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.
10. Born to Be Blue (2015)
Historically, many jazz musicians battled with addiction—and 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.
9. Green Book (2018)
Green Book is up there amongst 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—because it's 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 (Mahershala Ali) lives like a king—but in in the segregated south, he requires a white driver and bodyguard.
Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) takes on the 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.
8. The Jazz Singer (1927)
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 film with audible dialogue in sync with moving pictures—The Jazz Singer premiered in the middle of the Jazz Age. (Sadly, the main guy performs in blackface.)
Its revolutionary technical achievements aside, film academics are still debating The Jazz Singer's stance on racism.
It's been described as an "expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity [...] within American identity," with the protagonist Jack Robin (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 simply for characters actually talking on screen!
7. The Cotton Club Encore (2019)
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 Encore 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 by Coppola in 2017 and re-released in 2019 as The Cotton Club Encore to stellar reviews and awards.
6. Bird (1988)
Of course, the legend 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—jazz—in this moody biopic. (It also marked a breakthrough role for Forest Whitaker, who went on to take a seat in 2006's The Last King of Scotland.)
Opening to Kansas City, 1939, Eastwood 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 moves 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)
Away from the realities of addiction and racism, Chicago instead focuses on the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Rob Marshall's musical black comedy, set in 1920s Chicago, 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. The Glenn Miller Story (1953)
Glenn Miller wasn't strictly a jazz musician, but he did compose many of the songs performed by jazz bands. In fact, he's credited as founder of the American "big band" style of jazz orchestra 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 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.
3. Soul (2020)
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 (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 accidently falls back to Earth in a cat's body.
Like many modern 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)
When Seb Wilder (Ryan Gosling) tells Mia (Emma Stone) about his love for jazz, she immediately laughs at him. And, let's face it, most people would do the same. 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. However, in the city of dreamers, anything is possible—and she eventually comes to support Seb's goal of opening his own club.
Of course, she has her own acting aspirations that make 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, chase it.
1. Whiplash (2014)
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 a teacher screaming at his student, with a few chairs thrown around for good measure.
This is the film that takes first rank? Absolutely!
Andrew (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 a week in Fletcher's class (J. K. Simmons), 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 pushes himself to his limits under his mentor's abuse.