Hot off the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen biopic starring Rami Malek, Hollywood is launching numerous nostalgic rock movies, drawing on the lives and successes of the world’s most iconic musical stars. 2019 has already seen high profile films about Motley Crue, Elton John, and The Beatles (their music, anyway. Because this genre has always been at least somewhat popular, we’ll only see more of these movies as time goes on.
But which musical biopics and rock docs are the best of the bunch? We’ll look at 5 of the most compelling examples from history. Some of these films are highly factual, while others are simply entertaining, but anyone from this list will be worth your time.
24 Hour Party People
Perhaps the most unfamiliar to American audiences, “24 Hour Party People” covers Factory Records, the label that melded rock and electronic music from drug-taking club audiences in the 70’s-80’s Manchester. The film begins with label-head Tony Wilson’s discovery of a young Joy Division. Following the death of lead singer Ian Curtis, the remaining members had even greater success as New Order. “24 Hour Party People” is reckless, joyous, and legendary. If you like rock music that knows how to rave, this is the film for you.
“8 Mile” is the fictionalized tale of real-life Eminem’s rise as a white rapper in Detroit. At this point, Marshall Mathers is hip hop deity, but it wasn’t always this way. Certain elements of this production are showing their age, but Eminem’s early 2000’s music holds up surprisingly well. Seeing/hearing “Lose Yourself” within the context of the film in which it debuted is still transcendent.
This 1988 biopic about jazz revolutionary Charlie Parker still manages to transport the viewer the smokey jazz clubs of the ’40s and ’50s. Forest Whitaker achieves a masterful performance and is equally convincing when reflecting Parker’s performances and crippling heroin addiction. Charlie Parker may sometimes be better known for his chemical dependency than his contribution to modern music, but few American artists have such legitimate claim to breaking new ground in melody, meter, and harmony.
The Buddy Holly Story
Gary Busey is a wildman perhaps deserving of a biopic all his own, but many viewers encountered him for the first time as he portrayed another idiosyncratic icon. This 1970’s portrayal of the rock n’ roll innovator is suffused with white-hot energy, without being bogged down with the sappy sentimentality that so often typifies the modern version of this genre. For readers unfamiliar with Buddy Holly, the late rocker’s songs were written with such simplicity and inspiration that they still communicate to new listeners today. Holly was influential in numerous genres, including country, folk, punk, hard rock, and pop, before his young life was snuffed out in a plane crash.
Sid & Nancy
Sid Vicious, the infamous bass player from the Sex Pistols, did the whole “live fast, die young” rock n’ roll thing faster and younger than most. His passionate romance with (and eventual murder of) Nancy Spungen is today the stuff of legend. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb disappear into their respective roles, imbuing their subjects with palpable humanity, even amidst all of the blood and screaming and mind-altering chemicals. Sad, funny, and electric, “Sid & Nancy” still stands among the best rock stories ever told on screen.
There are perhaps a number of music movies that are more technically perfect or more historically accurate, but none that we can think of are more entertaining than this bunch. If you want to experience the spirit of iconic musical acts, these films are great places to start.