The news today that Oren Moverman has started pre-production on a Kurt Cobain biopic has us just a little worried. See, for every “Ray”, “Amadeus”, or “Walk The Line” that captures the lives of musicians with faith and brilliance on celluloid, there seems to be a couple well-meaning duds like “Beyond The Sea”, “What We Do is Secret”, or “Immortal Beloved” hanging around. Even in keepers like “Sid and Nancy”, “The Glenn Miller Story”, “Impromptu”, or “24 Hour Party People”, the grinding realities of the music biz take a second seat to semi-fictionalized romance, drama, and disaster. That’s why we often prefer the tasty, tawdry films that fall into one of cinema’s least-visited sub-sub-genres—the fictional music biopic. Below is a list of our favorite films that, like reality television or a McDonald’s burger, have bit of the taste of the real thing, but are mostly artificial sweetener, along with the names of the original musicians who inspired these cinematic confections.
“The Rose” = Janis Joplin
Despite ongoing efforts to capture her life on film, Janis Joplin has always proved too big, too messy for a 90-minute exploration of her life. As well, the squiggly line that traces the arc of her all-to-short life and career also makes for difficult, respectful screenwriting. Instead of trying to be Janis in Mark Rydell’s 1979 Golden-Globe winning tribute to the singer, Bette Midler basically played a drunken, country-fried version of herself who toys with love and barbiturates until she somewhat glamorously dies on stage. We’ll take Rose’s finale over Joplin’s sad end in at L.A.’s Landmark Motor Hotel any day.
“Last Days” = Kurt Cobain
Even as we’ve passed the 15 year mark since Cobain’s suicide, a true on-the-ground biopic seems too soon for those of us who saw him rise to fame. As well, there’s only so much screaming and shooting up one can take in a visit to the cinema. Instead, try out Michael Pitt’s turn as Blake, the disassociated frontman of Pagoda who shuffles around his mansion like a ghost until he offs himself in the guest house. One of Gus Van Sant’s “ripped from the headlines” movies (see “Gerry” and “Elephant”), this is a tone poem that captures a certain mood rather than the icky true details of a rock star’s life.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” = The Runaways/The Slits
Sure, we’re a psyched to see K-Stew and Dakota Fanning throw down as Joan Jett and Cherie Curie in the upcoming Runaways biopic. But we bet all the lezzie thrills and druggie spills of the new movie won’t match “…The Fabulous Stains” in the goofy charm department. A barely concealed punk re-imagining of the all-girl rock group with a lot less sex and drugs and a lot more Diane Lane, and Laura Dern, this bit of tasty 1980s candy features Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, The Clash’s Paul Simonon, and Ray Winstone as a trim young punk singer of “The Looters”. Yes, that Ray Winstone.
“Dreamgirls” = The Supremes
“Dreamgirls” was a Broadway show that pulled many of early Motown’s legends into one storyline. The 2006 Bill Condon Oscar-winner did an even better job of focusing in on the contentious, exciting story of The Supremes with an expanded part for Diana Ross stand-in Beyoncé Knowles. While a dozen or so books have made good hey out of the infighting and backstabbing that the group suffered after success, we doubt all that real-life bitchery on screen would be as endearing as this musical drama.
“The Jazz Singer” = Al Jolson
Famous as the first “talkie”, it’s hard to overestimate the influence and importance of Al Jolson’s 1927 puffed-up, fictionalized autobiographical star turn. Leagues away the biggest recording artist of his day, “The Jazz Singer” recounts Jolson’s rise to fame as the Jewish cantor’s son smears himself in blackface to star in the minstrel shows of Broadway and the old Bowery. Yes, this classic joins other watershed titles like “Birth of a Nation” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” as cultural antiques no longer suitable for regular viewings in an increasingly post-racial America. But rarely has the sweaty work of stardom come across with such charm and honesty as it does in this stylized landmark of a film. For a hearty laugh, try sitting through the Barry Manilow remake.
“8 Mile” = Eminem
Essentially, Eminem’s brilliant, tight “8 Mile” is a retelling of Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” with white-trash squalor and urban decay replacing the Lower East Side Jewish roots of Jolson’s pic. As “Rabbit”, Eminem shows a level of queasy hunger and ambition that seems tied to his reality. With a Fincheresque eye for rusting visual detail, director Curtis Hanson makes Slim Shady’s struggles with his mother, an effective Kim Basinger, and his environment seem life-or-death, putting real heft to his various adventures in Detroit’s underground rap scene in a way that a stright biopic never could. Just stay far clear from 50-Cent’s take on the same story, “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”.
“Krush Groove” = Def Jam Records
There is nothing less compelling or less dignified than the inner workings of the music industry. Even retelling the story of the rise of Def Jam records from a room in a NYU dorm to market domination is more palatable as a Business School class than a movie. The hard, ugly realities of clawing your way up from the bottom in the nascent hip-hop publishing world is viewed through oversized rose-tinted glasses in “Krush Groove” where early stars like the Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow happily take on the world with Blair Underwood improbably starring as a sexy version of Russell Simmons.
“Crazy Heart” = Waylon Jennings/Kris Kristofferson/Merle Haggard/Townes Van Zandt
Is Bad Blake all those grizzled country-and-western stars, or is he just Jeff Bridges with a guitar, an accent, and a hangover? Well, in this Oscar-nominated portrait by first-time director Scott Cooper—who originally wanted to make a Haggard biopic—close is good enough for horseshoes. Focusing in on that special, honored place where sadness, liquor, and G-chords meet in country required a fully realized character study which might not have been possible if tethered to the history of an actual person. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” was good. Bridges as Bad Blake is great.
“Velvet Goldmine” = David Bowie/Iggy Pop
Perhaps even better than the real thing, Todd Haynes’s 1998 tall tale recounts the beautiful, early days of glam rock, transforming the often business-minded David Bowie of the Ziggy Stardust era into the pained, somewhat messianic figure of Brian Slade played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. A far more definite commentary on homosexuality and politics than Bowie’s life could ever be, “Velvet Goldmine” had Slade getting hot and heavy with an Iggy Pop clone, played by Ewen McGregor, and then diving back into the closet as the 1970s became the 1980s.
“This is Spinal Tap” = The Entire Music Industry
Sure, it’s about faded metal stars who were never as big on the charts as they were in their own minds. But “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” this is not. “Spinal Tap” works as well as a gut check the guitar gods who turn it up to 11 as it does for the hip-hop stars who make fools of themselves onstage at award shows. For every musician who’s forgotten what town they’re playing, for every band lost on the way to a gig, for every bassist trapped in his own set piece, for every singer who knows more about haircare and costumes than the pentatonic scales, there is “Spinal Tap”.
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Top image (clockwise from upper left): Diane Lane in “Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains” courtesy of Rhino Entertainment, Alan Bates and Bette Midler in “The Rose” courtesy of Twentieth-Century Fox, Micheal Pitt in “Last Days” courtesy of HBO Films, Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” courtesy of Fox Searchlight.