With the success of ROCKETMAN (the Elton John story) and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
(the history of Freddie Mercury & Queen) and to a lesser degree GREEN BOOK
(about classical & jazz pianist Don Shirley), biographical motion pictures chronicling
the histories of musical artists are once again becoming a highly credible source of movie material.
This also applies to small screen productions as evidenced in the recent TV mini-series
AMERICAN SOUL which related the story of the founder of ‘Soul Train’, Don Cornelius.
When you’re watching Rami Malek’s stunning visual performance as Freddie Mercury in
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, you’re mainly hearing Freddie’s own four-octave vocals.
By contrast, when audiences see Taron Egerton portraying Elton John in ROCKETMAN,
they hear Taron’s own vocals.
That is a perfect example of the dichotomy that exists in musical biopics.
On one hand, other actors utilized original vocals of the artists they portrayed; these included
Jessica Lange who lip-synced to Patsy Cline’s original vocal recordings in SWEET DREAMS,
Jamie Foxx who lip-synced to Ray Charles’ recordings in RAY,
Dennis Quaid who mimed to Jerry Lee Lewis’ hits in GREAT BALLS OF FIRE,
Chadwick Boseman who lip-synced to James Brown in GET ON UP,
Jennifer Lopez who mimed to Selena’s recordings in SELENA,
Susan Hayward who lip-synched to Jane Froman’s vocals in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
and Angela Bassett who mimed to Tina Turner’s vocals in WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT.
On the other side of the coin of course, there were many performers who used their own vocals such as Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in LADY SINGS THE BLUES, Doris Day asRuth Etting in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I SAW THE LIGHT, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli in JERSEY BOYS, David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in BOUND FOR GLORY, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in WALK THE LINE, James Cagney as George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, Beyoncé as Etta James in CADILLAC RECORDS and Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in FUNNY GIRL.
It’s also worth remembering that biopics often play fast and loose with historical facts. For example, Rolling Stone magazine have listed a number of inaccuracies that occur inROCKETMAN such as in the film’s recreation of Elton’s triumphant 1970 appearance at the Troubadour here in Los Angeles; in that sequence, Taron Egerton as Elton singsCROCODILE ROCK even though that song wasn’t written until two years later. A similar tune appearing out of chronological sequence occurred 63 years earlier in THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY when in a scene following the death of Benny’s father in 1926,Gordon Jenkins’ melody GOODBYE is played even though it wasn’t published until 1935.
The following is a checklist of just fifty-five of the many musical biopics released in the years prior to 2018:
AMERICAN HOT WAX
Dir: Floyd Mutrux.
Starring Tim McIntire as DJ Alan Freed.
Kenny Vance & The Planotones,
Artie Ripp, Richard Perry,
Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis
& Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Dir: Ian Softley.
Starring Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kirchherr,
Stephen Dorff as Stuart Sutcliffe,
Ian Hart as John Lennon,
Gary Bakewell as Paul McCartney,
Chris O’Neill as George Harrison
& Scot Williams as Pete Best.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
(HBO TV Movie: 2013) Dir: Steven Soderbergh.
Starring Michael Douglas as Liberace,
Matt Damon as Scott Thorson
& Scott Bakula as Bob Black
with Debbie Reynolds as Frances Liberace.
THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY
Dir: Valentine Davies.
Starring Steve Allen as Benny Goodman.
BIRD (Warner Bros: 1988) Dir: Clint Eastwood. Starring Forest Whitaker as jazz alto sax player Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.
BIRTH OF THE BEATLES
(Dick Clark Prods: 1979)
Dir: Richard Marquand.
Starring Stephen MacKenna as John,
Rod Culbertson as Paul,
John Altman as George
and Ray Ashcroft as Ringo.
BORN TO BE BLUE
Dir: Robert Budreau.
Starring Ethan Hawke
as jazz trumpeter & singer Chet Baker.
BOUND FOR GLORY (United Artists: 1976) Dir: Hal Ashby. Starring David Carradine as Woody Guthrie. Trailer on YouTube:
THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY
Dir: Steve Rash.
Starring Gary Busey as Buddy Holly.
Extract available on Vimeo.
(Sony: 2008) Dir: Darnell Martin.
The story of Chess Records
starring Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess,
Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters,
Beyoncé as Etta James
& Cedric The Entertainer as Willie Dixon.
CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC
Dir: Nancy Walker.
The supposed story of the Village People.
COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER
Dir: Michael Apted.
Starring Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn
and Tommy Lee Jones as Doolittle Lynn
with Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline.
(TV movie: 1978)
Dir: Richard Compton.
Starring Richard Hatch as Jan Berry
& Bruce Davison as Dean Torrence
w/Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack.
(TV movie: 1979)
Dir: John Carpenter.
Starring Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley
with Shelley Winters as Gladys Presley
Season Hubley as Priscilla Presley
and Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker.
Elvis’s vocals were recorded by Ronnie McDowell.
THE FABULOUS DORSEYS
(United Artists: 1947)
Dir: Alfred E. Green.
Tommy Dorsey & Jimmy Dorsey as themselves.
THE FIVE PENNIES
Dir: Melville Shavelson.
Starring Danny Kaye as jazz cornetist & bandleader Red Nichols
and featuring Bob Hope and Louis Armstrong.
Dir: William Wyler.
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice.
Also Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein
and Walter Pidgeon as Florenz Ziegfeld.
THE GENE KRUPA STORY aka DRUM CRAZY
Dir: Don Weis
Starring Sal Mineo as jazz drummer Gene Krupa.
Sal Mineo mimed to Gene Krupa’s drum playing.
Trailer on YouTube:
GET ON UP
Dir: Tate Taylor.
Chadwick Boseman as James Brown
and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd.
THE GLENN MILLER STORY
Dir: Anthony Mann.
James Stewart as Glenn Miller
and June Allyson as Helen Burger.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!
Dir: Jim McBride,
Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis.
I SAW THE LIGHT
Dir: Marc Abraham.
Starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams
and Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams.
Trailer on YouTube:
I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS
(Warner Bros: 1951)
Dir: Michael Curtiz
Danny Thomas as songwriter Gus Khan
& Doris Day as Grace LeBoy Kahn.
I’M NOT THERE
Dir: Todd Haynes.
Six incarnations of Bob Dylan
Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw,
Christian Bale & Richard Gere.
Kris Kristofferson provides the narration.
(Warner Bros: 2014)
Dir: Clint Eastwood.
The story of the Four Seasons
starring John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli
and Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio.
JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE
(Open Road: 2014)
Dir: John Ridley.
Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix.
THE JOKER IS WILD (Paramount: 1957)
Dir: Charles Vidor.
Frank Sinatra as singer/comedian Joe E. Lewis.
THE JOLSON STORY
Dir: Alfred E. Green.
Starring Larry Parks as Al Jolson.
This film was so successful that a sequel titled JOLSON SINGS AGAIN
followed three years later with Larry Parks repeating the role of Jolson.
Dir: Luis Valdez.
Starring Lou Diamond Phillips
as Ritchie Valens.
Ritchie Valens’ songs were performed by Los Lobos;
their lead singer David Hildago ghosted Lou Diamond’s vocals.
Trailer on YouTube:
LA VIE EN ROSE
Dir: Olivier Dahan.
Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES
Dir: Sidney J. Furie
Diana Ross as Billie Holiday.
LOVE AND MERCY
(Roadside Attractions: 2014)
Dir: Bill Pohlad.
John Cusack and Paul Dano both as Brian Wilson
with Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy.
Vocals by Paul Dano.
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME
Dir: Charles Vidor.
Doris Day as 20’s & 30’s singer Ruth Etting
& James Cagney as Martin Snyder.
(Sony Pictures Classic: 2015)
Dir: Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.
NIGHT AND DAY
(Warner Bros: 1946)
Dir: Michael Curtiz.
Cary Grant as songwriter Cole Porter.
NINA (RLJ: 2016)
Dir: Cynthia Mort.
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone.
Dir: Sam Taylor-Wood
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as John Lennon.
Dir: Taylor Hackford
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.
RHAPSODY IN BLUE
(Warner Bros: 1945)
Dir: Irving Rapper
Robert Alda as composer & pianist George Gershwin
with Joan Leslie as singer Julie Adams.
Robert Alda’s piano playing was
dubbed by Oscar Levant.
(Fyi, Robert Alda was the father of Alan Alda).
ROCK AROUND THE WORLD
(American International: 1957)
Original UK Title:THE TOMMY STEELE STORY
Dir: Gerard Bryant
Tommy Steele as Tommy Steele
with Humphrey Lyttleton, Chas McDevitt
& Nancy Whiskey as themselves
Dir: Floria Sigismondi
The story of the all-girl rock band. Starring
Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett,
Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie
& Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley.
(Warner Bros: 1997)
Dir: Gregory Nana
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla.
SID AND NANCY
(New Line: 1986)
Dir: Alex Cox
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious
and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Dir: Allen Reisner.
Nat ‘King’ Cole as blues songwriter/musician W.C. Handy. Also featuring Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson.
(20th Century Fox: 1968)
Dir: Robert Wise
Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence
with Daniel Massey as Noel Coward.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
Dir: F. Gary Gray.
The story of N.W.A.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube,
Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre
and Jason Mitchell as Easy-E.
Dir: Karel Reisz
Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline.
THREE LITTLE WORDS
Dir: Richard Thorpe.
Fred Astaire as songwriter Bert Kalmar
and Red Skelton as his songwriting partner Harry Ruby.
Featuring Debbie Reynolds as singer Helen Kane.
TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY
Dir: Richard Whorf
Robert Walker as songwriter Jerome Kern
and featuring an all-star cast including
June Allyson, Judy Garland, Lena Horne
and Frank Sinatra.
TWO OF US
(TV movie: 2000)
Dir: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Aidan Quinn as Paul McCartney
and Jared Harris as John Lennon.
WALK THE LINE
(20th Century Fox: 2005)
Dir: James Mangold
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash
and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (Buena Vista: 1993)
Dir: Brian Gibson
Starring Angela Bassett as Tina Turner and Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner.
WITH A SONG IN MY HEART (20th Century Fox: 1952) Dir: Walter Lang. Starring Susan Hayward as Jane Froman.
WORDS AND MUSIC (MGM: 1948)
Dir: Norman Taurog
Starring Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart
and Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
(Warner Bros: 1942)
Dir: Michael Curtiz.
Starring James Cagney
George M. Cohan.
YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART
Dir: Gene Nelson
George Hamilton as Hank Williams.
Hank Williams’ vocals were by Hank Williams Jr.
One final interesting footnote:
In 1950, Warner Bros. released the film
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN
starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall,
Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael;
it was a fictious story with Kirk Douglas
portraying a jazz trumpeter.
As such it’s not strictly a biopic
although the screenplay was based on
a novel which was supposedly inspired by
the life of the 1920’s and 1930’s
jazz cornet legend Bix Beiderbecke.