From films about 18th-century composers to more current rock stars and songwriters, Matthew Reddin ranks the Top 10 Musical Biopics of all time.
Imagine, if you will, a talented musician. They come from humble beginnings, relative obscurity. But there is talent to be found, and what their talent shows ends up being something that music fans of a certain age at a certain time seem to really respond to.
Fame follows, but because of the excesses that come with it, AND the weight of expectations of an overbearing [parental figure] [partner] [band member] [fanbase], they find themselves mired in substance abuse, excess, and either die too young or bravely push through it to go on to a career of acclaim and success … at the expense of their creative output, which drifts into mediocrity, mainstream nothingness—not a patch on their creative peak.
Should we make that a film? Well, many—too many, IMHO—have done just that. And there’s no end in sight. Here are the Top 10 best musical biopics of all time.
Amadeus is a musical biopic and stands out from the crowd in that it’s … very good. Similar narrative notes hit throughout: talented kid finds fame and adulation but is haunted by the expectations of an overbearing parent and succumbs to the overwhelming weight of his artistic genius and a predilection for self-abuse. It’s a superb film, freely adapted from Peter Schaffer’s abstract-expressionist play. The classical music purists will (and do) complain, however. At the end of the day, it’s great partly because they didn’t need to secure the music rights from the Mozart estate, so they could say what they wanted. It’s amazing what creative license can do.
2. Walk Hard
If Walk Hard did anything, it was reinforcing the fact that the entire musical biopic subgenre should be consigned to the dustheap of history. You can’t watch them now and not be swayed by Walk Hard’s skewing their now-cliched tropes, trying to make serious messages out of what were the lives of entertainers. Then, Bohemian Rhapsody basically took the entirety of what Walk Hard was satirizing and remade it for Queen. But without the jokes or the irony.
3. Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody is really, really bad. This is not to take anything away from the cast, who are great (Rami Malek won an Oscar, and Gwilym Lee is Brian May). But scene after scene is just … terrible. The “record label wants to sign your band” scene? Dumb. The “band touring the world with city names flying across the screen” montage? Dumb. The “band about to break up and would have, had John Deacon not written the bass line for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ at that *exact* moment” scene? Impressively stupid. The “I’ve written this stomp-stomp-clap song and whoopsie, it’s ‘We Will Rock You’” scene? Dopey. And the whole “Live Aid wasn’t making any money until Queen started playing ‘Radio Ga Ga,’ at which point the phones lit up and Queen basically ended African hunger” scene? Laughable.
Rocketman did what Bohemian Rhapsody failed to do, in that it made a film about a musician into an actual musical; they took the journey of Elton John and infused his music into it, turning it into a fantasy jukebox musical. Noble enough, it falls into the tropes of the genre and ends [spoiler alert] with Elton having given up the drugs and been successful, even if that success is in cartoon movies and funerals on TV. The film is … good-ish.
5. The Doors
The Doors mostly gets it right, thanks to the fact that Oliver Stone has a unique vision as a filmmaker, and Val Kilmer was exceptionally good as Jim Morrison. The Doors’ music is some poorly-written, also-ran West Coast formulaic rock that once you stop being 16 you realize isn’t genius AT ALL. Stone, for his flaws, manages to infuse his telling of this (patently uninteresting) band from the mid-late ’60s and imbue it with a certain mysticism that’s about as true to life as The Muppet Movie. But if he has one thing, it is skills as a visual storyteller. So, it’s an entry in the “W” column here.
6. Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy manages to tell a story about a certain musical phenomenon—The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson—but rather than recycle the usual arc, focuses on two pivotal moments from his life (his producing Pet Sounds in ’66; his mid-’80s mental health issues). We get an understanding of who the man is informed by two moments in his life, decades apart. Having him played by two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) helps to the degree that you don’t have a man in his 20s playing a man in his 40s, and vice versa.
7. The Buddy Holly Story / La Bamba
The Buddy Holly Story / La Bamba are both good movies that tell a very similar story, covering many of the same events that then share the same ending (their main characters board the same plane). What they have in their favor is that these were short careers: they hit big, hard, and then ended with a small catalog of quality music. The candle burned bright, then burned out. That informed the mystique, which is what makes their stories interesting.
8. The Rose / Velvet Goldmine / Grace of My Heart
The Rose / Velvet Goldmine / Grace of My Heart are all examples of how to make interesting films about musicians: by telling the story in a more interesting (i.e., fictionalized) manner. The Rose is essentially about Janis Joplin, except it isn’t. Velvet Goldmine is essentially about Bowie and Iggy Pop in the early ’70s, except it isn’t. And Grace of My Heart is essentially about Carole King, except it isn’t, and it’s better for it. Pretend that she worked with Phil Spector, was romantically involved with Brian Wilson and that his death shook her, except none of that happened, but it would’ve been interesting, and is more interesting than “she wrote ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’” and “recorded Tapestry.” Fictionalized versions of musicians make for more enjoyable films than “real-life” biopics.
Amy is a documentary, not a biopic, but it underscores the point about them being unnecessary. The doco gives us an intimate—and narratively satisfying—understanding of who Amy Winehouse was, the incredible talent she had, and the absolute tragedy of her eventual demise. The facts and truth about someone’s life will tell their story better than a fictionalized re-imagining ever could.
10. All That Jazz
All That Jazz is director Bob Fosse’s post-modern musical about … himself. And Fosse wasn’t a musician, but a filmmaker, dancer, choreographer, and theatre director. The piece is an autobiography and musical biopic in every way, except the names have been changed and [spoiler alert] the main character dies. But its genius lies in how Fosse was very, very good at this kind of thing; and if you’re going to be the subject of a biopic, you might as well do it yourself, with flair. He had the cojones to cast Ann Reinking as a character based on her, but only after he made her audition for the part. Baller move. I get the impression that it would have been awesome to be Fosse, but it would have been awful to know him.
And yes, there are dozens of others. But they all tell the same story, they all feature award-worthy (often award-winning) performances, and the music’s all great.
The inherent flaw in most musical biopics is that they seem to be a film adaptation of a Wikipedia page, not the hallmarks of great filmmaking. Where these things fall apart often comes down to the fact that musicians’ lives aren’t that interesting. Recorded, toured, over-indulged, had affairs, found redemption, and/or died is a good history lesson, but not much fun to watch with popcorn.