thoughts//TOP TEN MUSICAL BIOPICS OF ALL TIME

TOP TEN



This weekend sees the release of Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys, which tells the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It'd be interesting to research why, but movies haven't ventured too much into the realm of the musical biopic. And, when it has, it hasn't always been a good time at the cinema.

In the past decade, or so, a few hits have brought the idea of making a biopic about a famous musician back into the limelight. In the coming year or two we'll see more added to this genre, including biopics about Jimi Hendrix, Whitney Houston, and Hank Williams.

From classical to contemporary, country to rock, and blues to jazz, here are the top ten musical biopics of all time!

10. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Spinal Tap)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner, Ed Begley Jr.

It's 1982 and the British metal band Spinal Tap is preparing a comeback in America. They bring along an eager fan to document their travails and the end result is the "documentary" This is Spinal Tap. This film sparked interest in other hit mockumentaries to follow, like Best in Show. The subtle seriousness, and not-so-subtle material, makes this a fun watch. Even though, technically, Spinal Tap is not a real band, the cult-like fan following has inspired the film's stars to host multiple live music events. Perhaps this is the best biopic because it put their history in the hands of the fans.

9. COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (Loretta Lynn)
Directed by Michael Apted
Starring Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones

Lynn wasn't too old at the time this 1980 film was released, but her story of a tumultuous life growing up in coal mining America was what the "American Dream" was all about. Drama, intrigue, and incredible country music lived as the back drop to Spacek's Academy Award-winning turn as Lynn. The film has sparked its own share of controversy as to the true honesty of the story, but despite controversy, Coal Miner's Daughter has enough panache to elicit a legion of fans. Recently, the right's holders optioned a Broadway adaptation with Zooey Deschanel being hand-picked by Lynn herself as the lead role.

8. GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (Jerry Lee Lewis)
Directed by Jim McBride
Starring Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin

As one of the wildest rock 'n' roll figures from the 1950s, Jerry Lee Lewis undoubtedly offered quite the pizazz of a story. Quaid stars as the lucrative pioneer rock star. The skeleton of the script comes from the biography of the rocker by Myra Lewis and Murray M. Silver Jr. Nothing is held back, including the relationship and marriage between Lewis and his 13 year old cousin (Winona Ryder) and his alcoholism. When the scandalous marriage hits the news, Lewis' image quickly depreciates and he falls victim to his own demons. Alec Baldwin shows up as Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggert and marries Lewis and his cousin after she becomes pregnant. It's the epitome of a tabloid life that sadly overshadows Lewis' groundbreaking musicianship.

7. 8 MILE (Eminem)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger, Michael Shannon

The inner-city story follows Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith Jr., a white rapper attempting to launch a career among the African American elites of the rap culture around him. Eminem stars as B-Rabbit, who is basically a mirror image of Eminem himself. The story follows the true story of the Grammy winning barrier-breaking rapper and his crazy relationships with his mother and lover. Brittany Murphy plays Alex, the girl he grows to love. It was one of the late Murphy's most memorable roles. Basinger plays the mother, a role which came with a lot of baggage thanks to Eminem's own revelations during his hit albums. When released, the film was a huge hit and garnered an Academy Award for Eminem for the song "Lose Yourself", one of the most recent Oscar songs to make an impact on the charts musically. It's a dirty, Detroit story of hard work and redemption. 

6. I'M NOT THERE (Bob Dylan)
Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin

The film had an interesting set-up, which could only be fitting for the American singer-songwriter for which it honors. The main character, Bob Dylan, was played through a series of vignettes by six different actors, including a black kid and a woman. The catch was that Dylan himself is a balancing act of multiple characters. Depending on the story being told, Dylan had a natural ability to personify any struggle, no matter what background had built it. Blanchett received most of the acclaim for the performers, earning multiple award nominations, including both Golden Globe and Academy Award nods. For a man who loved a good lyric and a good story, this is the way to be immortalized. 

5. CONTROL (Ian Curtis of Joy Division)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring Sam Riley, Samantha Morton

Director Corbijn was more famous as a photographer before deciding to get behind the motion picture lens for this film. His work with the punk rock group Joy Division led to his infatuation with lead singer Ian Curtis's story. The screenplay was based on Curtis's widow's biography of the musician, Touching from a Distance, and the film features a star-making turn by Sam Riley. The movie was easily the best British film of 2007. The project turned into a true testament to who Curtis was, as his family, friends, and former band mates all contributed to the production of the film. Since its release, Control has gone on to achieve quiet cult status as a true image into the life of an artist. Curtis is someone who has gone too soon. 

4. WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (Tina Turner)
Directed by Brian Gibson
Starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne 

Based on the autobiography I, Tina by Turner with Kurt Loder, What's Love Got to Do with It was a dark expose into the life of Tina and her abusive husband Ike. The film was a seminal hit, earning over $50 million in North America and spawning a number one song, "I Don't Want to Fight." The film adaptation took many creative liberties with the story, including many moments completely fictionalized fro dramatic effect. After controversy arose regarding these creative liberties, the producers chose to market the film as "loosely" based on Tina's life. The performances are fierce and, despite the tweaking here and there, is a strong story about the fight for survival at its most vulnerable state. Angela Bassett was born to play Tina and Laurence Fishburne has never been more frightening.

3. AMADEUS (Mozart)
Directed by Milos Forman
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge

A costume drama if there ever was one, Amadeus follows the life and times of one of music's greatest influencers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Set in Vienna, Amadeus is based on the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer and thrusts Mozart's genius into the limelight. Antonio Salieri is a successful composer who tries his hardest to ruin the rise of Mozart. F. Murray Abraham plays an older Salieri on the verge of suicide after coming to terms with the severity of the lengths he took to destroy Mozart. It's an envious tale full of intrigue and Oscar-bait performances. In fact, the film went on to win 8 Academy Awards, among other accolades. It's hard to find a period film that treats the viewer to all the delights of modern cinema, while also holding true to its heritage and story.

2. RAY (Ray Charles)
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate, Regina King

Ray Charles lived a legendary life, despite being blind from childhood. In his signature, Oscar-winning role, Jamie Foxx lights up the screen as the gospel, country, and jazz musician. Raised in the South, Charles's mother pushed him to never let life's obstacles hold him back. He went on to become one of the greatest voices in modern music. Audiences saw him as an American treasure, while behind the scenes his womanizing ways and bouts of alcohol and drug use took him on a spiral more intoxicating than blindness. Foxx is incredible as the singer, completely becoming the troubled character who finds redemption at the hands of a gracious fan base. The film falls into melodrama here and there, but overall wraps up the story in original and quality filmmaking. The soundtrack alone is worth a watch and Kerry Washington's Della Bea Robinson steals every scene she's in.

1. WALK THE LINE (Johnny Cash)
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick

Never has a film seen such a perfectly timed release as Walk the Line. During the span of time between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's deaths, Walk the Line became a box office success and spawned a chart-topping soundtrack. The film's stars, Phoenix and Witherspoon, were so well-placed as the two heart-aching lovebirds that it's hard to imagine that you're not actually watching Johnny and June. Phoenix has always been a pretty consistent actor, but his Johnny Cash was able to perfectly balance the joy of success and the heartbreak of loneliness in just a mere look. Witherspoon was the film's scene stealer. Feisty and confident in every sense of either word, her June Carter Cash is one of Hollywood's best portrayals. The film is a finely-tuned masterpiece of stroytelling and music making. Director mangold never lets the story get too full of itself or too safe. It's the edginess that really makes it work and the inarguable talent that is Johnny Cash will leave you humming one of countless songs after watching. 

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