The History of Rock Biopics
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Those opening lines of Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" also describe the approach to rock biopics, as we take a look at our favorite movies inspired by the lives of rockers.
Biopics often provide a conundrum for fans. On one hand, the movies can bring long-deceased rockers back to life, shedding light on their mythology and the highlights of their careers while introducing their music to entirely new generations of potential fans. On the other hand, the creative team often has to leave out crucial elements (or entire characters) in order to fit a typical two-hour movie running time.
And even when they get it right and put out an entertaining film, they usually take no small degree of dramatic license, sanitizing the more juicy bits of someone's life for a mass audience or making up elements of the story to give it a more cohesive and dramatic narrative flow.
Find out below how legendary rockers like Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Brian Jones and others have been portrayed on the big screen.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The Buddy Holly Story captured the last three years of Buddy Holly's life, during which the rock 'n' roll pioneer rose to fame with a slew of hit singles that helped define the genre before his untimely death in a 1959 plane crash. But it also led to controversy due to the degree of creative license taken by the film's creative team, including the members' names of Holly's backup band the Crickets being changed and producer Norman Petty, a crucial figure in Holly's hit records, not even mentioned. “The only thing I saw about it that was real was they spelled Buddy's name right,” Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once said.
Regardless, the film was a box office success, and received an Oscar for Best Adaptation Score, as well as a nomination for its lead actor, Gary Busey.
A former child star in Walt Disney family flicks of the late '60s and early '70s, Kurt Russell was relegated to bit parts in TV shows before he played the title role in a made-for-TV biopic about Elvis Presley. Russell's performance of the iconic rocker earned him an Emmy nomination, which revived his career and led to career-defining theatrical roles in the John Carpenter films Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.
Sid and Nancy (1986)
Coming off the cult success of Repo Man, director Alex Cox settled on the doomed relationship of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Even though it was hated by Vicious' longtime friend and onetime bandmate John Lydon, the film was adored by critics, who applauded its stylistic approach, even if it didn’t exactly pay strict attention to the facts. Sid and Nancy portrays Sid (Gary Oldman) as someone with an IQ that rivaled a safety pin and who couldn’t turn off a nihilist punk attitude even during intimate moments with the love of his brief life. Meanwhile, Nancy (Chloe Webb) comes off having the personality (and voice) of nails scraping down a chalkboard. The movie also features a young Courtney Love as a junkie friend of the doomed couple.
La Bamba (1987)
Like The Buddy Holly Story, the aura of death permeates La Bamba due to its central character, early rocker Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips), having had the unfortunate luck to ride on the same fateful flight as Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. The movie follows a similar structure as the Holly biopic: an inspired and aspiring young musician writes and records his biggest hits, falls in love and stresses out due to career and family commitments. Then he gets on a plane after a gig. The soundtrack featured eight Valens songs re-recorded by Los Lobos, whose version of the title track reached No. 1.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Director Todd Haynes, who shows up again later in this list, created this 45-minute look at the struggles of fame while working toward his Master of Fine Arts degree. Using archival footage and Barbie dolls for dramatizations, he told the story of the hit-making brother-and-sister act the Carpenters and Karen’s fatal bout with anorexia in a manner that excited the indie-film crowd but angered her family. Richard Carpenter won a lawsuit that banned the short from circulation, but grainy bootlegs are available on YouTube and elsewhere for the curious.
Great Balls of Fire! (1989)
Dennis Quaid plays Jerry Lee Lewis, who was destined to supplant Elvis Presley as the king of rock 'n' roll before alcohol and loving the wrong woman brought his fame to a screeching halt. The film was loosely based on a book by Myra Lewis, the rock pioneer's ex-wife and second cousin who was only 13 when they got married. Once the news of their marriage hit the press, Lewis was kicked out of England and blacklisted when he returned to U.S. Even with Quaid’s strong performance, and the portrayal of sex that was part of the early rock 'n’ roll scene, critics panned Great Balls of Fire! and audiences stayed home.
The Doors (1991)
Fresh off a string of well-received movies, director Oliver Stone threw much of the clout he accumulated on his interpretation of the Doors and, in particular, their charismatic and controversial singer Jim Morrison (played by Val Kilmer). Morrison's former band members slammed the film for its inaccuracies and Stone’s free use of dramatic license. Critics weren’t much kinder.
The Beatles' wood-shedding days in Hamburg, Germany, were the subject of Iain Softley's Backbeat, but the movie centers on Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), the art-school friend of John Lennon who was the band's bassist at the time but stayed in Germany after falling in love. To ape the music of those amphetamine-fueled early days, Softley collected a bunch of alt-rock heroes – including Dave Grohl (Nirvana), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs) -- to record the soundtrack.
Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story (2001)
Ever wonder how the members of Def Leppard went from being just another band of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement to selling out arenas and making one of rock's all-time biggest albums? And doing so while holding it all together amid alcohol problems and their drummer losing an arm in a car accident? This VH1 movie has all the answers.
24 Hour Party People (2002)
Michael Winterbottom's sprawling movie told the story of the Manchester, England, music scene -- from its post-punk beginnings at the end of the punk era to the "Madchester" rave culture of the late '80s. Excited by the new sounds coming up, TV personality Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) started Factory Records and released albums by Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays and others, as well as opening the famous live-music club the Hacienda. Wilson's ability to find talent, but his inability to run a business and relationships, didn't work out too well for Wilson, but the downsides are brushed off as momentary annoyances as new inspirations are waiting just around the corner.
This biopic of the legendary Ray Charles netted Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his portrayal of the R&B great. Ray follows Charles from a traumatic childhood event that haunted him throughout his life to his battles through one obstacle (blindness) after another (racism, segregation) as he notched one triumph after another.
Last Days (2005)
Director Gus Van Sant wanted to do a biopic of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain but thought he’d get sued by Cobain's widow, Courtney Love. So instead he made Last Days, a fictionalized and loose story about Blake (Michael Pitt), a moody rocker who escapes from rehab to return home to various hangers-on and record-company pressures. The controversial love-it-or-hate-it indie film concludes Van Sant's Death Trilogy, following Gerry and Elephant.
Walk the Line (2005)
Like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash's fame transcended genre boundaries. Walk the Line pulled no punches in showing the country legend's marital troubles, hard-partying ways, all-encompassing love for June Carter and eventual redemption from the troubled memories of childhood. It snagged five Academy Award nominations, with Reese Witherspoon winning Best Actress for her portrayal of June. The soundtrack featured the actors actually singing the classic songs from that era and sold more than a million copies.
Stoned (aka The Wild and Wycked World of Brian Jones) (2005)
Stoned isn't so much a biopic of Rolling Stone Brian Jones after he was kicked out of the band as it is a fictional account of his final days. Home alone, the founder of the Stones was left to his hedonistic ways that led to his last intoxicated dip in the pool. Director Stephen Woolley finds conspiracy in Jones’ tragic end in the form of murder by a builder who was working on his house at the time.
I’m Not There (2007)
Taking full advantage of artistic license, director Todd Haynes' I’m Not There creates a fever dream of Bob Dylan's life rather than a standard biography. Instead of telling the story of a Minnesota kid who went to New York and revolutionized folk and then rock music, Haynes -- who earlier made a movie about Karen Carpenter -- used actors like Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett to portray the multiple personas derived from Dylan’s work, interviews and music: poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star and born-again Christian.
The doomed Ian Curtis -- who hanged himself on the eve of leaving for his first U.S. tour with his band Joy Division -- and the influence of his music is told in stark black and white that perfectly captures the dour atmosphere of its subject. Director Anton Corbijn, a rock photographer, illuminates the emotional and physical turmoil that enveloped and overwhelmed Curtis as Joy Division’s status ascended.
Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)
The story of Joe Meek -- the English engineer and producer who recorded a string of early '60s hits like the ahead-of-its-time "Telstar" in his apartment and whose innovations predated many modern studio techniques -- is told, warts-and-all, by Nick Moran, who created the film based on a play he co-wrote.
Cadillac Records (2008)
Cadillac Records tells the story of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), co-founder of Chicago's legendary Chess Records, who originally sold his music from the trunk of a Cadillac. Starting with the “race records” of the '40s through the blues and R&B hits of the ’50s and '60s, the record label’s highs and lows are shown through the careers of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Little Walter and Willie Dixon. It’s not the definitive account, but still a worthy primer to an era worth visiting.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Nowhere Boy follows the complicated world of a teenage John Lennon – including a mother who abandoned him but comes back into his life, an aunt who raised him and does her best not to lose him forever and the lure of rock ‘n’ roll music, which reveals a talent that his troubled life can’t deny.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)
Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies) plays Ian Dury, the leader of the Blockheads and singer of the song that gives this movie its title. Dury suffered mentally and physically since childhood, and he lashed out at the world throughout his life. The movie doesn’t excuse his behavior, but presents it as the emotional open sore Dury carried with him until his death.
The Runaways (2010)
It’s never easy being a trailblazer, just ask the four female members of the Runaways, who constantly battled the male-dominated music industry of the ‘70s. The movie is based on singer Cherie Currie’s autobiography, but its executive producer and former Runaways bandmate Joan Jett, as well as director Floria Sigismondi, don't consider The Runaways a biopic but rather a “parallel narrative” coming-of-age story that focuses on the teenage Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Jett (Kristen Stewart). Either way, it offers a taste of the L.A. music scene and the struggles the band faced during its brief time together.
Jimi: All Is by My Side (2014)
Written and directed by winner John Ridley, Jimi: All Is by My Side follows the life of Jimi Hendrix from his 1966 arrival in London up to his U.S. breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival a year later. Starring Andre 3000 of OutKast as Hendrix, the movie earned headlines when Hendrix's girlfriend Kathy Etchingham said the portrayal of their relationship as abusive was not true. Plus, the Hendrix's estate refused to let the filmmakers use his music. Instead, session pros Kenny Aronoff, Waddy Wachtel and Lee Sklar performed blues and Cream songs that Hendrix performed at clubs in those early days.
Get on Up (2014)
Before he ruled over Wakanda in Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman starred as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get on Up. The film takes a blunt look at the soul legend's life. Like other music-related biopics, the movie keeps the focus on the subject's musical contributions to a minimum. The film received mixed reviews, but Boseman fared well as the complicated soul man at its center.
Love & Mercy (2015)
How do you make a biopic portraying the creative genius and tortured life of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson with two actors that barely look like him? Director Bill Pohlad figured it out for the critical hit Love and Mercy: Paul Dano portrays the early days of the tortured genius who created musical masterpieces like Pet Sounds as his mental stability deteriorated, while John Cusack plays Wilson during his time under the strict and controversial guidance of Dr. Eugene Landy. Unlike so many rock biopics that end in death or regret, Love & Mercy finds its subject freed from the shady shrink and starting life again with a new love.
England Is Mine (2017)
Focusing on a pre-Smiths Morrissey, England Is Mine shows a young Moz who's just as sensitive and opinionated as he was in the mid '80s, when his band became one of the biggest in England. The music he adores helps him make his way through the cruel, suffocating world that surrounds him. Fans will recognize everything from news events to personal encounters that ended up in his songs years later.
Directed by actor Ethan Hawke, Blaze follows the life and death of Blaze Foley, a relatively unknown country singer-songwriter whose stock rose following this film's release. While the movie provides imagined scenes of Foley's life, it honors its subject and his artistic integrity by focusing on how his songs and death impacted others over the years.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
More than a decade in creation, Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, arrives in November. But it's been saddled with controversy from the start. Sacha Baron Cohen, who was originally going to play Mercury, said that he clashed with Queen guitarist Brian May, who wanted to tone down the more outrageous aspects of Mercury's life. Several writers and directors were also linked with the project before Justin Haythe wrote the final script and Dexter Fletcher was brought in to direct.
Rocketman, a movie about Elton John with a scheduled release date of 2019, is taking a different approach to its subject. Rather than a straightforward biopic, Taron Egerton, who plays John and performed his own vocals for the movie, has called it a "fantasy musical, so it’s actually his songs used to express important beats in his life at emotional moments." Dexter Fletcher (who helmed Bohemian Rhapsody) has been hired as the director, which began shooting in August 2018; a trailer featuring Egerton singing "Rocket Man," was released a few months later.
The Dirt (unknown)
Motley Crue are in the process of bringing their 2001 best-selling book The Dirt to the screen. Produced by Netflix, the film stars rapper Machine Gun Kelly as Tommy Lee and Daniel Webber as Vince Neil. The group reconvened in September 2018 to record four new songs with producer Bob Rock for the project. “I’m listening to the roughs of the new Motley Crue, and it feels real and raw," Nikki Sixx tweeted. "Everybody is playing like mad and the songs crush. Bob Rock brought the sounds. Plus we have a surprise that will confirm that we’re outta our minds. You can trust us there are ball-busters. Everybody can relax. We’re soon gonna smack you upside the head with some killer new tracks. Bob Rock is producing. It’s our movie. We know what we’re doing.”