Historically, television hasn’t had the best luck when it comes to making biopics about musicians. Biographical films chronicling a celebrity’s life (musician or otherwise, on television or film) are always going to be hard to do correctly, and will inevitably be subjected to intense scrutiny. Add in TV’s tendency to water down and rush through real-life stories (due to a limited amount of time, much of which is devoted to commercials), and it’s nearly impossible to find a made-for-television biopic that’s worth watching. And yet, TV keeps trying — Lifetime will air its ill-advised Aaliyah movie this weekend — and it keeps failing. Here’s a look at 20 of television’s worst musician biopics.
CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (VH1, 2013)
If nothing else, CrazySexyCool did a great job casting the three members of TLC (Drew Sidora, Lil Mama, Keke Palmer), who were all able to embody their roles. But the biopic itself was mostly just a retelling of the band’s greatest hits without getting into the honest dirt — for that, I’d recommend the Behind the Music special.
Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story (VH1, 2001)
One of the most unintentionally funny biopics VH1 has ever put out, Hysteria features some terrible acting, awful special effects when it comes to Rick Allen’s car accident, and uneven pacing, ultimately resulting in something of a rock ‘n’ roll PSA.
And The Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story(ABC, 1999)
Like most biopics, And The Beat Goes On provides a watered-down retelling. It’s based on Sonny’s memoir but remains lighthearted throughout, hinting at some of the darker moments in their relationship but never going into explicit detail. It also fudges facts and plays around with the timeline. You’re better off reading the book.
Madonna: Innocence Lost (Fox, 1994)
Innocence Lost aimed to chronicle Madonna’s rise to fame by really harping on her tough, humble beginnings — arriving in NYC with just $37! — but the result was super-cheesy and ended on a bizarre note about Madonna’s supposed loneliness. It’s a great hate-watch at a slumber party but terrible otherwise.
Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story (VH1, 2001)
The problem with an MC Hammer biopic is that no one takes him seriously to begin with, so there is no way any viewer would take a biopic seriously, either. Too Legit has an inherently fascinating narrative — he shot to fame quickly and dropped even faster — but it rushes through everything, unable to spend time on Hammer’s emotional outbursts and inner demons.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Superstar is actually a fascinating biopic, both because its surface-level awfulness is the result of a deeper artfulness and because it was banned in 1990 and never made it to television. Todd Haynes’ 43-minute documentary about Karen Carpenter’s life emphasizes her anorexia, but treats the sensitive topic in a dark but sympathetic way. Even so, the biopic angered Richard Carpenter enough that he sued Haynes for failing to get music clearance — and won, resulting in the movie’s blacklisting. Oh, and did I mention that it’s all done with Barbie dolls?
Ring of Fire (Lifetime, 2013)
Based on a biography by John Carter Cash, Ring of Fire was Lifetime’s attempt to tell the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (played by Jewel, who did her own singing). It’s a biopic that worked well for the network — troubled men and the women who adore them — but doesn’t work at all otherwise. Plus, the film Walk the Line made this biopic totally unnecessary.
Shania: A Life in Eight Albums (CBC Television, 2005)
Shania was Canada’s attempt to celebrate their own, and the result was laughable. The movie was made without any input from Shania Twain, and it failed to obtain the rights to her songs, so none were actually used. But ultimately, it’s just corny. The one redeeming factor: a young Shenae Grimes is one of the three actresses who portray Twain throughout the film.
John and Yoko: A Love Story (NBC, 1985)
John and Yoko is dense. It’s a three-hour movie — which Yoko Ono retained control over — that begins in 1966, midway through The Beatles’ career, and exhaustingly tells the couple’s story. It’s predictably one-sided, with Ono coming out squeaky clean, but the real problem lies in how positively dull it is, scratching the surface but refusing to go deeper.
The Linda McCartney Story (CBS, 2000)
Dramatizing Linda McCartney’s life with Paul and their band Wings, The Linda McCartney Story was a poorly stylized, overly dramatic biopic that tried too hard to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. With clunky dialogue and an overall plot that clearly wanted to focus more on The Beatles than on Linda herself, it’s a movie that even their biggest fans should skip.
Hendrix (2000, Showtime)
If there is anyone worthy of a great biopic, it’s definitely Jimi Hendrix. 2000’s Hendrix isn’t it. Like other similar biopics, it suffered from not securing the rights to Hendrix’s music. Granted, Wood Harris did an impressive job as Hendrix, but that’s about all that can be praised. Because of its short length, it skipped over many interesting parts of Hendrix’s career to focus on little skirmishes and rushed the ending.
Little Richard (2000, NBC)
Yet another biopic based on a book, NBC’s Little Richard cast Leon as Little Richard and followed the star’s rise to fame. It’s a slow biopic and, because of its home on a broadcast network, tackles subjects like Little Richard’s sexuality only within the subtext, dancing around anything real and instead putting a heavy emphasis on religion.
The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000, ABC)
In lieu of explaining everything that’s wrong with this biopic, I’ll just quote this Brian Wilson interview:
HoS: How do you feel about that movie? BW: I didn’t like it, I thought it was in poor taste. I didn’t like the Charles Manson statement (Brian is referring to a scene in the movie where Charles Manson, with a demonic look in his face, tells Brian’s brother Dennis “We’re your family now.”). And it stunk. I thought it stunk! HoS: Really? So it wasn’t accurate? BW: Well, not really, some of it was accurate, but some of it was in poor taste.
Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story (VH1, 2004)
Admittedly, 1992’s The Jacksons: An American Dream miniseries is pretty amazing, and I’ve watched it more times than I can count, but its “spiritual predecessor,” Man in the Mirror, shows a sharp decline in quality. At only 86 minutes, there’s no time to get deep into any aspect of Jackson’s life, yet it tries to illuminate every part. It’s rushed (trying to get through everything from his childhood to 9/11), it’s smutty, and it’s insulting to practically everyone in it.
Phil Spector (HBO, 2013)
The potential for hilarity was set the second we learned that Al Pacino would play Phil Spector. This biopic was going for highbrow — written and directed by David Mamet, aired on HBO, gunning for Emmys — but it was nothing more than any other shoddy TV movie, eschewing much of Spector’s backstory in favor of focusing only on his legal trials (while still claiming it was a “work of fiction”), and resulting in something that was more Lifetime than HBO.
Elvis and Me (ABC, 1998)
There is no shortage of Elvis biopics, and many are actually pretty good, but Elvis and Me, based on Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s book of the same name, fell flat. It tells Priscilla’s side of the story, which was necessary to hear, but does so in an exploitative and sensationalized way — over four long hours.
Céline (CBC Television, 2008)
This little-known train-wreck of a biopic is a Canadian production about Celine Dion. To get a sense of what the film is like, it jumps from Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” to a flashback of her getting run over by a car. Also, Enrico Colantoni from Veronica Mars is in it.
Liberace (ABC, 1988)
Before there was HBO’s Behind the Candlelabra, there was ABC’s simplistically titled Liberace (and, a week later in 1988, CBS’ Liberace: Behind the Music). Liberace was a total dud, full of overwrought speeches and unimpressive musical performances. It’s a positive celebration of his life, but it doesn’t entertain.
Sweetwater: A True Rock Story (VH1, 1999)
VH1 really tries to ramp up Sweetwater’s legacy in this biopic, but doesn’t do the subject matter any favors in using a reporter working on a story as a framing device: She has to either write a piece on Sweetwater or else she’ll get fired? It doesn’t make much sense. Of course, she tracks down the band (while learning about herself in the process!), and it results in a cheesy reunion.
Take Me Home: The John Denver Story(CBS, 2000)
For a biopic with a title borrowed from the memoir written by John Denver himself, Take Me Home is full of blatant inaccuracies and skewed timelines that angered fans. Between the bad acting and the boring approach to the dramatic aspects of Denver’s life, there’s nothing that can save this biopic.