Miles Ahead and I Saw the Light are heading to the home entertainment market in the near future, and both show that the biopic is the go-to source for a majority of movie studios right now. And whilst the films got a reasonably warm and slightly less favourable reception respectively, we thought we’d take a look at five music biopics that got it just right.
The oldest entry on this list, Amadeus has aged perfectly and is still as superb today as it was originally claimed over 30 years ago. Miloš Forman’s biographical epic, following the lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, has a rich musical texture. The lead performances from F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are outstanding, and Forman weaves in some astounding musical set pieces to keep this three-hour tale feeling fresh.
Before he was captaining the Black Pearl with a pocket full of stolen doubloons Geoffrey Rush was winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Australian piano prodigy David Helfgott. Whilst the movie does incorporate some mesmerising musical scenes – one in which young Helfgott (portrayed by Noah Taylor a.k.a Locke from Game of Thrones) performs Rachmaninoff is particularly impressive – it’s real highlights are those which examine the abusive relationship between Helfgott and his father, and his worsening mental illness as a result. Rush’s performance is convincing and he’s enthralling to watch, even if his screen time is shorter than you would expect.
Walk the Line (2005)
There was no one quite like Johnny Cash, and he released some of the best country music ever made. So it was only fitting that his autobiographies got the big-screen treatment. The engrossing narrative is a very detailed account of Cash’s early life and rise to fame, and it doesn’t shy away from his issues with drug abuse. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a tremendous performance as the man in black, and it isn’t until the final credits roll that you realise that Phoenix was performing the songs in the movie himself, and with aplomb. The film also benefits from an excellent performance from Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, making Walk the Line a perfect example of how to make a biopic.
I’m Not There (2007)
The most controversial option on this list, I’m Not There won’t have pleased everyone who saw it. But the film benefits from a plethora of talented actors taking on the role of music legend Bob Dylan, each bringing their own charismatic style to the different stages and personas of his life. Cate Blanchett steals the show whilst portraying Dylan during his mid-sixties phase, when he shockingly played electric guitar and started experimenting with drugs, and earned herself an Oscar nomination in the process. Whilst not the most conventional biopic, it’s still a rewarding watch, and a sentimental one too, given that it was the final Heath Ledger film released during his lifetime.
Born to Be Blue (2016)
Admittedly, Born to Be Blue isn’t the greatest of biopics. But it was released in the UK around a similar time as Miles Ahead, and it also focused on a jazz musician – this time being Chet Baker. Born to Be Blue might lack the style of Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, but it more than makes up for it in substance. Ethan Hawke delivers a brilliant performance, and he’s almost unrecognisable in the lead role. Director and screenwriter Robert Budreau also maintains an honest approach to the life of Baker, making it one of the rare occasions in which a biopic is non-hagiographic, opting to focus on the star’s flaws rather than to gloss over them. If you could only seek one jazz biopic to see this year, this would make for more rewarding viewing.