There’s a reason VH1 was able to produce so many episodes of Behind the Music back in the day. There nearly always drama to be found in the stories of successful musicians — moments of tragedy and triumph that any successful artist seems to have experienced in abundance. We love them for it, even when their stories feel more like cautionary tales, and so we make a lot of them into movies.
In biographical dramas about musicians, we often see stories of addiction and recovery, and of tortured souls whose only solace is in their art. Maybe that’s because many musicians lives and careers share similar trajectories; maybe it’s because those are stories that filmmakers know how to tell; and maybe it’s because those are the stories that we want to see. Regardless, we’ve built a mythology around the lives of musicians, to the point that we’re almost surprised when an artist’s life doesn’t conform to it in some way: A rock star who has never experienced a significant substance abuse disorder and tends to their mental health hardly feels like a rock star at all.
To some extent, the movies have taught us to think this way, and have left us with the troubling idea that true artists need to be tortured, and to live lives that are at least a bit tragic. There’s plenty of that in nearly every musical biopic, but the best of them offer a different and deeper perspective — considering the lives and careers of their subjects with a bit more humanity and thoughtfulness, and veering away from narrative tropes, even when they feel conveniently true to life.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Straight Outta Compton serves as much as an origin story for gansta rap as it does as a portrait of a time and place — much as the film’s title (and that of the 1988 album) implies. The members of N.W.A. were involved in the production of the film (Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays the rapper), so it’s impressive that the movie pulls no punches about the group’s struggles and failings. Ultimately, it takes an epic approach to the birth of a musical era that we’re still living in, and draws some darkly timely parallels between the N.W.A. era and the present; is a track like “Fuck tha Police” any less relevant now than it was in 1988?
Though less relevant on a surface level, director Milos Foreman’s film earned its various Academy Awards not by living entirely in the past, but by presenting the rise of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as if he were a modern rock star. The period trappings are all in place, but there’s an energy and style here that make it easy to understand how a figure like Mozart would have been perceived and received by 18th century audiences. On another level, the movie draws some more broadly relatable themes about jealousy in Mozart’s relationship with F. Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri (the film’s true lead). Salieri isn’t a particularly admirable character, but there’s a real sense of tragedy in the idea that someone who might have been regarded as one of history’s better composers never had a chance in the shadow of the sexier, more effortlessly talented Mozart.
Sid and Nancy (1986)
Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy pulls off an incredibly impressive trick in the way that it mirrors the appeal of the Sex Pistols, and the ‘70s punk scene more generally. At a surface level, Sid and Nancy (particularly Sid) are fairly repugnant people: narcissistic, abusive, violent, and completely out of control. But, as portrayed by Gary Oldman (in a career-making performance) and Nancy Spungen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of them. There’s a perverse charisma, even a charm, there, that’s incredibly compelling, even more than the car-crash appeal. Like early punk itself, it’s the idea of throwing off society’s rules that draws us in, even if the danger in doing so is all too real.
From, by far, the most interesting and thoughtful era in Clint Eastwood’s career as a filmmaker, Bird is in many ways the A Beautiful Mind of musical biopics. Charlie Parker, as brilliantly portrayed by Forest Whitaker, is an unparalleled genius who became a legend in only 30 years on the planet. Here, his self-destructiveness is inseparable from the structural racism that haunts every moment of his life and career, his talent being no match for societal forces arrayed against him.
Get on Up (2014)
As great as was Chadwick Boseman in his final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he’s extraordinary here — propping up and even elevating an otherwise episodic movie that only sporadically moves away from musical biopic tropes. Boseman virtually channels Brown, particularly in the performances, and its at those moments that the film soars.
A melancholy artist dies by suicide at a young age — it’s a tragically common narrative, both in real life and in film, but it’s rarely presented as humanely and tastefully as in this story of the short life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Based on a memoir by his wife and directed by Anton Corbijn, whose photographs were integral to the band’s mythology in the 1970s, the movie avoids all of the obvious and backward tropes about genius flaming out — it’s too interested in the Curtis as a human being, whose depression and epilepsy were sad facts of his life, not signifiers of musical genius.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
The sweaty, claustrophobic film doesn’t try to tell Ma Rainey’s story from top to bottom, instead focusing on a single recording session in Chicago of the 1920s. The hot house setting is perfectly realised, as is the sheer power of Viola Davis’ Rainey, a Black woman who wasn’t even remotely afraid of the clout and economic authority that she’d amassed.
A less-focused, but still engaging, portrait of Ma Rainey contemporary Bessie Smith, an equally important figure in the history of the blues. It’s formulaic in its structure, but Queen Latifah is flawless in her portrayal of an under-discussed musician from a formative era in American music. The roots of rock and roll, and every popular music genre since, are right here.
Where to stream: HBO Max
Walk the Line (2005)
Walk the Line loses some points for its relatively straightforward narrative (perfectly parodied in the underrated comedy Walk Hard): the trajectory here is one that goes from obscurity to fame to addiction to recovery — a powerful narrative for an individual, but a pretty common one in the realm of musical biopics. Where Walk the Line shines is in its performances: Joaquin Phoenix portrays Johnny Cash as a man who’s not merely troubled, but dangerous — the film’s title taking on a particular aptness given the sense that Cash is someone fighting a nearly literal battle with his own demons, and always on the edge of losing. Reese Witherspoon’s performance rescues June Carter from her pop culture status as the wife of the famous country star by establishing her as a funny, troubled talent in her own right, without whom Johnny never would have had a chance.
OK, Cabaret isn’t a biopic exactly, but the film’s Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) is based very explicitly on the life of real cabaret singer, writer, and anti-racist activist Jean Ross. It’s also a portrait of a time and place: Weimar Germany at the dawn of the Nazi era — a time of encroaching fascism to which many were indifferent, and others were too slow to notice. At the time of the film’s release, it felt like a period piece that, nonetheless, drew parallels between free-spirited Berlin of the ‘30s and the then-current glam rock era. Fifty years later, the film has new relevance given a new era of global autocratic rulers, antisemitism, and scapegoating.
I’m Not There (2007)
Rather than trying to nail down the iconic and changeable musical figure, Todd Haynes’ film wallows in the contradictions. So often, biopics work hard to stand down the rough edges of their subjects, to build a straightforward narrative rather than celebrating weirdness. Here, six actors portray Dylan in moments of fractured narrative, succeeding in capturing something of the cultural experience of an artist whose persona has always been in the eye of the beholder.
Elvis has never done much for me — I can appreciate the appeal, but generally I’d rather listen to the Black artists from whom he drew inspiration. The closest I’ve come to really getting it is in this weird outlier in the career of John Carpenter, at the beginning of his long run of collaborations with Kurt Russell. Though it was eventually released theatrically, it began life as a TV movie — and all that implies — but it’s not as though Carpenter ever had trouble working within a tight budget. The appeal is two-fold: even if he doesn’t sing, Russell magically captures Elvis’ stage presence, offering up a real sense of the sex appeal that drew fans in the thousands. It’s also a film that reckons with some of the darker aspects of Elvis’ life, offering up chilling moments of rage from the performer that are soft-pedaled in other accounts. (A perhaps more definitive, and certainly flashier, take is coming from director Baz Luhrmann later this year.)
Love & Mercy (2015)
Covering two distinct eras in Brian Wilson’s life and career, Love & Mercy portrays the founding Beach Boy in the 1960s (as played by Paul Dano), while he’s working on Pet Sounds, and then in the 1980s (when John Cusack takes over the role) as he is struggling with addiction and recovery. The two eras are presented as inexorably linked and informing each other, but splitting the film allows for a unique dual focus: in one era, we’re offered a unique insight into the mechanics behind the development of one of the 20th century’s iconic albums, in the other, a moving story of recovery with a great turn from Elizabeth Banks.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
I’m not sure how I feel about the film’s total reliance on straight actors to play queer characters, but there’s no question that Michael Douglas channels something here, capturing much of the bling-y appeal of Liberace, an artist whose charms are somewhat lost to time (his knack for live showmanship died with him, and his once incredibly popular pop-classical style of piano has fallen well out of fashion). The film mercilessly satires the performer’s love of excess, while cannily drawing us in to his weird, fascinating world.
It’s not just Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance that sells this take on the troubled rise of Ray Charles; he’s flawless, but every main performance here is great — Regina King, Kerry Washington, and Clifton Powell, in particular. Some of the beats here are pretty recognisable, but the performances create the feeling that we’ve gained some essential insight into these characters and the real-life individuals they represent.
La Bamba (1987)
The movie brought about a brief, but very real, renaissance in Ritchie Valens musician the late ‘80s, with a cover of the title song hitting the top of the music charts. Valens’ career wasn’t even a year old when he died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, but the film makes the case that he was easily as influential as those other early rock stars, managing to produce broadly popular songs in a white-dominated market, even scoring an unheard-of hit with the Spanish-language title song. Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and Esai Morales as his troubled brother are both fabulous.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The narrative as presented here is straightforward enough, but Michael Apted’s film shines in its recreation of the backwoods of Loretta Lynn’s childhood, and the smoky honky-tonks in which she came up. It’s the portrait of an era as much as it is of a musician, but Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning performance ensures that we never forget who we came to see.
What’s Love Gotto Do With It? (1993)
There’s an alternate universe in which this movie is about Laurence Fishburne’s Ike Turner — a drug-addicted and abusive, but talented musical genius. That’s a narrative we’ve seen plenty of times (even in this list), one in which there’s a wife or lover with whom we sympathise, but who’s ultimately a supporting character in a male artist’s story. Fortunately, Tina Turner’s own talent and willingness to share her story ensured that we get a different story — one about an abused spouse who steps out from her husband’s shadow to become a legend in her own right. The film is frequently harrowing, and takes a number of liberties with history, but Angela Bassett is electric in embodying the singer.
The Runaways (2010)
At the ’70s intersection of punk and glam rock, the Runaways had a brief moment in the sun before several of its members went on to greater fame in their solo careers. Kim Fowley, played here with creepy charm by the great Michael Shannon, assembled the group with less of an interest in musical talent than with an eye toward the jailbait-style sex appeal of the young women he’d recruited. The film turns, instead, on the band’s unexpected success, and the fierce talents of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, played with great style and attitude by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The two were able to turn something slightly sleazy into legendary careers as punk icons, and the movie does their feats justice.
Released in the shadow of the incomprehensibly successful Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody — which somehow earned Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar, very nearly won Best Picture, and earned nearly $US1 ($1) billion in ticket sales despite the fact that it is very bad — this colourful take on the even more colourful life of singer-songwriter Elton John is so much more thoughtfully constructed, insightful, and entertaining that its relative underperformance with audiences feels like a cinematic crime (and weirdly, it was directed by the guy who stepped in for the disgraced Bryan Singer when erratic behaviour and a sex scandal got him booted from that blockbuster).
Rocketman rules because of how it chucks the usual formula, instead using the music of Elton John (neé Reginald Kenneth Dwight) to serve as the songs in what essentially becomes a Broadway musical-style review of the man’s journey from obscurity to stardom and the accompanying descent into drug addiction. By eschewing reality, it feels far more faithful than would a straightforward rendition.