There are plenty of musicals to choose from out there, but few feature roots, folk or Americana music in a prominent way. For the most part, you’ll find showtunes, jukebox music, pop or rock songs in your favorite musical movies. But what about folk music movies? Thankfully, there are several movies that feature the genre in a major way. From its origins, folk music has always been billed as the genre of the working class. It would of course evolve into country and bluegrass and plenty of other genres under the wider roots umbrella. While it’s not a major facet of popular American music in 2020 (unless you count artists like The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons and other leaders in the great indie folk/folk pop revival of the mid-2010s), lest we forget when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie were some of the most popular artists around. One of the movies on this list deals explicitly with that folk revival of the 1960s, one satirizes it and the others are all inspired by it in one way or another, whether in their soundtrack or in their story. We didn’t include any non-fiction biographies or documentaries (so you won’t find your favorite Dylan doc on this page), concert films or the like here—just fictional tales. While rooted in truth, folk music has always been about entertainment, too.
So without further ado, here are a handful of the best folk music movies:
There’s a reason mockumentaries and musical subjects work so well together, evidenced by A Mighty Wind. Detailing the folk and bluegrass artists who worked with music producer Irving Steinbloom, the film follows Mitch & Mickey, The Folksmen and The New Main Street Singers as they reunite to put on a tribute concert following Steinbloom’s passing. Not only are the songs created for the film toe-tapping good fun, but seeing Guest, McKean and Shearer reunite as band mates after working together on This is Spinal Tap and watching Levy and O’Hara work their magic together once again made the film a classic as soon as it hit theaters. —Amanda Wicks
“I wanna be Bob Dylan,” Adam Duritz once sang in an old Counting Crows song, expressing a romantic yearning to be, well, who exactly? Subversive writer-director Todd Haynes illustrates what most of us already knew in his nervy Dylan opus I’m Not There: the protean songwriter whose name is synonymous with “mythic icon” is a wellspring of personas. Here, he requires six actors to play him. Gimmicky as that sounds, the conceit gives this phantasmagorical hijacking of the rock bio-pic an edge of wacky genius. Although perhaps overly schematic, these manifestations of Robert Zimmerman allow Haynes to revisit (satirically, metaphorically and speculatively) various stages of Dylan’s life. There’s earnest, boxcar-riding folk-singer Bob (depicted as a young black boy who calls himself Woody); conscience-of-his-generation Bob (Christian Bale, who suddenly renounces celebrity and goes to work for the Lord); movie-star Bob (Heath Ledger, impersonating Dylan in a movie-within-the-movie); Rimbaud Wanna-Be Bob (Ben Wishaw); the self-possessed Electric Bob of 1965 and ‘66 (Cate Blanchett); and Bucolic, Drop-Out Bob (portrayed as Billy the Kid by a grizzled Richard Gere). —Steve Dollar
3. Inside Llewyn DavisYear: 2013
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham
Runtime: 105 minutes
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is not a good man; he tells his nephew as much, as if he’s long ago resigned himself to that reality. How long ago isn’t clear—time, when you’re crashing from couch to couch and so relentless in your artistic idealism that your problems become everyone else’s, is malleable. Has a tendency to fall back on itself, to rewind and re-begin. In 1961, Llewyn is a staple in New York’s emerging folk scene, having scored some minor attention for an album he recorded with a former partner, that partner now a success-shaped hole in Lewyn’s life. His solo album isn’t doing so well—hasn’t even been officially released by a label—though Llewyn knows he’s good, perhaps even great, despising any other artist (played by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Carey Mulligan) not calibrated to his particular standards for what constitutes ethical, incisive music-making. We’re convinced that he’s good too, given long scenes of Isaac fully performing often heart-wrenching songs, Bruno Delbonnel’s camera glimpsing these forgotten images through a soft, muted haze, somehow both romanticizing and judging our memories of what that part of history could have been. Llewyn’s talent hardly matters, though; he’s lost a part of himself that could connect with an audience. If Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers’ rumination on what it would mean for their partnership to end, it’s a deeply personal confession of vulnerability and fear. If the film is a love letter to a mythologized era that may have never existed, then it is about whether or not Llewyn actually is a good man, whether or not what he represented actually means anything—whether or not he will be remembered as anything more than a Llewyn-shaped hole in the lives of all the people he let down. —Dom Sinacola
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou?Year: 2000
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Holly Hunter, John Goodman
Runtime: 107 minutes
T-Bone Burnett’s soundtrack got all the attention, but this twist on Homer’s Odyssey—set in Depression Era Mississippi—had all the effortless storytelling, imaginative characters and quotable lines we’ve come to love from the Coen Brothers’ best comedies, with George Clooney joining a celebrated list of Coen comic leads. Holly Hunter and John Goodman basically reprise their hilarious Raising Arizona roles, only with more kids. And an eye-patch. —J.J.
This low-key story of a busker on the streets of Dublin (The Frames’ Glen Hansard) who meets a girl that digs his songs is one of the most heartfelt celebrations of music ever filmed. Its handheld realism is the cinematic equivalent of a great live show—a palette-cleanser that strips away layers of studio lacquer in favor of warm tones and deeply soulful characters.—Jason Killingsworth