Forget Back to Black. Here are eight great fake music biopics

<span>Very Spinal Tap … This Is Spinal Tap (1984).</span><span>Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy</span>
Very Spinal Tap … This Is Spinal Tap (1984).Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Making a movie about an iconic musician can be perilous – there are so many stakeholders with differing versions of events, and so many diehard fans looking for a perfect representation of their hero, that many music biopics end up being sanitised and glib. Look no further than Back to Black, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic, for a perfect example of a film that attempts to satisfy every involved party and ended up offending a lot of fans and critics instead.

Movies about fake musicians, on the other hand, tend to have a lot more to say about making art, the struggles of fame and the music industry than most biopics. Although many of them are thinly veiled studies of real celebrities, the freedom offered by creating a character – such as Blake, the Kurt Cobain stand-in in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days – can allow for endless interrogation into the mindsets and motivations of artists. Rock mockumentaries, on the other hand, allow for the kind of true-to-life skewering of ludicrous music industry practices that could never really be shown on tape. From pop industry satires to elliptical, occasionally outright frustrating art films, here are some of the best films about fake musicians.

Her Smell (2018)

This film, starring Elisabeth Moss as the noxious, obnoxious, self-destructive 90s rock star Becky Something, is a punishingly uncomfortable watch. Eschewing the classic rock biopic formula of tragedy into triumph into tragedy, Her Smell depicts Becky as a self-made monster intent on tormenting and driving away her friends, bandmates and employees with her ferociously toxic mixture of ego, paranoia and addiction. There are very few high points in this film; instead, it suggests the terrors of fame and drug addiction are harsh enough to all-but-erase the glow of any good times, shown briefly in grainy interludes.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

Josie and the Pussycats was a total flop when it was first released, perhaps because its mixture of teen comedy and screwball slapstick felt a little too weird at the time. It’s found a cult following in the twenty-plus years since, thanks to its genuinely great music – the band’s songs were sung by Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley, and co-written by members of the Go-Go’s and That Dog, among others – and its absolutely brutal industry satire, which positions the music industry as a nefarious beast just looking to use pop stars to sell things to kids. If that was basically accurate in 2001, it’s doubly true now, when every pop singer around is fleecing their fans with overpriced merch and weird brand tie-ins.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes has made a few music films, from his cult-classic Karen Carpenter biopic Superstar, made entirely with Barbies, to his 2021 Velvet Underground documentary. But Velvet Goldmine, telling the story of a Bowie-style glam rock star called Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) through the lens of his fans, lovers, collaborators, and the press, has just as much to say about the nature of fame and creation. Haynes smartly and sensitively draws lines between different musical scenes and styles, showing the cross-pollinated musical landscape of the 1970s as a world of endless possibility and self-discovery. Although its Citizen Kane-style structure positions Velvet Goldmine as a pseudo-mystery, it’s really a love letter to pop music’s transformational power.

A Star Is Born (2018)

There’s a lot to love about the fourth Star Is Born remake – good songs, a dry sense of humour, Lady Gaga’s luminous debut film performance – but it’s just as worth watching for its complex, discomfited, ultimately unresolved attempt to reconcile celebrity and artistic achievement. A Star Is Born’s position on pop and fame is not as clear-cut – and anti-pop – as it may seem on first viewing, which is what makes it so fascinating. Ultimately, it works as both an affecting love story and a tale of a star torn up and driven to self-destruction by the unrelenting pressure of success and pop stardom.

Last Days (2005)

One of the biggest pitfalls in making a rock biopic is attempting to understand a star’s death, especially if it was under tragic or inexplicable circumstances; Back to Black, for example, implies that Winehouse’s death was due to heartache over her childlessness, which Laura Snapes recently described as “an insult to Winehouse’s complexity and to the imperative of remembering all the factors that contributed to her demise”. Last Days was inspired by the final moments of Kurt Cobain’s life but is crucially not about Cobain specifically, a distinction which allows Van Sant to explore the mindset of an emotionally damaged rock star without falling into insensitivities or sensationalist speculation. It’s a haunting, fuzzy-edged film that provides insight into rockstar hedonism and tragedy but avoids any impulses to make unexplainable tragedy legible or coherent.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Even if the music in Popstar, The Lonely Island’s parody of puffed-up music documentaries such as Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, is so era-specific that it doesn’t quite hold up now, the film’s observations about celebrity culture and its relationship with the media do. The world of pop megastar Conner4Real, played with disturbing guilelessness by Andy Samberg, is one of depraved media stunts, outlandish flattery and, eventually, abject cruelty. There’s something depressingly real about the way Popstar depicts the music industry as a pack of vultures ready to dispose of its stars the moment fresher meat comes along.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

A pitch-perfect skewering of early-00s music biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line, Walk Hard is ridiculous – Jack Black plays Paul McCartney – but in tune with its inspirations enough to work as both an affecting rock film and a damning satire. Its beats are painfully familiar – early tragedy, meteoric rise, infidelity, experimentation with drugs, downward spiral, late-career triumphant return – to the point that you start to wonder if it should be required viewing for anyone seeking to make a rock biopic.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

The most incredible thing about Spinal Tap might be the fact that, 40 years after its initial release, it still feels like the definitive music industry satire: a wry, straight-faced parody of self-indulgent “rockumentaries” that unearths infinite truths about the egos and artistic ambitions of many famous bands, as well as the airheaded support teams around them. Everything in the film, from the band’s relationship with the press to its idiotic album concepts, still feels bracingly real, to the point that you have to wonder what new material the forthcoming sequel, currently filming, can offer. But there is one new rock trope that’s been beaten to death since the original’s release: nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find an arena rock band that hasn’t described one of their tours as “very Spinal Tap”.