Before Bohemian Rhapsody, a look at other memorable musician biopics, from The Doors to Ray

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

November 15, 2018 12:53:09 IST

How was Rami Malek going to play Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody? There was nothing about him that resembled the man. Could he sing like Freddie? His eyes were too big for the singer! So many doubts!

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Image from Youtube

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Image from Youtube

That was until the first images of Malek playing Mercury were shared online. Wearing a white vest and jeans, Malek was shooting the Live Aid 1985 concert sequence. Those pictures were enough to silence the cynics and infuse a new burst of hope and excitement for fans of the band, who have been waiting for years to see this biopic come to life.

Freddie Mercury was a deeply private man whose life as a queer rockstar played out in the media back in the day. The life and times of the band Queen and its immensely popular frontman naturally lends itself to a biopic. There have been biographies and in-depth articles that cover Freddie, a man not entirely comfortable with being in the media.

Much like Freddie, a lot of musicians who have been subjects of biopics have not always had comfortable relationships with the media of their time. Even with all that information publicly available, the onus is on the director of a movie to flesh out the right details while also ensuring that the biopic remain honest.

Honesty, though, is a tricky pre-requisite of a biopic. Because it isn’t just honesty of facts that is expected of the genre, but honesty in treatment of the said subject. It is a tight-rope walk that combines authenticity of facts, compelling narrative and the ability to create a nuanced story, warts et al. Often directors choose the right actor to play the role, but then the narrative is more flawed than the flawed personality in the spotlight. That, to me, is the greatest travesty that a filmmaker can do. The audience for biopics is broadly divided into movie lovers and fans of the protagonist. Sometimes the twain meets. Most often, it doesn’t.

Therefore, critiquing a music biopic, for instance, would require the writer to be able to juggle being a lover of the artist and a keen watcher of good cinema. Keeping that in mind, we look at some of the best biopics of musicians that have been made, in no order of priority.

1. The Doors (Director: Oliver Stone)

Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer in The Doors. Image via Facebook

Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer in The Doors. Image via Facebook

You think of rock biopics and one instantly thinks of The Doors. Made in 1991, the film was very Oliver Stone-ish, if you know what I mean. Weird but captivating. But the star was Val Kilmer in what would be his career’s biggest role. He just took that mammoth expectation of being a mega star like Jim Morrison and he ran with it.

The film was ridiculously indulgent, reeking with grandiose and everything rock & roll. Obviously, it didn’t work at the box office then, but it has gone on to become a cult film. Kilmer did not glorify Jim Morrison but made him the epitome of the hippie era where hedonism and creativity went hand in hand. He transformed himself into Morrison and it was Kilmer that made the film what it has become today.

2. Walk the Line (Director: James Mansgold)

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Walk The Line. Image via Facebook

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Walk The Line. Image via Facebook

One of the best things about Walk the Line, the biopic of Johnny Cash, is that it looks at the singer’s relationship with June Carter and puts his career in perspective accordingly. In that sense, Walk the Line is a love story between two musicians, one of whose career is also the focus of the film.

It humanises Cash, shows him with all his vulnerabilities, and just like Oliver Stone did with The Doors… it did not sit on judgment. One would never pit Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon against each other in a film, but the pairing worked seamlessly in Walk the Line. Cash was the brooding, disturbed singer and she was the effervescent breath of fresh air. Their chemistry on stage and off it formed the crux of the film, and in a sense, of Cash’s career.

3. I’m Not There (Director: Todd Hayes)

Cate Blancett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Image via Facebook

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Image via Facebook

Bob Dylan was one of the most influential musicians that the 1960s presented. A decade before he won his Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan was the subject of a cleverly made biopic called I’m Not There. Director Todd Hayes pieced together various eras and aspects of Dylan’s life by giving different actors to play Dylan across different times and moods. So, we have everyone from Richard Gere, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger to even Cate Blanchett representing this highly complex individual and musical demigod.

The great thing about this biopic is that it couldn’t care less about chronology and other trappings of the genre. It may seem disjointed in narrative, in form and structure…but that’s the genius of Dylan himself.

4. La Bamba (Director: Luis Valdez)

Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. Image via Twitter

Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. Image via Twitter

The great thing about music biopics is usually the selection of music that permeates through the film. Made in 1987, La Bamba tracks the life and times of Chicago rock & roll sensation Ritchie Valens up until his death, generously giving us some of Valens’ most foot-tapping performances. As a film, there’s a simplicity to it that both works in its favour and against it. Parts of it feel rather contrived… almost like a cop-out in the writing department. But Lou Diamond Phillips, who essays Valens’ character with such moxie and sincerity, gives the film the gravitas it desperately needs. The music is a celebration of 1950s rock & roll and it delightfully aids the stodgy narrative brought to life by a career-best performance by Phillips.

5. Ray (Director: Taylor Hackford)

Jamie Foxx in a still from Ray. Image via Facebook

Jamie Foxx in a still from Ray. Image via Facebook

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his stupendous role as the legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles. The musician died shortly before the film released. Foxx imbibes the blind pianist’s various quirks, his posture, his gait, his speech and even his voice. The film is a masterclass in having all the pieces of the story put together, through powerful performances and remaining honest to the legend despite some of his shortcomings.

Updated Date: Nov 15, 2018 19:33 PM