Make the Case: 5 Best Movies About Performing Live

Don't choke.


For this month’s Make the Case, I’m aspiring to be specific and vague at the same time. Movies about performance, or movies about performing live, can cover a pretty wide spectrum. Standup, theater, live music are all venues that will be considered for this column, if they play a significant role in the story and characters. I’m going to be pretty flexible about that, too.

Why? Because I have no idea which movies I’m actually going to choose. I never do, when I sit down to write the introduction. While I’m also just summing up the topic for the reader, I’m also working out some ideas in my head in real-time. When I finish writing this, I expect to have a decent idea of what I’m going to be doing.

Covering movies that deal in live performance speaks to two things I’m really missing these days. While I don’t mourn going to the movies as much as some people do, or concerts, or whatever the case may be, I still have a limit. There is still going to be a point in which I start to miss even the occasional times in which I’ll do those things.

I miss going to concerts, movies, theater, or anything else on the live performance front. I miss doing these things on my own, however clumsily. At different times in my life, I’ve done standup, radio, live theater, and even short films. I won’t get into whether or not I think I’ve ever been good at any of those things, but I can’t deny I miss the energy of doing a poetry reading in a bar, or the moment before I’m stepping on to the stage in some insane community theater collaboration.

Not that I would be doing these things often. I wasn’t before all this nonsense, and that’s not going to magically change when things improve, but I still miss them.

I miss all of these things, and I’m dedicating March’s column, which was a happy time of year until that chubby nerd Shakespeare came along to the fact that I do. None of these movies are ranked. Just keep that in mind.

Hit me up on Twitter with some of your favorites. I’m genuinely curious, and I promise to be just as liberal with the definition as I might get here this month at Make the Case.


5. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap

Director: Rob Reiner

I know a lot of actual musicians appreciate this legendary mockumentary about a fictional, consistently unlucky heavy metal band, but I don’t think you really have to know too much about music to love This Is Spinal Tap. I don’t doubt that’s why the movie continues to be popular, with chemistry among the members of a fictional band that eventually became a real band that I think can appeal to virtually anyone.

From a live performance standpoint, some of the best moments in This Is Spinal Tap involve the band suffering some of the most remarkable misfortunes to ever befall a group of musicians. Getting lost backstage isn’t unreasonable, but the degree to which the band fails to find the stage, all the while keeping their enthusiasm riding high, is something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

I’ve never really performed music for an actual audience, but I have stood in front of a few dozen people when something goes very, very wrong. What do you do? Generally, you just keep pushing along, optimistic as hell that everything will work out. That spirit endures for Spinal Tap, and it is one of my favorite things about the film at this point in my life.


4. To Be or Not to Be (1983)

To Be or Not to Be (1983)
To Be or Not to Be (1983)

Director: Alan Johnson

While perhaps not quite as good overall as the 1942 original, Mel Brooks forming a rare on-screen partnership with his wife, Oscar winner Anne Bancroft to tell a story of a low-rung theater troupe in Warsaw during World War 2, has a stronger emotional connection for me. Another one of the many movies that seemed to be playing constantly on cable when I was a kid.

There are several threads running through To Be or Not to Be. Not all of them fully work, but it’s a good day whenever Mel Brooks wants to make fun of the Nazis. This was his most ambitious, and perhaps dramatic effort to that effect in his career. I like that.

I also like the notion of a small theater company who persists in going on with the show, even if they didn’t have much of an audience to begin with. There’s a pretty straightforward metaphor for that which I’ve applied to my own life several times.


3. Opening Night (1977)

Opening Night (1977)
Opening Night (1977)

Director: John Cassavetes

While community theater isn’t really designed to be as ambitious or stressful as Broadway, I have been in shows where someone decides to go as far off the current page in the script as any human being could ever dream of attempting. It’s a little scary.

It’s also, as I saw when I watched John Cassavetes’ riveting drama Opening Night a few years before I ever got to act, exhilarating.

The scenes where Gena Rowlands’, as the peak of the creative work she was doing with her writer/director husband Cassavetes struggling Broadway legend goes off the page and off the psychological cliff with her fellow actors (most notably, a character played by Cassavetes) are some of my favorites of perhaps all the movies I’ve ever seen. There is a wild, unpredictable that runs through those scenes, and indeed, throughout much of the best of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Particularly when they were working side by side.

Opening Night has a memorable philosophy of how to manage the inherent chaos of getting out of bed every day. Especially if your brain is trying its damned best to kill you.


2. Festival (2005)

Festival 2005 movie
Festival 2005 movie

Director: Annie Griffin

I don’t think I ever even successfully told a joke the few times I did stand-up open mics in Georgia, California, and Maryland. Nevertheless, it was its own weird fun, with most of my satisfaction coming from just finishing a set.

And watching other, better comedians perform. Stand-up is deliriously challenging work, and it exists in an atmosphere that’s intimidating and thrilling under even the best of circumstances. I’m only glad retroactively that my ego survived bombing as many times as I did. I don’t think I want to face a crowd and suddenly forget my words ever again.

There aren’t a lot of movies about stand-up comedians that I like. Concert films of actual comedians are almost always a better way to spend your time. However, there are at least a few exceptions, with Annie Griffin’s underrated writing/directing effort Festival.

A decidedly dark character study with an ensemble cast set during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the movie is one of the few to make me wish, however insane this sounds, that I was still doing stand-up. The movie itself has a number of good performances, particularly an early one from Chris O’Dowd, combined with a Robert Altman approach to simply moving across the landscape of its characters and stories.


1. Birdman (2014)


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

While not anything remotely related to any experiences I’ve personally had, Birdman absolutely nails what I love about live theater, strictly as a member of the audience. That isn’t the only thing to appreciate in this relentless, passive-aggressively ruthless black comedy about a famous Hollywood burnout (Michael Keaton, who has thankfully been working steadily in high-profile roles since this set his comeback in motion) who tries to resurrect his fortunes with a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story.

I’m a big Raymond Carver fan, so that in of itself powers some of this movie’s appeal for me. This in spite of the fact that it is clearly not going well for Keaton’s character as the star, writer, and director of the production.

With the adaptation of the story, which is not a bad idea in of itself, as with most of the elements in this impressively, uniquely weird story of redemption and the madness of trying to be creative under the gun of unflinching capitalism, my expectations were forced to shift again and again. That isn’t always a good thing, but that was certainly the case here.

Even having watched the movie three or four times at this point, the sharp creative turns and unique style of the film make me miss New York City, theater, and even the experience of watching a remarkable movie at the cinema.

I can’t believe I miss going to the movies, but here we are.

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