The best biopics can take you inside the artist's head like no documentary can.
I love the genre, always have. Director Todd Haynes' Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," is terrific in the way it captures Dylan, with six actors playing the role. The Johnny Cash bio, "I Walk the Line," is up there, but I was unmoved by "Get On Up," the James Brown story. The following capsule reviews represent my current best-of list of biopics.
As many critics pointed out, "Miles Ahead" is a sprawling, free-form mess. but Don Cheadle breathes life into Miles Davis. His movie has soul, it's not a note-by-note documentary, or by-the-numbers biopic. The depth of Davis' complexity as an artist shines brightly, and for that Cheadle deserves a lot of credit; he not only stars in the film, he directed and wrote the screenplay. Davis' sequences in the recording studio making his greatest music left me in awe.
Ethan Hawke delves deep into the heroin-addicted singer/trumpeter Chet Baker's middle period. I watched this one directly after "Miles Ahead," which I loved, but "Blue" was a little too linear in its storytelling for me. Hawke starts out looking good, as the real Baker was, but the film mostly covers Baker after he's been beaten up and had his jaw broken so he couldn't play or sing. Undeterred, Baker ever so slowly gets his voice and horn chops back. Hawke is clearly into the role, but he's not in the same league as Cheadle's portrayal of Davis. "Blue" is a much more coherent film, but lacks the passion of "Miles Ahead."
Sam Riley as Joy Division's Ian Curtis is another tragic figure in the history of rock, and he certainly looks the part of a tortured youth in the midst of becoming famous. It's a "be careful what you wish for" tale: Curtis and his band gain fame as Curtis withdraws into depression. The sound of the film's live music feels raw and viscerally authentic; the mix is better than most biopics. The stark black-and-white photography captures the time, in the UK's 1970s, perfectly.
This 1986 film isn't strictly a biopic as its the main character, Dale Turner, was a composite of jazz legends pianist Bud Powell and sax man Lester Young. Turner was played by the great Dexter Gordon on sax, and one of the things I love about this film is that all of the on-screen performances were done for real, not pre- or post-recorded. It's jazz after all, so the extra immediacy of musicians playing for real adds depth that's rare in musician biopics.
Starring Jamie Fox, "Ray" is a whole lot closer to your standard, cradle-to-grave story. The lion's share of screen time is devoted to Ray Charles' heroic climb to fame and fortune, and it wasn't easy for the blind, drug-addicted R & B legend. Fox looks so much like Charles it's easy to see him fully inhabiting the role. The backing musicians get little play, but Charles' dalliances with some of his female backup singers are fleshed out.
OutKast's André Benjamin's transformation into Jimi Hendrix in the months just before he was discovered is flat-out brilliant. Benjamin doesn't look much like Hendrix, but he totally nails Hendrix's speaking voice and mannerisms. There's a deep humanity to Benjamin's performance, especially the scene where Hendrix is just starting to happen, but a phone call with his father doesn't go at all well. Dad is telling him to stop the foolishness and get a real job.
This film covers the period in John Lennon's teenage life a few years before the Beatles formed. Aaron Johnson as Lennon is fascinating, and the real focus of the story is how Lennon, who was brought up by his aunt, meets his long-lost mother Julia, and bonds with her. She turns him onto music, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What beloved dead musician would you like to get a biopic of their own? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.