Monday, August 01, 2011

The Ultimate Encore: Musician biopics tell us about the lives that inspired the music

When I heard about the death of Amy Winehouse, I started thinking about other musicians who died tragically young and about the how the film industry has paid homage to deceased young stars by producing biopics about their lives. When someone famous dies, it reverberates throughout the pop culture world reminding us that even those with money and fame aren’t immune to tragic endings, and how lives that have been suddenly cut short, particularly of those so young, cause us to reflect on the careers and accomplishments achieved by those who’re gone.

Only time will tell if Amy Winehouse’s life will be scripted to become a feature film like that of several musicians whose lives ended early and tragically. When biopics are cast well and executed successfully, they can be superb films and great vehicles for the actors portraying the beloved musicians. Biopics also merge two great art forms together – music and film. To learn about the life that inspired the music through a captivating narrative is a difficult feat for filmmakers, and it’s a feat accomplished well by this list of films:


This biopic shows the meteoric rise of Tejano music sensation, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Mexican director Gregory Nava begins the story during Selena’s childhood when her father realized her musical talent and the family set off on the road performing countless shows through until Selena became a big star in the Latin music industry, married, began a fashion line and recorded an English cross-over album shortly before being shot by her fan club president. Jennifer Lopez is perfectly cast as Selena and imbues the role with vibrancy truly reminiscent of the late beloved star.

La Bamba

Lou Diamond Phillips is brilliant as the 17-year-old pop singer who dies tragically in a plane crash. The film shows the young love that blossoms between Ritchie Valens and Donna, the girl who inspires Valens’ hit song – “Donna.” Valens records an album and is invited to tour with other famous recording artists at the time like Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. All three musicians perish one fateful night when they board a plane after a gig that crashes killing all on board.

The Buddy Holly Story

Back before Gary Busey was a wannabe apprentice to Donald Trump and the wacky, colourful character he’s become today, he was a promising young actor who wowed critics as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story. Busey embodied the character so completely, remarkably transforming himself to look and sound uncannily like Buddy Holly. His performance was so believable and remarkable that he earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his portrayal of the teen singing sensation.

The Doors

Oliver Stone pays homage to the popular 60’s rock group while documenting the life of the group’s lead singer, Jim Morrison. Val Kilmer delivers a mesmerizing and unbelievably realistic performance. His physical transformation is uncanny and his vocals in the film sound so much like Morrison’s that it has been said that members of The Doors could not differentiate between the two voices.


Notorious is the story of slain rap star Notorious B.I.G (aka Christopher Wallace.) The film shows Wallace’s troubled early days during which he was a hustler and a drug dealer and served time in jail, to his triumphant rise as one of the hip hop industry’s biggest, most talented MC’s, to his drive-by shooting death by an unknown assailant.

La Vie En Rose

Marion Cotillard won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of France’s famous chanteuse. The film doesn’t follow a standard, linear narrative but rather a non-linear telling with Cotillard switching back and forth between portrayals of Piaf as a 17-year-old street singer to a 47-year-old terminally ill, drug-addicted, sickly music icon, and her performance is simply brilliant.

Sweet Dreams

This biopic focuses largely on the stormy, off-stage love life of country singer Patsy Cline. The tumultuous relationship between Patsy and her husband Charlie Dick is superbly rendered by lead actors Jessica Lange and Ed Harris. Cline’s musical career is highlighted briefly in scenes where Lange convincingly lip-synchs some of Cline’s biggest hits like “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

What other musician biopics stand out for you? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. I'm a big music fan but I'm not really into the music bio-pics. I always feel they tend to dramatize things way too much and such. I much prefer documentaries about the artists.

    I do like La Vie En Rose and The Buddy Holly Story but my favorite is I'm Not There because it broke all the rules of all the conventions of the bio-pic.

    My all-time least favorite is The Doors because Oliver Stone just exaggerated everything and made Jim Morrison into a complete drunken buffoon. Val Kilmer was good in the quiet scenes but he didn't have great material to work with. Plus, there was a lot of liberties about the story of the band that I found to be upsetting. I'm not much of a fan of the Doors but I did like Ray Manzarek's book which I think is the most definitive story about the band.

  2. Does 8-Mile count as a biopic? I quite enjoyed that one but I know Hanson took a lot of liberties with the story. Others I like include What’s Love Got to Do With It, Amadeus, Sid & Nancy, Ray, and Shine.

  3. I don't view 8 Mile as a bio-pic since it's really based partially on Eminem's life. I do enjoy that film along with Sid & Nancy despite some of the liberties I had with the film on the events that happened. I also love Amadeus and I like Ray. I'm just soured a bit on the the musicians bio-pic as the very underrated Walk Hard showed why it's become quite formulaic.

  4. In this post, I focused solely on biopics about deceased musicians, but the other biopics mentioned, like I'm Not There, What's Love Got to With It, Ray and Sid and Nancy are great films. I view 8 Mile as partially biographical and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    The Doors isn't my favourite film and I also think Oliver Stone's representation of Morrison is exaggerated and over the top, but that's Stone's style (W was also an exaggerated biopic about George W. Bush.) What I appreciated about the film was Val Kilmer's performance. I agree that biopics tend to be formulaic and predictable. What I appreciate about the better biopics and what I think they're intended to highlight are the performances by the actors portraying the subject of the film, and if you're a fan of the subject, the life that inspired the work. Some of the great acting performances rendered to date have come about as a result of an actor staring in a biopic.

    Walk Hard is a great spoof.

  5. I must admit I am not great at biopics. Let alone Music ones. I really want to see La Vie en Rose just to see the performance from my baby Marion.

    Nice post!

  6. @Custard - La Vie En Rose is definitely worth seeing. Cotillard is superb in the film. Glad you liked the post!

  7. Selena, I think, is a great movie. Perhaps not brilliant, but thoroughly enjoyable and Jennifer Lopez is excellent in it. Perhaps her one great performance.

  8. @Andrew - Jennifer Lopez certainly did show that she could act in Selena. I have to give her credit for her work in Out of Sight too, which was a fantastic film.


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