Five musician biopics that are actually worth watching

Immortalising the lives of our favourites artists in film can be a tricky business, they can be an instant smash or well and truly hit the wrong notes - in light of this, we counted down the musician movies that comfortably hit the top of our charts.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 23rd Jul 2018.
Originally published: 19th Jul 2018

Image: Universal Pictures

The musician biopic is a thing of sheer unpredictability. On the one hand you'd expect to be backing a certain winner; take a well known rockstar or popstar, place a truly gifted actor in their shoes, go to town on the costumes and the result should be a smash.  

These films offer escapism like no other; you get the insight into the genius behind the music, the fantasy of living the wild life of your favourite superstar, the pure nostalgia for those who were living it at the time or the chance to get an insight into those who you idolise but are no longer alive.

The other hand to musician biopics can be much uglier though; legislation, copyrighting and music laws surround the words and music of the most mythical of acts, making it difficult to use original music in the films' soundtrack. Apart from this, there is the danger of self indulgence and being long winded while there is always the temptation for directors to veer too far away from the truth in order to spice up storylines and not only does this compromise the integrity of the movie, it also upsets fans and family alike to see their heroes' histories altered in such a way.

In recent years, the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Tupac and Morrissey have all been depicted by highly talented actors, however the results have been largely unsatisfying. Criticisms were levelled at Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley who directed Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is By My Side for apparently 'sexing up' certain scenes to make them more scandalous (although he claimed he followed only what he was told was true), while the film also suffered from having none of the rights to seminal hits such as 'Purple Haze', 'The Wind Cries Mary' or 'Voodoo Chile'. 

Jada Pinkett Smith was disapproving of 'inaccuracies about her relationship with Tupac' in All Eyez On Me, while one review said of England Is Mine; "it features two minutes of Morrissey singing and 97 minutes of Morrissey moping. At certain points in the middle of it, you may think “I’m miserable now,” though not in the way that Morrissey had in mind."

In a week where the second trailer for Queen biopic Bohemian  Rhapsody has been released; (true at the time of writing) it looks as though 2018 will feature one of the most stunning biopics ever seen, with the likeness not only of Ram Malek's Freddie Mercury, but also the rest of the cast and their wardrobes too, seemingly spot on, while all of Queen's blockbuster anthems seem to be intact too.

Looking ahead to the film's October release, we've pulled out the popcorn and chewed over our top five musician biopics.

1.Control (Ian Curtis biopic)

Control is a stark, stunning and unforgettable film that hones in on Ian Curtis, lead singer of post punk icons Joy Division and is directed by Anton Corbijn, who had worked with the band as a photographer. With a screenplay that was based on the biography Touching from a Distance by Curtis's widow Deborah, who served as a co-producer on the film, the legitimacy of the film only adds to its drama and knife edge tension throughout the depiction of Curtis' unpredictable life.

Shot in colour and then printed to black-and-white, each and every scene is a dramatic and drawn out account of Curtis' dour life in Macclesfield, his blossoming career as frontman of Joy Division and the fallout of fame, as well as ongoing struggles with epilepsy and side effects of his medication. Much like the music, Control is uncompromising and unconventional yet lingers with you for some time after you've experienced it.

2.Walk The Line (Johnny Cash biopic)

Easily one of the most famous and successful depictions of a musician's life came when Joaquin Phoenix took on Johnny Cash in 2005 film Walk The Line. In the film, we follow Cash's early life and his romance with June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon, before focusing on a career that saw him dabble dangerously with drink and drugs on the route to becoming one of the most successful country music stars of all time.

While Phoenix displayed the performance of his life in bringing Cash to the silver screen, it was Witherspoon who scooped a heap of awards, and was named Best Actress at not only the Oscars but also the BAFTAs and Golden Globes - while the L.A complimented both lead actors at the time of release, saying: ""Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do first-rate work — they sing, they twang, they play new-to-them instruments, they crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat it's a wonder they don't burst into flames".

3. Nowhere Boy (John Lennon biopic)

Sam Taylor Wood's directing debut saw her team up with acclaimed screenplay writer Matt Greenhalgh (who was also on board for Control) to portray the adolescence of John Lennon between the years of 1955 - 1960. Nowhere Boy focuses on Lennon's strained relations with his ruthlessly strict Aunt Mimi, who whom he lived with after being separated from his mother aged just five, and follows the formation of early Beatles incarnation The Quarrymen as well as Lennon's relationship with his Mother who he visits on occasions.

The film is an emotional rollercoaster and is important in explaining Lennon's widely portrayed bitterness and anger, honing in on a part of the singer's life that has been touched less so than his stratospheric fame found as part of the biggest rock band of all time. Based on a biography written by Lennon's half sister, the film is as accurate in plot as it is in acting, with Johnson's teddy boy look and sneering scouse drawl both excellently on point throughout.

4. Straight Outta Compton (N.W.A biopic)

Of the musician biopics released in more recent years, this is most certainly the benchmark. Straight Outta Compton follows the successes and struggles of Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella as members of the world's most notorious rap troupe N.W.A. From battles with the police, as well as those with songwriting legalities, to the death of Eazy E and all that came in between, Straight Outta Compton leaves few stones unturned, with a cast well connected to the rappers themselves, not least with Ice Cue and Dre on production duties, and Cube's real life son playing him in the film.

What takes the film to another level is that it also takes into account the solo careers of the groups most famous members, with Dr Dre's career highlighted in particular - this makes for an in depth look into his relationships with Snoop Dogg and Tupac, the brutal behind the scenes behaviour on the corridors of the Death Row's studios, as well as the enormous success of The Chronic. A simply unmissable watch.

5. Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll (Ian Dury biopic)

As well as having incredible tunes and a wonderful plot that is so bizarre you'll barely believe it's true, this film boasts one of the finest acting performances you'll ever see in a musician biopic. In what is a truly mesmerising display, Andy Serkis delivers the brash, beguiling and brilliant character of Ian Dury in such a starkly convincing manner that this film is worth watching on account of that alone.

From the boisterous cockney bark to the polio stricken limp, Serkis nails each and every part of Dury's often contradictory character in depicting the singer's whirlwind life, which saw him hampered by hospitalisation and liberated through the discovery of music. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll tells the Dury story brilliantly through often tempestuous relationships with Blockheads guitarist Chaz Jankel, and girlfriend Denise Roudette (played by the wonderful Naomie Harris) and tells stories so scandalous that you feel compelled to invest a lot more into the new wave genius.