After recent Oscar wins for Ray and Walk the Line, the music biopic is, for better or worse, very big right now. After all, it promises an easy ticket for Hollywood actors who thirst for awards. Too bad the movies themselves are usually lousy. 2007 has seen the music biopic at its peak, though input from the US this year is relegated to a spoof (Walk Hard) and an art flick (I'm Not There). Meanwhile, France and the UK have both entered the fray, with a middling biopic about Edith Piaf and an excellent portrait of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, respectively. And yes, more biopics are reportedly in the works, including those on Janis Joplin, Freddy Mercury, and Kurt Cobain. In short: Give a movie star a chance to sing – or lip-sync – in the shoes of a legend, and there's no stopping them.
- BUDDY HOLLY, The Buddy Holly Story (1978). The movie that started it all, with a pre-fame, pre-insanity Gary Busey knocking 'em dead as the Texas rocker who got on the wrong airplane. (John Carpenter's Elvis: The Movie arrived hot on its heels, but that was made for network TV.)
- RITCHIE VALENS, La Bamba (1987). One of the other guys on Holly's doomed flight – The Big Bopper was the third, and so far there's no movie about him – Valens remains a hero to many Latinos, even if the movie itself didn't leave as much of a legacy as Los Lobos' popular rerecording of the title song.
- SID VICIOUS, Sid and Nancy (1986). This isn't a traditional biopic, as it doesn't cover the Sex Pistols bassist's early days of obscurity, but it's too major not to mention. Like Lou Diamond Phillips in La Bamba and Busey in Buddy Holly, this proved to be a star-making vehicle for Gary Oldman, thanks to his great performance as the loser drug addict who rode the coattails of Johnny Rotten to infamy.
- JERRY LEE LEWIS, Great Balls of Fire! (1988). Lewis himself disdained this shallow comedy-drama because it spent too much time on the singer's notorious marriage to his teenage cousin Myra and on his other cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, whose own scandals in the late '80s date the movie somewhat. Dennis Quaid played "The Killer", with Winona Ryder as Myra and Alec Baldwin as Swaggart.
- JIM MORRISON, The Doors (1991). Oliver Stone's silly hagiography of the Doors frontman depicts Morrison (as portrayed by Val Kilmer) as both a mystical poet and an alcoholic jerk. The problem is that the latter is so convincing that you never buy the former.
- TINA TURNER, What's Love Got to Do With It (1993). The problem with making a biopic while the subject is still alive – and worse, when the subject has given the film his or her blessing – is that you wind up with a very one-sided affair. Not that Tina Turner's abusive ex Ike deserves to be defended. But this film is a good example of why such biopics fade from memory quickly: public curiosity over someone's ego trip fades, and all we're left with is the ego trip. That said, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne walked away with Oscar nominations.
- BRIAN JONES, Stoned (2005). Barely a soul watched this poorly-received drama about Jones, the forgotten Rolling Stone (played by Leo Gregory). Sorry, Brian, but despite your suspicious death and quiet influence, Mick and Keith's long shadows doomed your biopic.
- BOBBY DARIN, Beyond the Sea (2004). It's surprising that the rock biopic is alive at all after this flop, where writer-director-star Kevin Spacey, way too old for the part, sung Darin's songs (and even released an album as Darin) in what was instantly dismissed as a bloated vanity project.
- KAREN CARPENTER, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). Finally, we have Todd Haynes's moving if weird biopic about Carpenter, told entirely with Barbie dolls. It put Haynes on the map as a major filmmaker – one who would further explore cult pop figures with Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There – and because it was made expressly without the permission of Karen Carpenter's estate, it may be the most grimly honest rock and roll biopic ever made. You can't legally see this film, because Karen's brother Richard blocked the film over its unauthorized usage of the Carpenters' music, but it's not hard to find if you know where to look.