Award-baiting biopics of popular artists are usually saved for the fall in an effort to grab as many Oscar nominations as possible, but today’s release of Greetings From Tim Buckley, which stars Gossip Girl alum Penn Badgley as ‘90s singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley searching for his own musical identity in the shadow of his famous father, is a good indication that the movie isn’t that great. Are we surprised? Musical biopics are a dime a dozen, and very few stand out as outliers in this increasingly popular genre. (Even the two most successful in the past decade — Ray and Walk the Line — featured the usual, stereotypical arcs.) If you’re going to pass on Greetings From Tim Buckley but are itching to learn more about a famous musician through the cinematic art form, here are eight other biopics worth viewing.
Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross made her film debut as jazz singer Billie Holiday in a movie based on Holiday’s autobiography. Tense, melodramatic, and gorgeously filmed, Lady Sings the Blues details the rocky and eventually tragic life of one of the most influential singers of all time.
Coal Miner’s Daughter
This Loretta Lynn biopic set the standard for the oft-repeated rise-and-fall narrative, but it stands out for its subtle and endearing portrayal of the country music legend. Sissy Spacek deservedly won an Oscar for her starring role, for which she also sang all of Lynn’s songs herself.
The title of Milos Forman’s adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s stage play is a bit of a ringer: it’s more of a fictionalized biopic of composer Antonio Salieri, whose extreme competition with his contemporary Mozart drives him to murder. And who can blame him? Tom Hulce’s Mozart, while hilarious, is increasingly annoying.
Sid and Nancy
Alex Cox’s intimate portrait of the destructive relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his erratic girlfriend Nancy Spungeon is a cautionary tale (spoiler: drugs are bad for you) as often as it is a perversely romantic love story. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb deliver astounding, yet underrated, performances.
This film about Chicano rock star Richie Valens, who also perished in the plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly, was so affecting that Valens’s real-life sister nearly had an emotional breakdown at its premiere. On a lighter note, Chicano rock band Los Lobos provided covers of Valens’s songs for the film’s soundtrack.
Great Balls of Fire
Who knew incestuous statutory rape could be so wacky? While this film, based on the autobiography of Jerry Lewis’s first wife/cousin (who he married when she was 13), is pretty trashy and ridiculous, it’s worth watching for Dennis Quaid’s spot-on performance as the rock ‘n’ roll piano player.
Anton Corbijn film about Joy Division’s brief, yet incredibly influential, career is beautifully shot. Corbijn nails the look of the late-‘70s Manchester post-punk scene (his work as a photographer included coverage of the band), and Sam Riley gives an earth-shaking performance of doomed frontman Ian Curtis.
I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’ high-concept biopic of Bob Dylan, in which Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, and others play fictionalized versions of the folk pioneer inspired by various parts of his life, is divisive and isn’t for everyone. Yet within the philosophical and experimental film’s structure is a commendable attempt to break the typical biopic mold (and it includes an amazing collection of Bob Dylan covers from the likes of Jim James, Cat Power, John Doe, Stephen Malkmus, and the film’s co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg).