The archetype of ‘the rock star’ goes back further than people may think. In theory, this archetype originated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and hedonism. There is something untouchable and secretly desirable about famous musicians. They seem to effortlessly float through life, creating works of music that countless fans paw over while these celebrities live their best lives, even if they are undergoing their struggles of addiction and over-indulgence. We turn them into spectacles and objects of our desires; idols that are above society’s laws.
The other side of the subject is, of course, that perhaps we are simply avid fans of a musician’s work and become enthralled in their life stories. As a society, we place celebrities on pedestals so we can worship them at the altar as godly figures; some will even go as far as to emulate their every facet of character. Music celebrities, in a way, have become the new religious figures; human beings have always worshipped otherworldly characters. As religion is increasingly losing its presence as a form of order and indoctrination, humans still need something to look up to.
We are all somewhat guilty of this, and let’s face it, a good rock biopic portraying our favourite rock star is very entertaining. They are also hard to come by. A rock biopic can go very wrong at times, it always runs the risk of misrepresenting the facts, or veering too far into the cliche.
We decided to take a look at the five best biopic films on real-life rock stars.
The five best rock music movies:
5. The Runaways – Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 film, The Runaways, does a decent job of portraying one of the first all-female ’70s rock bands of the same name. Kristen Stewart does an even better job of portraying the bad girl and mastermind behind the band, Joan Jett. Of all the members of the band, Joan Jett went to experience the most success later on in her solo career.
The film centres on the ups and downs of the relationship between Jett and Runaways singer Cherrie Currie. It also takes a vivid look at the manipulating manager who was heavily involved behind the scenes for a lot of bands from this era, Kim Fowley, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon.
The real Cherrie Currie appreciated the film, however, and she commented that it didn’t exactly cover what she had written in her book, and instead, only tackled a very small portion of what had happened. “This is the filmmakers’ movie. This is their portrayal,” Currie said. “This is their version of the story. My book is a totally different story. My book is the real story. This is just a lighter kind of flash of what The Runaways were for a specific amount of time.”
4. Love & Mercy – Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson
Bill Pohlad’s 2014 insightful look into the life and mind of Beach Boys genius, Brian Wilson, is brilliant in the way that it tells the story of Wilson through two parallel storylines. One storyline features Paul Dano, who plays a younger Brian Wilson in the ’60s, while in the other John Cusack plays an older version in the ’80s.
Both actors do a superb job in revealing the stark differences between the two, and how one’s life can dramatically change within 20 years. The film follows Brian Wilson’s struggles with drug addiction as it exacerbates his mental illness; the structure of the split plotlines blurs the lines between schizophrenia and psychedelia; time is non-linear.
The real Brian Wilson has called the film “very factual,” although Wilson himself had very little involvement in the making of it. Instead, Brian Wilson’s second wife in the ’80s, Melissa Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, was relied upon for information pertaining to the musician’s life in the ’80s.
3. England is Mine – Jack Lowden as Morrissey
Mark Gill’s 2017 biopic on Morrissey’s early life before forming The Smiths with Johnny Marr, is often overlooked among the plentiful list of other musical biopics. A personal favourite of mine; the dialogue is great, the acting is really good, and it does a decent job at portraying Morrissey as a young man as he attempts to find his singing and writing voice.
Lowden plays a sullen, dissatisfied and extremely introverted Morrissey – all the ways you would expect the enigmatic singer to be as a young man. Morrissey in his early 20s is a shy and awkward observer. He goes to concerts, he is constantly carrying around vinyl records, newspapers, and journals and jots notes down. He writes reviews of these performances and sends them out to publications – often very crude reviews.
The film also reveals Morrissey to be extremely enamoured with David Bowie and is obsessed with becoming a successful and famous musician. Prior to The Smiths, Morrissey joined a band that got approached by a label. Fairly soon after this Morrissey realises that the label is in fact only interested in the guitar player, after which Morrissey falls into a long period of depression.
2. Amadeus – Tom Hulce as Amadeus Mozart
While Mozart is a classical composer of the 18th and 19th centuries, I would venture to say that Mozart was the first rock star. Milos Forman’s 1984 film tells the story of Mozart’s chaotic personal life and his genius was perpetually abused and taken advantage of. The film also details the one-sided rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham.
The film and why it deserves to be on this list, albeit it not being a rock n’ roll story, is because not only is it one of the greatest musical biopics, it is also one of the greatest films ever.
The film’s portrayal of Mozart’s persistent alcoholism and as it worsens also conjures up notions of the ’60s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll icons.
1. The Buddy Holly Story – Gary Busey as Buddy Holly
This brilliant 1978 biopic deserves the number one spot on this list, and it is only natural, as Buddy Holly is one of the pioneers of pop-rock music as we know it today. Directed by Steve Rash, the film follows Buddy Holly’s life as he and his backing band, The Crickets rise to popularity.
The movie also outlines the way Buddy Holly fought to get his voice heard and to make the kind of rock ‘n’ roll he wanted to in Nashville, Tennessee where country music has always dominated the landscape.
Included in Rash’s film, is also the tragic event that saw musical icons, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper all die in a fatal plane crash in 1958.