Freddie Mercury musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has so far taken over $145m worldwide at the box office. It had the second biggest opening weekend for a musical biopic behind 2015’s Straight Outta Compton.
Examples of the first musical biopics are ‘Unfinished Symphony’ and ‘Waltzes from Vienna’, both released in 1934. The films take composers Franz Schubert and Johann Strauss as their subjects respectively. The musical biopic really came into its own with the invention of home entertainment in the mid 1970s; by the 1980s it was commonplace to hire or buy films to watch at home. Join us as we explore the biggest musical biopics of all time.
1. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Certified triple platinum after the film’s release, the album of the same name is one of the most successful gangsta rap albums of all time. When NWA made the record they referred to their style as ‘reality rap’ because it reflected their life experiences. Before the group formed most rap music was about having a good time or boasting about your prowess on the microphone.
Straight Outta Compton follows the group from meeting to disbanding and Dr Dre’s formation of Aftermath Entertainment. Ice Cube is played by his real life son. Whether you’re a fan of the group or having a passing interest in music history this is an entertaining musical biopic watch.
2. Sid & Nancy (1986)
Musical biopic Sid & Nancy depicts the destructive drug-fueled relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Pistols fan Nancy Spungen. Following the Sex Pistols’ disastrous US tour and subsequent breakup Sid pursues a solo career with Nancy as his manager. Together the pair spiral out of control ultimately ending in the demise of both Sid and Nancy.
As far as musical biopics go, we don’t exactly leave the protagonists happily ever after at the end, but the movie has attained cult status largely thanks to the stand out performance by Gary Oldman in the title role. If you’re serious about your UK punk history this will probably be a frustrating watch; many of the characters are creations and John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon is played as a Liverpudlian (!) People who knew Vicious (including Lydon) have also suggested that Oldman played the stage persona, not the real person.
3. Purple Rain (1984)
Although his character is only ever called ‘the kid’ it’s widely accepted that Purple Rain is biographical with a lot of artistic license! Although Prince had released five studio albums prior to the film’s release he was propelled to stardom and icon status by this musical biopic. It was conceived as a means of showcasing Prince’s talents containing numerous concert sequences and his real band.
Much of the film was shot on location in Prince’s home city of Minneapolis including the First Avenue nightclub, which he often performed in. Prince and his team used the medium of film to cultivate a tortured genius mysterious persona around the star, which has arguably endured even after his death.
4. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Named after one of her biggest hits, What’s Love Got to Do with It is loosely based on the life of Tina Turner. It stars Angela Bassett in the leading role with Laurence Fishburne as Tina’s abusive husband Ike. The film used Tina’s biography I, Turner (co-written by Kurt Loder) as the basis for the screenplay but there are numerous historical inaccuracies and fabricated characters.
Whilst frequently a difficult watch, this musical biopic is ultimately an uplifting tale of Tina’s triumph over adversity to carve out a successful career in her own right. Both the real Ike and Tina have since expressed some regret over many events in the film being fictional.
5. 8 Mile (2002)
Named after the road which separates Detroit from its seven suburbs, musical biopic 8 Mile follows the trials and tribulations of an aspiring rapper. It is set in the Detroit underground hip-hop scene of 1995. Eminem plays Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, a character inspired heavily by himself. ‘Lose Yourself’ became the first rap song to win an Academy Award and Eminem had been so sure it wouldn’t win that he didn’t even attend the ceremony.
Some interest in rap is probably necessary to make it through the rap battle sequence, but beyond that this is a simple triumph over adversity narrative. Both Purple Rain and 8 Mile are rare examples of what is known as ‘auto biopics’ – biographical films in which the subject plays them self.
6. Walk the Line (2005)
Johnny Cash musical biopic Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Cash and June Carter Cash. The pair learnt how to sing and play the characters’ instruments in an intense six month period of lessons prior to filming.
The movie begins at Johnny’s famous Falsom State Prison performance flashing back to his beginnings on an Arkansas cotton farm. We follow Johnny as he discovers his love of music and meets the love of his life, June. This is a fascinating insight into the man behind that unmistakable voice.
7. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Musical biopic Behind the Candelabra is the darkly comic tale of flamboyant pianist Liberace and his young lover Scott. The film was based on the book of the same name written by the real Scott Thorson. Scott writes that one of the only celebrities to pay their respects to Liberace at his memorial service was Kirk Douglas, coincidentally the father of Michael Douglas who plays Liberace in this film. Opposite Douglas is Matt Damon as Scott.
Sumptuous sets and decadent jewel encrusted costumes make this a glitzy showbiz spectacular. The casting of actors who usually play completely different character types means you just can’t look away.
8. Control (2007)
Ian Curtis musical biopic Control was co-produced by the late Joy Division singer’s widow, Deborah whose book ‘Touching from a Distance’ formed the basis for the screenplay. The film takes its name from the Joy Division song ‘She’s Lost Control’ and is used because Curtis is perceived to have struggled with control in his life largely due to his epilepsy. It marks the directorial debut of photographer Anton Corbijn who captured the band on film in their early days for the NME.
There’s so much mythology surrounding Curtis as a tragic indie figure, especially given that many of his fans have only ever known his music since his death. Given that the director knew him the material feels like its being handled artistically and with care.
9. Nowhere Boy (2009)
The directorial debut of artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, Nowhere Boy shares a screenwriter with Control. The film is based on the book ‘Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon’ by Lennon’s half sister Julia Baird. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a young John Lennon as he forms The Quarrymen with school friend Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). Nowhere Boy was released to coincide with Lennon’s 70th Birthday.
10. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)
Named after his band’s 1977 single, Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll depicts new wave musician Ian Dury’s rise to fame. Dury had a disability caused by childhood polio; the effect the disability had on himself and his relationships is explored in the film alongside his extroverted performance style and dry sense of humour. Dury is portrayed by Andy Serkis.
Dury’s son Baxter is portrayed in the film and the real man has expressed some concern that from watching the film his family life seemed very dysfunctional. He told The Guardian ‘My involvement in the film was an absolute pleasure, everyone who worked on Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was wonderful. They all worked hard for not much money. But I have to admit that I did have a few sleepless nights after I watched the film. It’s just not normal to watch your family on screen, is it? I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone. I worry that people think we were some kind of rock’n’roll experiment, but we were just a normal, happy family.’