25 Music Movies & Series to Watch on HBO Max
WarnerMedia's new streaming service HBO Max just launched and it comes with a massive library of stuff. 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.
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, 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 (Roku and Amazon Fire users are currently out of luck) and subscriptions are 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.
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.
Woodstock: The Director's Cut
The rain, the mud, the 400,000 attendees...the brown acid. Woodstock is one of the defining events of the '60s counter-culture and had some pretty good music, too. It famously took a team of seven editors -- including the great Thelma Schoonmaker (who won an Oscar for her work here) and Martin Scorsese -- to turn the 120 miles of footage into the acclaimed concert film featuring Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, the show-stopper closing set from Jimi Hendrix, and more. This is the 1994 Director's Cut which adds an additional 40 minute to the 1970 original release.
Before there was Woodstock there was the Monterey Pop Festival, which was generally less of a disaster and which was home to some of the most iconic performances in rock history. (As the story goes, there was a coin flip to see who would headline, Jimi Hendrix or The Who. Hendrix won. The Who smashed their instruments on stage, doing everything in their power to put on act Hendrix could not follow. No matter: this was the show where Jimi famously burned his guitar.) Alongside those more famous performances, D.A. Pennebaker's film includes some of the best Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin) concert footage available; the infamous Byrds set where David Crosby encouraged politicians to take LSD; excellent footage of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Otis Redding; and the Ravi Shankar performance that largely helped introduce his music to American rock audiences. There's also plenty of footage of John Philips running the show, and great usage of the Philips-penned, Scott McKenzie-sung "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," which was written to promote the festival and has since been immortalized as the summer of love's theme song thanks to this film. [Andrew Sacher]
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 perspecticve -- the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence, that opens the film, alone is a touchstone for music videos to come.
Wattstax was a 1972 benefit concert putt on by Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. The show, which happened at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, featured much of Stax's lineup, including The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, and more. Director Mel Stuart (who also made Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory) intercuts performance footage with interviews with local Watts residents, as well as Richard Pryor and actor Ted Lange. As the L.A. Rams were going to play a few days after the all-day concerts, fans weren't allowed on the field, but show-stealer Rufus Thomas defied orders, encouraging the crowd to come down and dance "The Funky Chicken"... but then coaxed them to head back to their seats right after. The Reverend Jesse Jackson also makes a powerful appearance, both opening the day with an inspiring speech and then introducing headliner Isaac Hayes who knocks the whole place out with "Shaft."
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 self-titled debut from the ensemble of Cuban musicians assembled by Juan de Marcos González and Ry Cooder, was 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.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher
This two part documentary traces Elvis Presley from his days as a truck driver though his teen heartthrob early years (when TV wouldn't photograph him from the waist down), his career interruption that was getting drafted by the army, his mid-'60s life as a movie star, his '68 comeback, and the later years playing Vegas and creating Graceland's Jungle Room. Director Thom Zimny avoids standard documentary "talking heads" shots (though we hear interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and more), focusing more on The King's music than the legends, and using rare archival footage to tell his story.
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]
The Song Remains the Same
Shot over three nights at NYC's Madison Square Garden in 1973, The Song Remains the Same captures Led Zeppelin in all their opulent, excessive '70s glory, or as promotional materials at the time said: "For the first time the world has a front row seat on Led Zeppelin." It also gave viewers a front row seat to some of the band's "fantasies" via indulgent staged sequences that didn't go over so well with film critics. It took three years to finish the film, which ended up being $200,00 over budget. Manager Peter Grant called it "the most expensive home movie ever made." The end product is an admitted mess, but when it focuses on the band and classics like "Whole Lotta Love," "Dazed and Confused," and "The Song Remains the Same," it's great. But you may want to keep a finger on the fast-forward button.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hedwig & The Angry Inch
Long before it was a Tony-winning Broadway sensation, Hedwig & The Angry Inch was a 2001 indie film based on the Off-Broadway cult hit that played at NYC's Jane Theatre from 1998-2000. Writer, director and star John Cameron Mitchell created a true original with Hedwig, an "internationally ignored" rock & roll singer from Cold War East Germany who survives a botched sex-change operation and other indignities while looking for fame and love. Hedwig's story is told through flashback and song as she and her band The Angry Inch play seafood buffets, following the tour of Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), Hedwig's former protege and soulmate who stole her songs and became a superstar. Mitchell makes the most of a low budget with creative set (and wig) design, camerawork and animation, but Hedwig really works thanks to Mitchell's unforgettable performance, the tightly-written, clever story and the great songs by Angry Inch bandleader Stephen Trask. Bob Mould and members of Girls Against Boys played on the songs, too.
Elizabeth Moss gives an unforgettable, intense performance as Becky Something, the Courtney Love-esque leader of fictional rock band Something She who were briefly riot-grrrl / punk stars in the '90s before they were pulled down by Becky's volatile, self-destructive behavior. Focusing on five moments across a 10-year period, Her Smell tracks Becky's rise and fall, hitting rock bottom, and her attempt at putting the pieces back together for a comeback show. Bully's Alicia Bognanno wrote Something She's songs, which are good, but but Keegan De-Witt's churning, unsettling score is almost a character in the film, at times ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels. (You might not watch to watch this back-to-back with Uncut Gems.) There are other actors in Her Smell -- Amber Heard, Dan Stevens, Eric Stoltz, Cara Delevingne, and Agyness Deyn, among them -- but Moss is front and center of almost every shot and she's the reason to watch.
That Thing You Do
Adam Schlesinger also wrote the title song to Tom Hanks' breezy, fun directorial debut... and the tune is arguably the actual star of the movie. You hear it 11 times in the film and that you never get sick of it shows what a great, well-constructed song it was. The film follows the song's creators, fictional Pennsylvania Beatles wannabes The Wonders, though their 15 minutes of fame. The cast, which includes Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn and Hanks (as the band's manager), are all great but it's the song that stays with you.
All Four A Star is Born Movies
If you loved Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga's A Star is Born and want more...there are three previous versions of the story, and HBO Max has all of them: William Wellman's 1937 version starring Janet Gaynor and Frederick March; George Cukor's 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason; and the 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
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.