The 10 best music biopics as Elvis lands in cinemas

·6-min read
Straight Outta Compton, Walk The Line, and Bohemian Rhapsody all hit the right notes. (Universal/20th Century Fox)
Straight Outta Compton, Walk The Line, and Bohemian Rhapsody all hit the right notes. (Universal/20th Century Fox)

Elvis has returned to the building.

The King is back on the big screen this week in the shape of director Baz Luhrmann's musical biopic, simply titled, Elvis.

Given the subject matter, and with Luhrmann at the helm, Elvis the movie should be brash mesh of razzmatazz and good old-fashioned rock n' roll.

Read more: Baz Luhrmann calls Elvis the Apocalypse Now of musicals

Austin Butler, fresh from playing a member of the Manson family in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, steps into the King's blue suede shoes, while Tom Hanks is his famously controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

()
Austin Butler plays the lead in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic. (Warner Bros)

So, to paraphrase superlative music biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Elvis Presley needs to think about his entire life before he plays...

But will this version of the Elvis story (Kurt Russell wore the famous white jumpsuit in a 1979 TV movie) stand the test of time and take its place among the starry line-up of the best music biopics?

Read more: Are you a music biopic expert?

Let's look at the movies it will have to match to make that list.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Gwilym Lee as Brian May and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. (Credit: Fox)
Gwilym Lee as Brian May and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. (Fox)

No one can ever match Freddie Mercury, but Rami Malek gives it a real good go, bagging a Best Actor Oscar in the process.

The film contains a collection of historical inaccuracies longer than any Live Aid setlist, but is at its best when dissecting just how Queen's most celebrated songs were brought to life.

Control (2007)

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control. (Momentum Pictures)
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control. (Momentum Pictures)

Sam Riley plays Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in rock photographer turned debut director Anton Corbijn's first foray behind a different camera.

Bleak, beautiful, uplifting and tragic, it made perfect sense to print the film in black and white, capturing late-70s Britain and the life of a singer who left us far too soon.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

()
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in 'Behind The Candelabra'. (HBO)

Michael Douglas has always been renowned for playing anti-heroes (Falling Down, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Wall Street), but none quite as stylish as Liberace, the celebrated American pianist who is the focus of prolific director Steven Soderbergh's HBO biopic.

Regular Soderbergh collaborator Matt Damon plays Liberace's lover, and the two actors gamely disappear into the material, which ends up as an unflinching look at the life of a Las Vegas legend.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

()
The story of NWA is told in 'Straight Outta Compton'. (Universal)

Has a music biopic ever got so much mileage out of the song that inspired its title?

The NWA big screen story features the LA rappers' signature tune almost as much as That Thing You Do! pops up in the fictional story of The Wonders.

But repeat plays only emphasise its power in director F Gary Gray's film, which has a super (South) central performance by O'Shea Jackson Jr, playing his father, rapper Ice Cube.

Rocketman (2019)

Reg Dwight transforms into Elton John. (Paramount)
Taron Egerton as Elton John in 'Rocketman'. (Paramount)

If you want to actually learn anything about Elton John's life, you've come to the wrong place. For instance, the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight did not take his stage surname from Beatle John Lennon, as the movie suggests, but from his old mentor, Long John Baldry.

But historic inaccuracies aside, Rocketman blasts through the hits that made Elton a star. Credit to actor Taron Egerton too for belting out those hits with his own voice.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

()
Gary Busey in 'The Buddy Holly Story'. (Columbia)

Forty years before Egerton was gaining kudos for rattling through Elton John's back catalogue with his own larynx, Gary Busey (yes, Gary Busey) was breaking the mould by doing the same thing for his depiction of Buddy Holly.

The live scenes have such a raw energy thanks to Busey and the other actors performing themselves, putting the film above your average biopic. It helps too that the tragic Holly's songs still sound phenomenal 60 years after they were recorded.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

()
Andy Serkis as Ian Dury in 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll'. (Entertainment Film)

Rightly hailed for his amazing work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies and as Caesar in the Planet Of The Apes reboot trilogy, Andy Serkis also has this little-seen gem in his back catalogue.

He is terrific in this biopic of singer-songwriter Ian Dury, who, along with his band, The Blockheads, had hits such as 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', 'Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3' and the song that lends the movie its title.

The film encapsulates the mix of joy and anger that made Dury's music so memorable, and Serkis is backed up by a bunch of familiar British talent, including Ray Winstone, Naomie Harris, Olivia Williams, Toby Jones, Ralph Ineson, Mackenzie Crook and Luke Evans.

Good Vibrations (2013)

()
Richard Dormer, left, as Terri Hooley in 'Good Vibrations'. (The Works)

No, this isn't another Beach Boys biopic (you can check out the overlooked Love & Mercy for something approaching that), but set somewhere far away from the California sun — Northern Ireland.

The title comes from the name of the Belfast record label and shop run by Terri Hooley, wonderfully played by Richard Dormer, during the Troubles.

The moment a headphoned Hooley hears 'Teenage Kicks' by The Undertones for the first time, a music biopic scene without any music at all, is as mind-blowing as any pyrotechnic-laden performance.

Walk The Line (2007)

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix as June and Johnny Cash in Walk The Line (Credit: Fox)
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in 'Walk The Line'. (Fox)

It's, em, hard now to separate Walk The Line from its spoof-in-chief, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which followed it into cinemas two years later, but then Hollywood doesn't tend to parody box office bombs.

The Johnny Cash biopic, perhaps the modern blueprint for the genre, ticks all the boxes, but it's allowed a pass as it invented most of them. James Mangold's film is elevated by its two central performances, from Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.

Amadeus (1984)

()
Tom Hulce as Mozart in 'Amadeus'. (Orion)

They don't make 'em like this any more. But then, they don't make musicians like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart any more either.

Milos Forman's Oscars-laden biopic lasts two hours and 40 minutes, but not one second of this classical performance is wasted.

It may be Mozart's name on the movie, but this is also The Antonio Salieri Show, emphasised by the fact that F Murray Abraham beat Tom Hulce to the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the envious Italian composer.

An exquisite showcase of everything that is great about music and movies, audiences are unlikely to see its like again.

Best biopic ever? Rock me, Amadeus.

Elvis will be released in IMAX and cinemas in the UK & Ireland on 24 June.

Watch the trailer for Elvis

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting