We’ve seen a revival in the music biopic over the last few months between the releases of three movies. Miles Ahead follows jazz icon Miles Davis during his 1970s hiatus from music. I Saw the Light charts the life and death of country legend Hank Williams Sr., but seems to focus more on his lifestyle than his music. Lastly, Born to Be Blue focuses on the music, love life and addiction of jazz musician Chet Baker. These films have gotten us thinking about music biopics, and in this feature, we name some of our favorites.
Love and Mercy
Love & Mercy tells the story of one of the greats: Brian Wilson of the sunny 1960s surf-rock band The Beach Boys. This Bill Pohlad-directed biopic is both smart and soft and bracing and breaking as it delves into each deeply complex end of a spectrum.
Paul Dano practically becomes ’60s Wilson in the golden heights of the band’s since-unparalleled success, while John Cusack takes on ’80s Wilson who’s been devastated by mental illness, drug abuse and psychological manipulation and exploitation during his care under Dr. Eugene Landy (a nightmare-inducing Paul Giamatti). While Cusack admittedly excels as the shaken and vulnerable musician-songwriter, Dano as young Wilson nears perfection. His performance is spellbinding — a critic’s dream — and he will squeeze your heart for all the juice it’s worth.
Every corner of Love & Mercy is filled with compassion and rich emotion. There’s the superb performances from the male leads and from Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s second wife (and practical living guardian angel) Melinda Ledbetter, the sharp editing and distinctive style, the sparkling script and the soundtrack that feels full and oh-so right. Love & Mercy is equal parts spry and scintillating, and it’s a vision all around. – Alana Jane Chase
Walk the Line
Johnny Cash will forever be a legend to the country and rock music genres. Shortly after my move to California in 2003, I began listening to his music after hearing it on local radio stations. With that being said I am a bit biased in why Walk the Line is towards the top of the list for my favorite music biopics.
The amount of passion and commitment Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon put into bringing the real-life personas of Johnny Cash and June Carter is stunning to say the least. Both of them do an excellent job at embodying the mannerisms and voices of their respective roles, but stepped it up even further by doing their own singing, which they developed from scratch with months of lessons before shooting began.
The movie itself takes a bold approach at focusing only on events from Cash’s early career, but the approach pays off considerably well in deftly building the deep relationship between he and June. For Johnny Cash fans, Walk the Line is an essential viewing, but it’s deserving just as much for casual film fans who admire actors giving great performances that are authentic in all aspects. – Tyler Christian
The music biopic is a tired genre, mainly because they get made so often, but also because the filmmakers rarely find the middle ground between showing who the performers were as musicians and who they were as human beings.
The 2007 Ian Curtis bio Control (2007) finds that middle ground, showing how the Joy Division lead singer’s life informed his music and vice versa, while also revealing the toxicity of both. Sam Riley is as perfect a choice to play Curtis as Jamie Foxx was to play Ray Charles, and his performance is a major part of the film’s success.
Stylistically, it’s also outstanding, with a dreary black-and-white look matching the tragedy of Curtis’ short life while Anton Corbijn’s direction matches the intensity of the band. The concert scenes are among the finest ever filmed for a biopic, while the scenes showing Curtis’ relationship with his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) make the non-music related portion of the film a fine domestic drama. This all leads up to a devastating final montage that makes the band’s brilliant “Atmosphere” all the more haunting. – Matt Rice
24 Hour Party People
Before Control, there was 24 Hour Party People, in which Michael Winterbottom told the story of the storied British indie label Factory Records through the eyes of its founder Tony Wilson. Steve Coogan plays Wilson in a film that has no fourth wall: Coogan address the camera, refers to events as they happen in front of them and he even comments that a scene that he describes was cut, and will end up on the DVD.
Wilson, a television journalist and punk rock fan, founds Factory Records in his hometown of Manchester, England and quickly signs Joy Division to their label. The portion of the film about Joy Division is terrific and just as important to learning Ian Curtis’ story as Control is. Following Curtis’ death, the subsequent career of New Order — Factory’s best selling group and the act that kept the label financially viable — is largely skipped over. Instead the film moves to the late ’80s popularity of the label’s Hacienda nightclub and the success of indie dance band the Happy Mondays.
24 Hour Party People captures the look and feel of Manchester’s vital music scene and perfectly captures all of the changes that happened in the the first decade of British indie rock. The film captures the producer Martin Hannett’s oddball genius, Ian Curtis’ fragility, Shaun Ryder’s bravado and most of all, Tony Wilson’s irreverance. Even though it has a humorous bent, the film is an excellent retelling of the history of Factory Records, and a must watch for fans of independent music. – Ryan Gibbs
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
For starters, Haynes uses Barbie dolls to tell the majority of the story, and they develop a stinging metaphor to the insecurities of maintaining a celebrity image that is considered proper to the status quo. The rest of the technicality is just as stunning, especially the intricate detail put into the small-scale sets.
Haynes’ biggest accomplishment though is that he takes an innovative approach in doing more than just simply telling the most notable events in Karen’s life. One way he does this is by cutting to montages that educate the viewer on anorexia nervosa, the disorder that ultimately led Carpenter to her death. In addition, Haynes doesn’t shy away from the horrors of Carpenter’s insecurities about herself, which are conveyed through surreal sequences that give off a body horror-like tone.
After the first scene Barbie dolls are used, you’re either on board or immediately tuned off of the style in Superstar. It’s still nonetheless a profound experience, and it was just the tip of the iceberg for Haynes’ growing evolution as a distinct auteur in independent cinema. – Tyler Christian
A friend once argued that while white privilege still exists to this day, it is not certainly the case for everyone depending on where you grow up. 8 Mile is not a direct biopic, but the story is influenced by Eminem’s struggle to come to the top as the laughing stock of the hip-hop community.
The film captures the trials and tribulations of the trailer park white boy on 8 Mile in the city of Detroit. Curtis Hanson and Scott Silver perfectly weave and shoot this story that never lets the white man win. It opens with Eminem choking on stage as Lil Tic (Rapper, Proof) wrecks him a new one. Eminem is dissed throughout it all, being compared to “worthless” white people and characters like Vanilla Ice & “Beaver” from Leave it to Beaver, which in retrospect helps dignify the power of hip-hop with the lights-out like ending it has.
He overcomes adversity as a white guy, in a world dominated by African Americans. The film isn’t a rags to riches story that other films tried doing, which means it’s certainly no Get Rich or Die Tryin’ or Notorious, where everything is lined thin and over glamorized. It’s the rags to riches of respect, the most important thing in hip-hop after having skills at first.
As you capture the ending more and more, and finally realize that the first take of the scene has Eminem actually freestyling, the rawness of hip-hop shines like a phoenix being reborn. This should not come to surprise as he was a freestyle monster. 8 Mile is a hip-hop film with depth and honesty, with a kickass soundtrack. – Kevin Montes
Sid & Nancy
Whether it’s Gary Oldman’s starring turn as the late Sex Pistols bassist or Alex Cox’s electrifying direction, this biopic snarls and bangs with a punk sensuality that is rarely emulated by films of the same ilk.
Chloe Webb makes Nancy seem more like the Bonnie to Sid’s Clyde than the innocent victim of his perceived drug-addled mania. Musically we’re treated to all the best the early punk era had to offer, including Sid’s solo disaster “My Way.”
Sometimes touching, often times sad, but nonetheless the most visceral of musical biopics that ever graced the movies. – William Eguizabal