Get on Up, the music biopic about the late, great James Brown, does not live up to its subject. Sure, Chadwick Boseman (42) embodies the Godfather of Soul with enough super-bad splendor that he’ll likely nab that Oscar nod Hollywood loves to bestow upon actors who portray musicians. But the truth is that, in these 138 minutes of highly selective, highly redundant flashbacks, papa’s got a brand-new mixed bag.
The problem with music biopics is we’re dealing with rockstars – people who became famous because no one in the world was like them. Their life trajectory may be monotonously consistent – the humble beginnings, the how-they-got-discovered fable, the fact that the exact over-the-top outrageousness that made them a success became their undoing – but what’s unique is their charisma. So trying to emulate these one-of-a-kind musicians is like putting a backup singer at the lead singer’s mic and expecting no one to mind. All too often, the best we can say about a music biopic is what we say about films like Ray, The Buddy Holly Story, and now Get on Up: The actor did a good impression. Talk about damning with faint praise.
Worse, filmmakers tend to take a very conventional, even soapy approach to these extremely unconventional people’s lives. As Grantland’s Steven Hyden points out, most music biopics “insert the idea of a famous icon into a classic melodrama story line. It’s like making Terms of Endearment about ‘Batman.'” To be fair, films about musicians face the same challenges as all biopics do: Stick too closely to the real arc of a person’s life and get bogged down; take too many liberties and disappoint the literalists.
But the real trick to a successful music biopic may be to get as un-literal as possible. After all, some of the best ones ever made are not even technically biopics. Purple Rain and 8 Mile, for example, are fictional features based on the rock stars (Prince and Eminem, respectively) who star in them, and everyone’s secret favorite, Eddie and the Cruisers, is about a beloved rock and roller who never even existed. These films work because music is about a moment as much as it’s about a person. More than anything else, music is a cultural zeitgeist, and we shouldn’t invoke such zeitgeists without the same level of innovation as that which created them in the first place.
Without further fanfare, then, here’s a completely biased, totally subjective list of the top 11 music biopics. (Consider that number an homage to the best music biopic never made, Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.) Continue Reading →