From Johnny Cash and Billie Holiday’s portrayals to Ray Charles and Ian Curtis’ portrayals, we take a look at some of the finest music star portrayals.
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10. Good Vibrations (2012)
When it comes to music biopics, Good Vibrations is one of the best out there. It tells the story of a record shop owner who became the owner of a small indie record label during the heyday of punk and John Peel. After witnessing the Undertones perform live and being inspired by their energy, visionary Belfast businessman Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) is inspired to open his own punk record store, Good Vibrations, in the heart of Belfast, where the city’s tribal and sectarian divisions are rendered irrelevant. The Undertones and Teenage Kicks were born here, and this is now the punk scene’s spiritual home in Northern Ireland. This album was played twice in a row by Peel in the real world, and the footage captures the band’s excitement and disbelief when they miss it the first time and then catch it the second time around.
9. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
In this experimental, low-budget 43-minute film about Karen Carpenter’s final years, the young Todd Haynes established his reputation. He repurposed old video, utilized Barbie dolls to perform the principal roles in dialogue sections, and, perhaps the most outrageously, exploited the original music tracks without obtaining permission. It is because of this financial constraint that music biopics are often the province of major studio productions, who can afford to cover the costs through the sale of a soundtrack record, and are out of reach for independent filmmakers. The film was halted in 1990 after Richard Carpenter, Karen’s brother, filed a lawsuit to stop it from being shown in theaters. Carpenters fans all across the world realized that director Todd Haynes’ film is not only a passionate, though wacky, love letter to Karen, but also a bold critique of celebrity mythology, fandom, and the rhetoric of the music biopic. For a live-action remake, I’d love to see Haynes take on the role.
8. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Even before his work on the BBC’s Up series, which followed the lives of 14 children from diverse origins, British TV director Michael Apted was already a big player. Loretta Lynn’s life story is retold in a raw, emotional way in this account of her early years in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. The film was a huge hit thanks to Sissy Spacek’s outstanding performance (she sang the songs herself and was hand-picked by Lynn for the role), who had the unique ability to appear to be virtually any age, from an adolescent to a late-twenties-something-something. Instead of the British-style manacles Apted depicted in his Up films, this American narrative emphasizes social mobility and the possibility of anything. Lynn, played by Spacek, rises from hardscrabble poverty to stardom virtually overnight, thanks to Patsy Cline’s guidance and her husband Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of a damaged human being. There must, of course, be a crisis brought on by success.
7. What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
While there are a plethora of criteria for music biopics in general, one jumps out in this 1993 film about Tina Turner, played by Angela Bassett. It’s about abuse – and not just the abuse that a music-biopic hero or heroine might suffer in childhood and then break free of as an adult star, transforming the remembered pain into art, but actual ongoing abuse from the husband and singing partner who gave you your big break – in this case, Ike Turner, scarily played by Laurence Fishburne. What’s the connection between love and this? Everything and nothing at the same time. Tina endured years of terrible abuse at the hands of her husband, Ike, who grew increasingly jealous of their celebrity and success and convinced himself that she was better than him and that the public preferred her to him. A few cents in her pocket, she trudges out, wounded and bleeding, and asks a nearby hotel to let her stay until she’s on her feet again. In this film, domestic abuse is depicted as something that can go unnoticed by the outside world and potentially even by a close circle of friends and family.
6. Bound for Glory (1976)
Woody Guthrie’s autobiography was adapted by Hal Ashby into a Steinbeckian music biopic starring David Carradine, whose father, John, had played Preacher Casy in John Ford’s film, The Grapes of Wrath, in this picture. Set in the 1930s US Dust Bowl, Nomadland may have been influenced by this gorgeously crafted period work, which is reminiscent of early Terrence Malick and may have inspired Chloe Zhao’s latest film, Since its sympathy and understanding of the underdog only come into play when a musician’s impoverished upbringing is depicted, music biopics might be seen as politically conservative. However, this awareness usually fades as soon as the singer finds success. In this scene, Guthrie is seen boarding a train to California, where he lived among the hobos and laborers and entertained them with his songs. Migrant fruit pickers are brutally exploited by him, and we are thrown into their life. But instead of expanding on his fame as a songwriter, he continues to tour the country, taking his music to places where it can have a meaningful impact on the lives of working people. Bound for Glory was up against All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network for the best picture Oscar nomination, but it lost to Rocky.
5. La Vie en Rose (2007)
The disjointed narration in Olivier Dahan’s film about the legendary French singer Edith Piaf, who captivated audiences in France and around the world in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, may be frustrating. There’s something refreshing about the frenzied back-and-forth of this biopic in comparison to the more traditional rise-crisis-comeback structure, but it’s also an attempt to hide the tactful omission of Piaf’s wartime experiences in Nazi-occupied France, where survival often meant making nice with the Nazis. However, Marion Cotillard’s transformation into the chanteuse is nothing short of spectacular. Despite her diminutive stature and outward fragility, she evokes such admiration in her fellow countrymen with her impassioned vibrato, like a deranged car alarm. As a result, her remarks to her subordinates are laced with extra sibilant sarcasm because of her pop-eyed glare, her high hairline, and buck-tooth grin. She also walks with a sort of marionette shuffle, as if her elbows and pelvis were somehow connected….
4. Control (2007)
Anton Corbijn’s directorial debut, Control, a black-and-white film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who committed suicide on the eve of his first US tour, was a spectacular success. In addition to his epilepsy and melancholy, he was afraid of the rising tide of fame that his music had unleashed, as well as his collapsing marriage and the waves of violence and nihilism they brought with them. He had no control over any of it. Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, and Alexandra Maria Lara all shine in their roles as Curtis, Ian’s wife Deborah, and the Belgian journalist with whom Curtis falls in love (Lara was in fact to marry Riley). Kitchen sink free-cinema detail in England’s working and middle-class design is brilliantly realized, with all the tiniest details carefully preserved. As a reminder that, however how modern the late 1970s may have seemed, they were not that far removed from the sleazy 50s and hungry 40s at the time.
3. Elvis (1979)
An excellent performance by Kurt Russell as the young Elvis Presley in John Carpenter’s Elvis, first created for television but later released theatrically, makes this film a must-see. The film begins with Shelley Winters as Gladys, his mother, and ends with Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker in the beginning of the Vegas era and before his weight problems arose in 1970. Russell is an unforgettable Elvis, delivering a powerful but subtly observed rendition of the spoken voice (but lip-synching to country singer Ronnie McDowell for the songs). Three years after Presley’s death, Russell’s moving portrayal of the King sparked a worldwide craze for Elvis impersonators, which has now spread to pubs, clubs, and hen parties all over the world. He captures the ferocity, instability, and depth of Elvis Presley’s inner turmoil.
2. Ray (2004)
In part because of Jamie Foxx’s outstanding performance as soul and R&B singer Ray Charles, who went blind at the age of nine but rose to fame as a multimillion-selling recording star with the dedication of Horatio Alger, director Taylor Hackford’s simple, celebratory film has become the classic template for music biopics. Foxx is a decent vocalist, but he lip-syncs to the soundtrack’s actual vocals. Even after Charles’ death, he continued to provide input on the film’s progress. In his portrayal of Charles, Jamie Foxx has a remarkable ability to capture the actor’s physical movements and quirks, particularly his rolling walk, which is somewhere between the caution of a blind man and the swagger of a star. At first glance, the figure-eight movement of the head appears laborious, but it is actually an aural scoping out of the physical surroundings that develops into a rapturous affirmation of the music when it is played on the piano. Many different musical genres, including gospel, R&B, and R&B are featured in this video of Charles’s musical explorations. Throughout the film, Ray Charles is being evangelized.
1. Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand made her screen debut with her Oscar-winning performance here, which lay the groundwork for a continued global fan-adoration. She sensationally embodies the pre-war singer and comedy queen Fanny Brice, alchemising Brice’s goofy turn into an unusual and original presence, accessibly mixing glamour and modernity. Maybe no music biography in history delivers this kind of transformation: not the minutely and submissively observed duplicate of a well-known star that usually features in this genre, but a recreation or reinvention that is instantaneously more famous than the original. Director William Wyler, a Hollywood great in his own right, chose to make a picture that had less in common with the swinging ’60s than it did with Broadway (the film is based on the smash popular stage production) and the movie musical tradition of the previous three decades combined. Funny Girl has a major fault in its music-biopic structure: the focus is on the star performer and everything else is secondary. Even Omar Sharif, Streisand’s imposing leading man, is somewhat subdued. Nevertheless, Streisand is everything: her brilliance, femininity and Jewishness are all presented with excessive enthusiasm and all of her songs are of course showstoppers, particularly Don’t Rain on My Parade.