Regardless of genre or the individuals in question, music biopics generally follow the same narrative. There’s an early scene where the lead actor does something myth-making before they’re even out of school uniform. Then there’s their first nervous performance, eyes darting around the room as the crowd slowly erupt into an electric cheer; a scene where someone casually offers them their first line of cocaine; a “three years later” fast forward and a pulsating slow-zoom on Madison Square Garden, which is rocking; them, wearing sunglasses indoors, wild-haired and inhaling violently off a mirror. Then it’s either redemption or death, and for some reason this film always takes 15 years to make, and always — despite a cosmic performance by the lead actor, who has normally gone so far into the character that they now embody them to an eerie degree that takes psychological assistance to get them out of it again — it’s always just a bit, well, crap.
With Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody coming soon cinemas, and Amy Winehouse’s family recently signing a deal to make a biopic of the late singer’s life, here are some of the good — and bad — films about musicians, ranked according to the metrics that matter ...
Plot: Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) is simply too handsome and interesting to be in the Beatles so, during their famous Hamburg sessions in 1960, a jealous Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) conspires to kick him out of the band. Thankfully, he’s already fallen in love with a local goth (Sheryl Lee), so does art instead. Long story short: Sutcliffe dies at the end. Wigs Lee’s blond boy chop is definitely a wig, but the crucial scene where he gets a moptop haircut is pure Dorff.
Cast: Ian Hart has played Lennon in three productions now, so should be pretty good at it; Dorff almost — almost — gets away with a Scouse accent; and Lee is perfect as an enigmatic photographer you’d leave the Beatles to die in the attic of.
Unnecessary songs: The song to actual film ratio of this one is spot on, actually.
Production nightmare: Took six years and one major rewrite to get to the screen. When it did, Paul McCartney said he hated it, so.
Rating: Two Beatles out of five.
The Doors (1991)
Plot: Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) is too pretentious and annoying even for film school in LA in the 60s, so he pours this creative energy instead into taking acid in the desert a lot and trying desperately to say profound things while cheating on Meg Ryan. Also he’s in a band.
Long story short: Morrison dies at the end.
Wigs: Ryan’s character changes her hair up so often she’s constantly baked into a wig, while Kyle MacLachlan cannot escape his own face by retreating into a Ray Manzarek hairpiece. Kilmer’s hair — which goes through three distinct, shaggy iterations — is his own.
Cast: Kilmer is so perfect as Morrison — knocking around hips-first into doorways and wearing scarves over an open shirt and being blown in an elevator — that he had to go to therapy post-production to “get Jim out of his head”.
Unnecessary songs: There are a couple of unnecessary performances, but most of the time it’s Kilmer-as-Jim singing and everyone else in the band looking at each other, amazed, just stunned to even be in the same room as him, which I imagine is: not how it happened.
Production nightmare: The biopic was first mooted in 1985, with Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin all taken with the idea of making it at various points. After Oliver Stone wrote three scripts and begged with everyone depicted, it finally hit screens in 1991. Kilmer is good, though.
Rating: One LSD out of five.
Plot: David Bow- sorry, “Brian Slade” (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a famed glam rock icon whom Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) simply cannot get over. Slade fakes his own death at his final concert then disappears off the face of the earth: Stuart, now a grumpy Manc journalist, tracks down those who were close to him to retell his mythological story and try to figure the mystery out. Oscar Wilde is involved for some reason. The whole thing is inexplicably a Citizen Kane rip-off. Eddie Izzard’s in it. It’s a lot. Wigs A lot of wigs, yeah. Rhys Meyers had to portray Davi- sorry, Brian Slade’s early hippy hair, his alien blue final form, and every chop and cut in between. Ewan McGregor had to wear something blond and Iggy Poppish to play Curt Wild.
Cast: Bale is pitch-perfect as Just a Simple Northern Lad What Wants to Shag David Bowie, and Rhys Meyers is almost painfully beautiful as Slade. Ewan McGregor’s gravelly American accent could ... have used some work.
Unnecessary songs: Seeing as the film had to pretend all the characters were works of fiction and Bowie refused to license any of the songs, a team of musicians were hired to form the fictional Venus in Furs, including Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Bernard Butler and Andy Mackay. Anyway, there are still two too many songs. Production nightmare Pretty straightforward job, this one.
Rating: Two aliens out of five.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Plot: Anna Mae Bullock (Angela Bassett) is abandoned by her mother as a child, which just completely messes her up and gives her massive abandonment issues. She goes to St Louis to reunite with her and immediately falls in love with Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) instead, a rich musical genius and a complete dickhead. They quickly marry, have a kid, and start a hugely successful career together, before Ike turns abusive and Tina learns exactly one Buddhist chant. She eventually leaves and relaunches her career and becomes the megastar we all know, love, and have watched do that horny performance with David Bowie on YouTube a dozen times. In a rare zig from the accepted format, she doesn’t die at the end. Wigs Bassett’s final reveal in Tina’s iconic blond rock fern wig is a key moment, but Fishburne’s ever changing Ike-cuts really steal the show.
Cast: Bassett is Tina down to the defined arms; Fishburne says it “took years” for him to stop getting the stink-eye in the street for his performance as the violent and controlling Ike.
Unnecessary songs: No such thing as an unnecessary Tina song. Next question. Production nightmare Casting the lead was a long affair — Halle Berry, Robin Givens and Whitney Houston were all considered before Bassett bagged the part a month before filming started. Fishburne turned down playing Ike five times.
Rating: Four rivers out of five mountains.
Behind the Candelabra
Plot: Maniacally flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) decides to turn his toyboy lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) into him via a series of rudimentary facial surgeries. Then he gets bored with banging himself so bangs someone else.
Long story short: Liberace dies.
Wigs: There are ... a fantastic number of wigs. Douglas’s Liberace is poised, posture-perfect in heavy crystal-studded outfits, tan and tight-faced, which makes it genuinely quite revolting when it cuts to scenes of him sagging out of the shower in a bald cap or hairlessly having his face sliced open with a saw.
Cast: Douglas was already past the age Liberace lived to by the time filming began; Damon, playing apparently a wide-eyed 18-year-old at the start of the film, was 42; the show is stolen entirely by Rob Lowe, face taped to the back of his own head, playing the pair’s speed-dealing Hollywood surgeon. Unnecessary shots of a song that are only really put in there because the lead actor went so far as to learn the entire song None. Douglas absolutely did not bother to learn piano for this one, so all the performances are probably his head CGI’d on to a more adept body.
Production nightmare: The idea of a Liberace biopic came to director Soderbergh in 2000; in 2008, he began adapting Thorson’s memoir, with Douglas and Damon signing on later that year; production took four years as the team struggled to secure studio funding and shooting was also delayed by Douglas’s 2010 cancer diagnosis.
Rating” Five candelabras out of five.
Don’t miss it
Bohemian Rhapsody releases in the UAE on November 8.