Everyone wants to be a rockstar—and everyone in Hollywood wants to tell the real rockstars’ stories. Rock biopics are almost always entertaining, but the best ones are those rare films that hit every note. Accuracy that makes it feel almost like a real music documentary, watchability, perfect casting, and just the right creative spin bring it all to life.
(Bonus: they usually have killer soundtracks.)
Sid and Nancy (1986)
Actors: Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb
Streaming Services: IndieFlix, Xfinity Stream
Heroin abuse, punk rock and knife-play: this movie has it all. It portrays the totally f’ed up love affair between bassist Sid Vicious (of the seminal punk rock band The Sex Pistols) and his American groupie, Nancy Spungen, in all its violent tenderness.
Gary Oldman made critics sit up and ask, “Who the hell is this guy?” with his dazzling performance as Sid. Interesting fact: Oldman was hospitalized after losing too much weight in preparation for the role.
On the other side of this punk rock coin is Chloe Webb’s portrayal of Nancy. While Sid and Nancy did not propel Webb to the heights of stardom that it did for Oldman, she shines just as brightly in what one critic called “punk rock’s Romeo and Juliet.”
The film, sadly, does not feature much music from the Sex Pistols. However, that glaring oversight is somewhat balanced by Oldman’s rendition of “My Way” (yes, Sid covered the Sinatra classic) and original music from Joe Strummer (The Clash), Irish Punkersm The Pogues, and Pray for Rain.
Making surprise appearances in the film are punk rock legends Iggy Pop, the Circle Jerks (yeah, don’t dwell on that name too long), Nico, and not-so-legendary Courtney Love.
One review of Sid and Nancy claims that at one time, the lovers decided to “…isolate in squalor.” That about sums up every punk rocker’s living arrangement at one point, does it not? But that’s the genre’s and this movie’s appeal.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Actors: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., & Aldis Hodge
Streaming Services: Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, iTunes Store.
When there’s a drive-by during filming, you know you’ve got a legit gangsta rap movie.
Yep: Suge Knight was arrested for running two dudes over with his car, killing one and injuring the other, while filming Straight Outta Compton. The film traces the rise and fall of the notorious rap group N.W.A, whose very name white folks feel uncomfortable speaking, during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Straight Outta Compton brings together Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella in Compton, California, in 1986, detailing their entry into the world of “reality rap” (later dubbed “gangsta rap” by the sellout media).
Developed by rappers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Scholly D, and Ice-T, reality rap was brought to the masses by N.W.A and their album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988.
And when white teens in neighborhoods like Gross Pointe, Michigan, and Westport, Connecticut, began cruising while pumping “Fuck tha Police,” shit hit the fan.
The F.B.I sent the group’s manager, Jerry Heller (played admirably by Paul Giamatti), a letter complaining about the song’s anti-police message; N.W.A responded as only they could.
How did this became the highest-grossing music biopic ever (surpassed by Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018)? The terrific acting of the relatively unknown cast—and, of course, N.W.A’s music.
While the film has a few historical inaccuracies, its greatest failing comes from totally overlooking Dre’s instances of domestic violence. For a group that despised censorship, this omission is ironic indeed.
I’m Not There (2007)
Actors: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV
As the comedy troupe Monty Python was fond of saying, “And now for something completely different.”
While not a traditional music biopic, I’m Not There does delve into various aspects (six to be exact) of Bob Dylan’s life and career in an unconventional manner. As the disclaimer states at the film’s beginning, it’s “Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.”
Featuring an all-star cast, the film uses the six actors to represent Dylan as poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, “rock and roll martyr,” and “star of electricity.” These roles are portrayed by Whishaw, Bale, Gere, Franklin, Blanchett, and Ledger, respectively.
It’s also nonlinear, jumping back and forth between all six representations frequently. Somehow, director Todd Haynes makes this all work.
After viewing numerous formulaic rock biopics, I’m Not There is beautiful in its unconventionality. It reveals Dylan’s incomprehensibility and how he continually disappeared, morphed, and then re-appeared throughout his career.
While its criticism as appealing only to Dylan fanatics is somewhat valid, that does not detract from its dizzying originality.
What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Actors: Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne
Streaming Service: Fandango, Apple TV, VUDU, Amazon Prime Video
Oh-so-shockingly, Ike Turner claimed this movie (and the book it was based on) was full of lies and damaged his reputation, most notably the scenes of his domestic abuse against Tina.
What’s Love Got to Do with It traces the life of Tina from the time she was born into poverty in some backwater called Nutbush, Tennessee, through the beginnings of her music career and abusive relationship with Ike. Finally, it showcases her triumph as a successful solo artist and actress during her post-Ike 1980s.
Loosely based on her book, I, Tina, the film gets much wrong, as most Hollywood biopics do, but that does not take away from the astounding comeback story of one Anna Mae Bullock.
As with most rock biopics, what makes this one stand out is the acting and the music. Angela Bassett shines as Tina, so much so that she earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.
Pre-Morpheus Fishburne plays a great douche bag in the form of Ike, and also earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor (but lost to Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Andy Beckett in Philadelphia…tough to argue with that).
As for the music, just watching and listening to Tina/Bassett belt out “Proud Mary” is worth your monthly streaming fee.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Actors: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Allen Leech, & Aidan Gillen
Streaming Service: Hulu, Amazon Prime
There are two reasons to watch this one. First: its high entertainment value. Simply put, it’s fun to sing along to the songs you already know and love. There’s also humor sprinkled throughout, and just enough drama to keep things moving.
And secondly: Rami Malek’s portrayal of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury.
The film focuses on Mercury and how he became a rock sensation. However, if you’re looking for an in-depth account of his time with Queen and his relationships with his bandmates (as well as with long-time friend Mary Austin), this ain’t it.
If, however, you’re looking for the music of classic rock band Queen interspersed with scenes of superb acting and stage performances by Malek, then this will surely top your rock biopics list.
You’d be in good company, too. The film grossed over $900 million worldwide, making it the number one music biopic ever. Audiences forgave historical inaccuracies in exchange for Malek’s fantastic portrayal—and, of course, an incredible soundtrack.
Behind the Candelabra (2013) is like watching a slow-motion train wreck (you just can’t look away, no matter how badly you desire) as it traces the last ten years in the life of flamboyant pianist Liberace and his relationship with Scott Thorson. The performances of Michael Douglas (Liberace) and Matt Damon (Thorson) are sublime.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) is a bat-sh!t funny parody of the rock biopics genre (especially Walk the Line) that stars John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. It features full-frontal male nudity, skewers the genre and rockers on an equal basis, and includes cameos by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, and Eddie Vedder.