#tbt reviews: 5 greater musical biopics than ‘I SAW THE LIGHT’


IMG_2733Preston Barta // Editor

We’ve seen it all before: Musician born into a rough life (difficult parents and/or loss of family member), finds an instrument, struggles to get noticed, gets noticed, rises fast and falls even harder.

Biopics about artists are hard to make. To stand out in the genre, filmmakers really have to up their game. A biopic cannot survive if it depends solely on a great lead performance. There’s much more at play — the writing, pacing, direction and editing — and if they don’t come together to make a cohesive storyline, the film is doomed to be lost like a tumbleweed in the wind (such is the case with the Hank Williams biopic I SAW THE LIGHT).

However, there are select few films out there that broke the mold and gave a refreshing takes on musicians. Whether they hone in on a certain moment from their life or use a unique framing device to tell the story, here are five films that raised the bar and gave us something worth singing about.

sid-vicious-gary-oldman-sid-and-nancy-1986-1. SID & NANCY (1986)

SID & NANCY is one dirty, DIRTY and grungy love story. It tells the story of Sid Vicious (a killer good Gary Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (the equally as great Chloe Webb), a pair of punks who dabble in little sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s a twisted ROMEO & JULIET-like flick that is incredibly brutal, but also poignant and visceral. Pick it up if you’ve never given it a chance before.

Walk the Line / Walk the Line2. WALK THE LINE (2005)

Now WALK THE LINE may fall into the aforementioned trappings, but it was one of the first film’s to establish this foundation. What makes it stand out more so than others is the way the film flows. We get the know Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), his troubled mindset and his progression as an artist, which is something I cannot say I SAW THE LIGHT does.

8mile3. 8 MILE (2002)

There are plenty of great hip-hop influenced films out there that are based on true stories, but the Curtis Hanson-directed film, 8 MILE, is little less on the nose. The film takes us through the storm-tossed life of Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. The acclaimed artist plays a version of himself through the character of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, a struggling rapper trying to cope with a broken family and overcome the difficulties of being a white man in a predominantly black hip-hop scene.

8 MILE is a harsh yet hopeful story that highlights the moments that are so true to music it celebrates. It gives us a glimpse into Eminem’s formative years that led to his successful career, while showing how rap serves as a form of escapism and a way to express one’s self. Rappers/poets can share their thoughts in a rhythmic way, and 8 MILE does a great job displaying this– even giving us some killer tracks, including the Oscar-winning song “Lose Yourself.”

Love-at-Mercy4. LOVE & MERCY (2015)

It may be a little too early to mention this film, but LOVE & MERCY was shamelessly overlooked. It showcased two of last year’s best performances from John Cusack and Paul Dano. They are note-perfect, tackling the role of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. They each bring their own unique style and approach to the character and wear the icon like a suit. They don’t do impressions or rub your eyes in disbelief, but channel the man so distinct in appearance and voice to a level beyond praise.

Biopics often run into the problem of trying to fit too much into a two-hour run-time. We have seen this before in such films as 2004’s RAY, where the story never let itself settle with a coherent mood and narrative. LOVE & MERCY, however, impeccably blends two timelines in Wilson’s life: his life in the ’60s where he fell into the deep abyss of drugs and created the music that made him legend, and the later part of his life when he meets his Cadillac saleswoman and future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) while under the thumb of controlling psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (a devilishly good Paul Giamatti).

LOVE & MERCY showcases the tragic but great life that Wilson led and continues to lead. While we may not all know Wilson’s pain, we can resonate with his fire and passion, and admire his genius. It’s a story that is both raw and honest, and you will soon not forget.

Walk-Hard-The-Dewey-Cox-Story-20075. WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007)

Dewey Cox was a humble man… I’m kidding! I’m not going to even pretend like Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is real person. That being said, you have to mention this movie because it makes fun of all the things that are ridiculous about musical biopics. So, in that case, it’s sort of a biopic, right?

Honorable Mentions:

1. CONTROL (2007)
2. 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002)
4. I’M NOT THERE (2007) – unique but not a personal favorite
5. AMADEUS (1984)

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.