Jazz was a ragtime dance music popularized in the early 20th century. Think flappers, live orchestras, and prohibited champagne.
This rhythmic and bluesy genre—that got Americans of the Roaring Twenties bopping—forged an iconic legacy built on elements of improvisation, scat singing, and trumpet solos.
While people today look down on jazz as boring and lacking in structure and modernity, these incredible films about jazz and jazz musicians will have you appreciating the genre like never before.
15. Born to Be Blue (2015)
Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie
Biography, Drama, Music (1h 37m)
Historically, many jazz musicians battled with addiction—not just alcohol, but more commonly heroin. Whether it was to relieve the pressures of the industry, inspire greater creativity, or just escape from life, heroin was rife on the jazz scene.
Like the legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, Chet Baker became addicted to the drug at a young age and continued using it throughout his career as a jazz trumpeter.
Directed, produced, and written by Robert Budreau, Born to Be Blue is a film-within-a-film that depicts Baker's first experiences with heroin. Ethan Hawke stars as the talented trumpeter who gets hired to play his younger self in a movie.
Flicking between grainy black-and-white and present-day 1966, Born to Be Blue shows us the Prince of Cool's (fictionalized) decline as a troubled artist who loses his medium.
14. Kansas City (1996)
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte
Crime, Drama, Music (1h 56m)
Robert Altman's Depression-era crime flick Kansas City doesn't just have a jazz score in the background. Live performances at the Hey Hey Club (or a studio resembling it) are intercut between scenes, played by modern-day jazz geniuses.
These sets were recorded like a documentary—with the musicians being told to imitate Kansas City-style jazz, known as the "cradle of jazz"—and then spliced into a fictional narrative. This technique alone gives Kansas City an interesting spin!
The soundtrack and period authenticity is what saved Kansas City from being otherwise lackluster. Featuring all the opium tonics and juke joints of the decade, Kansas City is about a politician's wife being used as a bargaining chip to get a thief out of prison.
13. Miles Ahead (2015)
Directed by Don Cheadle
Starring Don Cheadle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ewan McGregor
Biography, Drama, Music (1h 40m)
Miles Davis (a.k.a. the Prince of Darkness) was forever brooding, hot-tempered, and playing the trumpet with his back to his audiences.
Most people know Davis for his industry-changing jazz music, for being a keen virtuoso of the post-WWII music scene, and for his infamous inclination towards violence and drug addiction.
The underbelly of cool jazz and hard bop is an ugly story, where Davis (among others) funded his heroin habit by hustling and pimping. But that doesn't detract from his influence on the genre, which Don Cheadle explores through a fluid narrative.
Switching between time periods, Miles Ahead looks at different sections of the musician's storied life (who just so happens to be portrayed, with some exaggeration, by Don Cheadle himself).
12. Green Book (2018)
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Biography, Comedy, Drama (2h 10m)
Green Book is up there among the most controversial Oscar wins in cinema history. Besides beating the critically acclaimed Spanish drama Roma, Green Book's production was riddled with accusations.
But all that aside, it still won for a good reason: it's actually a great movie! If you like films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, then this one's for you (with an added sprinkling of drama).
Don Shirley was a classical jazz pianist who could only play in cities because he was African American. In New York, Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) lives like a king, but in the segregated South, he requires a white driver and bodyguard.
Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) takes on this job, despite being a vulgar slob who's worlds away from his passenger.
This dramatization of Don Shirley's 1962 tour of the Deep South is a buddy road flick that's sure to warm your cockles.
11. The Jazz Singer (1927)
Directed by Alan Crosland
Starring Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland
Drama, Music (1h 28m)
The Jazz Singer is another controversial film, but this one's so famous that we couldn't skip including it.
Widely known as the first "talkie" ever released—a post-silent-era film with audible dialogue in sync with moving pictures—The Jazz Singer premiered in the middle of the Jazz Age.
Its revolutionary technical achievements aside, film academics are still debating The Jazz Singer's stance on racism, primarily because the main guy performs in blackface.
It's been described as an "expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity [...] within American identity," with the protagonist Jack Robin (played by Al Jolson) using blackface to escape the condemnation of his Jewish background.
Nonetheless, Alan Crosland's musical had viewers in awe—not so much for Jack's singing, but for characters actually talking on screen!
10. The Cotton Club Encore (2019)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane
Crime, Drama, Music (2h 19m)
The Cotton Club was a notorious Harlem jazz joint at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the 1920s and 1930s. It defied both Prohibition and segregation laws, remaining open until 1940 when tax evasion and changing tastes got the better of the establishment.
This is where music and dance collided with gangsters and film stars—a melting pot for all New Yorkers, black or white.
The Cotton Club features an ensemble cast who plays the many intertwining lives, set against the background of jazzy horn chords. Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, and Nicolas Cage are just a few of the names to grace this film.
Being a Francis Ford Coppola film, it's no surprise the crime drama went over budget and took five years to make.
While the original The Cotton Club from 1984 had a poor box office reception, it was recut and re-released by Coppola in 2019 as The Cotton Club Encore to stellar reviews and awards.
9. Stormy Monday (1988)
Directed by Mike Figgis
Starring Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting
Crime, Drama, Music (1h 33m)
Stormy Monday takes place in 1980s Newcastle, miles away from the usual Jim Crow laws and New Orleans blues bars that appear in jazzy films. Here, we find many fresh-faced actors in their early roles, such as Sean Bean and Tommy Lee Jones. Oh, and Sting.
Sean Bean plays Brendan, an Irishman who works at a popular jazz club as a janitor. However, his love of the genre eventually gets him promoted to the position of a gang runner.
Stormy Monday, which is named after T-Bone Walker's famous song "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)," isn't as well-known as it deserves to be, even despite being followed up with an ITV miniseries called Finney in 1994.
8. The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Starring James Stewart, June Allyson, Harry Morgan
Biography, Drama, Music (1h 55m)
Glenn Miller wasn't strictly a jazz musician, but he did compose many of the songs performed by historical and modern jazz bands. In fact, he's credited as founder of the American "big band" style of jazz orchestra that's made up of 10+ artists.
And who better to play this wholesome historical figure than Jimmy Stewart? Anthony Mann directs Stewart as the eponymous band leader, featuring a bunch of cameos from his real-life colleagues.
Not only an innovative composer, Glenn Miller also served in the US Army Air Forces and pretty much created the military band. Sadly, a pilot during World War II, Glenn Miller's plane was lost somewhere in the English Channel and never found.
Like a musical Amelia Earhart, the mystery surrounding Miller's disappearance is almost as famous as his jazz influences.
7. I Called Him Morgan (2016)
Directed by Kasper Collin
Starring Lee Morgan, Helen Morgan, Wayne Shorter
Documentary, Drama, History (1h 32m)
I Called Him Morgan is the only documentary on this list, as there are just so many informative movies about the history of jazz and we couldn't fit them all. Since Kasper Collin's is generally considered the best, this is the one we're highlighting.
It examines the story of Lee Morgan, a trumpeter during the 1960s, who showed equal appreciation for classic jazz and new, experimental sounds. Mostly, he made headlines after being shot by his common-law wife at Slugs' Saloon in 1972.
Kasper Collin gives us a poetic, almost ghostly account of the lead up to Morgan's death, mixing biopic melodrama with curious true crime. It's sympathetic rather than judgmental, giving Morgan's wife Helen Moore a voice no one had considered before.
6. Bird (1988)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker
Biography, Drama, Music (2h 41m)
Of course, legendary musician Charlie Parker would get his own movie! Nicknamed "Yardbird," Parker was a pioneer of bebop with his incredible and complex saxophone solos.
With Bird, director Clint Eastwood stepped away from the Wild West to explore one of his other well-known passions in this moody biopic. (It also marked a breakthrough role for Forest Whitaker, who went on to take a lead role in 2006's The Last King of Scotland.)
Opening to Kansas City, 1939, Clint Eastwood masterfully takes us through Parker's life from being booed off stage to his tragic heart attack at just 34. Bird is told in montage style across a series of vignettes in bars, hospitals, and jails.
Forest Whitaker won Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival for his performance as the unstable virtuoso, who progresses from standing ovations to suicide attempts. Bird might've failed to bring in much at the box office, but critics loved it—and so do we!
5. Chicago (2002)
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere
Comedy, Crime, Musical (1h 53m)
Away from the grim realities of addiction and racism during the Jazz Age, Chicago instead focuses on the glitz and glamour. Set in 1920s Chicago, Rob Marshall's musical black comedy is all about scandal and temptation.
Richard Gere stars in Chicago as a slimy, smooth-talking lawyer who turns his clients into starlets. One of his clients is Roxie (Renée Zellweger), a wannabe vaudevillian who murders her sleezy partner. Yeah, there's a lot of that in this movie.
Playing on the constative view that fast-paced city life corrupts the soul, Roxie's lawyer gets her off Murderesses Row and onto the stage.
Chicago originated as a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, then later returned to the stage in 1975 before becoming a film when Hollywood took interest. This freshly feminist powerhouse of a film was nominated for dozens of Academy Awards—and won half of them!
4. Mo' Better Blues (1990)
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes
Drama, Music, Romance (2h 10m)
Spike Lee and Denzel Washington? You already know this film is going to be a winner from that alone. Throw in 1990s Wesley Snipes and you have a trio that stands out on the big screen.
One of Spike Lee's lesser-known (but still incredible) movies, Mo' Better Blues is about a fictional jazz trumpeter and his childhood friend/manager—a disaster combo waiting to crumble.
Through the blue-lit smoke, Denzel Washington can be seen with his dark sunglasses and gold trumpet, like a true Chet Baker or Miles Davis doppelgänger.
Thematic, endearing, and atmospheric, Mo' Better Blues is a must-watch for any fan of jazz or Spike Lee. (Just ignore the title because it's not really about the blues, though jazz and blues are intrinsically linked, like sibling genres born from the same origins.)
3. Soul (2020)
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 40m)
Don't let the title of this one fool you! Soul is definitely about jazz. Of course, the origins of jazz were influenced by soul, gospel, and the blues, so it's kind of a hazy crossover.
Either way, the title refers more to the spiritual soul—one which is accessed and expressed through music.
Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a pianist and teacher in New York City. Despite successfully playing at a jazz club like he'd always dreamed of doing, Joe still feels unfulfilled in life.
After falling down a manhole, Joe's spirit escapes the "Great Beyond" and accidentally returns to Earth... trapped in a cat's body.
Like all the best children's movies, Soul is a family-friendly film that doesn't treat its audience like idiots. Instead, it takes us on a trippy experience to both the afterlife and the before-life to explore deeper aspects of humanity, desire, and music.
2. La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt
Comedy, Drama, Music (2h 8m)
When Seb Wilder (played by Ryan Gosling) tells Mia (played by Emma Stone) about his love for jazz, she immediately laughs at him. Scatty, incoherent dinner party music? No thanks!
But with the way Seb's eyes light up at his record collection, and the way his mouth runs with excitement in The Jazz Club, it all connects us to the fiery passion he feels for his music.
"Jazz was born in a little flophouse in New Orleans," he explains to Mia, who's still not convinced on the elevator music. But in the city of dreamers, anything is possible—and she eventually comes to support Seb's goal of opening his own club.
She has her own aspirations of becoming a famous actress, of course, which makes La La Land a tale of love lost. Even though they don't end up together, Damien Chazelle's main point is made: if something lights your soul on fire, you have to chase it.
1. Whiplash (2014)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Drama, Music, Thriller (1h 46m)
Whiplash is a bit different from the rest of the movies on this list. There are no starry-eyed lovers against an LA cityscape, no heroin-addicted saxophonists fighting withdrawal in hotel rooms.
Instead, Whiplash mainly features a classroom with an abusive teacher who screams at his student and even throws chairs at his head to drive his points home. This is the film that takes first rank? Absolutely!
Andrew (played by Miles Teller) is a first-year drummer at a prestigious Julliard-like college, but that doesn't cut him any slack during rehearsals. After just one week in Fletcher's (played by J. K. Simmons) class, Andrew's hands are raw and bloody from non-stop practice.
He takes the term blood, sweat, and tears quite literally as he chases the legacy of his drumming idol Buddy Rich.
Whiplash is an award-winning examination of the psychology of a virtuoso who brims with ambition and subsequently endures his mentor's abuse in order to surpass his own limits.