Considering how regularly Hollywood makes bio-pics of famous musicians, it’s disheartening how few of them are actually any good. As the new Queen bio Bohemian Rhapsody tries to rock you, let’s look at some other music bio-pics that did their subjects justice.
Music bio-pics, especially of contemporary artists, are tough to get right. We know what Jim Morrison looked like and how he moved, so we know that Val Kilmer gets it close, but not close enough. And we know for certain that the members of N.W.A were not all so innocent. Because of this instantaneous fact checking, I like to avoid the issue entirely and err on the side of long-dead musicians. I can turn off my brain and enjoy a mostly fabricated drama and, due to my own ignorance, enjoy the show. Amadeus is one of the best examples of these kinds of music bio-pics. Through a filter of the 1980s interpretation of 1700s Vienna, I can sit back and watch the drama between Mozart and Salieri crescendo brilliantly, with tense performances and composition exposition, never being distracted by my attempts at verifying accuracy.
Music bio-pics are hard. You have to capture not only the spirit of the person being replicated, but do justice to their complexity as both artist and individual. Some do well as warm celebrations, like Taylor Hackford’s fine if at times fawning Ray. Others, like Sid & Nancy, make the somber biography trump any of the musical adventures. Then is the likes of Coal Miner’s Daughter, which perfectly blends setting, song and solemnity in equal measure.
Maybe the best idea is to admit that capturing the ephemeral is near impossible, even with the dream-like tools of cinema. Instead, why not do what Todd Haynes did with I’m Not There and go far more freewheeling? That film is highly biographical, highly specific, yet always just slightly out of time and mind. It captures the blood that pumped through Bob Dylan’s tracks in a delirious celebration. Dylan, after all, dubbed his first bootleg series of songs Biograph and his autobiography Chronicles, so why not give Haynes the space to entwine the myths and truths of Dylan into a gumbo of delirium and musical wonderment?
Walk the Line is an excellent film in spite of embracing many of the tropes of the bio-pic genre. It’s pretty much a gift of a performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who powers through the role of an up-and-coming, and down-and-out, Johnny Cash. (I wish Phoenix had done a few more mainstream films around ten years ago.) Walk Hard is pretty great send-up, yet it doesn’t really detract from Walk the Line, whose one real issue in my eyes is that it’s a little long. Reese Weatherspoon as June Carter forms the other half of an iconic pairing and does so laudably. If you take away the casting, the music, and the charm of the setting, the plot is not terribly powerful on its face, but it nevertheless works as a frame and dramatic situation that lets those other elements shine.
M. Enois Duarte
As a huge lifelong fan of Joy Division, my vote for one of the best music bio-pics immediately goes to Control. From music video director Anton Corbijn, the film revolves more around the life of frontman Ian Curtis than the post-punk band’s minor success and eventual evolution into New Order. It’s an incredibly heartfelt approach to understand a young man who suffered tremendously to retain some control of his life and some attempt at normalcy while battling medical illnesses and the awful side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. The film is a sincere, compassionate look at an artist inspired by his troubled life. Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe give fans a beautiful and touching portrayal of a talented musician, but most impressive of all is the poignant performance by Sam Riley, who brilliantly captures Curtis’ mannerisms, body language and voice.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
As a lifelong fanatic of all things Al, I was startled when a trailer for the bio-pic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story started making the rounds a while back. Who would’ve guessed that the father who seemed so sweet and supportive in all those other interviews in fact sneered at his son’s fascination with the Devil’s Music (by which, of course, I mean the accordion)? I can’t believe that Behind the Music‘s crack research team somehow overlooked Al’s torrid love affair with Madonna when he was featured on that VH1 docuseries a couple decades back. Chain-smoking! Alcoholism! Even [he types with an audible gulp] prison! Here’s a guy who I thought was so clean-cut and responsible, and it turns out his story is as tumultuous yet inspiring as any legendary rock god’s.
Bizarrely, even though the trailer for the Eric Appel-helmed bio-pic was first unveiled in 2010, with a cast including the likes of Olivia Wilde and Aaron Paul, Weird still apparently hasn’t found the wide distribution it so richly deserves. The full film isn’t on Prime Video, Netflix, or Hulu, nor has it found its way to DVD or Blu-ray. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the trailer was just a joke.
Before he became the indie auteur behind movies like Far from Heaven and Carol (or I’m Not There, which Jason mentioned above), Todd Haynes first gained notoriety while he was still a film student at Bard College. His totally unauthorized 1987 short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story depicts the singer’s life, career, and tragic battle with anorexia all acted out using Barbie dolls. Such an audacious gimmick could easily be played for camp, but while the film certainly flirts with that, it’s also a surprisingly sympathetic, even touching portrayal of the woman.
As a 43-minute short film, Superstar made a splash at festivals and art house theaters. Unfortunately, when he found out about it, Richard Carpenter (Karen’s brother and musical partner) was not amused. He successfully sued Haynes for using The Carpenters’ songs without obtaining proper licensing, which resulted in the film being withdrawn from official circulation. Nevertheless, bootleg copies proliferated rapidly, allowing many people to discover it over the years. The last I checked, a copy was still available on YouTube.
What music bio-pics have you enjoyed? Tell us about them in the Comments.