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A History of Rock and Roll Biopics (Inspired by the New ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Film)
Hollywood has had a long love affair with pop stars. Considering their often outrageous personas, lifestyles, talent and high profiles, pop music figures are naturals for movie biographies about them, and many have been shot. The release of Bohemian Rhapsody is likely to revive and rev up the film genre of rock and roll biopics. By this we mean biographical pictures about actual rock ’n’ roll musicians, in the way that Bohemian Rhapsody depicts Queen and its front man, Freddie Mercury.
They may cover all or a significant portion of singers and musicians’ lives — Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, focuses on 15 years in Mercury’s life. Rock and roll biopics usually focus on an individual or band and purport themselves to be at least in part fact-based.
So flicks about fictitious musical artistes like 1970’s Performance starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive rocker or 1983’s Eddie and the Cruisers (and its sequels) aren’t considered here. Neither is Prince’s 1984 Purple Rain, because it is only semi-autobiographical and his character is credited as “The Kid” – not as “Prince.” And although 1968’s Head stars the Monkees, this zany psychedelic pic (co-written by Jack Nicholson!) has no bio info about Davy Jones, etc., so it doesn’t qualify either. Nor do concert films like 1968’s Monterey Pop and 1970 Woodstock, which mainly record live performances but don’t tell musicians’ life stories.
In this stroll down movie memory lane, we remember many of the best and most offbeat rock and roll biopics. Most of the films considered in this eclectic look at rock biopics are feature films with actors, scripts, etc., with some outstanding exceptions. And as we’ll see, some of these films about rock’s greatest artists have been made by and star the cinema’s top talents. We begin our cinematic survey with some notable pre-rock precursors about blues musicians, folksingers, and end with one movie memorializing a classical composer.
Ladies – and Gentlemen – Sing the Blues
The Supremes’ lead singer Diana Ross was Oscar-nominated for her feature film debut, 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, which received four other Academy Award nominations and scored her a Golden Globe for Best Promising Newcomer – Female. Seeking to spread her creative wings and transition to a new career in movies after leaving the Supremes, playing jazz singer Billie Holiday, who warbled “Strange Fruit” and “Body and Soul,” was a clever choice. Ross delivered a heartfelt performance as Lady Day, whose problems with substances, romance and racism made her a tortured soul, which Ross captures. As Paramount’s trailer put it: “Lady sang the blues – and lived them.” Billy Dee Williams co-stars as Holiday’s love interest Louis McKay and in a serious role comedian Richard Pryor does some solid acting as Piano Man.
A sort of male counterpart to Lady, 1976’s Leadbelly told the story of the African American singer and convict known for playing a 12-string guitar and songs such as “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special.” Roger Mosley, who’d find fame in the 1980s as Tom Selleck’s helicopter flying sidekick T.C. in the original Magnum, P.I. TV series, excelled as the chain gang blues composer and folksinger Huddie Ledbetter in this film, helmed by black director and photographer Gordon Parks.
Another pop diva turned actress, hip-hop artist Queen Latifah, starred in the 2015 HBO picture Bessie, about Billie Holiday’s legendary — and similarly troubled — contemporary, jazz crooner Bessie Smith, renowned for songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Mo’nique, who rose from sitcoms to nab a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2009’s dead serious Precious, co-stars as Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues.”
In 1976, Hal Ashby directed Bound for Glory, a beautiful biopic about left-wing folksinger Woody Guthrie, who composed and played songs to fight for the rights of the unemployed and workers during the Great Depression. The exquisitely shot film won two Academy Awards, including for cinematography (see Rock Cellar’s 2011interview with director of photography Haskell Wexler) and received four more Oscar noms, including for Best Picture. The 1930s’ era saga had a Grapes of Wrath vibe — indeed, the creator of “This Land is Your Land” is portrayed by David Carradine (Kung Fu), whose father, John Carradine, co-starred as Preacher Casy in the 1940 film version of John Steinbeck’s epic saga about displaced Dustbowl “Okies” who migrate to California and become part of the unionization movement — just like Oklahoma-born Woody himself in real life.
Speaking of serendipitous cinematic father-son connections in this genre, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie followed in his father’s musical and political footsteps, which resulted in one of the best rock and roll biopics, Arthur Penn’s (Bonnie and Clyde) 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant. Just as Woody used his guitar, inscribed with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” to fight for social justice and against Nazis, Arlo used music to oppose the Vietnam War. His lengthy ballad “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” spawned the similarly named movie, a witty satirical story about how draft-age Arlo avoided conscription and being sent to Indochina. But in terms of chronological order, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here.
Early Age of Rockers
Just as rock and roll burst upon the scene by the mid-1950s, those colorful early rockers burst upon the screen by the 1970s in memorable movies telling their personal and onstage sagas. In 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, Gary Busey (in his pre-Celebrity Apprentice days) captured the irrepressible, energetic charm of the youthful, bespectacled title character who wrote, recorded and performed finger snapping, joyous hits such as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Busey was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, while the movie, also nominated for Best Sound, won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score (to Joe Renzetti).
Actors Charles Martin Smith (George Lucas’ 1973 American Graffiti) and Hawaii’s Don Stroud (big and little screen veteran, from Gidget to Django) played the Lubbock, Texas-born Holly’s band mates the Crickets, here called Ray Bob and Jesse. The supporting cast includes some interesting choices: Comedian Paul Moonie played singer Sam Cooke while Matthew Beard — Stymie in the Little Rascals shorts — was Luther. Significantly, Gailard Sartain portrayed J.P. Richardson — better known as The Big Bopper, famous for the funny and somewhat kinky “Chantilly Lace” — and Gilbert Melgar was Ritchie Valens.
The 1987 biopic about Valens, the Hispanic rocker who topped the charts with “La Bamba” and “Donna”, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, depicts more fully the tragic February 3, 1959 chartered flight that crashed shortly after takeoff, killing Valens, Holly and The Big Bopper, which is only alluded to at The Buddy Holly Story’s ending. While alleged inaccuracies in that feature prompted Paul McCartney, who came to own Holly’s catalogue, to produce the 1987 documentary The Real Buddy Holly Story to set the record straight, the movie La Bamba was chosen to be preserved by the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Co-starring Latino actors Esai Morales and Elizabeth Pena, La Bamba has a strong dash of ethnic pride. In addition to portraying others aboard the ill-fated flight on what Don McLean would later call “The Day the Music Died” in 1971’s “American Pie” — Stephen Lee as The Big Bopper and musician Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, who’d chartered the doomed plane — Valens’ contemporaries Jackie Wilson and Eddie Cochran were played by Howard Huntsberry and singer, songwriter and guitarist Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats.
Frankie Lymon rose to fame as the lead singer of The Teenagers with the breakout hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, which was also the name of the 1998 movie told largely through flashbacks starring Larenz Tate (O-Dog in Menace II Society) as the do-wop crooner. The title is prescient as it shows the clash between three women (including Halle Berry and Vivica A. Fox) claiming to be Lymon’s widow as they fight over their share of the royalties for his recordings (no wonder Frankie overdosed when he was only 25).
Little Richard lights up the screen playing himself.
Elvis Presley, the King of rock and roll, parlayed his stardom into starring in more than 30 films, mostly mediocre to bad features that exploited his hip-shaking talent. Three years after Presley’s death, Kurt Russell starred in the 1979 TV movie Elvis, co-starring Shelley Winters as his mother, Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon in the Batman film franchise) as Colonel Parker and Ed Begley Jr. (his countless credits include St. Elsewhere’s Dr. Victor Ehrlich) as drummer D.J. Fontana. Elvis was directed by John Carpenter, better known for helming horror pictures and thrillers such as the original Halloween, and the Presley biopic was the director’s first collaboration with Russell, who went on to star in Carpenter’s Escape from New York, The Thing, etc.
Of course, Elvis appeared in many concert films and documentaries, of which 1970’s Elvis: That’s the Way It Is is notable for its behind-the-scenes look at Presley as he got ready to play at a Las Vegas nightclub. More recently, HBO presented the two-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher and to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Presley’s 1977 death leading documentarian Eugene Jarecki directed a road trip across the USA in Elvis’ Rolls Royce. Far from a gushing portrait, Jarecki’s The King is critical of Presley, with CNN commentator Van Jones taking the singer to task for misappropriating music created by Blacks but never supporting the Civil Rights movement. Music icons Chuck D, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, pundit James Carville, actors Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers, Aston Kutcher and Alec Baldwin are also in this unusual 2017 doc.
But by far the strangest Presley-themed film is 2016’s Elvis & Nixon, about the rock star’s (depicted by Michael Shannon) 1970 Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Based on an actual event, Presley traveled to the White House where the uninvited, unannounced rocker requests to meet with Tricky Dick to, among other things, seek a badge from the commander-in-chief designating Elvis (who may have been high at the time) as an undercover federal drug agent. The photo of Presley and the president is literally the National Archives’ most requested item — even more than the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The executive mansion rendezvous was hushed up but two years after their “drug summit” investigative reporter Jack Anderson revealed the rendezvous in his muckraking Washington Post column. Although based on a real incident, Elvis & Nixon is a comedy.
Along with “Mack the Knife” crooner Bobby Darin — who was depicted by Spacey in 2004’s whimsical Beyond the Sea, which he also directed — Elvis and all of the other above are icons featured in rock and roll biopics who achieved stardom in the 1950s and died young. But there is one notable exception — born in 1935, Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive and kicking. Dennis Quaid portrayed “The Killer” in 1989’s Great Balls of Fire opposite Winona Ryder as the under-aged 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown, who the libidinous pianist risked everything for. There was a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in this highly entertaining movie with a cast including Alec Baldwin as preacher Jimmy Swaggart, TV pioneer Steve Allen as himself, and in a small role as a British reporter, legendary English comedian Peter Cook. Despite his arrogance, flamboyant lifestyle, recklessness and lustiness, it’s ironic to muse that Lewis (married seven times!) outlived most of his 1950s’ contemporaries and that The Killer is now twice Elvis’ age when the King died.
Drugs, Sex, Cinema and Rock ’n’ Roll
If Elvis’ undulating hips, which were censored on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show, ignited American culture, by the 1960s rock was leading a full-fledged cultural revolution. The ’60s and ’70s were a period of psychedelic outlandishness, with rockers at the head of a counterculture fueled by mind expanding and other drugs. Fiction and nonfiction films expressed and captured this era of musical excess, on and off the stage and the screen.
Clint Eastwood’s 2014 Jersey Boys begins before flower power and hippie lifestyles became the rage and the British Invasion reached New Jersey and the rest of America. The film traces the rise of Frankie Valli(John Lloyd Young), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and the Four Seasons, as their hits “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Let’s Hang On!” and “Working My Way Back To You” delighted audiences. The film also details their inter-personal and family conflicts, although it is largely an excuse to enjoy Frankie’s heavenly falsetto.
Another 1960s band known for vocal harmonies is the Beach Boys. Among other things, 2014’s Love & Mercy fancifully deals with composer Brian Wilson’s evolution from being a pop entertainer singing about waves and cars in songs such as “Surfing USA” and “Little Deuce Coupe” to becoming an avatar of a new music expressing higher consciousness. Despite his string of successes, Brian battles band mates who prefer to stick with the group’s proven formula, cranking out crowd pleasing hits and oppose his experimental psychedelia sound. Wilson struggles to complete the more avant-garde Pet Sounds and then moves on to create “Good Vibrations” and the Smile album.
In the process, he falls under the influence of LSD and therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (played by a scheming, Machiavellian Paul Giamatti), who connives to become Brian’s legal guardian. Wilson starts to come back to life when he meets and romances Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, Gail Abernathy-McKadden in the Pitch Perfect film franchise).
Love & Mercy is a moving movie about mental illness and recovery. It alternates between the Brian of the 1960s and of the 1980s and to do so two different actors depict the troubled genius: Paul Dano (who received a Golden Globe nom) during his younger days and John Cusack as the older Wilson. There have been various Beach Boys concert films, documentaries and the TV mini-series The Beach Boys: An American Family, but Love & Mercy sets the gold standard. On the hit parade of rock and roll biopics this beautiful, poignant film is near the top of the charts. Love & Mercy is an affirmation of life, the creative process and the power of love to change one’s world.
What’s Love Got to Do With It is a powerful drama about Tina Turner and her violent life, on-and offstage, with Ike Turner, who discovered and married the younger, Tennessee-born Anna Mae Bullock and transformed her into an R&B superstar who crossed over to rock with their explosive performance of songs such as “Proud Mary.” The 1993 biopic is based on the memoir I, Tina, co-authored by former Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder, who also contributed to the screenplay. The movie reveals the Turners’ abusive marriage and Tina’s struggle to find herself (she goes from Baptist to Buddhist) and the courage to stand up to and finally leave Ike. It is so strongly acted that both leads, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, received well-deserved Best Acting Oscar nominations.
The movie was helmed by London-born Brian Gibson, who also directed a 1991 biopic about another great Black chanteuse, The Josephine Baker Story (starring Lynn Whitfield); 1980’s Breaking Glass, a fiction film about a female rocker; plus various videos featuring Styx. Ike chose “Tina” as Anna Mae’s stage name as a reference to the TV and comic book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a sort of female Tarzan, and tried to mold his featured singer into the image of an instinctively uninhibited woman whose choreography and vocals became legendary. It’s hard to believe that Tina Turner, who held audiences spellbound with her sensuous singing and dance moves, is now almost 80 and lives perched on the “Gold Coast” of Switzerland’s Lake Zurich, where she’s known for generously paying for the Christmas lights at the village of Küsnacht.
Shot in the cinema verite style, 1967’s Don’t Look Back is an unflinching portrait of Bob Dylan by D. A. Pennebaker. One could argue this 96 minute black and white documentary is more of a cinematic slice of life than a biopic, as it chronicles Dylan’s England tour in 1965, around the period when he switched from acoustic-based folk music to a more electronically amplified sound. Yet Pennebaker’s filmic fly-on-the-wall technique is quite revealing, as a diffident Dylan grapples with celebrity-hood and mixes up the medicine with the media. His then-lover, Joan Baez, as well as the British troubadour Donovan, also appear in this insightful doc.
Don’t Look Back is directed by nonfiction maestro Pennebaker, who was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2013. Pennebaker shot shorts and full-length documentaries about outstanding rock musicians including Little Richard, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Jerry Lewis, Chuck Berry and Depeche Mode, as well as 1968’s seminal Monterey Pop, which along with Woodstock is probably the best youth culture concert film. (The prolific Pennebaker, now 93, seems to have spun off footage from Monterey Pop for films featuring Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding.) Pennebaker has directed documentaries about other subjects — he was Oscar-nommed for the 1993 Bill Clinton campaign doc The War Room — but this indie exemplar’s Dylan doc was his first full-length film about a musical phenom.
40 years later, Todd Haynes directed I’m Not There with six different thespians — including gender-crossing Cate Blanchett! — portraying Dylan. While it may be more imaginative, for authenticity and accuracy, it ain’t There babe, Look is the one you’re looking for.
Another rock doc depicts drummer Ginger Baker, who pounded the sharkskins for Cream, Blind Faith and Africa’s Fela Kuti. But the ornery percussionist proved to be so cantankerous that Jay Bulger named his 2013 film Beware of Mr. Baker. The rock doc features archival footage of and original interviews with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Kuti, Johnny Rotten, etc., plus some animation.
Baker found sanctuary in a South Africa compound, Tina escaped domestic abuse to find Swiss bliss and Dylan recovered from a motorcycle crash, but many rockers didn’t survive the heady maelstrom of the sizzling ’60s and ’70s. This turbulent time of turmoil took its toll on several singers who did not outlive the drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll scene. In 1970, within less than three weeks, rock reeled from the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who were both only 27.
The Seattle, Washington-born guitar virtuoso appears in concert films such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock, as well as documentaries like 1973’s Jimi Hendrix, wherein Hendrix performs a dozen songs at various venues and is interviewed, as are Mick Jagger, Little Richard, Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, etc. John Ridley, who won a screenwriting Oscar for 2014’s Best Picture 12 Years a Slave, which scored another Academy Award plus six more nominations, also wrote and directed 2013’s Jimi: All is by My Side.
Real life rapper André Benjamin (aka André 3000) paints a poignant portrait of Hendrix, after he traveled from New York to London to pursue his career. There, his singular guitar-playing style stuns Brits, including Eric Clapton (Danny McColgan) who is blown away by Jimi’s iconoclastic playing at a club. In England the African-American musician encounters Black consciousness activists and attains the recognition and accolades that had eluded him back home. The feature ends with Hendrix flying to California to perform at Monterey, where his fiery performance would indeed ignite his stardom in the USA. Benjamin’s sensitive portrayal ranks among rock and roll biopics’ best, but the movie suffers from a soundtrack apparently denied the right to use major Hendrix hits.
Like Jimi’s, Janis Joplin’s early death shortly afterwards was likely drug-related. Mark Rydell’s 1979 The Rose stars Bette Midler (whose performance was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and scored The Divine Miss M two Golden Globes) as a self-destructive singer who seems inspired by Janis. However, her character is named Mary Rose Foster and this highly fictionalized feature doesn’t really qualify as a biopic. While there has been no major narrative movie about Janis yet, she has been the subject of several plays and lit up the screen in concert films and docs.
The best of these documentaries is 2015’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, directed by Amy Berg, whose 2006 Deliver Us From Evil was Oscar-nommed for Best Documentary. Berg’s nonfiction film combines archival footage and photos of Joplin, onstage and offstage, performing at the Fillmore West with Big Brother and the Holding Company or appearing as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, etc., with original interviews featuring musicians who played with her and Janis’ intimates. They include her brother, sister, childhood friends and classmates from Port Arthur, Texas. Most importantly, for the first time ever Joplin’s estate has allowed for Janis’ private letters to be revealed — singer/songwriter Cat Power reads them aloud offscreen. The picture that emerges of the “little girl” behind the outrageous persona is that of an extremely sensitive soul, rendered up close and personal in this extremely touching homage. Alex Gibney, who won the Best Documentary Academy Award for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, produced this exquisite 103-minute biopic about the rock icon who was all too human.
Directed by a movie-making maestro, the 1991 epic The Doors starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison is among the most ambitious rock and roll biopics. In a 2012 interview with this author, Oliver Stone told Rock Cellar that he made The Doors because he “had to. [Jim Morrison] was a poete maudit of my generation. He was ignored by many people. And the music spoke eloquently to me, moved me. When he died young, I was very distraught, as I was with Jack Kennedy and I just thought that given this chance, coming off of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street I was given the opportunity … I got a chance to write the script and do it, pretty much, with freeform, the way I envisaged the songs being the driving force of the movie. The songs would tell the story of the movie. So a new form of craft was required. It was more like the early MTV concept, that you’d put the action into the song. So actually the movie is cleverly designed to advance through the songs, which more or less chronologically match his life, the way he laid them down. But it begins and ends with American Prayer, which is actually the last thing [Morrison] did, the recording session of American Prayer. Which is amazingly overlooked — a wonderful poem, but overlooked.”
Stone captured the psychedelic sensibility of the front man and band that sought to “Break On Through to the Other Side”, and it’s uncanny how much Val Kilmer resembled Morrison, who like Jimi and Janis died at the age of 27 in Paris after years of substance abuse (although some acolytes believe Morrison faked his own death). Johnny Depp narrated the offbeat 2009 documentary The Doors: When You’re Strange, which, among other things, includes footage of Morrison’s bust for indecency at a Miami concert.
Morrison’s July 3, 1971 demise came two years to the day of the exact anniversary of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ drowning death (believed to be alcohol and drug-related) in a swimming pool, which was fancifully depicted in the 2005 feature Stoned starring Leo Gregory as Jones.
In terms of capturing the chaotic quality of rock’s uproarious era, Albert and David Maysles’ riveting 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter is peerless. The film focuses on the December 1969 Altamont Speedway concert outside of San Francisco headlined by the Rolling Stones, which is widely seen as marking the end of the counterculture’s age of innocence. Although the musical event took place only four months after Woodstock’s “Peace & Love” fest across the continent at Yasgur’s farm, the Maysles’ candid camera eye caught, on celluloid, the murder of a Black concertgoer by a biker of the Hells Angels which had, amazingly, been retained to provide security.
Ike and Tina also perform, as do Jefferson Airplane. After a Hells Angel knocks out the Airplane’s lead male singer, Marty Balin, Grace Slick tries to use her femininity to soothe the tense situation. But not even His Satanic Majesty himself, Mick Jagger, can control events that spiral out of control, resulting in the filmed murder of teenager Meredith Hunter. Like D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers were known as cinema verite masters whose other documentaries include 1975’s original Grey Gardens.
The Good: The Fab Four on Film
The Beatles epitomized ’60s rock and are at the motion picture pinnacle of films about rockers. In fact, the Maysles’ first music-related documentary was 1964’s What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., shot as the Lads from Liverpool spearheaded the British Invasion. That same year Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night was released with John, Paul, George and Ringo playing versions of themselves (and their instruments). But while the comedy has some semi-biographical scenes dramatizing Beatlemania, it and the Fab Four’s follow-up, 1965’s Help!, are hardly biopics per se. At the risk of sounding like a “Blue Meanie,” nor were the Beatles’ surrealistic 1967 Magical Mystery Tour or, obviously, their 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine.
But with its behind-the-scenes look at the Beatles recording their final album together, Let It Be has elements of the biopic. The documentary — which came out in 1970, the same year the quartet broke up — has great footage of the Fab Four performing in the Abbey Road studio and on its rooftop for their last live concert together. But there is also revelatory portentous footage of the foursome squabbling, foreshadowing the dissolution of rock’s über-group. The camera glimpses lovely, lyrical shots of John and Yoko dancing ballroom-style together, evincing their love. Let It Be was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who made a series of shorts and docs featuring the Stones and Beatles — and, lest we forget, the 1996 TV movie Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone, based on a novel by The Donald’s ex-wife.
Speaking of made-for-TV movies, two years after her death CBS aired The Linda McCartney Story, about the heiress/photographer (Elizabeth Mitchell) who married Paul (Gary Bakewell), with George Segal as Linda’s father, show biz attorney Lee Eastman. But there have been far superior features highlighting John Lennon (Ian Hart), starting with 1991’s The Hours and Times, about the Beatle’s 1963 holiday in Barcelona with the band’s manager, Brian Epstein (David Angus). Did John have an affair with the so-called “fifth Beatle”? The drama, shot in black and white, is arguably too full of conjecture to qualify as a biopic.
Ian Hart and Gary Bakewell reprise their roles as Lennon and McCartney in 1994’s Backbeat, which comes closer to being a bona fide biopic. The feature focuses on the Lads from Liverpool’s pre-Fab Four early days performing in the Kaiserkeller club at Hamburg, Germany, when Pete Best (Scot Williams) was still their drummer and Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff of Blade) was part of the ensemble, before Beatle-mania swept the universe. The Bohemian photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) help confer hipness on the English musicians, with her photos, mod hairstyle and cool fashion sense. Reportedly, Astrid praised the film’s accuracy, while Paul, George and Cynthia Lennon panned the pic.
2009’s Nowhere Boy goes even further back into the past, to the pre-Beatle Quarrymen days, when Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) was still a teenager living with his Aunt Mimi (the excellent Cornwall-born actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who was Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated for The English Patient). John begins to re-form a regular relationship with his free-spirited, flirtatious, absentee mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, Fiona Gallagher in the BBC version of the TV series Shameless). David Threlfall, who is also in the British Shameless, plays John’s Uncle George. The movie’s coming attractions billed Nowhere Boy as “The uplifting true story.” Based on the biography Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon by his younger half-sister Julia Baird, her account of John’s troubled youth has the ring of truth and Nowhere Boy is among the best biopics.
As is the superb 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, about the ex-Beatle’s fight against being deported from America after John and Yoko moved to some time in New York City. Lennon, of course, had become a leader of the anti-war movement and composed its anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” As the Vietnam War and John’s political commitment continued, the muckraking film exposes the fact that along with other rock superstars, Lennon planned a series of concerts across America in 1972 to rally the newly enfranchised 18-year-old and up voters to cast their ballots for presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern, a dove. But Pres. Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, etc., launched a COINTELPRO counterinsurgency covert operation to deny John residency rights in America.
Leading journalists and political activists and figures appear onscreen in original interviews and archival footage, including Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, John Dean, Ron Kovic, Carl Bernstein, Bobby Seale, Gore Vidal, Jon Wiener, Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair — a political prisoner Lennon wrote a song about during this radical period of John’s life.
After the musician wins his immigration case (plot spoiler!) after Nixon and Mitchell have been toppled due to the Watergate scandal, a reporter asks John how he feels and Lennon quips: “Time wounds all heels.” The U.S. vs. John Lennon is the best rock biopic ever depicting the fusion of pop music and New Left politics.
It was made by John Scheinfeld and David Leaf, the team who went on to co-direct Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), a star-studded 2010 doc about a musician and friend of John whose life of excess caught up with him.
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World may very well be the most thorough rock biopic ever made. In addition to covering his music, George’s spirituality and his motion picture career producing Monty Python comedies, etc., are chronicled. With archival footage and original interviews, the “cast” of Living in the Material World is a veritable “who’s who” of rock music luminaries who were George’s contemporaries such as George Martin, Ravi Shankar, Clapton and Ringo, to figures from the Beatles’ personal world like Julian Lennon, Pattie Boyd and Yoko, to movie actors such as Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.
Scorsese — who scored the Best Director Oscar for 2006’s The Departed and received 11 more Academy Award nominations — won two Primetime Emmys (for Outstanding Nonfiction Special and directing) and was nommed for four more Emmys for his nonfiction film about the “Quiet Beatle.” This 3 hour and 28 minute lollapalooza was so comprehensive that HBO originally aired it in two parts. In terms of artistry and length, Living in the Material World is to rock and roll biopics what All Things Must Pass is to the history of rock music.
The Bad: LisztoMania
Englishman Ken Russell directed the 1969 version of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, one of the best screen adaptations of a literary classic ever. But with success his movies, such as 1975’s Tommy, which adapted The Who’s rock opera, grew more excessive. That same year Russell directed a biographical film about Hungary’s Romantic composer, conductor and pianist Franz Liszt, known for works such as “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Previously, Russell helmed films that told the life stories of other classical musicians, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, but they don’t fall within our film genre.
So why can 1975’s LisztoMania, which is set entirely in the 19th century, be considered a rock biopic? Because like Russell’s Tommy, LisztoMania starred Roger Daltrey, frontman for The Who. Furthermore, Daltrey’s Franz Liszt is portrayed as an early version of a rock ’n’ roll superstar, living a life of boundless excess, groupies galore and so on. The poorly acted (don’t give up that day job, Roger!) movie is an aural and visual extravaganza of excessiveness, full of adoring, shrieking crowds of female admirers at his piano recitals, phallic symbols and other sexual imagery.
Russell’s screenplay is loosely — VERY loosely — taken from the tell-all book by one of Liszt’s lovers, Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis). Rick Wakeman of Yes played Thor, the god of thunder, and composed LisztoMania’s soundtrack, using synthesizers for what was the first movie to use the Dolby Stereo sound system. Ringo Starr depicts the pope, but not even he can give a benediction to what is arguably the very worst rock and roll biopic ever shot.
The Ugly: Sid and Nancy
As music evolved from rock to punk rock, so did the biopic. Alex Cox’s 1986 Sid and Nancy depicts the self-destructive, heroin-fueled abusive relationship of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, the Best Actor Oscar winner who portrayed another Brit, Winston Churchill, in 2017’s Darkest Hour) with groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). The depressing, violent film follows their anarchy from the U.K. to New York City with disastrous results. Courtney Love (who is in several Nirvana-related documentaries such as 2006’s Kurt Cobain About a Son) appears as Gretchen and Andrew Schofield plays the Sex Pistols’ lead singer Johnny Rotten.
The Rock and Roll Biopics Beat Goes On
Despite some movie mishaps, biographical fiction and nonfiction pictures continue as a distinct film genre. In 2017 the 1 hour, 40 minute documentary Gaga: Five Feet Two provided a revealing glimpse of Lady Gaga, who of course is currently featured in A Star is Born. With the advent of Bohemian Rhapsody and the May 17, 2019 release of Rocketman — the movie about Elton John starring Taron Eggerton of the Kingsman film franchise and Jamie Bell, who played the title character in 2000’s Billy Elliot as Elton’s collaborator Bernie Taupin — plus an upcoming Prince documentary to be directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma) for Netflix, the rock biopic keeps on rocking.
A longtime contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .
June 20, 2022