duos: HBO Max also has the "edgy escapades" of Garfunkel & Oates.
Not Too Late Show With Elmo
One of HBO Max's signature shows at launch, everyone's favorite three-and-a-half year-old furry red monster hosts his own talk show, that he hosts right after dinner and right before bed. Cookie Monster's his sidekick, Bert & Ernie work in the control booth, Oscar the Grouch has his own segment called "Trash Talk," and Mama Bear leads the house band. Elmo's landed some pretty big musical guests in his first three episodes too: Kacey Musgraves (who sings "Rubber Duckie"), The Jonas Brothers (who sing a song about brushing your teeth), and Lil Nas X who helps Elmo sing "Elmo's Song." Like Elmo himself, the Not Too Late Show is very cute and pretty funny too, especially if you like puns.
Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small described Dethklok, the massive, totally fictional death metal band at the center of this Adult Swim animated series, as "like the Beatles, just a thousand times more dangerous and a billion times more stupid." Dethklok are are so popular and so rich (they are the 7th biggest economy on earth), a secret multinational cabal plots to take them out. The series is gloriously, hilariously over-the-top, from the very catchy music -- their hits include "Bloodrocuted" and "Briefcase Full of Guts" -- to the intake of illicit substances, frequent mortal violence (fan deaths are a common occurrence at Dethklok shows) and music biz cliches. Metalocalypse's real genius is the juxtaposition of the most metal things possible (like recording their album at the bottom of the Mariana Trench) with mundane sitcom plot lines like trying to buy someone a birthday present or a case of mistaken identity. Or, in a very prescient plot line, the dangers of drinking bleach.
A Hard Day's Night
The first Beatles movie is still the best, and its influence on film, music video and pop culture cannot be overstated. It's also hilarious, and just a real joy to watch. It holds up to repeated viewings, too. There's not much of a plot but that doesn't matter -- A Hard Day's Night sails on pure charisma and all those great early Beatles songs.
Jamie Foxx deservedly won the 2004 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in this moving music-filled biopic. Charles lost his sight at age 7, not long after seeing his younger brother drown, and the guilt of that followed him through his life. But thanks to his very strong mother), Charles uses his gift as a pianist and singer, discovers his own voice, and finds success across many genres, from gospel, to rock n' roll, country, easy listening and more all while facing racism, drug addiction and more. Foxx gets Charles' mannerisms right, but it's much more than that, a brilliant performance that moves beyond imitation that seems to embody Charles' spirit.
Rock n' Roll High School
"Noise?!? That's the Ramones best album!" Riff Randell is the #1 Ramones fan at Vince Lombardi High School which is saying something as the entire student population goes hysterics with the second the needle drops on "Sheena is a Punk Rocker." Unfortunately the school just got a new principal, the decidedly evil Miss Togar, who is determined to rid the campus of rock n' roll. When Togar confiscates Riff's Ramones tickets and organizes a burning of the kids' records, it ignites a full scale teen rebellion, fueled by Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky. Rock n' Roll High School has a lot of fun with teen comedy tropes -- Jocks Vs Nerds, Snobs Vs Slobs, Kids Vs Adults -- and sets them aflame with an anarchic punks spirit that genuinely comes alive when the Ramones blast from the soundtrack. Fun fact: the Ramones got the part when Todd Rundgren turned it down. "Hello It's Me" does not sound like the soundtrack to teenage rebellion.
The Who's classic rock opera is the basis for this portrait of a disaffected teen (Phil Daniels), who finds refuge in the mod scene of parties, pills and music. Daniels (who you may also know from Blur's "Parklife") is terrific, with great supporting roles from Ray Winstone and, yes, Sting. Also, all the vespas and anoraks still look cool.
Josie & The Pussycats
A bomb when it was released. 2001's Josie & The Pussycats has gone on to become a cult classic. Based very loosely on the '60s Hanna Barbera cartoon about an all-girl band, writer-directing team Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (Can't Hardly Wait) created scathing satire of the time's TRL boy band culture, corporate branding and the music industry. The film is frozen in that era -- the film co-starred Tara Reid who was then dating TRL host Carson Daly (who appears as himself) -- but wonderfully so. It helps a lot that the songs -- which were written by the late Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, that dog's Anna Waronker and others -- were great too.
Lots more Classic Musicals
With the TCM library at their disposal, HBO Max has lots and lots of musical to choose from including: Singin' In the Rain, Black Orpheus, The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris, Little Shop of Horrors, Moulin Rouge, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & The Young Girls of Rochefort, Xanadu, and more.