With the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody receiving an excellent review from us this week, we thought it would be fun to take a look at 10 particularly interesting examples of musical biopics from the past, many of which are based right here in L.A.
Sometimes they're great because they stick to the facts, other times they're entertaining even if they (or because they) veer off from the truth. And hey, the subjects are not always good people. Sometimes they're downright awful. But they all make for excellent movies. Let us know what we missed…
1. The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone’s Doors movie gets a lot of negative press, mainly because it’s so Oliver Stone–y. And yeah, the creative license taken with the drug and witchcraft stuff feels a bit indulgent. But then, that was Morrison: The man indulged to the point of self-destruction, and he is portrayed brilliantly here by Val Kilmer in the performance of his life. People tend to talk a lot less about Kyle MacLachlan’s turn as keyboardist Ray Manzarek but he, too, is incredibly convincing. Ultimately, how much you enjoy Oliver Stone movies will determine how much you enjoy The Doors.
2. La Bamba (1987)
Like Kilmer, Lou Diamond Phillips peaked in this, the story of Mexican-American rock & roller Ritchie Valens. The beautiful film follows young Ricardo Valenzuela through his early struggles, his brief dalliance with the big time, of course that ill-fated tour with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and the resulting flight. The day the music died indeed.
3. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Very few of us were along with N.W.A for the ride, but damn, this movie feels authentic. No punches are pulled, from Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Ren and Yella discovering one another’s talents to their peak and troubles with the law, through to the bad blood when they split, and E’s tragic death. Perhaps it helps that Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father, though the whole cast is phenomenal (including an always-awesome Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller).
4. The Runaways (2010)
Another must for those keen to get a glimpse of Los Angeles in the past. The Runaways isn’t perfect; indeed, it appeared on a list of the worst music biopics that we’ve published in the past. But this writer thinks that assessment was a tad harsh. Floria Sigismondi's feature film directing debut is a bit messy, but then so was the career of these pioneering punk-rock women. Michael Shannon is suitably creepy as Kim Fowley, while Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are excellent as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, respectively. Scout Taylor-Compton (who earlier portrayed Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot) played Lita Ford well, though the role was underdeveloped by Sigismondi, who also wrote the screenplay.
5. What We Do Is Secret (2007)
Shane West was so convincing as Darby Crash in this biopic of ’70s L.A. punks The Germs that the surviving members of the real band hired him to front them for a reunion tour. Rodger Grossman’s movie wasn’t a success with the critics or paying public but that might be because very few people were crying out for a biopic about such a cult band. True story: This writer once watched this film with Geza X, who produced the “Lexicon Devil” single, and he appreciated it. So there's that.
6. Ray (2004)
Taylor Hackford’s retelling of the life of R&B legend Ray Charles, if not a masterpiece, is pretty damn close. Jamie Foxx is simply superb in the title role, a man who went blind at age 7 and still managed to pull himself up in the toughest of circumstances. The movie grabbed three Oscars — one for Foxx, plus awards for editing and sound mixing — and it deserved all of the accolades. Even those not particularly familiar with Charles’ work won’t fail to be moved by this wonderful film.
7. Walk the Line (2005)
The year after Ray, we were treated to another great biopic, this time the story of country legend Johnny Cash. Joaquin Phoenix was superb as the Man in Black, with Reese Witherspoon surprising many (after those Legally Blonde movies), portraying June Carter with a depth not previously associated with the actress. In fact, the movie received five Oscar nominations, with Witherspoon the sole winner. Cash’s daughter Rosanne didn’t like that the movie delved so deep into the painful parts of her childhood, and that’s understandable, though perhaps it’s one of the greatest unintentional compliments a film can receive. (And the satirical movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is well worth seeing, too.)
8. Great Balls of Fire (1989)
Some liberties were taken with the facts in Jim McBride’s entertaining Jerry Lee Lewis story, but his gnarly relationship with (and marriage to) his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown (played beautifully by Winona Ryder), is presented in all its gory detail here. Dennis Quaid captures the honky-tonk ludicrousness of Lewis wonderfully, for better and worse. As with Lewis’ actual life, we’re left with seriously mixed feelings and an icky tummy.
9. 24 Hour Party People (2002)
Steve Coogan is magnificent as Factory Records head Tony Wilson in this story of the Manchester music movement from the mid-’70s to the early ’90s, which starts with an infamous Sex Pistols gig that, according to legend, saw all attendees form bands of their own. We go through Ian Curtis’ suicide, and an amazing shot of Shaun Ryder and Bez of the Happy Mondays making pigeons explode. It’s all tackled with a perfect combination of delightful comedy and touching honesty.
10. The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Jimmy Stewart is always captivating, and he’s perfect in the role of big band leader Miller, who died 10 years prior to the movie’s release. His romance with and marriage to Helen Burger Miller is given equal billing with his musical career, ended by his wartime death in ’44. June Allyson plays Burger Miller perfectly, and the movie works as a romance, a music biopic and a tragedy.
Honorable mentions: 8 Mile (2002) and Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Technically not biopics, but both are at least partially factual. 8 Mile is Eminem’s semiautobiographical hit in which the man himself played Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., while Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine is clearly about the relationship between David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The names may have been changed but both are fantastically entertaining films.