A magical thing happened to me when I was 12 years old.
My mother, who had always been well versed in classic movies, had a rather large library of old musicals. Despite growing up as an adolescent in the 80’s and 90’s, I was raised watching actors like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Rosemary Clooney and more.
The most impactual moment of my musical training happened to me while watching the 1945 classic movie “Anchors Aweigh” with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. About halfway through the film, there was a scene where the two actors (playing the parts of Navy Sailors) were trying to chase down a famous pianist/conductor named Jose Iturbi. They ended up sneaking into the Hollywood Bowl, sliding down a dirty hillside and running down rows of bleachers and chairs all the while the most magnificant thing was happening on the stage…
There, on the huge stage of the Hollywood Bowl, were 17 grand pianos in a half circle, with Jose Iturbi on the central piano playing and conducting. They were all simultaneously performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. All at once – like a massive hive of bees just buzzing. away collectively. It was truly amazing. Some of the pianists were even children, maybe even the same age that I was at the time.
I must have rewound and watched that scene of the movie dozens and dozens of times. I was completely mesmorized.
Shortly thereafter, my mom bought me a copy of the sheet music for the Hungarian Rhapsody. Despite the fact that it was well beyond my playing capabilities at the time, I wanted to learn that piece of music so badly. I would spend hours a day practicing that song. Then I would go and watch the scene from the movie again. Then go practice some more. It was like this massive adult sized challenge and I was determined to conquer as a little 12 year old.
It was the moment of my life when I realized that music was neither hard or impossible. It just took a lot of hard work and dedication. Afterall, they were just notes on a page. And thus began my passion for the piano for years afterwards, leading to college, competitions, and now teaching and recording.
I will sometimes dig out that same movie scene and play it for select students who need to see something truly inspiring – which brings me to this post topic. There are actually many wonderful music-themed films out there that can be inspirational for students to watch. Just as it is beneficial to take students and children to concerts where they can experience live music, movies can be beneficial as well when they have a strong motivational message.
Here is my own personal top 10 list of movies about music, with number 1 being my most favorite. I have watched all of these films, and have written my two cents about each of them. All the movies are either G, PG, or PG-13.
#10. The Competition (1980, PG, Richard Dreyfuss, Amy Irving) - This movie probably wouldn’t jive too much with the younger generation – as there are plenty of bell bottoms and crazy hair do’s to be seen. But there are some really worthwhile scenes at the end during the “competition” (hence the movie’s title). The movie is about two pianists who are competing in a national piano concerto competition to win money and launch their careers as concert pianists. Though they despise each other at first, they of course fall in love at the end. I did get a kick out of watching the actors trying to fake like they are really playing the piano throughout the movie. However, Amy Iriving really does perform the 2nd movement of the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto, which is impressive. Like I said, the scenes towards the end during the competition are really fun to watch and I think very inspirational for aspiring pianists. As a side note – I think the ratings back when this movie was made were a bit more relaxed. Even though it’s PG, I would probably give it a PG-13 rating today.
#9. The School of Rock (2003, PG-13, Jack Black) – This movie is fun for the younger kids, being that the main characters of the movie are middle schoolers. Jack Black is funny, sometimes obnoxious of course, but I really liked how he was able to draw out the best qualities of the students and make them shine. It shows any child that they can do something if they work hard and put their mind to it. The plot of this movie revolves around Dewey Finn (Jack Black) who gets fired from his band, who then takes a job as a substitute music teacher at a school under a false identity. He takes a class of uptight private school students and forms a band and has them compete in a “battle of the bands”.
# 8. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995, PG, Richard Dreyfuss, William H . Macy, Terrance Howard) – I really did like this movie when it came out, but I can’t say I was as crazy about it as everyone else. I seem to remember a huge buzz surrounding this film, and as a musician I found it good, but not great. But I do like the movie (it’s just not my most favorite). With that being said though, this movie has a really touching message. Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a professional musician who would like to spend more time composing ,but to pay the bills he takes up teaching at a local high school. Little does he realize how little free time there will be as a teacher. Initially, he is frustrated at his inability to get through to his students but over time, he becomes quite competent at his profession and in fact has a number of successes. At home, he is devastated to learn that his infant son is deaf and struggles over the years to develop a relationship with him. When, after 30 years of teaching, the music program at his school is canceled he wonders what, if anything, he has really accomplished in his life. Friends and students, past and present, show him just what he has meant to them. The part about this film that really struck a chord with me, was his relationship with his deaf son. It was tremendously hard for him to have music be such a big part of his life, but he couldn’t get his son to hear or understand it.
#7. Copying Beethoven (2006, PG-13, Ed Harris, Diane Kruger) – This film was great, in my opinion. It’s the story about the last portion of Beethoven’s life as he struggles with hearing loss. He hires a copiest to transcribe his music while he notates it to her. The copiest (Diane Kruger) is continually put down throughout the movie by Beethoven, but in the end you can see how important she becomes to him. He eventually becomes quite humbled and thankful to her for all that she does for him. Being an aspiring composer herself, it was neat to watch the lessons that she learned from Beethoven, the master himself. While some of this film is obviously ficticious, it’s fun to get a peek into what Beethoven’s final days may have been like.
#6. Shine (1996, PG-13, Geoffrey Rush) – First off, I have to say that this movie has one of the most beautiful classical soundtracks ever. And if you were never a fan of Rachmaninoff before, you will be after seeing this film. This is a true story based on the life of pianist David Helfgott. In some ways, it resembles the recent 2009 movie The Soloist (Jamie Fox), being that it is about a music prodigy who suffers from a handicap, only later in life to deal with that handicap and still make something beautiful from their gift of music. David Helfgott was a very promising music student in Australia who was heavily driven and abused by his father. He receives a scholarship to study oversees at a prestigous music school, only to suffer a breakdown and return to Australia and live his life in an institution. Through a series of twists, he is discovered playing the piano in a bar and eventually returns to the concert stage performing the piece that he is most famous for – the Rachmanoniff 3rd Piano Concerto. This movie touching and inspiring, though I wouldn’t recommend it for young kids. There are some scenes towards the beginning that deal with abuse that might be a little frightening. There is also one scene with brief nudity as well, if I remember correctly.
#5. Phantom of the Opera (2004, PG-13, Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Minnie Driver) – I really loved this movie and own it. I have many professional vocalist friends who criticize the movie (comparing it to the stage version), however, given that I have never actually seen the Broadway stage version, I feel that I was able to watch this movie from an unbiased point of view. I think this movie is very beautifully done and can be inspirational for any aspiring vocalist. It’s wonderful to see one of today’s young actresses (Emmy Rossum) have such a talent in singing, and not just in singing but in Classical singing. Though the story itself is a love story, the movie is full of eye candy to behold – beautiful constumes, sets, and lovely and inspiring music.
#4. Amadeus (1984, PG, Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham) – I actually just recently watched this film again, after not having seen it in about 7 or 8 years. It affected me entirely different this time. I of course still loved it, but embarrassing as it is to admit there were scenes that actually made me shed a few tears! This film won 8 different Oscars the year that it came out, as well as 32 other wins and 13 nominations. This film is about the life of Mozart, as being told from fellow music collegue Antonio Salieri, whom, in this version they make it appear as though he (Salieri) aided in Mozart’s untimely death. The biggest thing I appreciated about this film, was how it made one feel as though one was actually living in the 18th century, and this really was the type of music that was popular. As you watch the film, you start to understand why operas were written mostly in Italian, or why there were certain rules pertaining to Classical music. It just makes sense. This film is both educational and fun to watch. There are some scenes that might not be particularly suitable for young kids. In particular, at the very beginning there is a suicide scene in which Salieri tries to kill himself but fails. There is also some language during the very first scene when they introduce Mozart into the story.
#3. Anchors Aweigh (1945, G, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra) – Even though, as I stated at the beginning of this post, that this movie is a favorite of mine, it’s been bumped out of #1 position every now and then over the years as other movies come out. This movie is also not what I would consider a music movie, in the sense, that there is really only a scene or two that have to do with music (not including all of the songs that they sing, because afterall, it is a musical). However, having said that, this movie is just good old fashioned clean fun. Even my husband loved watching this one, and he’s not a fan of old musicals. The story is about two sailors who go on shore leave in Los Angeles, in the hopes of finding dates. They meet a little boy who runs away from home to join the navy, and they are put in charge of escorting the boy home. Upon arriving at his home, they discover that his guardian is a beautiful young woman who is his aunt. For the rest of the film, Gene Kelly tries to help Frank Sinatra woo the lovely aunt and help her launch her music career by lying and saying that they are close friends with composer/conductor Jose Iturbi. They of course find themselves in all sorts of messes and there are lots of laughs to be had. Again, my favorite scene is the Hollywood Bowl scene as they are trying to chase Jose Iturbi down. by the way, Mr. Iturbi actually was a famous concert pianist back in his day, and often performed with his sister as a concerto pianist duo team.
#2. Music of the Heart (1999, PG, Meryl Streep) – I absolutely loved this movie. Simply adored it, I tell you. The message is great, the acting is great, and best of all the music is great as well. This is actually another movie based on a true story. Meryl Streep plays a music teacher who fights the school board in order to implement a program within an inner city Harlem school to teach young students the violin. It’s a very touching story – as you see this woman actually put her own hard earned money into purchasing instruments for the kids, and spending so much love and energy teaching them. My absolutely favorite part of the movie is at the end when her students are invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. This movie is so inspirational and definitely worth watching – for all ages.
#1. August Rush (2007, PG, Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Robin Williams) – And here we are at the number 1 spot. August Rush is truly a wonderful movie and deserves so much attention. I have to give it kudos first off for the fact that it’s PG. There aren’t many PG movies these days that aren’t only made for kids. This is one that adults can watch and really love as well. Again this is another movie where there is a beautiful soundtrack that goes along with it. The story is about a Julliard cello student (Keri Russell) who meets and falls in love with a band singer/rocker (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and spend one beautiful night together. The movie bounces back and forth between the past (the unfolding story of the parents, Russell and Rhys-Meyers) and the present story of an orphined child who is trying to find his parents. He turns out to be a music prodigy and through many twists, including playing on the streets of New York for money, he ends up at Julliard as one of the youngest students on campus and is invited to debut his composition for symphony with the Philharmonic. It is his hope that if his music can be heard, that his parents will hear it and they will eventually find each other. It’s a very touching story, and there is some really amazing music in this film- including the fancy fingerwork of guitarist Michael Hedges. Definitely clean, and definitely inspirational for all ages.