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The Hollywood Insider Best Music Biopics Im Not There

The formula for making a successful music biopic in modern times has relied too much on repeating the same story over and over again, just with different characters. The recurring plot of rags-to-riches to booze, drugs, and partying, then eventually hitting rock bottom, then struggling to find a way back, and finally, redemption or death (or redemption in death), has become so common that one would think that the musicians and stars whose lives those films depict have lived the most boring and unoriginal existences. While the 21st century brought about completely new trends in how to create biopics of famous people (The Social Network) being the ideal example of that), music biopics still somehow lag and tend to stick more to the old assembly-line approach. Not every single one of them is like that, however.

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‘I’m Not There’ (2007)

One film that most certainly has a fundamentally different take on the genre and can be labeled as a direct anti-formula work is Todd Haynes’I’m Not There,’ which depicts the life of Bob Dylan, told through metaphors and allusions instead of his actual life story. For this, Haynes used six different actors – Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw – to portray various episodes of the singer’s life. No effort is made to explain how all these chapters are connected but fans will recognize scenes inspired by specific moments in Dylan’s career. It seems that each of those Dylans symbolizes the different perceptions that the world had of the man in various (or maybe the same) moments of his career, and this bold experiment gives us a unique insight to explore the multiple personas of one of the most influential musicians of the Western world.

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‘Ray’ (2004) and ‘Walk The Line’ (2005)

The direct opposites to Todd Haynes’ film, Taylor Hackford’sRay’ and James Mangold’sWalk the Line’ follow the exact formula mentioned above while still being great movies to watch and there are reasons for that. Both feature terrific performances by profound actors (Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, and Reese Witherspoon) who masterfully interpret the body language, speech, and performing habits of their characters to the extent that you begin to doubt if they also actually sing all of those songs performed – and that turns out to be the stunning truth, as Phoenix and Witherspoon perform their vocals in the movie. Another reason why these two films should not be judged for having the now-omnipresent storyline is that you know, they are about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, who were practically among the first people to live those lives and enter those cycles that afterward were destined to become clichés, mainly due to of the influence that these two had over the music and the lifestyle in America.

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‘24 Hour Party People (2002)

While it might not exactly fall under the category of a music biopic, Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film does much more – it depicts the whole turbulent period of the ‘70s Manchester music scene through the eyes of Tony Wilson, BBC journalist and promoter, who managed some of Manchester’s most successful bands and ran the legendary ‘Hacienda’ club from its inception to its bankruptcy. From the explosion of punk rock to the dawn of acid house, the movie marks very special moments in Manchester’s life that gave birth to the subculture that invaded the world soon afterward. A very genuine love letter to the times from which bands like Sex Pistols and New Order emerged and the cheerfully insane people who helped that happen.  

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‘Control’ (2007)

Before directing ‘Control,’ Anton Corbijn was a photographer well-known for his work with Depeche Mode and U2, having handled the principal promotion and photography for both bands over decades. Later, he directed music videos for Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ (1990), U2’s ‘One’ (1991), Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (1993), and Coldplay’s ‘Talk’ (2005) and ‘Viva la Vida’ (2008). Corbijn also worked with Joy Division in their early days and helped them establish their image through his photography. So, when Anton decided to direct ‘Control’ – a biopic of Ian Curtis, the frontman of Joy Division – there was hardly any other man on the planet who could have approached the job with the same confidence as him.

Just like Corbijn’s photos of the band, the film is shot entirely in black and white and gray, and the bleak world of Ian Curtis is presented in a non-romantic, unapologetic view of what it means to be burnt out, struggling with depression, and being vulnerable as a young artist. Curtis is played by Sam Riley, who is so convincing in his role that soon after you see him marching relentlessly on the stage, you just accept him as Ian Curtis, and he never falls out of that image for a second. ‘Control’ leaves you with the impression of a young man who does not know what exactly is wrong with him and who’s doomed to alienate himself in the tragic and haunting manner that is so wonderfully reflected in his music.

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‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015) 

Hip-hop is, without a doubt, at the peak of its popularity currently as more people listen to it now than throughout the rest of the history of music, and there has hardly been a collective more influential to the genre than the infamous N.W.A., which, among others, had Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Dr. Dre among its ranks, all of whom would later become platinum-selling solo artists in their own right in the 1990s. But F. Gary Gray’s 2017 biopic is far from being a mere success story movie; instead, it is a spectacular display of history with loving attention to detail. Its accuracy in depicting the early years of gangsta rap and the intensity of its rough and violent reality remains unmatched. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is a very honest movie that does not try to sugarcoat the discrimination, racial abuse, poverty, hate, and viciousness of that period that revolutionized music and pop culture and changed it forever.

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‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (2012)

While technically Malik Bendjelloul’s film falls more under the category of a documentary, its unbelievable story is nothing short of a fairy tale. In Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez was a practically fading singer-songwriter who never made it big and worked two jobs to raise his daughters. At the same time, unbeknownst to him, his songs became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and he became a legend who everyone was sure was long dead. There are so many emotional high points in this extraordinary story that even before reaching its finale, it plays without a single dead second and it’s really hard to reach the end with dry eyes. If you are a musician or an artist and you have ever questioned the importance of what it is that you do, you need to see this movie. 

By David Tsintsadze  

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