On May 22 this year, another music biopic will hit the big screen. This is Rocketman, a movie chronicling the early life and rise of Elton John. Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith) it stars Taron Egerton as Elton and Jamie Bell as his frequent collaborator and lyricist Bernie Taupin. Already the anticipation is in overdrive, with viewers excited to see the flamboyant John in his 70s heyday. Following in the footsteps of the critically divisive but incredibly financially successful Bohemian Rhapsody (on which Fletcher did reshoots), Rocketman has all the trademarks of a hit.
But the biopic can be a tricky genre to assemble and succeed with. To make a successful music-based movie, facts do not necessarily have to be 100 per cent accurate. This is so long as the character portrayed is depicted authentically. Capturing the essence of the subject matter is essential. Sometimes liberties are taken with story lines to make a movie more interesting. Certain truths which may be boring on the big screen can be avoided. After all, most biopics are based on biographies or autobiographies and in nature are long, extensive tales. Fitting all the details of an artist’s career into a cinematic two-hours is itself a task of epic proportions.
Bohemian Rhapsody is still fresh in our minds. While there was a huge outcry from fans regarding the timeline of the movie’s events, Rami Malek nailed the larger than life character of Freddie Mercury, winning an Academy Award.
To celebrate Rocketman, here are a list of ten music biopics that highlight perfectly the best and worst of the genre – five which are a decent re-telling and five which failed.
Five Rocking Biopics
#1. Sid And Nancy (1986)
Sid And Nancy is a masterclass on how to make a music biopic work. This movie created by Alex Cox (Repo Man) is a punk telling of Romeo and Juliet. It is energetic, real and at times even sad. The film is based on the late self-destructive couple, Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, played intensely by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. Both actors portrayals feel perfect. They don’t make them nice, kind people, but instead portray them with tragic honesty. Since its release it has become a cult classic and although neither star won an Oscar, solely due to the explosive drug addled nature of the subjects, some feel awards were more than justified.
#2. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
From actors that should have won awards to ones who did, Angela Bassett earned a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Tina Turner in Brian Gibson’s What’s Love Got to Do with It. The film is a disturbing and gritty telling of a toxic relationship, focusing on the abuse Tina Turner suffered in her marriage to Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) and how she rose above it to forge her own identity. There are some inaccuracies. Yet, the Oscar nominated performances of Bassett and Fishburne are astounding and at times capture too much realism. Although the movie was slammed by the late Ike Turner and Phil Spector, nobody was interested surprisingly in their opinion.
#3. Ray (2004)
Simply put, Ray is an amazing work and a must-see for music and movie fans alike. Jamie Foxx, as the late Ray Charles, manages to capture the same elegant charisma that Charles projected. This stellar performance earned Foxx countless awards including an Oscar for Best Actor and a Golden Globe. Whilst again not a hundred percent accurate factually, it is accurate as to who Ray Charles was and brings the figure of genius back to life again with a warm, stylish delivery.
#4. Walk the Line (2005)
Directed by James Mangold (Logan), this movie launched the late Johnny Cash back into the spotlight again. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the incendiary Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his wife and fellow country singer June Carter, this movie works on every level. Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all the songs themselves without dubbing, having vocal trained for six months with legendary producer T Bone Burnett. They also learned to play their instruments (guitar and auto-harp) from scratch, bringing an enhanced realism to proceedings. However, its the chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon that makes Walk the Line sing. It’s also quite a faithful retelling of Cash’s story. It makes viewers aware the Man in Black was far from perfect, unlike this biopic.
#5. Control (2007)
Directed by Anton Corbijn (The American) and based on the book Touching from A Distance by the Ian Curtis’ widow Deborah Curtis, Control follows the life of the Joy Division front-man. Shot in poignant, stark black and white, this film delves into Curtis’ battles with epilepsy and depression and features a spot-on lead performance from Sam Riley. The remaining members of Joy Division were all involved in the project and actually liked the movie as a whole. While some facts were bent for dramatic effect, it is a closer telling than the last attempt, 2002’s chaotic but entertaining 24 Hour Party People.
Five Shocking Biopics
#1. Great Balls of Fire! (1989)
This is simply a movie that should never have been made. Great Balls of Fire! tells the story of Jerry Lee Lewis, played convincingly by Dennis Quaid. The film was marketed similarly to 1987’s Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, sold as a nostalgic reminder of those good old days of rock and roll. With this in mind, it’s probably not a good idea to make a movie about a musician who had married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder). This fact drags the movie down the same as it did in real-life for the career of Lewis, regardless of his achievements. The creepy nature of that event is too much to get past.
#2. The Doors (1991)
Val Kilmer’s performance aside, Oliver Stone’s The Doors is a failure in that it is not an accurate portrayal of Jim Morrison. The Platoon director made the front-man purely a mythical, out-of-control sociopath. Although members of The Doors were onset to give advice, their views were largely overlooked and ignored by Stone. Keyboardist for the band Ray Manzarek was quoted as saying after seeing the film: “Where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy? The guy I knew was not on that screen.”
#3. Backbeat (1994)
Backbeat is a movie based on The Beatles early days in Hamburg and specifically the overlooked, lost Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff). When tackling a subject such as the most popular band in pop history, the foundations must be solid. Inaccuracies however are plentiful in Backbeat, and the movie does not really know if it’s about The Beatles or if it is a tragic love story involving Sutcliffe, John Lennon and photographer Astrid Kirchherr. Paul McCartney was more than cutting regarding the movie’s mistakes: “One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they’ve actually taken my rock ‘n’ rollness off me.”
#4. CBGB (2013)
On the surface a movie based on the legendary New York club CBGB’s should have been a winner. With such a wide spectrum of bands, artists, and stories to draw from, along with the inclusion of the late Alan Rickman as club owner Hilly Kristal, it could have been monumental. Sadly, it’s a complete mess that makes no sense. The songs are badly lip-synced, at times obviously studio recordings used for a live setting. Plus, inaccuracies abound. One of the premier bands of the scene The Ramones play a song in the movie which they never actually played – a Joey Ramone solo track – a particularly strange move considering the canon of material they recorded. Put that with the caricatures of Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and CBGB becomes laughable at best.
#5. Nina (2016)
Filmed in 2012 and eventually released in 2016, this misguided movie about the life of soul and civil rights legend Nina Simone is a stomach-churning creation which should have never seen the light of day. Simone is played by Zoe Saldana, whom by all accounts had to have her skin darkened for the role. Here it simply does not look natural and rightly became a cause of consternation from the late Nina Simone estate. They begged for the movie not to be released after the initial trailer dropped. Though Saldana does a respectable job, it is the script which lacks emotion, assassinating any attempt to recreate the legend of Nina Simone.