There comes a time in every musicians life (far down the road usually once their careers have ended or they have long since passed) where Hollywood comes knocking wanting to make a movie about the story of their lives. They typically begin as books with loads of subject material to choose from and become movies that are chopped up versions fans of the artist typically dislike. I recently saw Jersey Boys which, for those who don’t know, is based on the play which is based on the book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It was a hit on Broadway, but, in my opinion, not a great transition to the big screen. We won’t get into that. But, Jersey Boys got me thinking: What are some of the best music biopics out there?
I decided I would choose five of my favorite biopics. The cream of the crop when it comes to storytelling, which many don’t seem to like. I, for one, love a good biopic. Not only is it interesting to see something based on/inspired by real events but it’s really open to the directors artistic vision. I suppose that’s why many people don’t enjoy them as much. They simply aren’t black and white in the storytelling. But anyway, here’s the ones I enjoy the most.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey begins with the rise of Buddy Holly and his band The Crickets, their eventual breakup, reformation, and ends with the the untimely death of Holly. Buddy Holly’s story makes a great biopic because there’s well deserved success but a very tragic ending. An ending entirely accidental but made a huge impact on the music world. Gary Busey, not only has a somewhat strong resemblance to Buddy Holly but also sings like him. He also played his own instruments which made his Academy Award nomination all the more deserved (he lost). The film ends on their final concert in Iowa rather than on the plane crash which viewers learn killed Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, through a simple black title card. Something which makes the Day the Music Died a fact that doesn’t define Buddy Holly or leave the viewer feeling utterly depressed. The movie is about his music and rather than focus on his death, it celebrates his legacy.
The Doors (1991)
The Doors are kind of legendary as far as rock and roll bands are concerned. Their story just HAD to be told and Oliver Stone gladly took on that task. Sure, the movie really isn’t all that great in the larger scheme of things. It tends to focus more on the glorified debauchery of Jim Morrison rather than the band itself which is why the name of the movie seems rather unfitting. Oliver Stone has made it fairly clear that condensing someone’s life into a movie that can only hold a viewer’s attention so long should strictly contain the greatest hits. Which is probably why at times it feels like The Doors is a time machine flying out of control. But now to incidentals: Val Kilmer portrays Jim Morrison rather well. He looks like him, and sang most of the tunes in the film himself. Even members of the Doors claimed they couldn’t tell the difference (or maybe they are just nice). It’s fairly fast paced given the almost erratic subject matter. As previously mentioned, The Doors certainly is a quickened greatest hits of Jim Morrison’s life which, when given the choice between some crappy reality show and this, I would choose this any day.
Control is centered around Ian Curtis singer of Joy Division. The film is hands down one of my favorite biopics of all time (why wouldn’t it be? He wrote one of my favorite songs of all time) even though it wasn’t well liked among other Joy Division fans. Based on the book written by his widow, Debbie, it follows the span of his time in school, the creation of Joy Division, and his finals days before his death in 1980. Control was filmed in color and transferred to black and white and is simply beautiful visually. It also manages to mix Ian’s poetry and music seamlessly throughout the film in the perfect places. One of my favorite scenes is when Curtis is put under hypnosis and the camera does a spin around his head almost mimicking the voices and images floating about inside his mind. Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis in such a way it’s almost powerful at times especially when having to act out an epileptic seizure. Unfortunately, as time ticks on and the film begins to come to a close it becomes more and more clear what tragic conclusion is coming. Whether or not other fans are happy with how Control portrayed Ian Curtis’ life and death, the film is still, in my eyes, worth watching. Not only for Joy Division fans, but people who truly just like movies.
Walk the Line (2005)
Johnny Cash has a story extremely long biopics are made for. From his rise from farm boy to country star and his tumultuous love affair with June Carter, Walk the Line is entertaining from beginning to end. It’s dramatic, but at times funny and other times moves painfully slow. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash quite wonderfully if you ask me. His singing is something I never even expected to hear from him. But Reese Witherspoon steals the show with her portrayal of June Carter and her singing voice is absolutely terrific. Yet another person who had a singing voice I did not expect. The film deserved every Academy Award it was nominated for (or won in Reese’s case). As previously mentioned it’s hard to fit someone’s life into a certain time span without missing out on things or making other things choppy, and Walk the Line manages to not do that. It’s fluid and transitions fairly well without missing anything important to the story. Walk the Line was released a long with a slew of other biopics in 2005, but stood out considerably amongst the others.
I’m Not There (2007)
Seven different actors + seven different aspects of Bob Dylan’s personality and career = I’m Not There. My favorite biopic of time is I’m Not There. Not only do I have a fairly large love for Bob Dylan (especially 1960s Bob as many know), but it’s so perfectly made I can’t help but rave about it. There’s the poet, the prophet, the outlaw, the fake, the rock and roll martyr, the born again Christian, and finally the star each with their own segments and stories which flow effortlessly between one another. My personal favorite is Jude (played by Cate Blanchett) who most closely resembles the mid-sixties ‘gone electric’ Don’t Look Back, Dylan. Cate plays one convincing man it’s often hard to believe she’s actually a woman. She’s just that good at acting. That’s not to say the entire ensemble cast of characters isn’t perfect. From Heath Ledger to Charlotte Gainsbourg and even David Cross, everyone fits into their roles like puzzle pieces. The soundtrack features plenty of Dylan classics covered by a wide variety of artists from different genres. They each manage to give Dylan’s songs a new spin. All of that said, it mainly serves to entertain fans of Bob Dylan. Even in my screening I can still recall many people who weren’t pleased with it at all, but didn’t really like Bob Dylan to begin with (why they saw it was beyond me). All I know is I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end and still love watching it to this day.