When Sony Pictures Classics decided back in October to move the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light out of the crowded Oscar-hopeful season and into a relatively quiet March berth, they probably didn’t imagine that their story of a musical groundbreaker battling addiction and personal demons would end up opening against… the story of a musical groundbreaker battling addiction and personal demons. Yes, not only is I Saw the Light out in limited release today, but so is Born to Be Blue, the Ethan Hawke-fronted Chet Baker biopic. And on top of all that, next week brings us Miles Ahead, which is, all together now, the story of a musical groundbreaker battling addiction and personal demons. Over the past few years, we’ve seen quite a few tales of tortured men, the women who love them, and the music they make; here’s how this new trio stacks up against the rest.
15. Last Days
Gus Van Sant has spent much of the last two decades rotating between conventional crowd-pleasers like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forester and experimental, potentially alienating efforts like Gerry and Elephant. Sometimes those films are fresh and reinvigorating; sometimes they come out like Last Days. And no, it’s not technically about Kurt Cobain – Michael Pitt’s alienated rock star is called “Blake,” and no Nirvana songs are heard, and so on. But his look, persona, and death are all clearly modeled on Cobain, who, based on the interminable film Van Sant made not-about-but-about him, was… the most irredeemably boring man to ever strum a guitar.
14. I Saw the Light
Tom Hiddelston is unquestionably impressive as Hank Williams; the London-born actor not only slides comfortably into the country legend’s skin, but warbles his tunes convincingly as well. And Elizabeth Olsen is terrific as wife Audrey, with their stormy relationship providing most of the movie’s best moments. But in spite of the briefness of Williams’ life (29 years) and career (six years), writer/director Marc Abraham is oddly uninterested in figuring out what made him musically distinctive; he weirdly skips right over the early, breakthrough records, more interested in what Audrey calls his “drinkin’ and whorin’ ways.” And that – combined with a reliance on such tired biopic clichés as home movie montages and lazy direct-to-camera interviews to paper over narrative holes – is where I Saw the Light falls apart; it’s less interested in the musical genius than the guy who drank too much and screwed around on his wife, as though that story needed to be told again.
Jamie Foxx won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work as Ray Charles, and earned it – what could have just been an imitation (and a great one) becomes a fully formed character, the man’s familiar voice and affectations giving way to an honest-to-goodness performance. Shame about the movie around him, though, which not only can’t approach the power or danger of Foxx’s turn, but doesn’t even try. It’s solemn and workmanlike, strictly adhering to the conventions of the Hollywood biopic – or worse, of a mid-level TV movie. There’s clichés a-plenty: gaudy musical montages, filled with newspaper headlines and venue marquees; rushed rise-and-fall narrative; stylized drug addiction misery; and laughable pure-exposition dialogue like, “No one’s ever combined R&B and gospel before!” When you think of a generic musical biopic, you’re probably thinking of Ray – which is why so much of Walk Hard (below) seems to be a direct satire of it.
12. Get On Up
Tate Taylor’s 2014 James Brown portrait is, make no mistake, a mess – its tonal shifts are comically wild, its straight-to-camera narration by its subject is weirdly alienating, and its structure is downright bonkers (opening, as it does, with a bizarre incident where Brown threatened a roomful of people with a shotgun for the offense of using his personal bathroom). But its oddities at least make it memorable, and in its musical sequences – of which there are many – Taylor and star Chadwick Boseman manage to capture at least some of the energy and vitality of Brown’s sound.
11. Miles Ahead
Don Cheadle’s forthcoming snapshot of Miles Davis’ later years doesn’t really hold together as a movie, and it’s not even close to faithful as biography – the primary narrative, in which a fictional journalist (Ewan McGregor) and a sleazy agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) are trying to swipe a valuable Davis session tape, is closer to Paul McCartney’s long-forgotten 1984 vehicle Give My Regards to Broad Street than anything from Davis’ life. But like Get On Up (with which it shares a screenwriter), its oddball approach to its subject at least makes it memorable, and its performances, music, and zonked-out ambition separate it, ever so slightly, from the pack.
10. The Doors
Oliver Stone’s 1991 Jim Morrison biopic is overlong, overstuffed, and overly pretentious – in other words, an absolutely appropriate consideration of its subject. It’s easy to snicker at Morrison’s self-importance, his inflated pronouncements and bad poetry, but Stone takes him seriously, and the movie really couldn’t work any other way. To the picture’s benefit, he seems less interested in recreating Morrison’s life than in recreating his time, and then turning Val Kilmer’s (ace) Morrison loose in it. And the concert scenes that dominate the third act – as Morrison’s wild and unpredictable performances dominated the third act of his life – are remarkably immersive, with a danger and you-are-there immediacy often lacking in dramatizations of musicians at work.
Anton Corbijn brings his distinctive photographer’s eye to this moody portrait of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, and it’s aesthetically stunning; the black-and-white cinematography exquisitely captures the grayness of Curtis’ world, and the cloudy skies that seemed perpetually falling upon him. Sam Riley is terrific as Curtis, Samathan Morton is even better as wife Debbie, and the music is, y’know, the music. But it’s the story of a rising star who offed himself at 23, so it’s (understandably) a bit of a misery slog, and even the gifted Riley has trouble digging much redeemable humanity of the character by the story’s end. But hey, at least it’s not another one that ends with a triumphant comeback show!
8. Walk the Line
Yes, yes, Walk the Line is riddled with many of the same clichés as films ranked lower on this list: the rise from poverty, the unexpected success, the descent into women and drugs, the slow but steady return from the brink. But with these movies – which so often tell the same story – it’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. This one redeems itself with a juicy subject (the rich life of charismatic rebel and moving target Johnny Cash), sterling performances (by Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix and Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon), and an uncommonly intelligent co-writer/director (James Mangold, of Copland and Girl, Interrupted). And even if you subtract Cash’s fame (and notoriety), you’re left with a tender, complicated romance, an affirmative answer to the test too many biopics fail: would I care about these people if they weren’t famous?
7. Born to Be Blue
Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic also hits the familiar beats: familial tension, addiction, romantic woes, musical rivalries. But it has, in its best moments, a freedom of form not unlike the music Baker played so well, as well as a welcome sense of self-awareness, framing the inciting action within a film in which Baker plays himself (“The whole thing is fake,” he shrugs, as a scene falls apart, “it wasn’t like this at all”). Most importantly, Budreau’s script sees his heroin addiction not as a story beat, but as a fact of his life, and the quiet, open scene late in the picture where he explains to a friend what it does for him and why it’s so hard to shake contains more truth than any number of shaking withdrawal scenes in lesser pictures. There’s no triumph of the spirit here, and no happy ending; he played music, and he was a junkie, and that was his story.
Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar – and two-plus decades of name recognition – for his powerful turn as David Helfgott, an Australian piano prodigy whose years of abuse at the hands of his father (a chilling Armin Mueller-Stahl) leads to a mental breakdown. What could’ve been yet another rise-from-the-ashes Lifetime movie is elevated immeasurably by the sheer power of Rush’s performance and the elegance of Scott Hicks’ direction; he makes Helfgott’s experience ours, putting us in his head as he crumbles apart and pieces himself together again.
When it hit theaters in 1988, some snickered at the notion of Clint Eastwood – who had not yet directed a film he didn’t star in – helming the life story of Charlie “Bird” Parker; what did Dirty Harry know from the world of bebop? But the lifelong jazz aficionado created an appropriately moody and downbeat portrait of the jazz sax legend, who reinvented the music in his short, tempestuous life (he died in his 35th hard year). Eastwood tells his story in the shadows, of darkened alleys and dim nightclubs, moving through Bird’s world alongside him, and Forest Whitaker magnificently captures both the man’s talent and his sadness.
4. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
“Give him a moment, son; Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” OK, fine – Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) wasn’t a real person. But Jake Kasdan’s 2007 comedy satirizes the musical biopic so brilliantly, he might as well be; grabbing pieces of not only the earlier Ray and Walk the Line, but, somehow, the simultaneous I’m Not There and forthcoming Love and Mercy, Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow manage to not only send up the tropes of the troubled genius biopic, but also to create an energetic and entertaining counter-history of popular music.
3. Love and Mercy
The issue that most often plagues lesser musical biopics is the sheer volume of material to draw from; the life of a legend is packed full of rises and falls, and in the interest of smashing it all in, films like Ray and Get On Up end up stone-skipping, creating a highlights reel with the depth of a Wikipedia page. That’s the masterstroke of Bill Pohlad’s 2015 Brian Wilson-based drama; rather than attempt to cover Wilson’s entire, weird life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner instead zero in on two key moments – the Pet Sounds/Smile era and Wilson’s ‘80s rescue by future wife Melinda – casting them with two different actors and placing them in conversation with each other. In doing so, the filmmakers make a familiar story vibrant and new, realizing that you can’t immortalize such an unconventional figure in anything resembling a conventional way.
2. Sid and Nancy
As with Control and Born to Be Blue, there’s no happy ending and/or musical redemption waiting for Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) – and no one watching Alex Cox’s harrowing 1986 account of their lives and deaths will go in thinking otherwise. So Cox drills down, following them into their pit of drug and emotional abuse, and by the time they get to that notorious Chelsea Hotel room, their existence has been rendered so mercilessly bleak that death comes to feel like the only way out.
1. I’m Not There.
Director Todd Haynes has made something of a specialty of unconventional biopics; witness his Karen-Carpenter-with-Barbie-dolls classic Superstar and his thinly veiled glam-rock epic Velvet Goldmine. But this 2007 drama may’ve been his most daring; rather than march chronologically through the shifting sands of Bob Dylan’s life and chameleonic career, Haynes cast six different actors as Dylan, none actually playing a character named “Bob Dylan.” Instead, they each capture an incarnation of his persona, and the pop culture landscape he both inhabited and informed; what sounds like a nutso idea becomes about the only way you can imagine capturing the extended experiment/art installation that is Dylan’s life.