L. KENT WOLGAMOTT | Lee Enterprises
With this month’s release of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” about Queen and its singer Freddie Mercury, it’s a good time to look back at the best of the music biopics — evaluated based on the accuracy with which they represent their subjects and as films, both artful and entertaining.
There have been music biopics for almost as long as there have been movies. A 1923 picture, for example, looked at the life of Italian violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini.
Since the genre truly took off in the 1970s — with movies like “Bound for Glory,” which told the story of Woody Guthrie — there have been dozens of biopics, some good, some bad, some ridiculously formulaic, some strikingly original, some relatively factual, some partly true and mostly fiction.
1. 'I'm Not There' (2007)
Director Todd Haynes’ unconventional take on Bob Dylan never mentions the man’s name and utilizes six actors to play in situations both realistic and highly imagined. Far from accurate, “I’m Not There” captures the chameleon-like Dylan better than could any conventional biography, and it’s worth watching just for Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of mid-’60s Bob.
2. 'La Vie en Rose' (2007)
French singer Edith Piaf is played by Marion Cotillard, who took the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the “little sparrow.” Presented as a series of episodes from throughout her life that flashes back to her on-stage collapse in her final performance, “La Vie en Rose” is accurate and powerful enough to be the only foreign language film on the list.
3. 'What's Love Got to Do With It' (1993)
Tina Turner is played by Angela Bassett. This biopic doesn’t extend to her ’80s hitmaking turn, focusing instead on Anna Mae Bullock’s early years performing with her abusive husband, Ike, played by Laurence Fishburne. The picture made the real Ike Turner into something of a music industry pariah.
4. 'Amadeus' (1984)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is played by Tom Hulce. Who knows how accurate the movie is, but it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. The film focuses on Mozart’s rivalry with composer Antonio Salieri, who’s played by F. Murray Abraham, who won one of the Oscars.
5. 'Sid and Nancy' (1986)
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious is played by Gary Oldman in this picture that Pistols singer Johnny Rotten blasted for its inaccuracy and romanticism — which likely means it cuts pretty close to the truth. In any case, Oldman and Chloe Webb, who plays his ultra-irritating girlfriend Nancy Spungen, are riveting.
6. 'Love & Mercy' (2014)
Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano and John Cusack. This picture about the Beach Boys’ troubled genius innovatively uses two actors: Dano, who portrays Wilson in the ’60s, at his and his band’s peak; and Cusack in the ’80s, when he struggled to come back from a mental breakdown and escape the control of his psychiatrist. This one’s pretty accurate.
7. 'Backbeat' (1994)
There have been plenty of movies made about The Beatles, but in this German-English production that focuses on the Fab Four in Germany, the relationship between John Lennon and bassist Stu Sutcliffe and Sutcliffe’s German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, is the best of the lot. Paul McCartney and George Harrison hated it. Kirchherr praised it for its accuracy.
8. 'Ray' (2004)
Ray Charles is played by Jamie Foxx, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the blind R&B pianist and singer and soul-music progenitor. The picture’s fairly accurate in its depiction of Charles, from his days in a Florida school for the blind through his early years on the road to his late ’50s breakthrough.
9. 'Walk the Line' (2005)
Johnny Cash is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who is far shorter than was the real Cash. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for playing June Carter, Cash’s second wife and savior, in this fine effort from director James Mangold that vividly, and fairly accurately, captures Cash’s early years.
10. 'Control' (2007)
Ian Curtis is played by Sam Riley. This powerful look at Curtis, the Joy Division singer who committed suicide, is based on the book by his wife Deborah, who served as one of the movie’s producers. Riley is superb as the charismatic and troubled Riley, as is Samantha Morton, who plays Deborah in this picture that won all kinds of British awards.
11. 'Coal Miner's Daughter' (1980)
Loretta Lynn is played by Sissy Spacek, who won the Best Actress Oscar playing the country singer opposite Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle. Based on Lynn’s autobiography with Spacek selected by Loretta to play her, the film’s an accurate look at her rise from the Kentucky hollers to Queen of Country Music.
12. 'Bird' (1988)
Charlie “Bird” Parker is played by Forest Whitaker. The short life of jazz saxophonist Parker, who got his nickname on a trip from Kansas City to Lincoln, is the subject of Clint Eastwood’s impressionist biopic. The picture flashes back and forth through his life and was criticized for its use of composite characters and the exclusion of Parker’s first three wives. But it captured the essence of the legendary, groundbreaking musician
13. 'Shine' (1996)
David Helfgott is played by Geoffrey Rush. Rush won the Best Actor Oscar playing Australian pianist Helfgott who, driven by his father and teachers, had a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions before returning to the stage. This one is, according to Helfgott’s family, wildly inaccurate in its portrayal of his father and his recovery from the mental problems.
14. 'Straight Outta Compton' (2015)
This powerhouse biopic of N.W.A., the Ice Cube/Eazy-E/Dr. Dre-led outfit that brought gangsta rap out of L.A.’s Compton neighborhood, has some flaws — it really slows down in its second half — and it’s got plenty of inaccuracies. But it’s nonetheless a violent, compelling look at hip-hop reality 25 years ago.
15. 'Get On Up' (2014)
James Brown is played by Chadwick Boseman. Boseman doesn’t look much like Brown and he couldn’t sing like the Godfather of Soul. But director Tate Taylor used the real Brown’s music in this kaleidoscopic film that bounces around from the ’30s and ’40s to the ’80s as it looks, fairly accurately, into Brown’s tumultuous life. And Boseman has him down.
16. 'The Buddy Holly Story' (1978)
Buddy Holly is played by Gary Busey in the best performance of his career. Adapted from a Holly biography, the film’s hit-and-miss when it comes to accuracy. Some of the departures from the real story are important. Others, like when Holly’s seen playing a Fender Telecaster rather than his trademark Stratocaster, not so much.
17. 'La Bamba' (1987)
Ritchie Valens is played by Lou Diamond Phillips. Phillips’ breakthrough performance came in this fairly accurate recounting of the story of the ’50s Chicano rock ‘n’ roller, who died in the 1959 “The Day The Music Died” plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. The soundtrack album, featuring Los Lobos, was a huge hit.
18. 'The Runaways' (2010)
Joan Jett is played by Kristen Stewart, Cherie Currie is played by Dakota Fanning and Kim Fowley is played by Michael Shannon. This authorized biopic — Jett was on set for most of the shooting — fairly accurately recounts the story of the all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band put together by Jett and scary Svengali manager Fowley.
19. 'Miles Ahead' (2017)
Miles Davis is played by Don Cheadle. Davis didn’t have a secret tape recorded during his drug-induced five-year retreat from the world in the 1970s. But writer/director/star Cheadle uses Columbia Records’ lust for that fictitious tape as the basis for his insightful take on the legendary jazz trumpeter.
20. 'Great Balls of Fire' (1989)
Jerry Lee Lewis is played by Dennis Quaid. Wildly inaccurate to the point of nearly being fiction, “Great Balls of Fire” is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining, as Quaid goes over-the-top playing the Killer, and Winona Ryder is perfect as his teenage cousin bride, Myra.
Honorable mention: '8-Mile' (2002)
Eminem plays B-Rabbit (basically himself) in this superb hip-hop drama about a white rapper trying to make it in Detroit’s almost exclusively black rap world.
Honorable mention: 'Almost Famous' (2000)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical memoir of his days as a teenage Rolling Stone writer has a band that’s a composite of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, with The Eagles’ Glenn Frey as lead singer. Its lead groupie, Penny Lane, is based on a real woman of the same name.
Honorable mention: 'This is Spinal Tap' (1984)
Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about the British heavy-metal band Spinal Tap grew out of comedy skits and is largely improvised. While it’s not specific to a single band, it inspired dozens to claim it was their story being made fun of on screen.