While many eyes are on the brawl between Batman and Superman soon to hit theaters, this weekend will see another cinematic clash on movie screens: Hank Williams v Chet Baker: Dawn Of Justice. In a quirk of the release calendar, the two singers —one from the country world, the other from jazz— are both the subjects of movie biopics released this Friday, with Tom Hiddleston playing Williams in “I Saw The Light,” and Ethan Hawke as Baker in “Born To Be Blue.”
Yet it’s hard to get too enthusiastic, since few genres are as lashed to formula as the biopic, and the music biopic in particular. The clichés have been around for years, but it was the one-two punch of “Ray” and “Walk The Line” a decade ago that felt like the last straw. Both films feature terrific Oscar-winning performances, but are weighed down by basically being the same movie as each other, as well as a dozen or so others.
Neither “Born To Be Blue” or “I Saw The Light” completely escape the template, but one does it more successfully than the other, serving as a reminder that it is possible to make a movie about a musician and turn it into tremendous, original cinema (read our review of the Hawke movie and the Hiddleston film).
With both hitting theaters this week (and Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” Zoe Saldana, controversially, as Nina Simone in “Nina” and Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley in “Elvis & Nixon” coming to theaters next month), we thought we’d delve through the formulaic rough of the genre to pick out the diamonds. So below, you’ll find what we reckon are the ten best music biopics ever made. Let us know what you think of the list in the comments.
“I’m Not There” (2007)
The prospect of a Bob Dylan biopic could have been horrific: it doesn’t take too much imagination to think of a formulaic, by-the-numbers take on the life and times of the Artist Formerly Known As Robert Zimmerman. Fortunately, the movie was in the hands of Todd Haynes, a director who built on his work with lightly fictionalized glam-rock epic “Velvet Goldmine” with a dazzling, near-expressionistic tribute to the rock and roll legend that captured his spirit and genius far better than a more conventional version might have done. Haynes’ film, co-written with Oren Moverman, tracks six distinct incarnations of Dylan over seven segments: Ben Whishaw as poetic Rimbaud Dylan, Marcus Carl Franklin as faux Woody Guthrie Dylan, Christian Bale as protest/religious Dylan, Cate Blanchett as Goes Electric Dylan, Heath Ledger as actor/superstar Dylan and Richard Gere as mythic outlaw Peckinpah Dylan. It’s Haynes at his most formally inventive and restless since “Poison,” tackling the man, the myth, and the ever-shifting image of his subject with a wit and deftness that you suspect Dylan would probably appreciate. Not every section satisfies immediately, but there’s a cumulative power to what Haynes is up to here, and it’s a film that’s only grown in power over time, thanks in part to the performances, which are close to faultless, not least Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated turn. It’s a puzzle box of a film: an enigmatic, oblique portrait that utterly fails to play by the rules of its genre. What better tribute could Haynes have paid to Dylan?
“Sid & Nancy” (1986)
It might have pissed off some of its subjects (John Lydon would later call it “the lowest form of life”), but few movies have captured the glory, mania and sadness of the first flush of punk as well as “Sid & Nancy,” Alex Cox’s dramatization of the ill-fated affair between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Structurally speaking, the film isn’t the most experimental here, but it’s dramatically far more interesting for focusing on the relationship between its title characters rather than becoming a more traditional telling of the Pistols story. the film opens with Vicious being arrested for Spungen’s murder at the Hotel Chelsea, before returning to the couple’s first meeting, their dive into heroin use, the break up of the band, and Vicious’ unsuccessful solo career. But it’s in the tone, rather than the narrative, that Cox breaks new ground, with a form torn between documentary grit and magic realism (thanks in part to terrific early work by DP Roger Deakins), and a take on the love story that at once romanticizes the central couple and their drug use while also showing the wretched, pathetic lengths that they’re reduced to. It’s a careful balance between capturing the anti-authoritarian spirit of punk and avoiding judgment, while mourning the waste of human life to drug use, and Cox walks it neatly. Or at least is pulled along by a mighty performance by Oldman, immediately iconic as Vicious (Webb got less attention, but she’s pretty great too).
Considering his reputation as a big-screen tough man, it’s somewhat remarkable Clint Eastwood helmed of the more successful and sensitive musical biopics, a genre full of disastrous attempts to overexplain legends. But the noted jazz enthusiast (his son Kyle is a jazz musician, and Eastwood Sr. composed jazz-inflected scores for a number of his late-period films including “Mystic River” and “J. Edgar”) put forth a real passion project with Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” and his love for the music and the man shines through. Forest Whitaker, in one of his earliest high-profile roles, is sensationally good, for which he picked up a Best Actor award at Cannes, and the ever-underrated Diane Venora is easily his match as Parker’s last wife Chan. The film doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Parker’s life either (he was addicted to heroin for most of his adult life), but still manages to keep on the right side of cliché. The film’s loose, jazz-like structure has mixed results: it stops the film from falling into formula, but it’s hard to walk away without feeling that 20 minutes could have been easily shaved from the film. But it’s still a powerful and authentic picture that’s underrated in the Eastwood directorial canon, and what shines through most of all is the director’s love of the music. And its use in the film is outstanding: Eastwood and music coordinator Lennie Niehaus isolated Parker tracks from original recordings and then mixed them with contemporary musicians, paying tribute to the man while keeping the music fresh.
“What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (1993)
We’ve tended to stick with the films that are less formulaic on this list because they’re obviously more interesting than the familiar rags to riches tales. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in formula. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” Brian Gibson’s portrait of soul legend Tina Turner, doesn’t exactly reinvent the rulebook, but it overcomes its more well-worn elements thanks to its tight thematic focus and sheer power. Written by Kate Lanier, it starts, as so many biopics do, with its subject showing their talents as a child, as Anna Mae Bullock, later to become Turner, blows the roof of a Tennessee church. But as the film progresses, it shows itself to be less interested with the details of Turner’s rise to stardom than it is with the depiction of an abusive relationship, as Anna Mae (Angela Bassett) meets and falls for Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne), who turns out to be controlling, manipulative and physically violent. The arc of the movie isn’t one of fame as an escape from childhood poverty and trauma, but one of strength and surviving abuse, and it’s incredibly moving as a result: few relationships of this kind have been better sketched out onscreen than the one between Ike and Tina, even as Gibson does a fine job of capturing the music world setting in the background. In the end, it’s the towering, Oscar-nominated turns by Bassett and Fishburne, still among the finest performances those two actors have ever given, that dominate, and that have made this film more memorable than many in the genre.
It’s perhaps a little odd that Manchester’s Factory Records and era-defining Manc band Joy Division inspired two biographical movies within a few years of each other: it’s odder still that both turned out brilliantly. “24 Hour Party People” is the better of the two: dizzyingly inventive, funny and well-performed, it’s one of the great British movies of the 21st century. But it’s arguably perhaps more a portrait of a time and a place, and more crucially not quite a biopic of musician, so Anton Corbijn’s very, very good “Control” makes the list in its place. Few were better placed to document the rise of Joy Division and the tragedy of its singer Ian Curtis, than Corbijn, who makes his directorial debut here: in his previous career as a photographer, he’d shot the band and its members for the NME, having been inspired to move to England by the band’s music. Shooting in stunning black and white, he evokes a lost 1970s in the British north, making it romantic while never making it fantasy, and there’s an authenticity to its depiction of both the rammed gig venues and the terraced streets that cannot be faked. But while Michael Winterbottom’s film painted Curtis as an unknowable enigma, Corbijn finds a way under his skin by placing an emphasis on his relationship with his wife Debbie Curtis (Samantha Morton), on whose book the film is based. And Sam Riley’s utterly soulful breakthrough performance captures sides of Curtis that even his music wouldn’t suggest.
“Bound For Glory” (1976)
Normally when a biopic comes out, you’ll find someone who lived through the events depicted arguing that the circumstances depicted on screen never took place, or you’ll see a blog post listing all the historical inaccuracies. But “Bound For Glory,” Hal Ashby’s tremendous film about folk singer Woody Guthrie is proof, if proof were needed, that sticking to the facts isn’t the end of the story: this is a movie that feels utterly truthful, even though enormous amounts of it are fictionalized. Adapted extremely loosely by “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” writer Robert Getchell from Guthrie’s autobiography, Ashby’s film is as much travelogue as biography, following Guthrie (David Carradine, who replaced the originally cast Richard Dreyfuss) as he travels the rails in the American West in search of work, leaving his wife (Melinda Dillon) and family behind. It’s a fascinating shift for Ashby: absent much of the humor and lightness of touch of the director’s earlier films like “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo,” it’s a sedate, steady picture, one that feels like it must have influenced the likes of Kelly Reichardt today. But it’s anecdotal, episodic nature feels preferable to something more contrived (though it does mean that Ashby doesn’t engage with Guthrie’s politics in the way that you might expect), and there’s a lyricism and poetry to the film that’s extremely rare for a film about a musician like this. Much of this is down to cinematographer Haskell Wexler: he’d known Guthrie personally in the Merchant Marines, and had originally been set to direct the film. The photography (notable for being the first movie to use the recently-invented Steadicam) is among the finest that the late, great Wexler ever did, and as powerful an evocation on screen of the Great Depression as exists.
“Behind The Candelabra” (2013)
Supposedly Steven Soderbergh’s swan song (he’s gone on to shoot 20 hours of TV since, plus whatever his HBO movie “Mosaic” turns out to be), “Behind The Candelabra” saw Soderbergh go out on a high point with an immaculately acted, deceptively rich tale of flamboyant piano legend Liberace and his younger lover Scott Thorson. Airing on HBO in the U.S. but having premiered at Cannes and released theatrically in much of the rest of the world, the Richard LaGravenese-penned picture shows Liberace (a transformative Michael Douglas) through the eyes of Scott (Matt Damon), an animal trainer seduced by the older man: thus begins a years-long relationship that sees the entertainer attempt to mold his boyfriend in his own image. For a film that plays with garish visuals and sometimes explicit sexuality, it’s surprisingly accessible, with Soderbergh toning down his formal experiments and evoking classic Hollywood melodrama, turning a deeply specific story into a fascinating, sometimes painfully raw, universal portrait of what amounts to a marriage. But it’s also an examination of iconography, of celebrity, of masculinity, of fathers and sons, and of excess and greed. Again, having a very specific point of view helps the film: we get a complete picture of Liberace (or Lee, as he is known to his friends), but only through the eyes of Scott, rather than a film professing to tell his whole life story. Soderbergh waited a number of years until Douglas and Damon were available, and you can see why: the former is simply staggering in a role completely opposite from his usual type, while Damon does his usual subtle, generous work in one of his finest turns.
Milos Forman can be seen as a biopic expert: his later films like “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man On The Moon” both expertly pulled off portraits of “difficult” men. But his finest moment in the genre is undoubtedly “Amadeus,” the Best Picture-winner that took what could have been fusty, dusty subject matter —the life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart— and turns it into something thrilling and entirely vibrant. Based on Peter Shaffer’s acclaimed play, the film tells Mozart’s life through the eyes of Salieri, a rival composer to Mozart, painted here as a mediocre talent who, unable to reconcile Mozart’s seemingly God-given music with his crude, boorish behavior, attempts to undermine, destroy and ultimately murder him. The result (which takes hefty creative license with the facts, as Shaffer has freely admitted) uses the story of Mozart and Salieri as a jumping off point to examine the nature of genius, jealousy and fairness, and it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation than Forman’s film, which never feels stagy and brings operatic themes to the screen without losing the nuances. Some of the greatest actors working at the time played the key roles —Paul Scofield had originated Salieri at the National Theatre in London, Ian McKellen won a Tony on Broadway— but then little-known actors F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were unexpectedly cast by Forman, and they nail it: Abraham’s an endlessly watchable Machiavellian Salieri, and Hulce seemingly channels the Sex Pistols as the over-the-top, giggly, foolish yet somehow charming Mozart. Both were Oscar-nominated, though only Abraham picked up the prize, one of eight Oscars the movie deservedly won.
“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007)
Sure, some might sneer at our inclusion of “Walk Hard” on this list, given that it’s a biopic of a fictionalized musician, and is in fact a parody of the music biopic genre. But to exclude it would be madness: it’s a film that emulates and borrows the biopic structure so expertly that not only does it do it better than most serious attempts, but it also essentially ruined it for any subsequent efforts (taking a film like “I Saw The Light” is much trickier after you’ve seen this). Produced by Judd Apatow, directed by Jake Kasdan and co-written by the pair, it stars John C. Reilly as Johnny Cash-ish country musician Dewey Cox, who famously has to think about his entire life right before he plays a gig. We join him on one of these recollections, from accidentally bisecting his brother in Alabama as a kid to worldwide superstardom, taking in novelty records, punk, psychedelia, disco, hip-hop, multiple marriages and children, and addiction to pretty much every kind of drug you could think of. It’s a scrappy, scattershot film to some degree, with a tone closer to the likes of Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker‘s “Airplane!” and the ‘Naked Gun‘ series than to “Anchorman” (the film felt out of step with the times as a result). But it’s so perfectly executed as pastiche —from a faux awards-worthy performance from Reilly, to the “Walk The Line”-evoking production values, to the excellent music, and so weirdly loving of both the form and of its central character— that it both perfects and utterly destroyed the genre. There’s no higher praise but to say that if Mel Brooks had still been making movies when “Walk The Line” came out, this is the movie he’d have made.
“Get On Up” (2014)
Full disclosure: “Get On Up” seemed to hew so closely to the “Ray”/“Walk The Line” formula that we skipped it in theaters. By the time we caught up to it recently, our worst fears were seemingly confirmed with the opening, which seems to be setting up a flashback structure that suggests that no one involved with the movie saw “Walk Hard.” And yet once it gets going, we were pleasantly surprised: somehow, the director of “The Help” had made a thrilling, vibrant and surprising biopic that avoids the trappings of much of the genre. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay and Taylor and Michael McCusker’s editing thrillingly leaps through time in a non-linear but far from random fashion, telling James Brown’s story in snippets and in a way that prioritizes the moments rather than the sweep of a life, often contrasting the dizzying highs almost immediately with the crashing lows. It’s not subtle, but neither was Brown, and Taylor effectively captures the energy of his music, and crucially doesn’t fall into the trap so many filmmakers do and decide that a biopic is meant to explain its subject. A hefty ensemble all impress, particularly Viola Davis as Brown’s mother, and “True Blood” actor Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, but it’s future Black Panther Chadwick Boseman who owns the film as Brown. He’s not quite as charismatic as the real JB, but who was? You still can’t take your eyes off him throughout.
Honorable Mentions: Even though we’ve covered the ten best, there are still some good ones otherwise. Sissy Spacek is tremendous as Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” while Todd Haynes also did tremendous work with “Superstar,” his unofficial, swiftly-banned Karen Carpenter biopic with Barbie dolls. If we were happy with a certain amount of fictionalization, we could have also include his “Velvet Goldmine,” as well as Eminem movie “8 Mile” and Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days,” among others.
We figured “Love & Mercy” and “Straight Outta Compton” were just a little too recent to make this list, but might have done a few years down the line. And there’s also “La Bamba,” “Shine,” “Great Balls Of Fire,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Backbeat” and “Lisztomania,” to name but a few. Any others that you’d defend? Let us know in the comments.