A musical biopic is a dramatization of a real-life person experiencing real-life events, usually with a killer soundtrack, and they have been a staple in the film industry since its inception. When creative license comes in, just how accurate are the portrayals of these people and events? The fact is, movies are for entertainment, but just how far will these filmmakers go to capture their audience and their subject?
Following the success of films like Judy (2019), starring Renée Zellweger, and Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, who Aretha Franklin hand-picked for the role, enigmatic director Baz Lurhhman is releasing his much-anticipated take on The King himself, Elvis, starring Austin Butler, on 24th June 2022. Biopics are having a moment once more, but having a ready-made story is only part of the battle, and doesn’t guarantee quality or accuracy.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Available to stream on fuboTV and FXnow
As one of the greatest singers of all time, Freddie Mercury deserved a powerful biopic, and that’s exactly what he got. Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of the young and ambitious Farrokh Bulsara and how he used his charm and talent to influence Queen’s musical direction to inevitably become of the most influential bands in history.
With a four-octave range and unabashed showmanship, Mercury had star power. Rami Malek masterfully transforms into the late singer, possessing both his confidence and caution. While some audiences did criticize the film’s focus on Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin, others think Freddie (who chose not to identify his sexuality publicly) would appreciate the subtle way his tumultuous love life was portrayed. Given the heavy involvement his bandmates had in the film, it’s clear that respecting his memory was their priority, as opposed to exploiting his privacy.
One Chance (2013)
Not currently on streaming platforms
There are few stories more genuinely heartwarming than that of Britain’s Got Talent (2007) winner Paul Potts. One Chance tells the story of a shy, bullied boy from Wales with a lifelong passion for opera, and a dream to one day sing for Pavarotti. The film follows the emotional journey of Potts losing faith in himself but, with the help of his loved ones, finding the will to get back up and try again.
Potts’ unwavering softness is captured beautifully by James Corden. While the film moves through dark times, the actor manages to portray the eternally humble opera singer with the same sweet appeal that captured British hearts from his first audition. A perfect example of the Welshman’s coy is that, despite winning Britain’s Got Talent in June 2007, he didn’t quit his job at Carphone Warehouse until March 2008.
Walk the Line (2005)
Available to stream on Prime
The Man in Black Johnny Cash received the biopic treatment in this multi-award-winning tale of music, addiction, and love. The Rockabilly legend played by Joaquin Phoenix went from rags to riches, only to hit rock bottom again and again through his struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, all while writing and performing hit after hit. Walk the Line doesn’t shy away from Cash’s darkness, highlighting the mistreatment of his first wife Vivian Liberto, who filed for divorce in 1966. Above all else, this is a love story about undeniable soulmates: Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who died just four months apart.
Reese Witherspoon won her first Academy Award for her portrayal of the incredibly talented June Carter, who in her lifetime won five Grammys and is a member of the Christian Music Hall of Fame. The fact that both Witherspoon and Phoenix sang and played their instruments is a true testament to their incredible talent as performers, with both actors receiving Johnny and June’s blessing to play them. The couple’s son, country singer John Carter Cash, executive-produced and played Bob Neal in the film, and fondly refers to it as his parents’ love story.
Available to stream on HBOmax
The late Queen of Tejano music Selena (Selena Quintanilla Pérez) remains one of the most influential and successful Latin performers of all time. Tragically Selena was murdered by the president of her fan club, the former manager of her boutiques, who had been fired following numerous complaints and embezzling $60,000 from the singer’s estate. Yolanda Saldívar lured Selena to her motel room on multiple occasions, first to hand over financial documents, then she claimed to have been raped and needed medical assistance. The frustrated artist caught Saldívar in her lies at the hospital, and when the women returned to the motel, their heated argument about business resulted in Saldívar fatally shooting Selena.
The Mexican-American superstar is remembered for her outstanding talent and philanthropy. Selena dedicated not only her money but her time to causes she passionately believed in. She attended schools to impart the importance of education and supported charities such as D.A.R.E and Toys for Tots. Selena was also a proud spokeswoman for women escaping abuse and helped out in homeless shelters. While Salma Hayek was initially offered the role, she felt it was too soon after the tragic crime to make a film. While some critics agreed and rallied against the casting of New York-raised Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez, the (at the time) newcomer’s performance honored the icon and won over mourning fans, too. The world lost a force for good the day Selena was murdered, but although her life was limited to 23 short years, her legacy remains.
Available to stream on Starz
The legendary Rhythm and Blues pioneer Ray Charles is regularly regarded as one of the most influential singers of all time, so there was a lot riding on this biopic to get it right. Young Charles was raised in Greenville, Florida by his single mother. In 1948 and after playing for pennies and remembering his late mother’s perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride, Charles decided to start his own band.
Ray was the first African-American biopic nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and it earned Jamie Foxx the Best Actor award, yet, the film had to be independently produced when it failed to gain studio backing. The film and Foxx’s performance are celebrated for adding depth and complexity to the man behind the legend. The eighteen-time Grammy winner was involved in the production of his biopic, but tragically passed away a few months before the premiere. The Ray Charles Foundation continues his legacy, funding hearing impairment research, and supporting creative education for underprivileged youth.
Worried About The Boy (2010)
Available to buy on AppleTV
Although a TV Movie, Worried About the Boy was brimming with potential. The androgynous beauty of Douglas Booth made him the perfect choice to portray the 1980s New Romantic phenomenon and lead singer of Culture Club, Boy George (George Alan O’Dowd). Worried About the Boy showcases George’s shift from misfit schoolboy to pop sensation, and the many love affairs he left in his wake.
The now out and proud singer has been open about his love life and past ‘secret’ relationships, giving the biopic plenty to work with. Sadly, it’s the bad editing and over-the-top acting (though Booth and pre-Game of Thrones Richard Madden are outstanding) that make this movie feel more like a school project than a cinematic depiction of a troubled star’s youth.
Beyond the Sea (2004)
Available to rent on AppleTV
The late, great, honorary Rat Pack member Bobby Darin lived the kind of life biopic screenwriters dream of. In his short thirty-seven years, Darin hustled his way from songwriter for Connie Francis to a million-dollar hitmaker in his own right. He won a Golden Globe for his turn acting opposite then-wife Sandra Dee in Come September. Heavily involved in Robert F. Kennedy‘s presidential campaign, Darin was even present at the Ambassador Hotel that fateful night in June 1968. He achieved so much, all while suffering a debilitating heart condition, complications from which would ultimately take his life.
Those unfamiliar with the ‘Mack the Knife’ singer would still imagine a young, suave, ambitious man of the time, and they’d be right. It’s for this reason that there is no possible explanation for why Kevin Spacey, at forty-four, was cast to play him. Oh right, Spacey was the director. It turns out, the film was in development for seventeen years and underwent countless rewrites before a studio would back the project. It’s also worth noting that Kate Bosworth is a great Sandra Dee, but she is twenty-four years Spacey’s junior, and there were only five years between Darin and Dee. It does a disservice to Darin that this biopic is more of a vanity project for the now-disgraced Spacey than a tribute to the multitalented crooner. If only the studio had got Leonardo DiCaprio, but he turned down the role in favor of Danny Boyle‘s cult classic The Beach.
What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
Available to stream on Fubo
Adapted from her 1986 memoir I, Tina, What’s Love Got to Do with It tells the story of Anna Mae Bullock, a neglected youth raised in Nutbush, Tennesse, and her journey from Ike Turner‘s abused wife to the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Tina Turner.
While the film was a critical success, and there’s no denying the fantastic performances of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, Turner hated the final product. She has vented frustration at her ‘weak’ portrayal and many glaring and important omissions, like her relationship and son with Ike Turner‘s Kings of Rhythm saxophonist Raymond Hill, who returned to his hometown and left eighteen-year-old Turner a single mother living in Ike Turner’s home. While abuse onscreen is always harrowing, knowing that Turner is further hurt by this film is enough to warrant leaving it in 1993.
The Runaways (2010)
Available to stream on Hulu
Based on lead vocalist Cherie Curry‘s book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, the Runaways plays out more like a clichéd coming-of-age drama than a Rock and Roll biopic, which is what the director Floria Sigismondi was going for, apparently. The story follows the ups and downs of a pioneering all-girl band dealing with overnight success in the drug-fuelled 1970s music scene.
When bassist Jackie Fox (Jacqueline Fuchs) (along with the other bass players Vicki Blue, Laurie McAllister, and Micki Steele) refused to sign over her rights to the film, the filmmakers decided to create a new character to slip into their place. In 2001 Steele claimed she was fired from the Runaways when she refused the band’s former manager Kim Fowley‘s sexual advances. When Fox came forward with her (heavily corroborated) sexual assault allegation after his passing in 2015, their refusal to be part of the project or approve their likeness shone a glaring light over the rest of the band, and the truthfulness of the film in general. The Runaways got its wish of being a coming-of-age drama in that it is very far from reality.
Available to stream on UMC
Zoe Saldana starred as the civil rights activist and musically gifted Nina Simone (Eunice Kathleen Waymon) in this ill-fated and critically slaughtered biopic. Focussing on 1988 onwards, Nina portrays a damaged and chaotic woman, scrambling for her glory days. In reality, the complexity of Nina Simone and her story deserves so much more respect.
Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly disavowed the film and those involved. The focus on Simone’s turbulent romantic relationship with her assistant Clifton Henderson is also completely fabricated, Kelly states, as Henderson was homosexual and nothing more than a confidant and friend. Further rubbing salt in the wound, the studio cast Afro-Latina Saldana and used prosthetics and darkened her light skin, rather than cast a darker-skinned woman, something Simone dedicated her life to fighting for. Simone’s 1980s diagnosis of bipolar disorder gave reason and hope to the self-medicating jazz icon, who had created magic, no matter where she was.
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