Sissy Spacek won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in this depiction of Lynn’s tumultuous and rocky journey to country music stardom. The intense story is expertly told in Michael Apted’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which thoroughly covers Lynn’s life from her early days in Kentucky to her later success as a country star. Filled with the drama of Loretta Lynn’s poverty combined with her early marriage and teenage motherhood, matched with her evident extraordinary talent and eventual discovery, this biopic does not fail to demonstrate both the perseverance of the singer and the culture in which she was rooted.
Few rock n’ roll biopics capture the rise and fall of a music legend as personally as “Control,” Anton Corbijn’s heartbreaking and darkly funny look into the life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Boldly shot in black-and-white, the film captures the radical verve of the 1970’s British post-punk scene in every visual and wisecracking performance, courtesy of actors Toby Kebbell, Joe Anderson and Harry Treadaway. Anchoring it all is Sim Riley’s star-making turn as Curtis, the socially awkward artist whose love for music and songwriting sent his life into overdrive. Battling epilepsy, a broken marriage (which gives new meaning to the Joy Division hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) and songs that inspired rebellion and anarchy in certain listeners, Curtis spiraled into depression and ultimately took his own life at 23 before the band was to begin its first North American tour. In the hands and voice of Riley, the on-screen Curtis never loses his sensitivity, humor or deep need for human connection, and it’s here in which the film proves why Joy Division’s music is so unruly and effecting.
“The Doors” (1991)
Oliver Stone’s reputation often precedes his films: his sensationalist approach to already controversial material has resulted in highly polarized reactions from audiences and critics. This is certainly the case with his 1991 biopic chronicling the life and times of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the legendary 1960s rock group The Doors. Though Stone exerted much effort to obtain the consultation of band members and friends of Morrison, most of those he reached out to have denounced the psychedelic film, claiming that Stone ignored all advice and made historically inaccurate portrayal that depicts many of those involved in an unfavorable or simply erroneous light. That said, Val Kilmer of “Batman Forever” fame unexpectedly rises out of the film’s limitations to beautifully capture Morrison’s lazy grace, his wild passion, and his love affair with death. We follow the band’s meteoric rise to fame, as Jim echoes Dionysus, the Greek god of drinking and excess, with a spiritual and ritualistic outlook on his self-destructive alcoholism and drug experimentation. He becomes increasingly obsessed with his “Lizard King” persona, believing that he is invincible, that he has at last become larger than life. Kilmer is joined by cast members Meg Ryan, playing his girlfriend Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, who endearingly portrays Ray Manzarek. (Both the Courson family and Manzarek himself vehemently denounced the film and its portrayals of their characters.)
“Great Balls of Fire” (1989)
Jim McBride’s “Great Balls of Fire” presents a fictionalized version of the life of early rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis, covering his fast rise to stardom, his controversial marriage to the 13-year-old daughter of his first cousin, Myra Gale Brown, and his later descent into alcoholism. Based on Myra Gale Lewis’ autobiography, the film’s story was panned by both critics and the real-life Lewis, who was initially thought to be the rock and roll successor to Elvis Presley. However, stars Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder both received accolades for their portrayals of the bombastic husband and wife, with Quaid in particular praised for accurately recreating Lewis’ magnetic stage presence. Alec Baldwin also stars as the evangelical cousin whose rocky relationship with Lewis is explored throughout the film. Lewis re-recorded some of his early music for the soundtrack, including “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” For a fun (pseudo-fictional) look at the beginnings of rock n’ roll as well as some great musical performances, make sure you catch this film.
“I’m Not There” (2007)
Before collaborating on the period romance “Carol,” which wowed at Cannes this year, Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett made “I’m Not There,” in which Blanchett plays Jude Quinn — a manifestation of the mid-1960s Bob Dylan. She is one of six actors who embody a facet of the poet, singer-songwriter, artist and activist. In this unconventional foray into the different personas that Dylan identified with over the course of his career and his personal life, the musician’s name is mentioned only once. A caption following the opening credits reads: “Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan.” From that point, someone who had never heard Dylan’s music or followed his career wouldn’t know that the film was a biopic of a single person. Dylan fans, however, will recognize famous lines, infamous performances, thematic patterns and significant influences. For the most die-hard Dylan fans, this may be as close to perfection as any biopic about the evasive figure can get.
“Nowhere Boy” (2009)
The John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” traces the rock legend’s roots through a charmingly quotidian lens, and reveals the experiences that shaped him before his rise to fame through the Beatles. Aaron Johnson (“Godzilla”) plays Lennon in the film and camouflages into the ruptured childhood he had being raised by his aunt after his mother abandoned him. While the film is more of a character study than a Beatles tune-fest, Johnson captures Lennon’s rebellious, yet vulnerable, spirit, and still offers Beatles fans an intimate look at the beloved crooner and his life.
Jamie Foxx won an Academy Award for his portrayal of R&B musician Ray Charles in 2004’s biopic “Ray.” The film follows the life of Charles, who went blind at a young age and found his calling at the keyboard. After a rough start to his music career, Charles eventually signed with Atlantic Records in the 1950s; he would go on to become one of the most well-known and beloved musicians of the 20th century. Charles pioneered the soul music genre out of R&B, gospel and blues influences, but had a difficult personal life fraught with affairs and a heroin addiction — something the film does not sugar coat. The film is worth watching (or re-watching) both for the strength of the performances and for the music, which includes many of Charles’ greatest hits including “Georgia on my Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
“Sid and Nancy” (1986)
The short-lived and yet legendary punk reign of the Sex Pistols is depicted in “Sid and Nancy” through the perspective of bassist Sid Vicious’ drug-fueled and tumultuous relationship with Nancy Spungen (played by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, respectively). The intense and often dark and violent biopic follows Vicious’ relationship with Spungen starting at the end—Spungen’s death—and flashing back to start, from her meeting him by selling him heroin as a groupie, met initially by a dismissive Vicious. The film artfully depicts the hopelessness and painfulness of drug addiction in the midst of a destructive relationship against the backdrop of a once-successful music career (that, of course, essentially launched the punk rock scene in England).
“Walk the Line” (2005)
Before moving on to bigger budget fare such as “Knight and Day” (2010) and “The Wolverine” (2013), James Mangold had great success with the character-driven Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. While Mangold and co-writer Gill Dennis bite off a bit more than they can chew by covering more than two decades of the artist’s life, from his 1944 sharecropper upbringing to his 1968 Folsom State Prison concert, they absolutely excel at showing how Cash’s rebellious attitude resulted in rock music that changed the genre forever. Fusing country, gospel and folk styles, Cash was a renegade spirit whose music was as unbound as his destructive addiction habits. Phoenix sings his heart out, triumphantly recreating the low register that defined “the Johnny Cash sound,” while Witherspoon, in her Oscar-winning role, brings a fierce and flirtatious pathos to June Carter. By the time Johnny is forcing June to accept his marriage proposal on stage in the final moments of the film, “Walk the Line” hits the rock biopic sweet spot.
“What’s Love Got To Do With It” (1993)
Rock star biopics don’t get more harrowing than “What’s Love Go To Do With It,” Brian Gibson’s deeply troubling film about Tina Turner’s tumultuous life and relationship to Ike Turner, who violently and emotionally abused her for much of their time together. Angela Bassett gives the performance of a lifetime as Tina, earning a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for her efforts. Laurence Fishburne matches her as Ike, and also earned an Academy Award nomination for his terrifying turn.