Biographical movies about musicians

Ever since around 1979, a somewhat popular genre has emerged from Hollywood’s celuloid foctories: That of the musician’s biography.

The plots are very nearly identical: Prologue of a musician near the end of the story. Flashbacks to childhood, usually involving a demanding or alcoholic father. Obsession with music. Recording a first single. Seemingly within days, the musician is on a tour bus and semi-famous. The hectic schedule is dealt with by some well-meaning guitarist offering some helpful little pills to help cope. Our hero is soon addicted. His or her spouse throws dishes. We are treated to a first-hand view of what it’s like to be a musical genius, and we don’t like it. The musician hits rock bottom.

At this point, one of two things happens. Either the musician makes a full recovery, and ends up a legend, or he dies in a crackhouse with a needle in his arm.

So what are these movies? I’ll list a few that come to mind offhand. Let’s restrict the list to non-fictional musicians.

Lady Sings the Blues (Billy Holiday, Diana Ross)
Amadeus (Mozart, Tom Hulce)
Walk the Line (Johnny Cash, Joachin Phoenix)
Back Beat (Stu Sutcliffe, ?)

What else?

Bird (Charlie Parker)

There was one about Ray Charles recently, too, but I forget the title.

Off the top of my head, a few more:

Ray 2004 - (Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx)
Great Balls of Fire! 1989 - (Jerry Lee Lewis, Dennis Quaid)
La Bamba 1987 - (Ritchie Valens, Lou Diamond Phillips)

The Buddy Holly Story

Immortal beloved - 1994 - Gary Oldman plays Beethoven.

The Doors (Jim Morrison, Val Kilmer)
Sid and Nancy (Sid Vicious, Gary Oldman)

With no attempt to tie any of these to anything relating to quality, there have been biopics relating to:

Benny Goodman (Steve Allen)
Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo)
Glenn Miller (James Stewart)
Cole Porter (Cary Grant and Kevin Kline)
Beethoven (Gary Oldman)
Chopin (Hugh Grant)

There have also been some that were composites of various jazz folks:

Round Midnight
Paris Blues
Lush Life

The work that Eastwood did on Bird with Lennie Niehaus doing some amazing reworking of some of Parker’s recordings makes it one of the better such ventures.

I read recently that Don Cheadle is in the process of doing a Miles Davis bio. That should (could) be a trip!

Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942.

Mahler, only substitute “directing the Vienna Opera” for “recording a first single.”

Gary Busey played Buddy Holly.

James Cagney played George M. Cohan.

Three Little Words - lightweight story of Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. It has Fred staire and Red Skelton in it, so it’s watchable.

*I’ll See You in My Dreams * - similar to above, but this one has Danny Thomas playing Gus Kahn.

Red Skelton and Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby in Three Little Words
Robert Walker as Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By*
Fernand Gravey as Johann Strauss, Jr. in The Great Waltz
Doris Day as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me

Topsy Turvy (Gilbert & Sullivan, Jim Broadbent & Allan Corduner)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn, Sissy Spacek)

The absolute worst one was the Benny Goodman story with Steve Allen. There were supposed to be references to mobsters and antisemitism, but they were absolutely whitewashed out of the screenplay.

Haven’t seen it, but I guarantee it’s not worse than

Wagner (Wagner, Richard Burton)

There’s also “Stoned” the story of the Brain Jones from the Stones (though thats as much about the builder the film-maker recon’ed killed him).

I disagree with The Doors. It does not follow the pattern set by the OP. Jim Morrison started out using drugs way before he got famous. Also, he deliberately used more and more drugs and alcohol, it was his schtick. He wasn’t so much an addict as an obnoxious self-centered asshole.

Going back to the era of musicals you can find all sorts of semi-biographical movies where the main intent appears to be an exposure to some of their music and a few generic features of their lives. The further back you go the less likely there’s anything of real substance to the story.

Some musicians from that era who had movies made about them include:

Enrico Caruso (Mario Lanza)
John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb)
Eddie Cantor (Keefe Brasselle)
Jane Froman (Susan Hayward – With A Song In My Heart)

The Rat Pack has had a few movies and TV shows dedicated to them.

You know, I was thinking right away of “The Buddy Holly Story” as not having a story arc like in the OP, but:

  1. Diogenes the Cynic already mentioned it.

  2. It was made in 1978. So maybe 1979 is a good boundary point here.

So I’m really stretching it here to add to the (anti-)list. How about Grace of My Heart with Illeana Douglas playing a slightly disguised version of Carole King? Not much in the way of drug downer stuff or anything. Just a career that fizzled out due to the more progressive stuff of the 60s and then a big comeback. Music up and out.

Beyond the Sea (Bobby Darin/Kevin Spacey)
The Singing Nun (Agnes “The Singing Nun” Van Vliet/Debbie Reynolds)
The David Cassidy Story (David Cassidy/unknown)
Selena (Selena/Jennifer Lopez)