LISTED: The top 10 music biopics
Straight Outta Compton is set to hit theatres on Aug. 14, telling the story of rap’s original gangsters, N.W.A. With two of the founding members - Ice Cube and Dr. Dre – serving as producers, the film should be true to the group’s origins and rise to prominence at the centre of hip hop’s golden age in the late 1980s and early 1990s… Or, at least the producers’ version of the group’s history.
“The World’s Most Dangerous Group” has left a legacy on the history of hip hop that extends through its original line-up to the likes of Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs N’ Harmony and Eminem. But their legacy extends past the music, anticipating the West Coast gangsta sound, the roots of G-Funk and a distinct movement that would help sow the seeds of a rivalry that eventually tore the hip hop world apart. The group’s cinematic treatment is one of the most anticipated musical biopics in recent memory.
But where will the film rank amongst the greatest musical biopics of all-time? Read on for a highly subjective and likely contentious list of the 10 greatest musical biopics of all-time.
Honourable Mention: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Four years after Carrie, Sissy Spacek grew up in a big way and earned a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. The rags-to-riches story takes Lynn from the Kentucky coal mines to the Grand Ole Opry. Spacek did all her own singing and for added musical appeal the film features Beverly D’Angelo as country legend Patsy Cline as well as The Band’s Levon Helm as Lynn’s father.
10. Notorious (2009)
The life story of Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G. is the current standard for hip hop biopics. Biggie’s early life and meteoric rise before his death at 24 are chronicled through a generous filter, considering the film is executive produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs. Still, Notorious tells the tale of hip hop’s most important and violent era, a cautionary one that centres around two of the greatest talents the genre will ever see.
9. The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s treatment of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ legacy is a free-form, very diversionary look at one of rock’s true icons. At times it’s a total mess. But, hey, so was Morrison. The Doors captures the excess of a drug-addled era while trying to unearth the mysticism of rock’s original poet.
8. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
The first half of the 20th Century was not devoid of its own musical biopics, including stories of vaudeville stars like The Jazz Singer - loosely based on the life of Al Jolson – and The Great Ziegfeld, about the legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld. While The Jazz Singer is praised as a pioneer in film sound and Ziegfeld won a Best Picture Oscar, neither is as entertaining or iconic as James Cagney’s portrayal of legendary Broadway star and producer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. The film that won Cagney his only Oscar is a stark about-face from his early days as cinema’s Public Enemy and despite being ridiculously flag-waving still contains some of the best showpieces in the early days of the movie musical.
7. Walk the Line (2005)
Johnny Cash was always trying to project his own iconography with the “Man in Black” narrative. He was a working man who championed prisoners, the beaten-down, America and so forth. The true story of Cash’s life, however, was his relationship with June Carter. That much is clear to anyone who has ever read his masterful autobiography. While Walk the Line does well to capture the music and the prison concerts and the drug addiction and the family history what it really nails is his devotion to June, on the backs of standout turns from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
6. Sid & Nancy (1986)
An absolutely manic film about an absolutely manic musician. Well, many would argue how much of a musician Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious really was but his 21 years certainly made for great cinema. Gary Oldman puts the necessary amount of filth and fury into the lead portrayal that tries to humanize one of the most unpredictable figures in the history of rock n’ roll. His life off-stage with Nancy Spungen would make for one of the most troubled on-screen musical/personal relationships, were it not for another pair still to come.
5. Ray (2004)
Biopics can live and die with an actor’s commitment to portraying an already iconic figure. Jamie Foxx – with his musical training and flair for theatrics – now seems like an obvious choice to play Ray Charles on screen. But heading into Ray he only had a couple dramatic roles to his credit. The fact that the world now immediately links him to Charles is the mark of a successful cinematic rendering of a true musical genius.
4. Amadeus (1984)
Yes, it’s cheating. The 1984 Best Picture-winner is based on Peter Shaffer’s play about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and takes a lot of liberties with the facts surrounding the life of the classical composer. That said, what it achieves is a humanizing of a man that to most modern audiences was just a vague concept. Milos Forman - and the sublime Tom Hulce - turned Mozart from a notorious prodigy to a genius brat and informed the way moviegoers thought about classical music entirely. Bonus points, of course, to F. Murray Abraham for actually being the only reason anyone knows the name Antonio Salieri.
3. Control (2007)
Another story of legacy outliving the subject matter, Anton Corbijn’s film on Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis is as beautifully shot as it is heartbreakingly remembered. The link between the two extends well past the biopic, since Corbijn extensively photographed the band during their prominent years (1976-80). Sam Riley’s turn as Curtis both on- and off-stage is nearly perfect and combined with stunning photography makes Control one of the most highly-regarded musical features of the 21st century.
2. What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Tina Turner’s harrowing marriage to her long-time husband and co-performer, Ike came to life on screen in 1993 seven years after her best-selling memoirs detailed the abuse she suffered throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Naturally, the dynamic is difficult to watch. Still, Angela Bassett’s fierce embodiment of Tina and Laurence Fishburne’s terrifying Ike make the film one of the standard-setters for the genre: A blend of the memorable on-stage moments and the terrifying reality behind the music.
1. La Bamba (1987)
Let’s get two things straight: La Bamba is not the greatest movie on this list, nor is Ritchie Valens the greatest musician on it. However, so much of Valens’ legacy - as it stands – is thanks in large part to the cinematic version of his life. While the original recording of “La Bamba” is a pillar of international rock n’ roll, it is the Los Lobos cover of the song that reached No. 1 in 10 countries. For a budding star that died at the age of 17 to still be more than a footnote in the crash that killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper it takes exceptional circumstances. This film, its soundtrack, Lou Diamond Phillips and Los Lobos are a large part of the Valens lore.