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- Paramount Pictures
Break on Through
Rock biopics to headbang to in a darkened, air-conditioned room.
By David Riedel
Because the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody made a bajillion dollars and inexplicably won some awards, every other movie story I'm reading lately is about some hotter, sexier, music biopic in the works. Rocketman, the Elton John flick—directed by Dexter Fletcher, who has a long and tortured history with Bohemian Rhapsody—recently hit screens, but if there's anything I like less than Elton John's melodies it's Bernie Taupin's lyrics. ("If I was a sculptor, but then again, no." GTFOHWTS.) So consider that one skipped until awards season, when I'll be forced to watch it.
And for that matter, skip Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek's it-almost-works performance as Freddie Mercury aside, the movie is standard music biopic cookie-cutter crud: humble beginnings, bright lights/big city, fall from grace, eventual gaining of wisdom and self-respect, complete with a lot of diversions from the real band's story. (Normally I don't harp on alternative film facts, but making believe Queen broke up for a few years before Live Aid is some bullshit.) Plus, Gwilym Lee, as Queen guitarist Brian May, didn't get the props he deserved for nailing May from top to bottom.
In the near future, assuming Satan still holds the strings, we'll be set upon by movies about John Lennon and Yoko Ono (no one liked John and Yoko together in real life, but sure, the punters'll queue up for the big screen version); Lynyrd Skynyrd (spoiler: a bunch of them die in a plane crash); Journey (working title: Milking It); and if Roger Daltrey's memoir is to be believed, he's gonna make a movie about The Who's drummer Keith Moon. (Maybe the screenwriter will reveal Pete Townshend used all those synthesizer loops as click tracks for Moon because the guy couldn't keep time.)
So while you're waiting with bated breath for California Über Alles: The Jello Biafra Story (I wish), here are 11 music biopics that have at least one good thing in them (though I can't call these recommendations; I'm just not that cruel).
Dakota Fanning isn't quite right as Cherie Currie, but Kristen Stewart was born to play Joan Jett, and her performance as the future superstar leaps off the screen while Fanning kinda stands there looking uncomfortable. Also weird: Alia Shawkat plays the bassist, but not the real Runaways bassist, who wouldn't allow her name to be used in the movie. There are worse things than hearing "Cherry Bomb" approximately 40 times in one sitting, though.
Everyone has forgotten about this Beatles-before-they-were-famous story, and for good reason: It's crap. Nah, I'm kidding. It's highly watchable, and it's the one time you'll look at Stephen Dorff without wishing you could punch him in the face. He plays Stu Sutcliffe, Beatles bassist and real-life BFF to John Lennon (Ian Hart, quite good) and the film focuses on their relationship with photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). Greg Dulli, the tone-deaf Afghan Whigs singer, does Hart's singing, and that's the only demerit Backbeat earns.
As a big fan of The Doors' music, I saw this Oliver Stone flick about six times during its initial release. I saw it a year ago (for the first time in 20 years) and realized Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) was a serious asshole: drunk, violent, with a huge ego and low self-esteem. Just the kind of person you want to spend 140 minutes watching. Kilmer is perfect, and Kyle MacLachlan is a solid Ray Manzarek, but viewing The Doors made me feel like I did when I watched Reality Bites as an adult: Every character in this movie is a dick.
Get on Up
You've never heard of this 2014 James Brown biopic because Universal let it come out and take a shit (release date: August 1, a movie dead zone). But Get on Up is worth a watch for Chadwick Boseman's super-committed portrayal of Brown. I'd say he chews the scenery, but that's not really fair; I'm pretty sure James Brown did chew scenery (I made that up). Get on Up gives you a chance to compare Boseman's performance here to other famous men he's played (Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson), and there are more time jumps than in a Tarantino film. Get on Up is a hoot, Boseman an excellent godfather of soul.
Ah, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The first rock star. I know it's cliché, but think about it: He had weird hair, was possibly mentally ill, drank too much, wrote music that made people scratch their heads and died young. Tom Hulce is an appropriately impudent Mozart, F. Murray Abraham a comically fiendish Antonio Salieri, and Jeffrey Jones is a riot as Emperor Joseph II (but the less said about Jones the better). If you drink each time Mozart's wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) yells "Wolfie" you'll be dead in an hour.
Straight Outta Compton
Any movie that prompts a tweet from MC Ren that goes like this: "Man fuck these bitches at universal pictures leaving me out the movie trailers tryin to rewrite history," deserves a look. Also worth noting in this big-screen version of the N.W.A. story: How Ice Cube's son O'Shea Jackson Jr. looks exactly like his father (whom he plays) but also doesn't. It's trippy! I find this movie less enchanting than most critics—another flick that leaves out or changes verifiable (major) facts—but it still has its moments. Plus, N.W.A. was great; they deserve a spin a month.
Sid and Nancy
Now here's a story that should be hard to watch: Talentless Sex Pistol Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) do a lot of smack, he stabs her (maybe on purpose; no one knows for sure in real life and the movie leaves it vague), she dies and then he finds her alive in a taxi that takes them to heaven, or at least off the studio backlot. Oldman and Webb burn up the screen, and director Alex Cox makes heroin look really appealing ... until the violent death, anyway. If you can handle squalid, Sid and Nancy is for you.
- Summit Entertainment
All Eyez on Me
For a guy who never acted before, Demetrius Shipp Jr. plays the hell out of Tupac Shakur. If only the movie were up to his level. The dialogue is flat, the drama is predictable, even for a story we (mostly) know and everything takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to happen. By the hour mark, I was praying for Tupac's demise, which I'm certain is not the reaction the filmmakers want from the audience. But Shipp makes it almost worthwhile. Almost.
The Buddy Holly Story
It's hard to fathom now, but there was a time when Gary Busey wasn't a punchline. The Buddy Holly Story is Busey pre-motorcycle accident, pre-Entourage, and pre-Jake Busey, so it's easy to get lost in the elder Busey's performance, which is a marvel of both commitment and restraint. Critics Vincent Canby of The New York Times and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune both used the word "galvanizing" to describe Busey's work, so you know it's legit. (Seriously, though, Busey is unreal. Rumor has it his teeth were lengthened to resemble Holly's. Really.)
Love & Mercy
Paul Dano, as young Beach Boy Brian Wilson, can't save this picture from John Cusack, as old(er) Brian Wilson. Cusack's inherent Cusackiness makes for a mannered Wilson, though he should be given points for trying. There are some artsy touches here—the opening sound montage, for example, and some nifty camera work, especially during the 1960s stuff—but otherwise this is standard biopic fare. Too bad. It's nice to see Dano successfully step outside his inherent Paul Danoness. He really nails Brian the younger.
"Dave," you say, "This isn't a real biopic." No, it isn't. But it's better than many, many biopics out there (let's start with Bohemian Rhapsody), and mostly because it sends everything up that came before it. Unfortunately, just because it's a send-up doesn't mean it's good. It means most other biopics are bad. But John C. Reilly is fun, and because he's Cox, it's maybe worth ponying up the $2.99 it costs to rent on Amazon Prime.
Till next summer concert season, my friends!