Movies about music, about rock-and-roll specifically, are more often than not a huge letdown, especially if you’re a musician. Too frequently, the films get it wrong, hyperbolizing the myths of the biz that appeal to the salacious desires of the viewers. 

Of course, clichés and stereotypes are typically grounded in reality and, yes, those hyperboles are all too familiar. Rarely, though, do films get to the heart of what it’s like to be a musician, the eternal struggle of an artist who, against all odds, works his or her ass off for little thanks, little compensation and little recognition.

In that regard, I thought it might be nice to hip you to a few movies that touch on the humanity of musicians who have grappled with their desire to “make it,” their drive to stay true to their art and battled mental illness.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM (streaming on Netflix)
Everyone wants to be a star, but few come this close. This award-winning 2014 documentary covers the rise of popular music’s most sonically recognizable but least visibly known singers. We follow a handful of background vocalists as they talk about their history working with the biggest names in the business. Merry Clayton (most well-known for her legendary performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), Darlene Love (Elvis, Tom Jones, countless Phil Spector hits), Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, George Harrison), Lisa Fischer (Sting), The Waters Family (Neil Diamond, Patti LaBelle, The Lion King soundtrack) and Judith Hill (Stevie Wonder, Elton John) tell stories of crooning behind the icons, some of whom can’t hold a candle to their support staff.

Of course, there’s Luther Vandross (David Bowie) and Sheryl Crow (Michael Jackson), among those rare few who make the next step from chorus to the lead mic. But, like the players in the magical documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, these ultra-talented musicians dwell in a netherworld of obscurity, knowing full well that they, in most cases, blow away the people they’re backing, but because of the politics of the biz – of simple poor timing – are never given the chance they deserve. It’s wrenching to watch, made all the more palpable as stars like Mick Jagger, Wonder, and others sing their praises, so to speak.

FRANK(streaming on Netflix)
I must admit, what initially attracted me to this film was the notion of a person donning an enlarged, comic-book-like fake head 24/7. But the novel aspect of Frank (2014) soon fades into an engaging narrative about the fragile dynamics of a working band and its mentally ill lead singer. Played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, the titular Frank is the frontman and creative force behind a too-artsy-for-its-own-good indie band that loses its keyboard player to a botched suicide attempt. They invite aboard Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a naïve, aspiring songwriter who pours his personal nest egg into the band. The result is a lengthy sabbatical in the frozen Irish woods, where the band experiences another suicide attempt (this one successful), and Jon begins to realize the mess he’s gotten himself into.

Though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Fassbender lend star power, Gleeson counterbalances the film’s emotional seesaw, vacillating between his deep commitment to Frank’s vision and depression over his own creative failings. Truly touching are the closing moments, when Fassbender’s Frank, sans papier-mâché head, confronts his demons, and Jon tries to patch together his own broken life. Anyone who’s had differences with a band member or been trapped in a relationship from which they can’t seem to extract themselves will relate to this fractured but very funny film.

JACO(available on DVD, Blu-ray; download at Amazon or iTunes)
Drilling deeper into mental illness and its effects on a musical genius, the recently released documentary Jaco follows the meteoric rise and tragic descent of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed (and by all reasonable accounts, certifiably) “greatest bass player in the world.” From humble beginnings playing in cover and variety bands in South Florida, Jaco quickly established himself in the world of fusion and multi-culti jazz. A self-taught innovator, this quirky, colorful madman of the bass blew the minds of contemporaries with his unorthodox approach and wide-open musical mind. Working with acts as diverse as fusion giants Weather Report, songwriter Joni Mitchell and ’70s glitterboy rocker Ian Hunter, as well as his own shape-shifting ensembles, Jaco created his own voice, one that bassists (and other musicians as well) have tried to emulate ever since.

Produced by Metallica’s bassist Robert Trujillo, Jaco pieces together interviews with former band members, friends and family with live footage and home videos. The intimacy of the home video footage can be jarring at times, knowing that, by the end, Jaco will have abandoned his children, become a homeless drug addict and die from a brutal beating by a bouncer at a South Florida nightclub. Not enough time is spent on that horrible evening and its aftermath – yes, his mental illness is addressed and the circumstances of the homicide are touched on – but many details are left out. Still, Jaco’s life and music are celebrated in full here, and this doc is a gem for both the Jaco aficionado and those new to his legacy.