Stephen Arnell

The tricky business of music biopics

The tricky business of music biopics
Elvis (Image: Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros)
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Along with films about real life authors, poets, comedians and artists, biographies of musicians are notoriously difficult to translate successfully to the cinema screen. Why?

Writing and painting aren’t inherently cinematic; live music has more visual potential (hence the greater number of motion pictures). But the challenges of lip-synching and the existence in most cases of plenty of original concert footage raise the stakes for any actor prepared to take on such a role. There's a real danger of performances falling into pastiche and mimicry.

Directors face an even greater predicament when music rights are refused, as was the case with the recent Stardust (2021) where actor/musician Johnny Flynn had to come up with songs in the style of David Bowie. A challenge for any actor, one which unfortunately laid heavy on Flynn’s narrow shoulders.

Likewise, Anthony Hopkins’s Surviving Picasso (1996) boasted none of Pablo’s paintings and the same year’s Basquiat also featured no actual (as opposed to ersatz) works by the artist.

When movies are given the official sanction of the subject (Rocketman) or surviving band members (Bohemian Rhapsody), the viewer can expect a certain amount of whitewashing. In Rhapsody’s case, by the bucketful.

In contrast, 2019’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt (Netflix) was approved by the band but went out of its way to catalogue their debaucheries.

Early reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s (Moulin Rouge) upcoming Elvis have been mostly positive, with critics tending to prefer Craig Butler’s depiction of The King’s return in his 68 Comeback Special to that of his earlier years. Tom Hanks, equipped with a prosthetic nose, fat suit and Dutch-inflected accent has come in for a fair amount of criticism for his take on Presley’s grifting manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, which bears a certain physical resemblance to Orson Welles’ corpulent Police Captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958).

Disney+’s Pistol about the Sex Pistols has received mixed reviews; famously John Lydon (née Rotten) went to court to prevent the use of Sex Pistol tunes in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of guitarist Steve Jones’ 2016 memoir Lonely Boy.

Fans of music biopics can also catch Wu-Tang: An American Saga, which, like Pistol, sits rather incongruously on Disney+.

Here are ten movies where you may (or may not) echo the newly resurgent Abba in saying ‘Thank You For The Music’.

Finding Graceland (1998)

Clearly drawing inspiration from Jonathan Demme’s Melvin & Howard (1980) – but with less effect, Finding Graceland sees an ageing bum claiming to be Elvis (Harvey Keitel) hitch a ride with young Byron Gruman (Jonathon Schaech) on a road trip to Memphis.

Keitel does surprisingly well when he eventually performs as ‘E’, belting out Suspicious Minds like a pro, but he was never going to win any lookalike competitions.

Is he really Elvis? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Amadeus (1984)

Hugely enjoyable as Miloš Forman’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play Amadeus is, the viewer should not mistake the movie for historical truth, although the story follows the basic outline of Mozart’s later life in Vienna.

For one thing, bad guy Salieri (F Murray Abraham) was far from a mediocrity, as a cursory listen to his 1775 Sinfonia in D Major "Il Giorno onomastico" will attest.

Was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) such a vulgar brat? To an extent, but since his domineering father Leopold treated the child prodigy as something of a performing monkey, carting him round the royal courts of Europe, it’s probably not that surprising he would rebel when older.

The film is a near-perfect marriage of plot and Mozart’s music, flowing seamlessly throughout its 161-minute duration, which rarely drags.

2017’s mystery drama Interlude in Prague was companion piece of sorts, with a younger Wolfgang (Aneurin Barnard – Peaky Blinders) unwittingly involved in skulduggery in the titular city (where Amadeus was filmed).

If you enjoy motion pictures about classical composers, you may wish to delve into Ken Russell's extensive but divisive oeuvre (Song of Summer, The Music Lovers, Lisztomania, Mahler etc) or try Richard Burton's mammoth mini-series on the undeniably talented but remarkably unpleasant Wagner.

For a less exhausting experience check out Hugh Grant as Frédéric Chopin in Sondheim collaborator James Lapine’s Impromptu (1991).

Respect (2021) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Despite a strong performance from American Idol star Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and a bonza supporting cast (including Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige, Marlon Wayans, and Marc Maron), stage director Liesl Tommy’s biopic proved a dud at the box office.

The movie follows Franklin’s career, troubled personal life, and other struggles, culminating in her 1972 Amazing Grace live gospel album, itself the subject of a critically acclaimed concert film (2018).

Released in the same year as Respect, Cynthia Erivo starred as Franklin in the equally underwhelming National Geographic four-part series Genius: Aretha.

Miles Ahead (2015), Amazon Rent/Buy

Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) directed himself as Miles Davies in this quirky biopic which posits the idea of a 1970s in recovery/semi-addicted Davis teaming up with journalist Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) to retrieve a stolen tape of his most recent work.

You may be old enough to recall that this was the same premise for Paul McCartney’s disastrous Give My Regards to Broad Street (1986).

But don’t worry, although no classic, Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is a much better picture.

The Doors (1991), Amazon Rent Only

Oliver Stone’s movie divided the surviving Doors, with keyboard player Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore against the movie and guitarist Robby Krieger marginally more positive, commenting in 1994: 'Some of it was overblown, but a lot of the stuff was very well done, I thought.'

All three agreed that singer Jim Morrison wasn’t quite the drunken, offensive, and pretentious sociopath depicted in the picture, although they admitted he had his moments.

Krieger said: '(Morrison) was the clown that always blows it at the worst possible moment. He doesn't mean to do it, that's just the way he is, or was. It would've been a lot better if he didn't have that part of him, but on the other hand, that was part of what drove him.'

On the plus side, the film looks great, and Val Kilmer is superb as Morrison aka The Lizard King aka Mr Mojo Risin’.

Sid & Nancy (1986) – full movie free to watch on YouTube, Amazon Rent/Buy

With Sid & Nancy and the following year’s Prick Up Your Ears, Gary Oldman provided two of the best performances of his acting career.

Although Sid’s life was seedy and his squalid death pathetic, Oldman and Cox have enough sense to leven the tragic tale of Vicious and fellow heroin addict Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb – Shameless USA) with humour.

Cox made some odd casting choices in Sid’s bandmates – in particular Scouser Andrew Schofield (GBH) as Johnny Rotten (as was) and the rotund Perry Benson (Benidorm) as bony drummer Paul Cook.

Predictably, Lydon didn’t care for the film. When asked if the movie got anything right, he replied 'Maybe the name Sid.'

The Runaways (2010), Sundance Now, Amazon Rent/Buy

An early attempt by Kristen Stewart to break away from the abysmal Twilight franchise straitjacket, the actress plays Joan Jett (of ‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll’ fame) in her early days as a member of all-female rock band the Runaways.

Dakota Fanning plays bandmate Cherie Currie, with Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough as her identical twin Marie. Michael Shannon takes the role of unsavoury Svengali-figure Kim Fowley. The picture won favourable reviews but bombed at the box office.

Joan Jett was recently in the news when she pushed back at rocker Ted Nugent for his criticism of her inclusion in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists ('If Joan Jett is on the list of Top 100 Guitar players, then I'm Caitlyn Jenner's boy toy,' he said).

Jett took Nugent down with the response: 'He has to be in that body, so that’s punishment enough. He plays tough guy, but this is the guy who sh*t his pants—literally—so he didn’t have to go in the Army.' No love lost there then.

Nowhere Boy (2009) Freevee, FilmRise Amazon Rent/Buy

Sam Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut explores the teenage years of the young John Lennon, played by her now husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass).

And very good he is as well, making the chippy scouser likeable enough for the viewer to stick with the picture, which has a low-key charm.

Pistol’s Thomas Sangster is Paul McCartney in the film; which prompted his real-life counterpart to say: 'You know what I'm slightly peeved about? My character, my actor, is shorter than John! And I don't like that. I'm the same size as John, please. Put John in a trench or put me in platforms!'

Bird (1988), Amazon Rent/Buy

Clint Eastwood directed his lengthy labour of love biopic about jazz saxophonist Charlie 'Bird' Parker (Forest Whitaker) to critical praise but (unsurprisingly) poor box office returns. Whitaker’s breakthrough role saw him win the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and Eastwood take the Golden Globe for Best Director.

The embellished story of Bird’s near decapitation by cymbal became a recurring leitmotif in Whiplash (2014).

As you may well know, Clint Eastwood is a huge jazz buff and no mean pianist, composing the scores to films including his own Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling, Hereafter, J. Edgar, and the original piano sequences for In the Line of Fire.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020), Netflix

Viola Davis (Fences) stars as the titular ‘Ma’ Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett, 1886-1939), famed ‘Mother of the Blues’, and proto-lesbian feminist standard-bearer.

Adapted from August Wilson’s 1982 play (he also wrote Fences), the action takes place over a fraught evening’s recording session, where tensions simmer between the domineering Rainey and some of her all-male band, especially cocksure trumpeter Levee Green (the late Chadwick Boseman).

Ma Rainey was Boseman’s final film appearance; he also starred with Davis in Get on Up (2014), another music biopic, in which he played ‘Godfather of Soul’ James Brown.

The picture earned rave notices (97 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes), with Davis and Boseman singled out for praise, introducing Rainey’s music to a whole new generation of listeners.

And finally...for those who prefer movie biopics with a hefty dose of humour, the sequel to 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap has recently been announced, reuniting director Marti DeBergi (Rob Reiner) with David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest).

Fans of Tap classics Stonehenge, Sex Farm, Smell the Glove, Hell Hole, Christmas with the Devil, B*tch School, Big Bottom and Lick My Love Pump get ready for a rockin’ good time.

In 2024, that is, when the movie will be released.