Total Recall

10 Rockin' Music Biopics

With Jersey Boys hitting theaters, we take a look at some other movies about real-life musical legends.

by | June 19, 2014 | Comments

This weekend, director Clint Eastwood returns to theaters with Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the Tony-winning musical inspired by the story of 1960s singing sensations the Four Seasons. Boys puts the band in pretty good company: some of the most popular (as well as a few of the more obscure) musicians of all time have received the biopic treatment, and the results include some of the bigger critical and commercial successes in Hollywood’s history. In honor of Jersey Boys, we decided to take a look back at some of the most distinguished entries in the genre, and came up with a list that pays tribute to punk, classical, and everything in between. It’s time for Total Recall!



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been dead for nearly 200 years by the time Milos Forman’s Amadeus bowed in 1984, but his story still proved utterly compelling — even if Peter Shaffer’s screenplay (adapted from his play of the same name) took significant artistic license with the facts of the composer’s life as we know them. Imagining a version of events in which Mozart’s quirky genius so enrages rival composer Antonio Salieri that he devotes himself to thwarting his nemesis personally as well as professionally, Amadeus may or may not be 100 percent accurate, but it’s still hugely entertaining — as evidenced by the whopping eight Academy Awards the movie took home (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham, who played an older Salieri), as well as “Rock Me Amadeus,” the quirky, synth-fueled hit that Austrian pop sensation Falco took to the top of the worldwide charts in 1986 after being inspired by the film. “Forman’s tormented, iconoclastic subjects are often pitted against iconic or impersonal antagonists,” wrote Tasha Robinson for the A.V. Club, “but Amadeus‘ conflict remains rivetingly intimate, in spite of its sumptuous, larger-than-life settings.”

Bound for Glory


Following his triple triumph of Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Shampoo, director Hal Ashby turned his attention to the life of legendary folk activist Woody Guthrie for 1976’s Bound for Glory. Strictly on biopic terms, Glory is a bit of a muddle, given that it alters, ignores, or just plain makes up much of what transpires on screen — but even as a fictional construct, Guthrie (played here by Kung Fu star David Carradine) proved compelling enough for most critics, many of whom perhaps recognized that any attempt at dramatizing the life of one of American music’s most important figures had to be worth watching. “Bound for Glory is outstanding biographical cinema,” decreed Variety, “not only of the late Woody Guthrie but also of the 1930s Depression era which served to disillusion, inspire and radicalize him and millions of other Americans.”

Coal Miner’s Daughter


Sissy Spacek took home a mantel full of awards — including her only Best Actress Oscar to date — for her work in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and for good reason: she brings the life and music of country legend Loretta Lynn (who was only 48 when the movie was released) to vibrant life on the big screen, anchoring a sweetly triumphant biopic that was bolstered by all-around talent on both sides of the camera, including director Michael Apted and supporting players Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo (both nominated for Golden Globes), and Levon Helm. “The movie isn’t great art, but it has been made with great taste and style,” wrote Roger Ebert, adding that “it’s more intelligent and observant than movie biographies of singing stars used to be.”



Photographer Anton Corbijn’s work for post-punk pioneers Joy Division was (and remains) a crucial element of the band’s image, so it’s only fitting that when Corbijn decided to move into filmmaking, he chose to direct a biopic about frontman Ian Curtis, an infamously tragic figure whose frequently gloomy songwriting hinted at the crippling depression he struggled with even as the group started to make a name for itself. The end result benefits enormously from Corbijn’s distinctive cinematic eye, as well as Sam Riley’s career-launching work (including live musical performances), but it might be most noteworthy simply because Curtis’ 1980 suicide forces audiences to contemplate something other than your standard crowd-pleasing finale. As Garth Franklin observed for Dark Horizons, “Part of the reason this film works so splendidly is that, given its ending, it doesn’t have the luxury of pretend redemption.”

La Bamba


A year before his work in Young Guns turned Wild West outlaw Jose Chavez y Chavez into swoonworthy fodder for bedroom walls, Lou Diamond Phillips turned in an interpretation of an altogether different real-life individual: Ritchie Valens, the seminal Mexican-American rock star whose musical achievements are all the more stunning considering he was only 17 when he died — and had only started his career eight months prior to his tragic death in the 1959 plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Although he did divert from the historic record on a number of occasions, writer-director Luis Valdez gave Valens his biopic due with La Bamba, delivering an engrossing musical drama led by Phillips’ outstanding performance and a bestselling soundtrack featuring Los Lobos’ convincing renditions of Valens classics. “As Valens, Lou Diamond Phillips has a sweetness and sincerity that in no way diminish the toughness of his onstage persona,” observed Janet Maslin for the New York Times. “The role is blandly written, but Mr. Phillips gives Valens backbone.”



Long before he assured a generation of Pepsi drinkers that they were chugging the right one, baby, Ray Charles carved out one of the most brilliantly groundbreaking musical careers of the modern era, fusing rock, soul, country, and anything else he felt like playing into one inimitable sound. Charles’ refusal to be defined by his blindness made him an inspiration for the physically impaired, but Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic Ray is no mere hagiography — this is the warts-and-all story of an artist whose once-in-a-generation talent was part of a package that included some fairly significant personal foibles, led by an outstanding, Oscar-winning performance from Jamie Foxx. Calling it “A very good film, regardless of whether or not you love Ray Charles’ music,” the Apollo Guide’s Brian Webster argued, “Even if it was a lesser film, Jamie Foxx’s performance would have made it worth watching.”



It takes an awful lot to get modern audiences to care about the work of a classical pianist — just ask a classical pianist. Fortunately, writer-director Scott Hicks was working with something truly extraordinary for 1996’s Shine: The fact-based story of David Helfgott, the Australian pianist whose triumph over a difficult upbringing and years spent in institutions offered Hicks the grist for one of the best-reviewed films of the year. It also offered the role of a lifetime for Geoffrey Rush, who took home an Oscar for his work as the adult Helfgott — and although like many biopics, Shine provoked outrage from some of the actual people involved, as well as some scathing criticism from classical critics who accused the movie of exaggerating the talents of a player they viewed as an average pianist, there’s no arguing with the compelling drama Hicks and his cast assembled. As Marjorie Baumgarten pointed out for the Austin Chronicle, “If, at times, Shine‘s luster reveals more elbow grease than internal radiance, the movie is still a moving tribute to the human capacity to overcome all odds.”

Sid & Nancy


The tumultuous — and eventually fatal — love affair between Nancy Spungen and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious is the stuff of legend, and although no one except the two of them ever really knew what happened on the night of her death in October of 1978, the grim details we do know are more than enough for a sickly compelling biopic/anti-drug movie, which is exactly what writer-director Alex Cox put together with 1986’s Sid & Nancy. Led by magnetic performances from Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, it traces the rise and fall of their dysfunctional relationship, which started with a proposition and ended with a grisly stab wound. Vicious’ Sex Pistols bandmate John Lydon was openly (and forcefully) disdainful of the movie, but as far as most critics were concerned, the movie’s many harrowing moments outweighed any historical inaccuracies. As Roger Ebert put it, “[Cox] and his actors pull off the neat trick of creating a movie full of noise and fury, and telling a meticulous story right in the middle of it.”

Walk the Line


Johnny Cash was a songwriting genius, a titan of country music, and half of one of pop culture’s greatest love stories, but he was also a tremendously flawed human being who endured some legendary personal and legal troubles before settling into a legacy whose impact continues to endure. Summing all that up in a 94-minute movie would seem just about impossible, but James Mangold pulled it off with 2005’s Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon (who walked away with a Best Actress Oscar) as the love of his life, June Carter Cash. A $186 million hit, Line benefited immensely from two incredibly committed performances by its leads: Not only did Phoenix and Witherspoon bring their acting chops to bear on the roles, they proved talented mimics in the recording studio, where they covered a number of Cash classics for the soundtrack. “Walk the Line is unusually moving without ever becoming mawkish, in the usual biopic way,” wrote Kurt Loder for MTV. “It’s a virtual reincarnation of a peerless American artist.”

What’s Love Got to Do with It


To kids who grew up in the ’80s and beyond, Tina Turner was just another powerhouse singer with great legs and loads of glamour, but her story runs quite a bit deeper — and darker — than latter-day hits like “Typical Male” or “The Best” might indicate. Although Kate Lanier’s screenplay took fairly significant liberties with Turner’s true-life tale, director Brian Gibson’s 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It got some of the most important stuff right — and served as a showcase for tremendous performances from Angela Bassett (as Turner) and Laurence Fishburne (as her ex-husband Ike, the villain of the story). “It’s an astonishing movie,” wrote Stephen Hunter for the Baltimore Sun. “First because despite the pathology of the relationship, it’s not only about victimization; it’s a celebration of spirit, both religious and human, about a woman who finally found the guts (and the faith) to say ‘No more.'”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out Jersey Boys.


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