Favourite rock biopics

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(c) Momentum Pictures

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Following my previous post about the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which tells the story of the 1970s / 1980s rock band Queen and which I had very mixed feelings about, I thought I’d write about the rock biopics I like best.

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The first one that springs to mind is Control (2007), directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn.  This focuses on Ian Curtis, frontman with the legendary and pioneering post-punk band Joy Division, who committed suicide in 1980.  It has an appealing cast: Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Deborah, plus Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer and Harry Treadaway as Stephen Morris, Curtis’s fellow-bandmembers who after his death would regroup as New Order.  But what makes Control special for me is how Corbijn blends the tragedy of Curtis’s life-story, the drabness of 1970s Macclesfield (Curtis’s hometown), the spare, pulsating and somehow beautiful bleakness of Joy Division’s music, and the romanticism that inspired and drove Curtis, and manages to create something that despite the final outcome is actually uplifting.  Corbijn’s decision to film Control in colour but then convert the film-stock into moody black and white helps.

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There’s also humour, a factor that, given the absurdities and excesses of the music industry, needs to be present in every good rock biopic.  This comes largely courtesy of band manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.  “It could be worse,” he tells Curtis in the aftermath of one of his devastating epileptic seizures.  “At least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall.”  Look out too for Salford performance-poet John Cooper Clarke, playing himself as a support act at a Joy Division gig.  Only the enviably pencil-thin Clarke could get away with playing himself when he was thirty years younger.

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(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

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I’m not a Beatles fan but I really enjoyed Backbeat (1994), the Iain Softley-directed film about the band’s pre-stardom period at the beginning of the 1960s when they spent time in Hamburg performing early rock ‘n’ roll standards.  The Beatles of this era consisted of five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, played in Backbeat by Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Stephen Dorff and Scot Williams respectively.  The main acting duties fall on Hart – who, incidentally, has also played Lennon in the 1991 movie The Hours and Times and the 2013 Playhouse Presents TV production Snodgrass – and Dorff because the movie focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.  The latter would die of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1962.

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What sets the film alight is its music.  To recreate the sound of the nascent Beatles kicking ass on stage, the filmmakers smartly gathered together musicians from 1994’s hottest rock bands – Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Don Fleming from Gumball, Mike Mills from REM and Dave Grohl from Nirvana – and got them to knock out renditions of the likes of Long Tall Sally and Good Golly Miss Molly.  Even the muscular Henry Rollins (originally from punk outfit Black Flag but in 1994 doing rather well with his own Rollins Band) got in on in the act, providing the vocals for a sequence when Sutcliffe tries and fails to croon Love Me Tender.  In fact, the film’s only duff note is a brief scene where it gratuitously and unconvincingly grafts Ringo Starr onto the narrative.

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(c) Palace Pictures / The Samuel Goldwyn Company

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The bleakest film on my list is surely Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox’s 1986 re-enactment of the doomed romance between the Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and American groupie Nancy Spungen.  Telling a love story that begins with boy meeting girl against a background of severe heroin abuse, continues with boy and girl in the grip of severe heroin abuse, and ends with boy stabbing girl to death thanks to severe heroin abuse, Sid and Nancy is a grim and at times difficult watch.  But it has the saving grace of humour, even if it’s humour of the cringeworthy variety, such as when Sid is introduced to Nancy’s respectable, middle-class, all-American family and attempts to entertain them with a display of his ‘musicianship’.  The lead actors are good too: Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, although these days it’s weird to see David Hayman, regarded in Scotland now as a national treasure, in the role of Malcolm McLaren.  Famously, Courtney Love lobbied hard, but unsuccessfully, to win the role of Nancy Spungen.  A little too hard, some would say, considering what happened subsequently.

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One person who’s not a fan of Sid and Nancy is John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, Vicious’ friend and fellow Sex Pistol.  Lydon hated the way he was portrayed in the film by actor Andrew Schofield, who isn’t a Londoner like Lydon but is from Kirby, north of Liverpool.  And he detested the film generally and Alex Cox in particular, dismissing it as a fantasy put together by ‘some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era’.

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Next up is Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatisation of the story of late 1960s / early 1970s psychedelic-blues-rock band the Doors, simply called The Doors, which in many ways is a warped mirror image of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Like the Queen biopic, it often veers away from the truth.  Unlike that later film, however, it isn’t afraid to present a warts-and-all picture of its subjects, especially of the band’s frontman Jim Morrison, who’s played by Val Kilmer.  So well does Kilmer do in the role, incidentally, that at times you forget it’s him you’re watching onscreen and not Morrison himself. 

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(c) Bill Graham Films / Tri-Star Pictures

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Stone’s unflattering portrayal of Morrison, during his decline from gorgeous, long-haired, rock-music Dionysus to beastly, babbling, booze-befuddled sociopath and finally to bearded, beer-bellied, bathtub cadaver, greatly upset fellow band-members Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robbie Krieger (played in the film by Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whalley) and his lover Patricia Kennealy (played by Kathleen Quinlan).  Indeed, I suspect Kennealy, who married Morrison in a Celtic pagan ceremony and is a pagan high priestess herself, may have eschewed Celtic paganism’s usual benevolence and fired a few spells in Stone’s direction after she saw the film.

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Well, The Doors probably tells a few porkies but I have to say I really enjoyed it.  It’s over-the-top and out-of-control and Stone goes too far by mixing in some guff about Native American shamanism, but its bacchanalian and hallucinogenic excesses feel exhilaratingly true of the era, if not wholly true of the band.  And taken in the right spirit, the film is very funny.  Comic highlights include Kennealy giving Morrison carnal encouragement with, “Come on, rock god.  F**k me, f**k me good!”  Or John Densmore expressing his reluctance  to take acid and Morrison reassuring him, “Relax – it’s peyote.”  Or Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) offering Morrison a golden telephone with which to ‘talk to God.’ Andy can’t use it himself because, it transpires, he doesn’t ‘have anything to say.’ 

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Finally, my last pick on this list of rock biopics returns to the era of Joy Division, but isn’t about a band or musician.  It’s about a record executive, Tony Wilson of Factory Records, the independent Manchester-based record label, who signed Joy Division in the late 1970s and struck gold again a decade later when he signed the Happy Mondays.  This is 24 Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson.  This time Joy Division are played by Sean Harris (Curtis), John Simm (Summer), Ralf Little (Hook) and Tim Horrocks (Morris), while the Happy Mondays are represented by Danny Cunningham and Paul Popplewell as Shaun and Paul Ryder and Chris Coghill as the band’s freaky-dancin’, maracas-shaking figurehead, Bez

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(c) Film 4 / Pathé / United Artists

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Before his musical successes, Wilson was best-known as a TV reporter for Granada Television and with Coogan in the role, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Coogan’s famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge.  This is especially so at the film’s beginning when we see Wilson filming a report where he attempts to go hang-gliding:  “Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s the latest craze sweeping the Pennines.  I’ve got to be honest with you.  Right now, I’d rather be sweeping the Pennines.” 

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24 Hour Party People cleverly subverts the issue of factual accuracy in music biopics with much post-modernism and breaking of the 4th wall – for example, when we see the fictional Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, played by Martin Hancock, do something and then the real Howard Devoto appears in the frame and tells us that he doesn’t remember this happening back then.  There’s a great supporting cast of character actors, comic performers and comedians, including Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Rob Brydon, Dave Gorman, Peter Kay, Simon Pegg and Christopher Eccleston, while several real-life musicians make cameos including, in addition to Devoto, Mark E. Smith, Clint Boon and the Stone Roses’ Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield.  And the film has many good lines, my favourite being when Wilson introduces the Ryders to Bez with the comment, “Every band needs its own chemistry.  And Bez is a very good chemist.”

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Finally, which band would I like to see a biopic of in the future?  The answer to that question has got to be Hawkwind, the venerable ‘space rock’ band who’ve been slogging away since 1969 and whose ranks have included over the years such personalities, eccentrics and oddballs as Lemmy, ‘manic depressive hypo-maniac’ poet Robert Calvert, statuesque topless dancer Stacia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, sci-fi / fantasy author Michael Moorcock and Dik Mik, operator of the ‘audio generator’ that provided the band with its distinctive whooshing noises.  Properly done, you could end up with a hilarious comedy-drama that does for the characters of alternative English psychedelic rock music what Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) did for the characters of low budget 1950s Californian movie-making.  So what do you think?  Anton Corbijn?  Michael Winterbottom?  Oliver Stone, even?  Anyone interested?

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From rateyourmusic.com

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