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Five Unmissable Music Biopics


Neumann U87 Condenser Microphone (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Fire at Will (Photography)

Music biopics are one of the more niche parts of the movie industry, largely because a poor imitation of a legendary artist is an almost guaranteed way to annoy an audience - a point that 1994’s Beatles film Backbeat, learned the hard way. Often dealing with the darker, more charismatic characters of the music world, this genre tends to lean on the dramatic side of things, a world apart from other musicals and music-related films and series like Glee and Grease. Australia Day is on the horizon and the race for the Triple J Top 100 hotspot is well underway. “Never be Like You” by Flume and “Starboy” by the Weeknd lead the Hottest 100 odds as of mid-December, at 1.40 and 8.00 respectively. Music is as exciting nowadays as ever, if not more, but sometimes big names and classic artists are the way to go. With that in mind, we're offering you a quick look at some of the best music biopics from the last few decades.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)
A movie about the hugely influential rap act NWA, Straight Outta Compton charts the group’s rise from a poor neighbourhood of south-central Los Angeles to worldwide fame, courting controversy all the way. NWA, which consisted of artists now famous on their own terms, like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, pioneered the gangster rap genre of hip-hop until a row about contracts destroyed the group around 1991.

Starring Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Straight Outta Compton is about five men growing up in a crime-ravaged part of California, their much-publicised run-ins with law authorities, and the perils of working with faceless record companies. It’s a violent but ultimately redemptive film that paints a striking picture of just how difficult it can be to escape the gangland lifestyle.


Nirvana by Nico7Martin

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
The mythos surrounding the late Nirvana front man, Kurt Cobain, is perhaps the archetype of the cult of personality. The life and untimely death of the Washington-born rock star were both slightly bizarre, with the conspiracy theories surrounding the latter continuing even to this day. In summary, Cobain’s life is a story of a rather child-like man overcome by mental illness and addiction, a combination of which ultimately cost the tragic star his life.

Directed by Brett Morgen, Montage of Heck offers a distinctly unsensational account of Cobain’s life, a treatment that earned the film plaudits from industry critics, as well as a rare 98% rating on aggregated review site Rotten Tomatoes. Cobain was a prolific producer of work, inclusive of music, journals, and artwork, and the fruits of the star’s creative labours made their way into Morgen’s film, offering the viewer an intimate peek into Cobain’s life and psyche.

The Pianist (2002)
At the other end of the musical spectrum to Cobain is Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist whose career collided with the start of the Second World War. As a Jewish man, Szpilman’s fate was uncertain after 1942 but the concert pianist managed to befriend a German captain called Wilm Hosenfeld, who saved a number of Jews from the Nazi regime but ultimately died as a Soviet prisoner of war.

With Adrian Brody in the title role, this moving film brackets the devastation of Warsaw with a tale of compassion from an unlikely source. Music-wise, the emphasis is on classical composers like Frederic Chopin and Wojciech Kilar. It won’t be for everyone – the subject matter is hardly cheery – but The Pianist won three Oscars for a reason; Brody’s performance as Szpilman is superb.


Johnny Cash 1950 - 1970 by Prayitno - Thank you for 11 millions + views

Walk the Line (2005)
There’s something about musicians that attracts trouble. Walk the Line is a 2005 biopic about legendary country singer Johnny Cash, a man whose career was coloured by addiction, his sympathy for prisoners, and an all-enduring love for his wife, June Carter. The singer died in 2003 just four months after Carter, contributing an incredible 60 songs to his expansive back catalogue in his final days.

Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role with Reese Witherspoon as Carter. The film is notable for the former’s skill at imitating “The Man in Black”, both in voice and body language, taking the viewer through Cash’s military service, his famous performance at Folsom Prison to his on-stage marriage proposal to Carter. The film garnered positive reviews from critics and stands as one of the highest grossing music films in movie history.

8 Mile (2002)
A movie that may or may not be about the life of Missouri-born rapper, Eminem, 8 Mile casts the artist in the role of a struggling freestyle battler Jimmy Smith, alongside late actress Brittany Murphy. It’d be easy to view the film as a vehicle for Eminem’s ego (a bit like the two Metallica documentaries, Through the Never and Some Kind of Monster) but it’s actually a compelling yarn about weekend success and the nine-to-five grind in between.

What makes Eminem’s – or Marshall Mathers’ - performance so riveting is its honesty; the situation is obviously familiar to the star. Viewed through that lens, the movie as a whole is both an inspiring story of triumph against all odds and an interesting look at the roots of a global phenomenon, if a controversial one.

Fans of the above might also be interested in Get on Up (2014), a movie about the life of soul singer James Brown; Ray (2004), featuring Jamie Foxx in the role of blind R&B star Ray Charles, and Elvis (1979), a film that might seem like a catastrophe on paper (it stars action hero, Kurt Russell, as the King) but one that surprises on the big screen.

Published December 17, 2016

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