Hollywood can’t get enough of Bohemian Rhapsody, but for many of us it sucked. For one, it felt more like a two-hour Wikipedia page than an actual human portrayal of Freddie Mercury, with the pioneering pop star’s queerness framed as a hindrance to his band members rather than one of the things that made him so unforgettable.
Remi Malek’s performance also feels vastly overrated; basically a distracting set of fake teeth and an impression based on watching six month’s worth of Queen interviews on YouTube. The fact this box office smash was problematically directed by Brian Singer, a man accused of sexually abusing dozens of men and boys, only adds insult to injury.
If like us you also believe the Queen biopic’s success is unmerited and its Oscar nominations a sign of just how crusty awards show voters have become then please read on. We’ve rounded up ten music biopics that are the antithesis to Bohemian Rhapsody, each film daring to explore the human being behind the songs and not sugarcoating an artist’s legacy for fear of offending your mate’s dad Geoff.
This raw account of the relationship between Ian Curtis and his wife Deborah perfectly blends the bleak, industrialism of 1970s Manchester with the Joy Division frontman’s tragic romanticism. As Curtis, Sam Riley absolutely nails the British singer’s brooding intensity and mental isolation, while Samantha Morton (as Deborah) provides heart, keeping the film grounded. After Curtis tragically hangs himself at just 23, we’re shown the dark smoke from his cremation as it hits the Manchester skies. It’s as if director Anton Corbijn is suggesting the austere charms of Joy Division will forever haunt the city, engulfing it like a thick cloud of smog.
The reason music biopics often fail is because their subject matter still feels too alive in the pubic consciousness, making it difficult to replicate an artist’s energy or say anything new about their life. Fortunately, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been dead for nearly 200 years by the time Miloš Forman directed Amadeus, freeing him of this baggage to have some fun with the legendary musician’s life story. A tale of the rivalry between Mozart (a giggling Tom Hulce) and Italian composer Antonia Salieri (a career best F. Murray Abraham), this masterpiece somehow distills the complexity of classical music into something riveting and often hilarious. The film’s central theme of the elite leaching off talented artistry also feels timeless.
Love & Mercy (2014)
This biopic about the life of Beach Boys’ visionary Brian Wilson rightly frames the pop composer as the 20th century’s Mozart, as it shows how draining experiments with LSD and a lecherous doctor (a deliciously evil Paul Giamitti) helped to bring Wilson down. John Cusack’s performance as an older Wilson is OK, but it’s Paul Dano’s unforgettable portrayal as a younger Wilson, struggling to convince his band mates to move away from the surfer tunes and to embrace the dream-like musicality of the fabled, Sgt-Pepper surpassing, Smile Sessions, which will stay with you long after the credits roll. Dano’s performance already feels legendary, proof that he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Nico, 1988 (2018)
By the time Nico moved to Manchester in the 1980s, she had intentionally destroyed her striking looks through years of heroin abuse. At this point, her music had become more an experience than enjoyable, trading the beautiful melodies of the Velvet Underground days for something more nightmarish and morose. Nico, 1988 dares to explore this darker period in Nico’s life, completely rejecting the idea that a music biopic must cover a star at their peak, and is stronger for it. As Nico, Trine Dyrholm is fantastic, her gaze carrying the same otherworldly mystique as the late German singer.
I’m Not There (2007)
Rather than get lost in casting somebody who looks just like Bob Dylan, I’m Not There unconventionally casts six very different actors to embody various periods of the pioneering musician’s life. Director Todd Haynes should be praised for disrupting the status quo of music biopics, which can often feel stuffy in terms of their pacing, and for actually attempting something fresh. Not all if it works – Richard Gere’s cowboy storyline completely misses the mark – but Cate Blanchett’s textured performance as a amphethamine-fired Dylan in the 1960s, who rolls around on the floor, stoned out of his mind, alongside The Beatles, displays a rare vulnerability, adding an extra layer to a singer often painted as intimidatingly serious.
What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
The ongoing R. Kelly scandal has shown how black women’s pain is often treated with an indifference that enables their abusers. This gives What’s Love Got to Do With It, a biopic that focuses on the torturous abuse Tina Turner suffered at the hands of her husband Ike, a real prescience. Laurence Fishburne may have received all the plaudits, but his performance as Ike is more bogeyman than three-dimensional. It’s Angela Bassett who most deserves your attention, with her delicate performance as Tina powerfully personifying a culture that consistently turns a blind eye (in one scene, Tina’s mother, despite being aware of her daughter’s suffering, advises: “You got yourself a good man, just keep him happy!”) to the abuse suffered by young black women.
Sid & Nancy (1986)
Thankfully, Sid & Nancy isn’t interested in glamourising the punk years instead opting to show them for what they really were; ridiculous, tuneless, piss-soaked excess that catapulted lost, mostly talentless, kids into the pop culture spotlight. Focusing on the tragic love story of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) & Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), director Alex Cox’s biopic has more in common with an episode of The Young Ones than a Hollywood movie, and that is the film’s greatest strength. The two leads’ relentless whining give the film a chaotic charm, as Cox rises above mere Sex Pistol’s brown nosing to create something more grounded in dank, everyday reality.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Michael Douglas has never been better than as Liberace, with the actor completely nailing the singer’s blathering diva sensibilities. This film moves with a comedic energy that’s impossible not to admire, as Matt Damon, who plays one of Liberace’s latest star-struck lovers, also turns in a brilliant performance. To stunning effect, the film’s director Steven Soderbergh proves music biopics can draw just as much power from exploring an artist’s home life as they can from getting lost in stage performances that rarely extend beyond karaoke.
Last Days (2005)
Easily the bleakest film on this list, Last Days is a warts-and-all account of the last few days of fictional rock star Blake’s life. Loaded up on heroin, Blake wanders around his Seattle mansion in a catatonic state, with actor Michael Pitt powerfully showing how fame can sometimes strip someone of their will to live. I’m sure Kurt Cobain will eventually be the subject of a more polished, authorized biopic, but I can guarantee it won’t be nearly as human as Last Days, which is inspired by the Nirvana frontman’s suicide. The scene where Pitt’s soul leaves his shotgun-ravaged body is filmed with an eerie, ethereal beauty by director Gus Van Sant – it’s easily the greatest sequence he’s ever directed.
Nowadays, it’s easy to think of Clint Eastwood as an overly sentimental director, who consistently tells stories weighed down by a Republican’s outdated notion of the American Dream. However, Bird, a biopic that depicts the life of legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (played with real substance by Forrest Whitaker), is proof the director used to make films with edge. It’s a mournful reflection on Parker’s life, with his tragic romance with wife Chan (a spiky Diane Venora, who has all of the films best lines) every bit as powerful as the sequences that show Parker stirringly playing the saxophone like he’s been touched by a higher power. In one of the film’s best scenes, a doctor warns Parker, a noted heroin addict, that he won’t survive until 40 if he continues. Parker hauntingly replies: “I’m different” – yeah, you can probably guess how this one works out.