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The 15 Best Movies About Real Life Musicians

26 January 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Ivan Saric

best movies about musicians

Telling a story about success through a biographical account of someone famous and contextualizing influences on their work with a backstory can be a difficult task. Making films about distinguishing musicians is no exception, with their delicate personalities and powerful impact that complex mechanisms of show business have on them.

Combining visual with auditory in way of telling a compelling story about music and the people behind it, this kind of movies are kind of a hit or miss because they can easily fall flat when we see the actors trying to soullessly emulate the behavior and style of the person in question because we see someone who in the best case resembles that character, playing popular songs as similar to the original thing as they can.

It craves for something more, a spark of excellence that would spark the artist’s mythos. It could be a performance of the main actor, a new take on the story, or in fact anything out of the ordinary that’s made in a unique and satisfying way.

Although this kind of stories include different people, eras and music styles, they all have some basic similarities. They portray a charismatic individual that has a hard time dealing with his sudden fame and/or gets consumed by the pressure of the spotlight, or by resentment of how different a person they’ve become.

Usually the main protagonist is stubborn hotheaded l’art pour l’artiste unwilling to take any compromise in his work. It’s common that circumstances eventually force them in taking them when reality kicks in. There’s always some drama involved, concerning self-centerness or delusion. Themes of infidelity and guilt are common too, and there’s always a safe heaven found in bottle, pills, or dope.

This is a list of movies strictly based on true stories about real life musicians, a great deal of good films about musicians and bands aren’t included because they’re either about totally fictional characters, or just loosely based on existing people. Documentaries are excluded too.

 

15. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Joann Sfar, 2010)

Gainsbourg-A-Heroic-Life

Concentrating on the charisma of the composer-singer, an icon of the twentieth century not only for France, but to whole Europe, this work of Joann Sfar is based on the most notable points of Gainsbourg’s life. It’s a work of flashy colors; of ambiances which change repeatedly with the passage of time, and the ups and downs of Serge’s long career.

At the end, having all things considered, we realize not only the progress of his character, but as well the rapid cultural changes in mid-20th century France. This is a film that speaks frankly about the ultimate squandering of Serge Gainsbourg’s talents in an alcohol-induced decline, but at the same time shows the monumental influence that he had on French pop-culture.

The movie precisely brings out the smoky ambience of jazz clubs and gigs where Serge first exercised his musicality in the 1950s. The phases of his life, from a young Jewish boy in occupied France, through his turbulent life and personal entanglements with beautiful women such as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin in the 1960s, are defined by his provocative personality and his sheer coolness.

 

14. Rhapsody in Blue (Irving Rapper, 1945)

Rhapsody in Blue

The “Gershwin Years” were very electric times, and the life story of George, and his brother Ira, are well depicted in this unforgettable classic. Tackling this subject was a challenging one, and it manages to uncover the composer’s enthusiasm for his art, his trials and his successes.

Robert Alda is an outstanding choice for George; others making fine contributions are Oscar Levant and Alexis Smith. A fair number of great artists, many playing themselves round out an impressive all-star cast. A wonderful selection of Gershwin’s works is displayed, some in near-complete versions.

This is one of the most absorbing of classical composer bios that ever found its way to the big screen. It is an elaborate story of the life and work of one of American’s great composers. With a complete narrative, a great cast and fantastic music, it makes a stunning biopic. It’s simple and straightforward, and while it might not be 100% accurate, it still makes for an enjoyable view of a legend behind some of the best American popular music of all time.

 

13. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

imnotthere

In a pretty extraordinary biopic, six actors play different incarnations of Bob Dylan – some fabricated figures, others relatively accurate biographical portraits, others a blend of myth, hearsay and extravagant assumption.

The simple point to all of this is that the film’s director recognizes Dylan as such complex a public persona that it would be diminishing to lessen him to a single performance. Therefore, he came up with an innovative multi-casting solution to a perplexing problem. None of the presented figures have the name Bob Dylan; “Bob Dylan” isn’t mentioned once in the film.

The movie is essentialy made of seven distinct short films interlaced, each one representing a different stage of Dylan’s life. The film is very creative in ways of manipulating time and characters, and it’s mesmerizing and engaging trying to pick out real events and quotes from those that were based on legend and stories.

One really doesn’t need to be a Dylan freak to “get” this film. You just have to welcome the multi-layered storytelling and like some of the most influential music of the 20th century. It’s great in its uniqueness and a pure joy to behold.

 

12. Leadbelly (Gordon Parks, 1976)

Leadbelly

Truly remarkable performance by Roger Mosely as Leadbelly; a man of great controversy who killed at least two men, spent a long time on Texas chain gangs, rode the rails, and played guitar.

The film is a journey back in time showing the suffering, agony and grimness imposed on the people of African American ethnicity, and the music that evolved from that suffering. It’s true to life and successful in capturing a great deal of attention from start to finish, taking the observer right into Leadbelly’s world – One overflowing with hard times, but with the best of American blues roots music too.

Director Parks doesn’t quite carry off the feeling of how alien the old segregated South was, and the movie’s pacing is a bit too rigid, systematically showing events no matter how relevant one is to another, rather than shaping Leadbelly’s story to make an elaborate experience.

Nevertheless, it’s a powerful biography and an inspiringly atmospheric piece, full of the air and vibe of blues legend’s life and times. It boasts some wonderful cinematography with washed-out colors, suggesting heat and years of sun; Leadbelly is a classic, and a must-see for any blues fan.

 

11. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)

SidAndNancy

Probably the most infamous musical couple that ever lived got their biopic in the mid 80’s, while punk movement was still fresh in the hearts and minds of young rebels. The time in which the film was made is a key factor in appreciating it.

It was, in the UK at any rate, a time when the welfare state that had been so carefully put into place began to be systematically unfold, a land where the concept of community was discredited, in which individualism was lauded, where any sense of social association was being abandoned, and the search for it becoming a joke.

Sid and Nancy keeps a faithfully close track of the stories of the distasteful and scandalous adventures of the pair as we get to witness the violent episodes between the two, Sid’s infamous flesh mutilating acts and the well-known Chelsea Hotel room fire started by the two, which is beautifully intertwined with renowned Sex Pistols concerts.

It’s good at telling a story about a slow deterioration and collapse of a certain culture and character, right up to the unfortunate passing of Nancy Spungen and Sid’s arrest in New York.

 

10. Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2009)

Nowhere Boy

The movie chronicles the early years of John Lennon’s musicianship. Having been brought up by his aunt, John’s world is turned upside when his mother re-emerges in his life, ripping him open and pulling out his artistry as well as suffering and frustration.

Don’t expect to hear any Beatles classics because Lennon still hasn’t found his line yet in the story, that concludes just about the time the band was going to head to Hamburg. Instead, there are a lot more other gems that get their air time here that you’d find yourself humming and tapping your feet to, and describe the era that once was, before Beatlemania swept the world with its trademark sound to define a new generation.

And who would have thought, as the film suggested, that John will be influenced by Elvis Presley because his passion got aroused when a crowd of female admirers packed in a theatre were collapsing and openly gushing their adoration for him.

Nowhere Boy is not really a masterpiece or a brilliant work of cinematography, but it’s a very good movie, not pretentious for what it is, very sincere, enchanting that inspires the viewer to discover something more about John Lenon’s adolescent life and influences.

 

9. Stars and Stripes Forever (Henry Koster, 1952)

Stars and Stripes Forever

John Philip Sousa was not only America’s “March King,” he was an able coordinator and entertainer who also orchestrated a lot of music now completely unknown to most Americans. His life spanned the age of a bright, cheerful America, and his work mirrors merry ambience of his time.

Sousa took a great advantage of the new world of recording and he can be heard on different mediums in his later years conducting his renowned quasi-military band. The film is stylish and pretty, every frame vividly coming to life with ultra bright Technicolor. There is one gloomy portion where the war affects all the main characters, but on the whole the movie is a cheery journey that leaves you in a buoyant upbeat mood at its conclusion.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect film by a long shot. The whole Wagner role is pure fiction, but it made the film more enjoyable for the younger audience of today and added some magic to the film. It’s not all that historically accurate, but boy is it pretty!

 

 

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  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    A Bird Ivane? 🙂

    • Espacio Pannonica

      BIRD!

  • Brian Lussier

    Yes, Bird is 100 times better than half these films, if not all of them, bar only I’m Not There (which isn’t a biography at all) and Amadeus!! How the heck could it not be here if you put in Nowhere Boy, which was total crap?!! Another hack who knows nothing about film! As a sidenote, they should make a film about Stevie Ray Vaughan. It has all the classic stuff of these types of films, with the early struggles, the rise to fame, the drugs, the booze, the excesses, and then him turning his life around and kicking the bucket. But then it has the twist of not ending on a happy note. I like that.

  • Jelena Šipka

    Farinelli (1994)

  • sajib dey

    where is doors?

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Also – Bounds of Glory, should be on the list probably.

  • Joshua Centurión

    Bird!

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    Selena, Violeta went to Heaven.

  • Sherri Purves

    Coal Miners Daughter deserves to be in the top 15, and not an honourable mention.

    • Cassandra Atticum

      I agree.. That was a phenomenal performance by Sissy Spacek.

  • I wouldn’t put The Doors in any of the honorable mentions as I think it is a very horrible film. Too many dramatic liberties and exaggerations made it a very dumb film. Plus, I think 24 Hour Party People is a way better film than Control.

    • Brian Lussier

      But The Doors had the advantage of doing things differently. All musicians biographies are built around the model of La Bamba: Ray, Walk The Line, a ton of others, because it’s a tried and true Hollywood convention of telling a story in a way that is compelling to the audience, even if there is no originality whatsoever. The Doors did it differently, took risks, experimented visually. Is it historically accurate? No. But here’s what the film does: it depicts Morrison’s anarchic nature by taking on an artistic form that is as anarchic as the man, thus making the artistic quality of the film a metaphor for the type of man Morrison was. It’s not historical (but which movie truly ever is? If you can name one, I’ll send you $100), but it well represents the type of man Morrison was by adopting a rebellious artistic method akin to Morrison’s crazy life and way of creating art. Perfect mix of form and subject, in that sense.

      • But its portrayal of Morrison was someone who was essentially a drunken asshole who wished he was poet as he shat on his bandmates while it played into stories that were never true. Morrison did meet Warhol and Nico but he never slept with the latter. There were a lot of things Oliver Stone skimmed over for the film and it’s bullshit. I’ve read Ray Manarek’s book which was far more accurate about who Morrison was and he took shots at the film as did the other members and people who were around at the time. Billy Idol hated the film as he was supposed to play a bigger character but ended up getting wasted in a role as a roadie.

        Of course all bio-pics tend to dramatize things where some of them worked but The Doors was one of those films that didn’t do that.

        • Brian Lussier

          Ray Manzarek also actually still believes Jim Morrison was a real shaman. I wouldn’t trust everything the guy says, he’s clearly missing a bolt somewhere…

          • Well, it was the 60s. I’m sure he was on drugs or maybe trying to remember something he could barely even remember.

  • Roberto Lopes de França

    Come on, Sid and Nancy is based on their life at best, it’s pretty bad movie if you happen to know their story out of the hollywodized fantasy…

  • Bryton Cherrier

    The Identical should be on here. :p

  • Allister Cooper

    Hm… The Runaways was a good movie too. And Dakota Fanning delivers the best line: ‘What the xxxx is THIS???’

    • Brian Lussier

      She sucked in the film, though. Kristen Stewart actually stole that film, along with Michael Shannon.

  • Allister Cooper

    Selena? Que pasa?

  • missannthrope

    Not even an honorable mention for Lady Sings the Blues?

  • Vince Duggan

    Get On Up

  • Peter Rubinstein

    Topsy Turvey, the Mike Leigh film about Gilbert & Sullivan & the production of The Mikado. It’s not a bio in the true sense, but a brilliant film based on a specific moment in their partnership, and is as good a film as any of the ones in the list & better than most

  • KM

    De-Lovely and Beyond the Sea…

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  • Siham Bsn

    Gah so many of my fav movies in one list <3

  • Pitol Abreu

    “Bound for Glory” should be on te list.

  • Manning Bartlett

    Where is Lady Sings the Blues?

  • Pica Lima

    i don’t understand why you even bother to make such of list if you were to forget “Bird” (Clint Eastwood 1988), about the life of Charlie Parker… maybe you should watch it…

  • Mikaela Maria M

    Backbeat (1994), Elvis (TV Movie 2005), The Buddy Holly
    Story (1978),Ray (2004), Last Days (2005)

  • Love & Mercy?

  • KeepinIt Real

    I couldn’t STAND Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus. His (lack of an) accent was so different from the other characters that it became distracting. If this was an attempt to show that Mozart was unlike his contemporaries, then good job. His lack of maturity was so over-exaggerated, it almost felt like Animal House, Part 2. The saving grace was F. Murray Abraham as Salieri.