Before The Bohemian Rhapsody begat the Rocketman and Elvis, these biographies sang the history of American music.
The only thing Hollywood loves to do more than following a trend is to follow an Academy Award-winning trend. Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 musical drama depicting the career of the operatic rock group Queen and its unpredictable leader Freddie Mercury, took biopic mixed reviews and music biopic record-breaking box office ($911 million worldwide) to the that year’s Academy Awards, returning home with a basket of Oscars for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Rami Malek raised his lead actor profile, winning Best Actor honors for his portrayal of Mercury. Soon enough, hot on platform heels of its own, Taron Egerton takes off as British rocker Elton John aka Rocketman, 2019’s over-the-top entry into the revitalized genre; a movie that won an Oscar of its own for Best Original Song (“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” by Elton John himself).
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have Elvis Presley or, to be exact, director Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS, the life and times of the legendary rock-n-roll heartbreaker of the 50s and 60s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Austin Butler stars in the title role. At the same time, Tom Hanks — two dusty Oscars bookending a typewriter in his Zoom background — portrays Presley’s manager/svengali Colonel Tom Parker. The highly anticipated film – it received a twelve-minute standing ovation at its 2022 Cannes Film Festival premiere – opened on June 24th, with its $31 million box office beating out Top Gun: Maverick for the week’s top spot. Butler is the only thing worth the pretzel bites here, making good use of the limited stage he’s given (two hours of frenetic music videos wrapped around 30 minutes of story equals a fun film, if not a wholly engaging one; there’s my review).
So while you wait for the next showtime because you missed your scheduled one (I told you to go before we left!), sit back in the lobby and check out these feature film biographies of American music’s days gone by.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Forty-two years ago this past March, actress Sissy Spacek – famed as the title character in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie – took to the silver screen and became Loretta Lynn before our eyes. She took on the embodiment of one of the most influential country musicians ever and won the Best Actress Award to side with the film’s Best Picture honors. The story is a bit paint-by-the-numbers as far as bios go but Spacek is incredible (as well as her co-star, Tommy Lee Jones), delivering the signature performance of her career. It’s been a minute since you watched this with your parents, I’m sure—time to pay it forward to your children and theirs.
La Bamba (1987)
Named for the signature song of 17-year-old rocker Ritchie Valens, La Bamba portrays the final months of his sensational life, from a high school student struggling through the racial tensions of 1950s Los Angeles to the unlikely heights of stardom and cultural iconography. The latter was achieved, unfortunately, on ‘the day the music died’ – February 3, 1959 – when Valens, alongside rockers Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson, were victims of a plane crash while on tour. Lou Diamond Phillips, ably led by writer/director Luis Valdez, does nothing to betray the tragedy of that fateful day in his performance, giving Valens the exuberance and immortality of his youth.
The Doors (1991)
To say the films of director Oliver Stone (Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers) are an ‘acquired taste’ is cliche but the man knows how to fill a plate. And no one does a thousand chews on a morsel of scenery like Val Kilmer (Tombstone for the win). Together, they resurrect the hedonistic drug-addled life of Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors who was doomed to self-destruction at 27. The film is as surreal as the band’s hold on the counterculture of the 60s, but Kilmer’s out-there performance makes it work and, Born on the Fourth of July notwithstanding, reveals Stone’s most assured hand.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? (1993)
This may be the most popular biopic of all time if meme-culture and Quotables mean anything; who hasn’t demanded that someone ‘eat the cake’? The story of Tina Turner’s escape (there’s really no other word for it) from her abusive marriage to Ike Turner was the stuff of legends (and her tell-all autobiography I, Tina) before director Brian Gibson captured it on film, in the iconic performances of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. The music rightfully gives center stage to the turbulence of their relationship, which has us locked in for every thrilling twist, turn, rise, fall (and rise again) of the ride.
Immortal Beloved (1994)
Betcha didn’t see this one coming? Immortal Beloved turns the exploration of the life and works of Ludwig Van Beethoven into a Citizen Kane-ish investigation into the identity of his ‘one true love’ It plays fast and loose for historic details like the best of biopics and the pace is…challenging. But Gary Oldman is in off-kilter mode, which is always a delight, and there’s denying the music, highlighted in its creation and the score.
Selena is a heartfelt portrait of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the 23-year-old “Queen of Tejano music” whose meteoric career was cut short only two years earlier at the hands of her obsessed manager Yolanda Saldívar. The biopic gave the artist posthumous international crossover success while, at the same time, catapulting In Living Color fly girl Jennifer Lopez to a Golden Globe nomination in her first leading role and superstardom of her own (IMO, it’s still her best performance). Surprisingly, considering the shortened life of the subject, Selena rewards with each rewatch, as her still grieving yet growing (still) fan base will attest.
Walk The Line (2005)
James Mangold’s biopic of country music’s Johnny Cash and his equally legendary better half, June Carter, so deftly defined and elevated the genre so it became the standard-bearer and last of its kind. Using their romance as the POV for Cash’s roller-coaster life, Walk The Line shows how opposites-attract chemistry can clear any hurdle, and Johnny Cash had his share, many created by his own hubris. Joaquin Phoenix (Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (Carter) are perfect, full stop. And their duets are authentic and charming.
Miles Ahead (2015)
A wet fever dream churned in a bucket of sanguine memories, disguised as an Uptown Saturday Night remix, writer-director Don Cheadle carries the real-life and secret origin of jazz impresario Miles Davis on his shoulders and he bears the weight well. His scenes with Emayatzy Corinealdi (his estranged wife Frances) and Ewan McGregor (journalist David Braden) crackle with affection and surreal humor, respectively. This marked Cheadle’s directorial debut; here’s hoping it’s not his last.
The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel (2020)
A detour into television but ‘we go where The Lord takes us.’ Lifetime, which specializes in biographies of rhythm and blues/hip-hop stars like Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton, showed originality of theme and a significant upgrade in quality with this gorgeous look at the formative years of the best-selling gospel group in history. It goes without saying that the Clark Sisters’ tale is one of family, but the bluntness of the storytelling surprised me, in a good way. Aujaune Ellis (King Richard) leads an outstanding cast – Christina Bell, Kierra Sheard, Sheléa Frazier, Raven Goodwin, and Angela Birchett – in this beautiful period drama from writers Sylvia L. Jones & Camille Tucker and director Christine Swanson.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
Audra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is the main reason to watch the United States vs Billie Holiday. This bio-drama, directed by Lee Daniels from a script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, reveals the (true?) story of the US government’s war against drugs in the ’50s and 60s and how that dovetailed with their investigations into the life of the renowned jazz singer. It’s a little sloppy directionally and the storytelling a little inconsistent, but again Audra Day is absolutely mesmerizing portraying Billie Holiday as the talented and tragic historical figure that she was destined to become — a justifiably Oscar-nominated performance. Plus, this gives Lady Sings The Blues (1972) the counterpoint it’s long deserved.