Hollywood has been singing a tune in the key of music biopics for decades, most recently with this weekend’s release of the Christopher “Notorious BIG” Wallace biopic Notorious. To honor Biggie Smalls, we take a look at 10 biopics that moved us far more than P. Diddy’s dance moves. We thought we told you that we won’t stop, eh eh.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
She’s best known in some circles for her blood-curdling turn in Carrie, but Sissy Spacek brought the house down as Loretta Lynn, the Kentucky-born singer with stars in her eyes,. Any actress who does all her own singing, especially doing it well, gets points in our book. We’re also guessing Reese Witherspoon took a look at this flick for a little inspiration before doing Walk the Line. If you want a taste of the heartland, this is your film.
Many critics claim Amadeus is the greatest biopic of a musician ever, a sentiment that’s hard to argue against. The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offers an honest and uncompromising view of the brilliant composer, a man so blessed with talent that it not only drove him mad, but took down his admirers with it. A must-see film, Amadeus also represents the magnum opus of Tom Hulce’s career, along with a performance by F. Murray Abraham that is, in a word, stunning. A glorious examination of genius and jealousy all around.
Sid & Nancy (1986)
The band Nazareth said a mouthful when they sang the lyrics, “Love hurts.” Said statement particularly applies when your lover allegedly stabs you in the abdomen, as Sid Vicious is notorious for doing to his star-crossed lover, Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman, as always, is near perfect. Sid and Nancy does a pretty damn good job of typifying the life of one of the most famous/talentless rock stars ever, but the film offers a truth that nobody can argue against; love is the most deadly drug.
Forrest Whitaker won his first Academy Award for his startling performance in The Last King of Scotland, but he delivered an equally deserving turn as the troubled 40’s saxophonist Charlie Parker.Clint Eastwood’s direction encapsulates the beauty of jazz music, but the film will also strike a chord with anyone who has seen a family or friend struggle with the pain of drug addiction.
Jamie Foxx will give an encore performance this year in the musician’s biopic universe when he teams up with Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist, but he fully realized his potential when he played pianist Ray Charles. And the bonus is that it eventually gave him the chance to do vocals for the infectious Kanye West single, “Golddigger.” The one drawback may be that it set the bar extremely high for what we expect from the talented Foxx, which is why we can’t forgive him quite yet for Stealth and Booty Call.
La Vie en Rose (2007)
Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of French singer Edith Piaf wasn’t lost on Oscar, as she won a Best Actress award for it, but it might have flown under your radar. Fix that immediately. Much of what makes a musician memorable is in showmanship and Olivier Dahan masterfully paints his canvas by displaying Piaf as an embodiment of the term “poetry in motion” when on-stage. The hardships she endures because of it, however, will break your heart.
The Doors (1991)
Love him or hate him, you can’t question Oliver Stone’s passion for character study. Stone’s attempt to chronicle the life of The Doors, namely the mysterious frontman Jim Morrison, received mixed reviews. That doesn’t change the fact that Val Kilmer gave a performance of a lifetime, making us believe for over three hours that he was the lizard king and could, in fact, do anything. The Doors makes the list as a tribute to an actor’s commitment to his craft.
Listen to me carefully, because you may never hear me say this again. Stephen Dorff has talent. If you don’t believe me then you’ve never seen this chronicle about the birth of The Beatles. The story of the Fab Four is one that we can all recite by heart, the times leading up to the fame of the group John Lennon said was bigger than Jesus? Not quite as much. It’s recommended viewing for any Beatles fan and way more gripping than the hyper-colored musical Across the Universe. It was a toss-up between this flick and Control, the story of Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis. We decided to get by with a little help from our friends from Liverpool.
Walk the Line (2005)
A role so powerful that it reportedly took Joaquin Phoenix months after the film to shake it, the story of the singer who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, Johnny Cash, is as entertaining as any musician’s biopic we’ve seen. Phoenix is haunting as the man in black and Reese Witherspoon, who won an Academy Award for her spin on June Carter, is charming in her attempt to offer Cash unconditional love. Plus, it makes me actually like Witherspoon, something that was hard to do in the Legally Blonde films.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
We’ve always held Gary Busey’s performance in Point Break near and dear to our hearts, but we have to begrudgingly admit that he really showed his acting ability as the rocker with the coke bottle glasses. Busey hits every key perfectly as the doomed singer that rocked to the very end. A celebration of life more than a helping of the tragedy that came with it, the biggest loss in the film comes from Busey when he gives himself over to his character.
Honorable Mentions: Shine (1996), What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), Twenty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)