20. Great Balls of Fire! (1989)
Some inspired casting made this biopic fiercely watchable – and it’s a movie that doesn’t quite conform to either of the genre’s two templates: underdog rise or tragic downfall. Dennis Quaid is the rock’n’roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis, the insurgent 50s star who married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra, played by Winona Ryder – to the horror of the US and that of his other cousin, the preacher Jimmy Swaggart, played by Alec Baldwin. But Lewis stays unrepentant and defiant to the end. A fascinating dramatisation of how sex, evangelical passion and rock’n’roll euphoria are all close cousins in the American family.
19. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
It was destined to be more of a soundtrack album than a movie, and the storytelling wasn’t all that great. But Diana Ross, making her screen acting debut, gave what was considered an impassioned and utterly committed performance as Billie Holiday, in this Motown-produced film playing opposite Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams. The movie skates over some of Holiday’s early life and first two marriages and arguably evades the full grim truth about her abuse. Yet Ross sells it with absolute commitment, especially in the prison scenes, and the singing makes it that rarity in music biopics: a legendary singer played by a legendary singer.
One of the great movies about punk, because it pulls no punches about the boredom, disillusion and misery that lay behind punk’s brief and stunning flourish of anarchic rage. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb give superb performances as the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, living lives of Beckettian torpor and squalor in New York’s Chelsea hotel, Sid having been left high and dry after the Pistols split. He is yearning for heroin and also the delicious drug of superstar celebrity, which he had just got used to.
17. Sweet Dreams (1985)
Crazy for trying … crazy for crying. A bold and fervently acted attempt from director Karel Reisz to dramatise the life of the country star Patsy Cline, a film that perhaps didn’t quite escape the shadow of Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, about Cline’s friend Loretta Lynn. Jessica Lange confers a willowy beauty on the role of Cline (miming to Cline’s own vocals) and Ed Harris plays her husband, who – in sickeningly familiar style – beats her and can’t accept her star status.
The authorised biopic account of Elton John was exec-produced by the man himself and disappointingly stops before the 90s and before his meeting with the real love of his life, David Furnish. So the classic music-biopic template of dizzying rise, followed by drug/egotism crisis, followed by redemption is perhaps misleadingly squeezed into just two-thirds of the journey. But Taron Egerton is a very game impersonator of Elton, doing all his own singing, and Jamie Bell is his songwriter, Bernie Taupin. The movie is partly a jukebox musical and partly a full-on Andrew Lloyd Webber-style extravaganza that will surely be revived on stage in a post-Covid world.
This explosive biopic version of the West Coast hip-hop pioneers NWA has most of the genre’s key moments, but it also popularised a new music-biopic scene – the chaotic confrontation in the record company offices, as NWA explode from the anger, racism and police brutality of South Central Los Angeles. Ice Cube is played by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr (an eerie resemblance). The film goes easy on the question of sexism, but shows how their furious lyrics were politicised in a new kind of nihilistic, apolitical and unaligned way, gatecrashing the white world of success. A music-biopic that certainly twists the volume dial clockwise.
Andy Serkis gives us an absolute barnstormer with his wonderful performance as the punk-era singing star and polio survivor Ian Dury, singing all Dury’s vocals with his actual band, the Blockheads. Naomie Harris plays Dury’s partner; Tom Hughes plays his lead guitarist, Chaz Jankel; Ray Winstone plays Dury’s dad in flashback; and Toby Jones plays the nasty orderly at the bleak polio hospital where Dury spent his childhood. Serkis, who also exec-produced, is in almost every frame of the film and his ferocious energy powers it along. It’s a gutsy, passionate picture and, though it’s a labour of love, it never feels laborious.
13. Backbeat (1994)
Iain Softley’s smart movie about the early days of the Beatles finds an indirect way of getting up close and personal with the music legends; the film-makers couldn’t afford the expense of using the copyrighted Lennon/McCartney songs. A study of the band’s hardworking lives gigging in Hamburg in the early 60s, the film counterintuitively centres on Stuart Sutcliffe (Steven Dorff) – the band member who was destined to die of a brain haemorrhage just as they were on the verge of greatness – and his German girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, played by Sheryl Lee. (This tragic slant may have been an influence of Anton Corbijn’s Control.) Ian Hart gives a spiky, tasty, angular performance as John Lennon, who is shown as having an intense, almost romanticised friendship with the doomed Sutcliffe.
There is a debate to be had as to whether Gus Van Sant’s utterly and almost oppressively hypnotic film is a biopic or not. But it looks it in all but name: a brilliant, audacious leap into the tortured and unhappy mind of the Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, in his final hours, played by Michael Pitt, but fictionalised as the every-star Blake. Long, eerie, all-but-silent sequences show his sadness and desperate loneliness, roaming restlessly around his shambolic mansion and surrounding woodland estate like a wounded animal. It is captivating and even thrilling to watch Blake/Kurt make his sacrificial and pain-wracked progress to the cliff’s edge.
You would need a heart of stone not to enjoy it, and toes of stone not to tap along. There’s a warm and generous richness to this biopic of country singing legend Johnny Cash. In this role, Joaquin Phoenix made a great career leap forward and Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar as his great love, June Carter (and Phoenix and Witherspoon sing all the songs). The director, James Mangold, tells a seductive story packed with period details of Cash’s dire boyhood picking cotton in depression-era Arkansas, his guilt at the death of a much-loved brother, his unhappy military career and his fraught marriage, until his deep groan of a singing voice found expression as the Man in Black, discovered in the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Witherspoon is brilliant as Carter, and in fact almost outshines Phoenix, coming close to persuading the audience that it is really all about her, or should be.
Good Vibrations is a terrific music biopic about someone who isn’t a singer, a musician or even a producer. It’s about a record-shop owner who became the proprietor of a tiny indie record label in the halcyon era of punk and John Peel, when such things could be really important. The hero is visionary Belfast entrepreneur Terri Hooley, played by Richard Dormer, who is ecstatically converted to punk on seeing the Undertones play live, and opens a record shop in the middle of Belfast called Good Vibrations, a place where the tribal sectarian divisions were utterly irrelevant. This becomes the spiritual HQ of punk in Northern Ireland and launching pad for the Undertones and their great single Teenage Kicks. The legendary real-life moment when Peel plays this record twice in a row makes for a great scene in the film, when the band miss it the first time and are incredulous and overjoyed to catch it again immediately.
This was the experimental, no-budget 43-minute film with which the young Todd Haynes made his name, about the last years in the troubled life of Karen Carpenter. He used existing archive footage, presented dialogue scenes with Barbie dolls playing the main characters and, most cheekily of all, used the original songs without copyright permission. (This financial hurdle is why the music biopic genre is usually the preserve of big studio films, which can manage the cost with the release of a soundtrack album – and beyond the reach of independent film-makers; this may have been the issue for the new David Bowie film, Stardust.) Karen’s brother, Richard Carpenter, for all these reasons, raised legal objections to the film in 1990 and it went out of circulation before gaining cult status online. Carpenters fans everywhere realised that Haynes’s film is actually a fierce, if weird fan-love-letter to Karen, as well as being a radical deconstruction of celebrity mythology, fanhood and the rhetoric of the music biopic itself. I would love to see Haynes now do a live-action remake.
8. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The British TV director Michael Apted was already a major player, not least thanks to his work on the Up documentary series for British television, which tracked the lives of 14 children from differing backgrounds. This is an emotionally brash retelling of the life of country singing star Loretta Lynn from her tough beginnings in the mountain country of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. The film was a massive success because of the magnificent performance of Sissy Spacek (singing the numbers herself, and picked for the role by Lynn personally) who has the remarkable knack of appearing almost any age from teenager to late-twentysomething. Apted’s Up documentaries were, in the British style, about the manacles of class, but this American narrative is about something else: social mobility and anything being possible. Spacek’s Lynn achieves almost overnight success from hardscrabble poverty, mentored by Patsy Cline and married to a husband who is not, in fact, the usual mean brute, but a recognisable, flawed human being, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Of course, there has to be a crisis caused by success.
7. What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
Of all the music-biopic rules, the one about taking the title from the famous song is the one that stands out in this 1993 biopic of superstar Tina Turner, played by Angela Bassett. It’s about abuse – and not just the abuse that a music-biopic hero or heroine might suffer in childhood and then break free of as an adult star, transforming the remembered pain into art, but actual ongoing abuse from the husband and singing partner who gave you your big break – in this case, Ike Turner, scarily played by Laurence Fishburne. And what’s love got to with it? Nothing and everything. Tina was brutally abused by her husband for years, the abuse escalating alongside their success and fame and Ike’s continual paranoia that she was better than he was and that audiences liked her better than him. Finally, she walks out, bruised and bleeding, with just a few cents in her pocket, and begs a local hotel to let her stay until she’s back on her feet. It is this portrayal of domestic abuse, which can somehow stay invisible to the outside world and perhaps even to an inner circle, that makes this film so powerful.
6. Bound for Glory (1976)
Hal Ashby created a Steinbeckian music-biopic from the fictionalised autobiography written by the troubadour and folk singer Woody Guthrie – played here by David Carradine, whose father, John, had played Preacher Casy in John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a beautifully composed period piece set in the 1930s US dustbowl that is of a piece with early Terrence Malick and may have inspired Chloe Zhao’s new film Nomadland. The music biopic as a genre can be politically conservative, in that its sympathy with and awareness of the underdog is activated only with the portrayal of a singer’s humble past, and this awareness usually expires with the singer’s success. Here, Guthrie is shown leaving Oklahoma to make his living in California, riding the rails, living among the hobos and workers in their camps and entertaining them with his songs. He experiences the brutal exploitation of migrant fruit pickers, and we are plunged into their lives. But when he finds success singing songs on the radio about this situation, instead of building on this career, he stays on the move, heading out to cities where his music can make a real difference in working people’s lives. Nominated for the best picture Oscar, Bound for Glory went up against All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network – they all lost out to Rocky.
Olivier Dahan’s movie about the French singer Edith Piaf, who electrified audiences in France and around the world in the 30s, 40s and 50s, can be exasperating in its haphazard storytelling. The dizzying flashback/flashforward structure certainly makes a change from the traditional rise-crisis-comeback biopic narrative, but it seems designed to camouflage the tactful omission of Piaf’s life in wartime occupied France – when survival was often a matter of making nice with the Nazis. But what a glorious performance from Marion Cotillard, who is eerily transformed into the chanteuse. She expertly embodies the singer with that passionate vibrato, like a demented car alarm, whose physical slightness and apparent fragility awoke such intense gallantry in her countrymen. She has the pop-eyed glare, the high hairline and the buck-toothed grimace, which gives extra sibilant disdain to the insults she lavishes on her subservient entourage. And she also does the walk, a kind of marionette shuffle, as if her elbows and pelvis are invisibly connected.
Photographer Anton Corbijn made a stunning directorial debut with Control, a black-and-white film about the troubled life and times of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the new wave band Joy Division, who in 1980 took his own life on the eve of his first US tour. He was suffering from epilepsy and depression, agonised by a failing marriage and the waves of violence and nihilism his music had unleashed, and terrified by the accelerating bandwagon of celebrity – he had control over none of it. Sam Riley is outstanding as the sensitive, intense, awkward Curtis; Samantha Morton is Ian’s delicate, self-effacing wife, Deborah; and Alexandra Maria Lara plays the Belgian journalist with whom Curtis falls in love (Lara was in fact to marry Riley). There is a superbly realised kitchen-sink free-cinema detail in the decor of England’s working and middle classes, all minutiae passionately captured. It’s a reminder that however swirlingly modern that late 70s may have seemed at the time, it was not so different to the seedy 50s or the hungry 40s.
3. Elvis (1979)
John Carpenter’s Elvis, originally made for television but subsequently released theatrically in shortened form, features a wonderful performance from the 27-year-old Kurt Russell as the young Elvis Presley. The movie tracks his life from earliest youth, with Shelley Winters as his mother, Gladys, right through the years of his superstardom, with Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker – and stops in 1970, at the start of the Vegas years and before the weight problems. Russell is a memorably intense Elvis, doing a strong and yet subtly observed version of the spoken voice (but lip-synching to country singer Ronnie McDowell for the songs). It was his inspired and watchable portrayal, just three years after Presley’s death, that in effect created the global phenomenon of Elvis impersonation that continued in pubs, bars and hen-nights all over the world – though mostly without Russell’s skills. He shows Elvis’s intensity, instability and complex emotional pain.
2. Ray (2004)
This uncomplicated, celebratory movie from director Taylor Hackford has probably become the classic music-biopic template, largely due to the magnificent performance from Jamie Foxx as the soul and R&B singer Ray Charles, who had gone blind at nine years old, but rose with Horatio Alger-like dedication to be a multimillion-selling recording star. Foxx himself is no mean singer, though he lip-synchs to the real thing on the soundtrack. Charles himself advised on the movie’s development until his death, just before it was released. Foxx gives a virtuoso performance as Charles, uncannily reproducing his physical movements and idiosyncrasies, especially the rolling gait, somewhere between the caution of a blind man and the swagger of a star. The angular, apparently cumbersome emphases of shoulders and elbows are perpetually establishing balance and control; the subtle figure-of-eight movement of the head is an auditory scoping-out of the physical environment that blossoms at the piano keyboard into an ecstatic affirmation of the music. Charles is shown experimenting with many musical forms: blues, country, R&B, rock’n’roll and, most pertinently, gospel. The whole movie is, in its way, evangelising for Ray Charles.
1. Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand made her screen debut with her Oscar-winning performance here, which laid the foundation for a continuing global fan-adoration. She sensationally portrays the pre-war singer and comedy star Fanny Brice, alchemising Brice’s goofy turn into an extraordinary and unique persona, accessibly combining glamour and modernity. Maybe no music biopic in history offers this kind of transformation: not the minutely and submissively observed replication of a well-known star that usually features in this genre, but a recreation or reinvention that is instantly more famous than the original. Hollywood veteran William Wyler, hardly less of a legend himself, directed a movie that wasn’t much to do with the swinging 60s, but rooted in Broadway (the film is taken from the hit stage show) and also in the movie musical tradition spanning the previous three decades. Funny Girl has a key music-biopic component, or flaw: it is all about the lead performance and everything else around it is subservient. Even Streisand’s formidable leading man, Omar Sharif, is a little subdued. But Streisand is everything: her talent, her femininity, her Jewish identity, her sexuality and her vulnerability are all performed with extravagant joy and her songs are all of course showstoppers, especially Don’t Rain on My Parade.