As it currently sits, Bohemian Rhapsody has grossed $386 million US making it the highest selling music biopic of all time. Amid endless controversy and mixed reviews the undeniable talent of Freddie Mercury and Queen has shone through.
Mercury was a picture of flamboyant non-conformity. His music kicked against convention and exposed true musical genius. In life and in death he changed perceptions and raised awareness of issues that divided the world. Sexuality, gender roles and their acceptance, surrounded his astonishing career. The record-breaking results for Bohemian Rhapsody are what occur when a character is unique—their musical output, adored.
Music biopics have a long history of hits and misses—many falling by the wayside as transparent money earners for fizzled out careers. Though for all the forgettables, there are a few that really celebrate who the artist was—these standing as a monumental testament to exceptional creativity.
Here are 5 that do just that.
Control – Joy Division
Set against the dire wreck that was 1970’s Manchester comes Control. Shot in stunning black and white, director Anton Corbijn encapsulates a blip in history with poised artistry. Through his scope we gain a primary account of post-punk legend Ian Curtis and the short-lived career of Joy Division. The once photographer for the band, Corbijn’s portrayal is an unabashed obsession with one of music’s most influential and important bands.
An epileptic, manic depressive and poetic virtuoso, Curtis is the living embodiment of his surroundings. The stark bleakness of the streets and monotonous interiors accentuate the sonics and message of Curtis and the band. Sam Riley plays a superb Ian Curtis, the nihilism and deteriorating mental health of the character are played out in expert fashion.
Through history, sound and experience it seems all involved were preordained to make this film. Control is a true vision of excellence and cinematic art.
Walk the Line – Johnny Cash
The undisputed king of narrative song, Johnny Cash has a voice that seeps agony —an experience drenched in velvet warmth. In both song and film, Cash walks the line of both a skyrocketing career and love. A rebel, storyteller and poet, Walk the Line portrays the iconic man in black as he overcomes a life of debauched intoxication and a career at the height of fame.
An expert in image, director James Mangold has pieced together a story worthy of Cash’s esteem. Mangold seizes Cash’s ability to whip up a crowd while also not over stepping the fragility of his poetry. It’s this interplay between the harsh and delicate that encapsulates both the artist and addict. It also gives further strength to Cash’s romance with June Carter. Played by Joaquim Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the chemistry between the two is palpable. Both bringing life to the infatuation that lasted both Cash and Carter’ careers, and to their deaths.
24-hour Party People – Factory Records
In the early 1970’s, Manchester was a post-industrial city on the brink of collapse. Labor strikes, huge unemployment and factory closings riddled a working-class community in literal ruin. Though the unassuming city that history had almost forgotten still had one trick up its sleeve—a TV presenter named Tony Wilson.
Now obviously Wilson didn’t save a city, but he did change the face of music and youth culture forever. Whether it was simply being in the right place at the right time, or having a knack for “what’s next”, Tony Wilson took advantage of a disgruntled youth and a new musical trend.
Wilson recognised that punk was not only a sound but also an ideal, one that would match the counterculture of the 1960’s. In harnessing this phenomenon, he created Factory Records and eventually the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. Within the confines of those walls he’d nurture bands like Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays. He’d also provide a nesting place for the birth of Acid House culture.
While all this seems like a like stretch to fit in a 120-minute film, directed Michael Winterbottom does so in hilarious fashion. With Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, the Fourth wall is constantly broken as Coogan documents the eccentricities of what actually happened. In 24-hour Party People we plunge into a chaotic world of music, drugs, egos and creative brilliance.
Ray – Ray Charles
In what can only be described as mind-blowing, Ray Charles overcame poverty, family tragedy and of course blindness to change RnB and soul music forever. A prodigy with little to lose, Charles’ finds solace in the piano and music. Directed and co-written by Taylor Hackford, this incredible story depicts a life of prejudice, infidelity and drug abuse as he scales first, the Seattle Jazz scene, then the world stage.
Played by Jamie Foxx, it’s difficult to tell where Charles begins and Foxx ends—such is the grace of his performance. Foxx’s reality in re-enacting Ray Charles is nothing short of breath taking. Through Foxx’s performance and Hackford’s finesse as a filmmaker, we gain a deeper understanding of the tortured artist. From 1930’s Georgia to the latter stages of his astounding career, each detail is handled with extensive consideration and care.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Ian Dury
Enigmatic and acutely weird, Ian Dury’s life and career were entirely unconventional. Having contracted polio at the age of seven, Dury was left paralysed in his left leg. This, as the films suggests, is what creates the artist. The film cuts between his life as a boy and his later career. Growing up middle class and in boarding schools, Dury is bullied and ostracised —this hardens his response to pity. His father (Ray Winstone) is a chauffeur for the wealthy and offer’s Dury his only life lessons. Stand up and fight—it’s tough love but it gives Dury life. What ensues is a man of passion, social critique and vulgar hilarity.
As if to further the bizarre air around Dury, he is played by Andy Serkis—that’s Gollum to the ill-informed. His performance is inspired, echoing the eccentricities of one of new wave’s best front men. The exploration of paternal relationships between Dury’s father, himself and Dury’s own son are what gives the film its human portrait. Somewhat socially topical and through experience, the film uncovers the grey areas of toxic masculinity, bullying and self-pride.
Let us know your favourite biopic in the comments down below!