Walk the Line

Weekend Roundtable: Music Bio-pics

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.

Deirdre Crimmins

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.

Jason Gorber

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?

Brian Hoss

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.

Josh Zyber

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.

Your Turn

What music bio-pics have you enjoyed? Tell us about them in the Comments.


  1. photogdave

    Speaking of Control, a good companion piece with a wildly different tone is 24 Hour Party People.
    Steve Coogan stars as Tony Wilson. Not a musician himself but the founder of Factory Records, he was at the centre of the Mad-chester music scene that started in the era of Joy Division and pretty much ended with the Happy Mondays.
    Watching the decades play out and the music evolve from the point of view of one of the biggest influences in these bands’ careers is quite fascinating, as is the man himself.

  2. What’s Love Got to Do With It. I’ve liked Tina Turner for many years and thought her biopic was very good. I can’t speak for accuracy, but it was very entertaining. The Runaways is another musical biopic that I Really enjoy. Kristen Stewart was a standout in that one. Although this isn’t a real biopic, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is hilarious and perfectly spoofs all the music biopic tropes. I think it’s highly

  3. Ian E.

    Love & Mercy is a creative and beautiful movie about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. I’m not a huge fan of The Beach Boys but I LOVE this movie.

  4. This is tangential, but it’s such an odd story it seems appropriate. Back in the early 90s, I had a co-worker who, when I mentioned I loved the (entirely fictional) movie EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS, said with utter sincerity, “I wish they’d leave him alone and let him rest in peace.”

    Me, confused: “Eddie Wilson? Of Eddie and the Cruisers?”

    Her: “Yes. Just stop dragging him out and making movies about him!”

    Now, this co-worker was old enough to have been a teenager during Eddie’s supposed heyday, so I was doubly confused. But I didn’t correct her. Poor Eddie could use all the good will he could get.

  5. Coal MIner’s Daughter…as good as Sissy Spacek is in the movie (she won the Oscar), it’s the first film I saw starring Tommy Lee Jones – and he was fantastic in it. Hasn’t aged well (plays more like a TV movie now and we’ve seen so many biopics since then with the same formula – rise to fame, falling out of favor, big comeback), but it is still worth the watch.

  6. Judas Cradle

    A great companion piece to AMADEUS id Bernard Rose’s IMMORTAL BELOVED.
    Gary Oldman is just spectacular as Beethoven and the direction is stellar. You will never forget the visuals accompanying the 9th Symphony.

  7. EM

    Earlier this year I attended a 50th‐anniversary screening of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, in which any pretense of drama takes a backseat to the gorgeous “live” performances of Johann Sebastian Bachʼs music in period dress. Easily the best music biopic Iʼve ever seen or, more importantly, heard—light on the bio and heavy on the music.

  8. Timcharger

    So Adam Tyner in a Roundtable about good bio-pics of musicians… wrote about a film trailer that he saw, about a film that he didn’t see and may not actually exist?! Am I missing the joke? Or does Josh just ignores Adam’s submissions and pastes it into the blog, unread?

      • Timcharger

        Writing about the trailer in your start. And then finishing your writing all about the trailer. With a listing of all the places that you can’t find the film. It’s an unusual way to write, if complimenting a movie, by talking so much about the trailer. Everyone else is writing about performances, the acting, or a director’s strange choices. You wrote about the surprising details in the musician’s life (not how the film surprised you, but how the details surprised you), and about the distribution of the film. Okay.

        But I could be wrong, and it really was a good joke, Adam.

        • I’m not saying it was a good joke, but it was a joke.

          ‘Weird’ is a faux-trailer produced by Funny or Die that skewers the conventions of musician bio-pics, applying the usual tropes (domineering loved ones who try to squash our hero’s dreams, a meteoric rise to success that the protagonist can’t cope with, sex, substance abuse, failed relationships, a descent as spectacular as his rise, mounting an unlikely comeback, winning the hearts of those who didn’t believe, clumsy tugging-at-heartstrings) to an artist for whom essentially none of that actually applies. I was rolling with that gag, knowing all the while that it wasn’t a real movie.

          I put that write-up together for fun, and I offered to write about ‘Sid and Nancy’ or ‘Love and Mercy’ if that was too ridiculous.

          • Timcharger

            I watched the trailer. It was hilarious, Adam. But you parodied the Roundtable by lauding the equivalent of Walk Hard over Walk the Line. Would you then submit at the next Roundtable topic of good police procedural films with your selection of Naked Gun, or better yet, just the trailer of a fictitious Naked Gun installment? Sure on April 1st; cheers to you. But why make a mockery of these sessions?

          • Chris B

            Jeeez Tim, so you’re constantly allowed to make rambling, sarcastic observations/jokes and get bent outta shape when someone else makes one? Quite the double-standard.

          • Timcharger

            There’s a huge difference between a Roundtable member, and some general comment poster. False equivocation, Chris B.

            Wet blanket?! Josh, you told me to call Adam out on his irony. (Perhaps I’m being sarcastic now? Reading Roundtables (and general comments) sure are different if determining a writer’s irony is a staple.)

        • Chris B

          I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference at all. Most of us have been reading/writing/commenting on this blog for years and have a pretty good understanding of the the tone. If you didn’t think the joke was funny, fair enough, but to keep harping on about it is pointless. You post long, rambling comments in an attempt to be humorous all the time and noone says a word.

          • Timcharger

            “You post long, rambling comments in an attempt to be humorous all the time and noone says a word.”
            Chris B, you’re someone, to me. Happy Thanksgiving!

            The part about the difference between general poster and Roundtable member, is that these Roundtable selections are expected to be good faith answers. Random posts have no standards of the use of sarcasm. Please post links to other Roundtables with sarcastic answers, so ICBW.

          • Chris B

            Happy Thanksgiving Tim!

            Who says they have to be “good faith answers”? Is there an official Bonus View rule-book I’m not aware of? Please post a link that pertains to the type of acceptable answers in response to roundtable questions vs. those who comment on those posts. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

          • Timcharger

            You win Chris B; expecting good faith answers is such a silly expectation. It really is surprising to you when there is an exception, when there is one (ICBW) sarcastic answer given in the thousands of Roundtable answers, when that finally happens, and it is noticed and commented on. That’s not acceptable to you. Please re-read my conversation with Adam. They are singular responses in exchange with each other, no profanity, no personal insults. If you think my comments are such a violation, please ask Josh to block me.

          • Chris B

            I didn’t say your comments were a violation, and I don’t want Josh to block you. I was just pointing out people in the BV are free to improvise and write what they like. Let’s not fight! It’s almost Christmas! 😉

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