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The Rock Biopic: 5 Of The Best, 5 Of The Worst

Sasha Baron Cohen’s announcement that he is leaving the unnamed Freddie Mercury biopic caused quite a stir earlier this week. The Borat actor, who was slated to play Mercury, has cited the clichéd “creative differences” with the surviving members of Queen. It seems Brian May, et al were at odds with Cohen’s vision of the movie portraying the flamboyant frontman’s salacious lifestyle, preferring a tamer PG-13 depiction.

However, such a version would do justice to neither the great Freddie, nor the rock biopic itself. What other genre provides moviegoers with such an intoxicating alchemy of glamour, talent and nostalgia? With tales of meteoric rises and catastrophic falls, lives fueled by drugs, destructive romances and the general sense of wasted life or martyrdom, the rock biopic is a self-contained modern Greek tragedy (forthcoming biopics on Jeff Buckley and Brian Wilson should contain elements of the above). Actors relish these larger than life roles.  They can play the hammy extrovert or the misunderstood tortured genius, all against a backdrop of outlandish costumes and awesome soundtracks. 

This potent blend doesn’t always make for good viewing, however. Below are five good and five not so good examples. 

Good...

Control (2008)

Directed by Joy Division photographer, Anton Corbijn, 2007’s Control offers a tragically poignant fulfillment of Ian Curtis’ lament that “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Throughout the movie, Corbijn avoids the Achilles heel clichés of the rock biopic. There is no Jim Morrison-esque deification of the rock star here. Curtis is presented as a hollow eyed lost soul, unprepared for the roles of husband, father, epileptic and lead singer of a fledging rock band. Sam Riley is superb as Curtis (as is Samantha Morton as Deborah). On stage, in the electrifying concert scenes, Riley possesses all the famed jittery outpatient ticks and spasms that made Curtis such an absorbing performer. Off stage, he is a victim of his own weakness and hopelessness; the very impetus of Joy Division’s haunting lyrics.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

To some, Gary Busey is a walking cautionary tale that one should always wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. However, it is a mark of his performance in The Buddy Holly Story that those that have seen it can forget his red carpet bumblings and metaphysical nonsense, and still remember his Oscar nominated turn as the ‘50s rocker. The movie is more than liberal with the truth, but Busey leads us through the highs and lows of Holly’s all too brief career with gusto. There are the run-ins with small town hicks who don’t take kindly to The Crickets’ “jungle music”, and a great scene where the band are revealed to a Harlem audience who weren’t expecting to be wowed by skinny, bespectacled, white Texans.

What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)

This was undoubtedly Ike Turner’s least favorite flick - the film largely focusing on the bruising marriage he inflicted on singing legend Tina Turner. Angela Bassett is mesmeric as the former Miss Anna Mae Bullock.  Wide eyed with dreams of a life beyond Nutbush, Tennessee at the movie’s opening, she is stoic as she endures Ike’s infamous abuse, and triumphant in her renaissance as ‘80s megastar. Laurence Fishburne shines as the preening coke addled monster. Growing ever greener with Tina’s every success, Fishburne’s ever changing hair-cuts make his vicious hissy fits all the more ridiculous.

Sid + Nancy (1986)

The short, sad life of Sid Vicious quickly became fodder for film with Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, made only six years after the punk icon’s death. This is the story of the ruined lives of Sex Pistol Vicious and groupie Nancy Spungen, whose nihilistic love affair represents a kind of ugly, junky, punk Romeo and Juliet. As the title characters, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are revolting, yet they allow the viewer enough empathy to glimpse what the couple might have seen in each other. This makes for a brutal, unforgettable love story.

Amadeus (1984)

Alright, so the Austrian classical composer is not a rock star per se. However, Milos Foreman’s Oscar winning classic follows almost all the conventions of the rock biopic, albeit it within the grandiose setting of imperial Vienna. Mozart is a howling, giggling, party animal, able to compose history changing symphonies seemingly at whim. We watch his rapid rise through the brooding eyes of the Iago- like Salieri, former court favorite who plots to ruin his rival and take back the thunder he has unwittingly stolen. Riveting stuff.

And The Not So Good...

The Doors (1991)

Oliver Stone’s biopic of the Doors’ frontman is as bloated and full of itself as Morrison was.  Though Val Kilmer plays the Lizard King with spaced out aplomb; the movie crashes under its own weight.  Using Morrison’s life as some kind of “story of America metaphor” isn’t easy, and despite Stone’s credentials, The Doors falls flat.

Last Days (2005)

Gus Van Sant’s semi-biographical account of the last days of Kurt Cobain is supposed to be a thoughtful narrative on the death of an icon. However, the icon doesn’t really do much except walk about an empty house in his slippers. Michael Pitt as the Cobain-esque “Blake” mopes around relatively well, but Van Sant’s penchant for empty space doesn’t have the characters or story to fill it this time. 

The Runaways (2010)

Floria Sigismondi’s film depicts the rise and fall of the all-girl rock pioneers with tween stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as Cherie Curry and Joan Jett. Despite the actress’ best efforts, and the scene stealing Michael Shannon as manager Kim Fowley, the loose treatment of the band’s history  (including one entirely fabricated member ) is tedious at best. The Runaways, almost plays the rock biopic genre too closely - the only substance here are those digested by the band.

El Cantante (2006)

Real life couple Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez star in this biopic of salsa legend Hector Lavoe, and it’s terrible. With little explanation as to why Lavoe was so important to the salsa movement, the film focuses exclusively on the singer’s spiraling drug use and the tempestuous relationship with his diva-like wife Puchi (not that much of a stretch J-Lo).  In scenes that could have been pulled from Judd Apatow’s Walk Hard, Lavoe swears never to do drugs again after his wife introduces him to marijuana. Then he sees a bandmate doing heroin, and after a “don’t do this bro” moment, addiction ensues.

54 (1998)

A biopic of a scene rather than an individual, 54, had the makings of a great tale about the iconic decadent disco club. However, while we would rather focus more on eccentric club owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) we are treated to bland trivialities of the cast’s younger and distinctly more wooden members. Disco didn’t suck, but this movie did.

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Buddy Holly
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