THE 1927 film The Jazz Singer is renowned as the first ‘talkie’, but it’s also the first musical biopic, the story of how young Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) defies his father’s wishes that he become a cantor to follow his dream of becoming a secular jazz singer.
The movie was remade in 1980, starring Neil Diamond, and today the musical biopic is a staple of Hollywood. The latest, Get On Up, is the story of how James Brown rose from humble origins to become the ‘Godfather of Soul’ and the self-proclaimed “hardest-working man in show business”.
The ‘rags to riches’ storyline is the backbone of most musical biopics, although the best stories are rich in the dramas of the musicians, composers and singers themselves.
Amadeus (1984), which is more of a ‘rags to glorified rags’ story, tells Mozart’s tale from the perspective of his secretly jealous mentor, the court composer, Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), who is aghast that God has visited sublime genius on the wayward Mozart, who is played as a screeching, giggling, farting man-child in a superb performance from Tom Hulce.
Immortal Beloved (1994), directed by Bernard Rose and starring Gary Oldman as Ludwig von Beethoven, is more restrained, blending an interpretation of the life and times of the great composer with an investigation into the identity of the woman to whom Beethoven was writing when he penned the love letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved’. The scene in which the aged, deaf Beethoven concludes conducting the Ninth Symphony, unaware that the audience behind has risen to its feet for a standing ovation, is heartbreaking.
A less reverent take on classical music is Lisztomania (1975), Ken Russell’s bawdy send-up of the composer Franz Liszt (Roger Daltry) and his relationship with fellow composer, Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas). Only Ken Russell, perhaps, would cast Ringo Starr as the Pope.
Excess is one of the most appealing aspects of the music biopic. Great Balls of Fire! (1989) is a stirring account of one of rock-’n’-roll’s true outlaws, Jerry Lee Lewis, aka ‘the Killer’, with Dennis Quaid in suitably frenzied form as the arrogant, piano-wrecking, child-bride-marrying force of nature.
A more sombre portrayal of the rock-’n’-roll years, which explores the damage done by the rock-’n’-roll lifestyle, is Walk the Line (2005), James Mangold’s movie about Johnny Cash. It features a superb performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the ‘Man in Black’, and Reese Witherspoon as his long-suffering wife, June Carter.
Country music comes with its real-life heartbreaking drama built in, and two films from the 1980s set the bar high.
The Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) starred Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, who took a hard road to fame by dragging herself out of poverty (and being married at the age of 13), courtesy of her unique voice. Sweet Dreams (1985) mines a similar seam, following Patsy Cline (given a fabulous reading by Jessica Lange) as she ascends to stardom and multi-million sales, only to be cut down in her prime.
Over on the folk music side, Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976) is a terrific account of Woody Guthrie’s (played by David Carradine) emergence from the hardscrabble Texas dustbowl to become the great pioneer of American folk music.
Excess, tragedy, revolution: Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) had it all, in a romanticised version of Jim Morrison that chronicles his life from his early awakening to the consciousness-unlocking power of drugs and rock-’n’-roll to the Lizard King persona, the figurehead of the 1960s counter-culture that rebelled against, well, pretty much everything that had gone before.
Val Kilmer inhabits Morrison to an uncanny degree as debauchery threatens to overwhelm the bluesy poetry that made The Doors the equal of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Less charismatic than The Doors, perhaps, and certainly less cinematic, punk’s The Sex Pistols nevertheless have made for gripping viewing. Julien Temple’s quasi-documentary, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980), starred the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, as ‘The Embezzler’, as he claimed that the Pistols, and the punk movement, were simply his cunning plan to make a million quid.
Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) is the tale of the doomed pair, Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman again) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), a kind of heroin-addicted John and Yoko, despite Sid’s very obvious musical limitations.
The Filth and the Fury (2000) is more documentary than biopic. Temple’s second attempt at coming to terms with the Sex Pistols, describing their meteoric rise and fall, is one of the great music films.Arguably punk’s greatest poet, Ian Curtis is the focus of the superb Control (2007), a harrowing tale of Joy Division’s haunted lead singer, who tragically took his own life at the age of 23. Sam Riley, in his feature-length debut, is devastating as Curtis, who battled depression and epilepsy.
Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan), the man who signed Joy Division to Factory Records, is the subject of 24 Hour Party People (2002), Michael Winterbottom’s account of Manchester’s musical evolution, which led all the way from the grim days of punk to the Happy Mondays and the e-fuelled raves of 1990s ‘Madchester’.
The semi-autobiographical biopic, meanwhile, is typified by Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (2002), in which the rapper Eminem played up-and-coming rapper, Jimmy Smith, in a story coloured by Eminem’s own experiences.
The earnest tone is in sharp contrast to the pioneers of the autobiographical biopic, The Beatles, who first appeared on film in A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, Richard Lester’s seminal account of a ‘typical’ day in the life of the Fab Four, as Ringo — not playing the Pope — goes missing before a gig. The following year, Lester directed Help!, in which Ringo was targeted by a cult, and protected by John, Paul and George.
Neither film, sadly, matched the genius of The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978), a heartbreaking tale of The Rutles, aka ‘The Prefab Four’, a Monty Python-esque tale directed by Eric Idle and starring Idle, Michael Palin, George Harrison, Mick Jagger and Paul Simon. The hilarious spoof (of both The Beatles and the music biopic itself) paved the way for the up-to-11 parody of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a movie from which, its legions of fans would argue, the music biopic has never fully recovered.