From the Archives: Top 10 Music Biopics
I wrote the following for MSN back in 2004 in anticipation of “Ray.” Some of it still works. I'll add my new top 10 at the end.
You say you’re a musician and someday you want Hollywood to tell your story? Here’s what you need to do:
- Tell friends and family there’s something “inside you” that needs to get out.
- If you're male, get a drug habit.
- If you’re female, get an abusive husband.
- Die young. Preferably by plane crash.
We don’t know how many of these scenarios are in the two music biopics opening this fall—Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray,” and Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in “Beyond The Sea”—but we wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few. In the meantime enjoy this list of our 10 best music biopics.
Guidelines. No romans a clef, such as “The Rose” or “Eight Mile.” Also no TV movies: “The David Cassidy Story” or “The John Denver Story.” Life’s too short. No documentaries or mockumentaries, either. Finally, the movie has to be about people famous for their music, not musicians famous for their biopic. This eliminates two great films—“The Pianist” and “Shine”—but opens things up to more traditional examples of the genre.
Now let’s rock n’ roll. To the toppermost of the poppermost!
10. “Bird” (1988)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Joel Oliansky.
Remember the “drug habit” scenario above? Here’s a caveat: If the drug habit is the focus of the film—like in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Sid and Nancy,” and “The Doors”—it’ll probably kill the film. There's not much that's less dramatic than someone succumbing to addiction. So why is “Bird” on this list? Because Forest Whitaker’s tortured performance as Charlie Parker sticks. Some of the scenes, too, have a spark: traveling through the deep south with “Albino Red,” and in L.A. with Dizzy Gillespie. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t. Too bad it’s 160 minutes.
Who plays?: Charlie Parker.
Obstacles to success: Cymbals flying through the air.
Problems with success: Drugs. Ulcers. Racism.
Memorable number: Buster Franklin being reintroduced to that kid who couldn’t play in Kansas City.
Academy Awards: Best Sound. Forest Whitaker won Best Actor at Cannes.
Quote: “Chan, comma. Help, period. Charlie Parker.”
9. “La Bamba” (1987)
Written and directed by Luis Valdez.
It’s a bit cartoony. A migrant labor camp never looked so idyllic, and the high school hallways are straight out of “Grease.” The adolescent romance between Ritchie Valens and Donna is, well, adolescent, and Lou Diamond Phillips doesn’t lip-synch particularly well. But the movie is what it sets out to be: a kind of Cain and Abel tale, with Cain carrying a bottle and Abel a guitar. Quick question: on that night in 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa, three musicians went down in a chartered airplane, and two are on this list: Ritchie Valens (#9) and Buddy Holly (#6). So why is J.P. Richardson getting dissed? Where’s “Hello Baby: The Big Bopper Story”?
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Los Lobos.
Obstacles to success: Not many. The kid was seventeen.
Problems with success: His brother. Airplanes.
Memorable number: Singing “Framed” at the American Legion Hall as Bob arrives drunk and ready to fight.
Music cameos: Los Lobos (in a Mexican brothel); Brian Setzer (as Eddie Cochrane); Marshall Crenshaw (as Buddy Holly).
Quote: “I’m gonna be a star. Because stars don’t fall out of the sky, do they?”
8. “Backbeat” (1994)
Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas, Stephen Ward.
Search the world over and you won’t find anyone who can do a better John Lennon than Ian Hart. “Backbeat” was actually Hart’s second go at John—after the short film “The Hours at the Times”—and once more he’s amazing: looks, sounds, acts just like the former Beatle. Just doesn’t sing. The film focuses on John’s friendship with his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe, who sold a painting, bought a bass guitar and joined the band. It’s about the Beatles’ Hamburg days, where they honed their talents, and about a love triangle: John, Stuart, and Astrid, the woman who gave the Beatles bangs. But who is John jealous of: Stuart or Astrid? John seems equally confused.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Don Fleming (Gumball), and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) play the music for the early '60s Beatles. Nice! But let’s face it: If Pete Best pounded the drums the way Grohl does, we never would’ve heard of Ringo Starr.
Obstacles to success: The picture makes it seem the Beatles’ path to success was greased when it wasn’t. Remember “Three-guitar and one-drum groups are on the way out”? You know, as wrong as you’ve ever been in your life, you’ve never been that wrong.
Problems with success: Takes place before the success.
Memorable number: “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Long Tall Sally”: Take your pick.
Academy Awards: Nope. But Hart recognized as Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTAs.
Quote: “It’s all dick.”
7. “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955)
Written and directed by Valentine Davies.
“I must say Benny does have his own strange kind of integrity,” future wife Alice Hammond says of Goodman in the middle of this biopic, and the picture’s the same way. It’s one of three Hollywood jazz stories made in the 1950s (along with “The Glenn Miller Story” and “The Gene Krupa Story”), but it works better than the other two, in part, because of this integrity. Goodman has a nerd’s courage when confronting mobsters and bland band leaders but none with Hammond, who must take the lead in their relationship. Allen is understated as the jazz clarinetist. Donna Reed is charming as the classical music enthusiast won over to jazz. And the music swings.
Who plays: Benny Goodman. Steve Allen was an accomplished musician/composer, however.
Obstacle to success: The usual unimaginative promoters and businessmen.
Problem with success: She’s gentile, he’s Jewish.
Memorable number: Blowing away the stuffy society folks at Carnegie Hall with “Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing).”
Music cameos: Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Kid Ory, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Martha Tilton.
Quote: “So many things he wants to say. And no clarinet to say them.”
6. “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)
Directed by Steve Rash. Written by Alan Swyer.
Rock n’ roll has a bit of a complex – it yearns for both street cred and art cred – and two scenes in “The Buddy Holly Story” exemplify this. At one point Holly and the Crickets show up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and win over a startled black crowd who were expecting black performers. That’s the street cred. Later, a classical violinist compares Holly’s use of strings in “True Love Ways” to Beethoven. That’s the art cred. It helps, too, that Holly shakes his head over the violinist’s comments. You can’t be a true rock n’ roller if you’re seen vying for art cred. The film is a low-key account of rise and crash, with Gary Busey channeling his inner geek to earn an Oscar nom, and Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith playing great back-up as the Crickets, the band that inspired the naming of the Beatles. Occasionally the 1970s seep through the seams of this period piece, but mostly it works the way Holly’s tunes work: without strain.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Gary Busey. Plays, too.
Obstacles to success: Sponsors and preachers who don’t dig rock n’ roll. Suits who won’t let him produce his own music, man.
Problems with success: The jealousy/homesickness of the Crickets.
Memorable number: Singing “Oh Boy” at the Apollo Theater.
Academy Awards: Best Music. Busey was nominated Best Actor.
Quote: “No white act has ever played the Apollo!”
5. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993)
Directed by Brian Gibson. Written by Kate Lanier.
You watch this thing flinching from anticipated blows. When’s he going to strike? Here? Here? When the first punch lands you find out it’s not the first anyway, and then he rains them down and drags her through the house as friends stare in mute horror and the children scream. One boy holds his ears and cries – so heartbreakingly real you wonder what they did to the kid to get him to act that way. When the abuse continues, year after year, it almost drains your energy away. But when Tina finally fights back in the limousine, and she lands that first blow of her own? Oooh, that one feels good. Too much Buddhism at the end, and Ike keeps popping up like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” but still our most emotionally raw music biopic.
Genre: Rhythm and Blues.
Who sings: Tina Turner.
Obstacles to success: Not many. Well, race.
Problems with success: Ike.
Memorable number: Singing “I Wanna Be Made Over” as she is.
Music cameos: Tina shows up at the end.
Academy Awards: Both Bassett and Fishburne were nominated. Bassett’s so good we think she would’ve won if she’d been able to sing like Tina.
Quote: “Everything’s alright. Just me and your mama talking.”
4. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Robert Bucker and Edmund Joseph.
Yes, cornball, overly patriotic, and the Four Cohans in blackface is embarrassing. But few actors have embodied energy on the screen as well as Cagney, who shed his gangster image (for a New York minute) by quick-talking, tap-dancing, and charming his way through this biopic of George M. Cohan, creator of American myths, and composer of such rousing American standards as “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.” We’re a cynical lot, but the scene where he tap-dances down the White House steps still makes us misty.
Genre: Tin Pan Alley
Who sings: Cagney, see?
Obstacles to success: Dietz and Goff.
Problems with success: Critics. Teenagers in jalopies.
Memorable number: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” What else?
Music cameos: Eddie Foy, Jr. plays Eddie Foy.
Academy Awards: Best Actor (Cagney), Music and Sound. Nominated for five others, including Picture, Director, Script, Editing, and Supporting Actor (Huston)
Quote: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
3. “Bound for Glory” (1976)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Robert Getchell.
Ironic title, given it’s one of the few music biopics where the lead character doesn’t seem bound for glory. In fact the young Woody Guthrie seems like a lazy, impractical dreamer. He paints signs, plays fiddle, tells fortunes, fools around. The movie picks up when he picks up and encounters bullying railroad men and uncaring church men on his way to California, the promised land, where things only get worse. The film is like its subject. It has an unhurried, rambling nature. Look for Ronny Cox, the epitome of corporate villainy in films like “Robocop,” as Woody’s mentor, Ozark Bule, the anti-corporate union organizer.
Who sings: David Carradine. Actors sang in the seventies.
Obstacles to success: The dust bowl. The California border patrol.
Problems with success: Sponsors, marketers, and packagers.Memorable number: A sing-along led by Ozark Bule in a migrant labor camp.
Academy Awards: Best Music and Cinematography (Haskell Wexler). Nominated for Film Editing, Costume Design, Writing and Picture. 1976 was a tough year at the Oscars.
Quote: “You sure as hell don’t look like much. How do you sing?” “Makes me happy.”
2. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Thomas Rickman.
For a film with abject poverty, a near-rape scene, and a whole lot of bickering and squallering, this movie is pure fun. It’s partly the writing and direction, of course, and it doesn’t hurt to have locals in speaking parts. (When did directors stop doing that?) But the movie really belongs to its two stars. Sissy Spacek plays Loretta Lynn from age 13 to, what, 40? She sings like Loretta. Hell, she should’ve gone to Nashville afterwards and cut herself some records. And with her in nearly every scene is one of the best actors in Hollywood. Tommy Lee Jones’ Doolittle Lynn is a flawed, fascinating man who literally drives his wife to stardom only to discover that by succeeding he’s failed. Her success – their success – has rendered him superfluous. How does he handle this? At first poorly; then like a man.
Who sings: Sissy Spacek. Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Spacek’s pitch-perfect Loretta Lynn is Beverly D’Angelo’s pitch-perfect Patsy Cline.
Obstacles to success: Poverty, obscurity, shyness.
Problems with success: Headaches. Doo.
Memorable number: Quieting a honky-tonk with “There He Goes.”
Music cameos: Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. Levon Helm plays Loretta’s father.
Academy Awards: Best Actress for Spacek. The film was nominated for six others, including Picture, Writing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. The fact that Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t even nominated discounts for all eternity every awards show everywhere. We’re serious.
Quote: “Stop making that noise! You sound like an old bear growling.”
1. “Amadeus” (1984)
Directed by Milos Foreman. Written by Peter Shaffer.
It’s more than a biopic; it’s a blueprint for how to deal with genius on screen. Simply view the extraordinary (Mozart) through the eyes of the ordinary (Salieri). There’s one glorious scene after another here: Salieri playing his and then Mozart’s music before the innocent priest; Mozart playing back the little march of welcome Salieri composed in his honor (“That doesn’t quite work, does it?”); Salieri looking through Mozart’s first – and only – drafts. And on and on, right up to the very end when Antonio Salieri, the Patron Saint of mediocrities, absolves us all. And the music? “Finished as no music is ever finished.”
Who plays: Neville Marriner
Obstacles to success: Too many notes.
Problems with success: Dead father. Carping wife. Jealous colleague. Not necessarily in that order.
Memorable number: Pick one.
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor (Abraham), Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-up and Sound. Also nominated for Actor (Hulce), Cinematography, and Editing.
Quote: “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes – at an absolute beauty.”
Not bad: “The Glenn Miller Story” (1953); “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972); “Sweet Dreams” (1985); “Sid & Nancy” (1986); “Immortal Beloved” (1994);
Not good: “The Gene Krupa Story” (1959); “Mahler” (1974); “Lisztomania (1976); “The Doors” (1991); “Selena” (1997)
Since then? The floodgates. We've gotten, among others, “Ray” (Ray Charles) “Beyond the Sea” (Bobby Darrin) “Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash) “La Vie en Rose” (Edit Piaf) “I'm Not There” (Bob Dylan) “Cadillac Records” (Chess Records) “Jersey Boys” (Frank Valli) “Get On Up” (James Brown) “Jimi: All Is By My Side” (Jimi Hendrix), “Love & Mercy” (Brian Wilson) and “Straight Outta Compton” (NWA).
Some I haven't seen yet. And with some of the top 10 above I'm like, really, Erik? “What's Love Got to Do With It?” at No. 5? I keep thinking that I gave “Bird” short shrift and movies like “La Bamba” too much shrift. I keep remembering being not overwhelmed by “Bound for Glory.” I remember exactly nothing about “The Benny Goodman Story.”
Given all that, here's my new Top 10. Your results will differ:
- Coal Miner's Daughter
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- La Vie en Rose
- I'm Not There
- Love & Mercy
- Bound for Glory
- Jimi: All Is By My Side
- What's Love Got to Do With It?
- The Buddy Holly Story
Beyond the first two, it's really kind of a crapshoot.
Whose music biopic would you like to see on screen? Or maybe the better question, given the history of the genre, is: Whose story would you LEAST like to see Hollywood screw up?