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10 popular music biopics

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

10 popular music biopics

We're counting down the best films ever made about popular musicians. So pull on your dancing shoes and let's get on down...

10. Elvis – The Movie

Playing Elvis himself was Kurt Russell, an actor with a close association to his subject; back in 1963 he'd played opposite Mr. P as a child actor in It Happened At The World's Fair:


9. La Vie En Rose

La Vie en RoseImage via MovieMail

And now for a star of a very different stripe; Edith Piaf was the bigest French star of the Twentieth Century (Johnny Halliday? Pah!) and this biopic goes someway to explaining why, exploring how the hardships of her life – and, oh, there were plenty of them – ignited her art. Marion Cotillard gives a transformative performance as The Little Sparrow, one that scooped her an Oscar.

She didn't do her own singing though: audiences wouldn't accept anyone singing Je Ne Regrette Rien but Piaf herself...
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8. Coal Miner's Daughter

The Academy obviously likes actresses who play singers as they gave one to Sissy Spacek for playing Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.

Loretta had the sort of life that demands a movie – an impoverished start (her daddy was indeed a coal miner), early domesticity – she was a grandmother at 29! – and then a near-miraculous turnaround to become the biggest thing in country music. Yee-Haw!, as I believe they say in Nashville.
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7. Control

ControlImage via: Union Films

Although Joy Division were, without question, one of the greatest of bands, their career was not one that immediately suggested movie material. And yet that's just what the frosty gloom-merchants have become: the band is a substantial presence in 24 Hour Party People (a document of the Manchester music scene from punk to rave) and their lead singer Ian Curtis is the central figure of this film.

It sees him through the eyes of his young wife Debbie who sees him move from audience member to performer, as he achieves a small level of fame – and what that fame does to him and to their marriage.

Like the music of Joy Division, the film is austere, wintery and deeply moving.


6. Sid and Nancy

Sid and NancyImage via Youtube

Many rock-star biopics glorify or excuse away some of the less likeable excesses of their subjects (exhibit 'A': Oliver Stone's The Doors). Not so Sid And Nancy, which shows its subjects for what they were: Sid Vicious was not a nice or especially talented man who was recruited into The Sex Pistols because he looked the part. He subsequently became a heroin addict and killed his equally mucked-up girlfriend Nancy Spungen, then died of an overdose.

Director Alex Cox spares us none of this and his film is all the better for it, showing the unlovable couple as the unfortunate, inadequate and ultimately tragic messes that they were.
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5. Walk the Line

Walk the Line

Country and Western is a musical form famous for sad songs about heartbreak and worse and, after Coal Miner's Daughter, we know why: it's because they're singing about their own lives. Johnny Cash (played here by an Oscar winning Joaquin Phoenix) was one of the kings of country and boy, did he have some material to draw on: the death of his brother, drug addiction and a powerful redemption.

Just to be clear, though, he didn't ACTUALLY shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

Heeeeeeere's Johnny:


4. I'm Not There

By some way the most unorthodox film on this list, I'm Not There is a creative look at the career of Bob Dylan. For director Todd Haynes, Dylan led a series of lives: a good Minnesota Jewish boy who rebranded himself as a folk singer, a reclusive rock star and Christian troubadour and more.

Haynes captured these disparate identities by casting different actors as different characters, each inspired by Dylan – Cate Blanchett, gets a look in; so too does Marcus Carl Franklin, embodying the hitherto under-remarked-upon 11 year African-America boy side of Bob Dylan. Odd as it might sound, it works very well, capturing at least something of what makes this most confounding of artists so special.


3. Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations filmImage via Couturing

A slight cheat, this one, as our main character isn't really a musician. His name is Terri Hooley and he runs a record shop in Belfast called God Vibrations.

He is also, as this film makes plain, a leading candidate for the title 'greatest living Irishman', a bon vivant and a key figure in facilitating Northern Ireland's punk scene after he started a record label (also called Good Vibrations) which released such gems as this:

It's a film that catches the importance of punk to the province, a place that needed it more than anywhere else. And, quite apart from being tremendously entertaining, it's also the only film on the list to feature John Peel.


2. Behind the Candelabra

Behind the CandelabraImage via Sound on Sight

To those of us raised after his heyday – and quite possibly those who were there at the time, Liberace is a quite inexplicable figure: a classically trained piano prodigy who took classical music to the masses and redefined the word 'flamboyant'.

Behind The Candelabra gets its high placing here for its merits as a film, rather than the music of its subject. Michael Douglas tinkles the ivories as 'Lee' and Matt Damon is Scott Thorson, the lover he kept hidden from public view during his lifetime.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it is a scarcely believable black comedy – and a much better film than Liberace really deserved.


1. Topsy Turvy

Topsy TurvyImage via MovieMail

'Popular Music' didn't begin in the 1950s; back in the era of gaslight and fog, the songs of Gilbert & Sullivan topped the precursors of the hit parade and they still have quite the following to-day. One of those fans is Mike Leigh and this is his tribute to the masters of the Operetta, exploring the creative dynamic of the louche Sir Arthur Sullivan and the pernickety W.S. Gilbert as they work on The Mikado.

You don't have to be a G & S fan to love the film, but even those who aren't will find the tunes lodging in their ears...
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