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10 must-watch rock biopics that you won’t be able to look away from

A run-through of the 10 most compelling biopics from the world of rock’n’roll, filled with sex, drugs and, um, wild factual inaccuracies…

Most of us don’t get to witness great moments in history, or key moments where exactly the right elements come together for a masterpiece to be created. That’s where biopics come in – we get to feel, briefly, like we’re there when, say, a chance meeting starts what will be a decades-long creative partnership, or one small decision leads someone irreparably into a downward spiral.

Considering the wealth of fascinating characters and insane stories in the rock world, there aren’t a huge amount of really great biopics. Rights issues often come into it – it’s hard to tell a band’s story without permission to use their music, and they might not want to be shown in an unflattering light, so the whole project falls apart, and so on. Just think how good a Guns N’ Roses biopic could be, then imagine the amount of headaches involved in getting everyone involved to agree. Bonkers.

But here are 10 rock bands given the big screen life-story treatment – comedy, tragedy, overcoming of obstacles and big ol’ tunes. 

Lords Of Chaos (2018)

Lords Of Chaos isn’t the most accurate film ever made – while director Jonas Åkerlund began his career drumming for Bathory and knows the world of black metal a hell of a lot better than your average Hollywood filmmaker, he freely admits to taking fairly hefty amounts of artistic licence – there’s a lot to be said for it even existing at all. The lives and deaths of Mayhem members Dead and Euronymous cast an incredibly long shadow over both Norwegian black metal and the world’s impression of it. One of the most notorious incidents to ever take place within one of music’s most wilfully misunderstood genres getting a reasonably nuanced big-screen treatment? That’s something. Plus it stars Macaulay Culkin’s brother, so Macaulay Culkin has probably seen it. 

Sid And Nancy (1986)

Gary Oldman hates his performance as Sid Vicious in this movie, but not as much as John Lydon hates the entire endeavour – admittedly, his portrayal isn’t the most flattering. It’s an incredible film though, centred around Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb’s stunning portrayals of the doomed couple. While the climatic tragic events are mainly speculative, as nobody will ever know what truly happened, it’s a heartbreaking watch. There’s more rock royalty involved as well: a brief appearance from a pre-fame Courtney Love and an already-famous Iggy Pop, and bizarrely all five members of Guns N’ Roses were hired as extras without the others’ knowledge.

The Dirt (2019)

While The Dirt is not without its problems – it celebrates some pretty unforgivable behaviour, while still not being anywhere near as warts’n’all as it seems like it should, leaving it in a somewhat unsatisfying midpoint – there’s a lot of fun to be had with it. A talented cast (including Machine Gun Kelly as Tommy Lee) are clearly having a ball, and not even the crappiest accent in cinema history can take away from the gleeful stupidity of Tony Cavalero’s recreation of Ozzy Osbournes pee-snorting episode. Until there’s a proper Ozzy biopic, this’ll do.

What We Do Is Secret (2007)

Germs biopic What We Do Is Secret didn’t thrill everyone, but it did achieve the impossible and bring the band back into existence after 27 years. Star Shane West’s performance as the late Darby Crash impressed their surviving members so much that he ended up touring with them for several years after an impromptu gig at the wrap party. While the film itself is fine, it’s the live performances that stand out, the cast really throwing themselves into it and Shane doing an amazing job as the tragic Darby. And The Bronx appear as Dez Cadena-era Black Flag.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

While Andy Serkis will forever be associated with his pioneering work in digital performance-capture, his performance as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is fantastic. The film takes a bit of an impressionistic approach, with Andy’s Ian Dury essentially MCing his own biopic. He threw himself into the role, though, exercising only one side of his body to mimic Ian’s gait (he had polio as a child and was hilariously frank about the issues his disabilities caused) as well as consulting with his widow to figure out how Ian managed to roll joints one-handed. The film doesn’t shy away from the less charming elements of the man, but absolutely leaves you wanting to know more about him.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

While every character ever played by Steve Coogan has a huge element of Alan Partridge to them, that worked perfectly for a film about Tony Wilson, the impresario behind the Manchester scene of the 80s – a man with a great deal of Alan Partridge to him. Going from the Sex Pistols’ legendary Manchester Free Trade Hall gig through to acid house – as punk begets post-punk, post-punk begets indie, indie begets rave and so on – it isn’t strictly a rock film. However, the sheer amount of clumsiness in it caused by messed-up people being stupid is pure rock’n’roll.

The Runaways (2010)

When making The Runaways, director Floria Sigismondi – who had previously done videos for Muse, Incubus and The White Stripes – set out to make a coming-of-age tale rather than a biopic. Based on Cherie Currie’s memoir and starring Dakota Fanning as Cherie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, the resulting film is a lovingly made snapshot of late-’70s Los Angeles – an energetic, sun-soaked paean to being young and loud.

The Doors (1991)

Members of the band The Doors decried Oliver Stone’s film, with extensive sections of various autobiographies of theirs dedicated to pointing out all of its inaccuracies. As a movie, though, it’s terrific, centred on Val Kilmer’s incredible performance as lead singer Jim Morrison. Val is outrageously charismatic and unsettlingly sleazy at once, as the movie both celebrates the excess of the 1960s rock world and shows the worst of its consequences. (Editor’s note: At best, it’s a movie for the so bad is it actually kinda good?’ pile. C’mon.)

Control (2007)

Photographer Anton Corbijn worked with Joy Division in the late 1970s, and remained close to the surviving members of the band, so he was the perfect person to bring Control to the screen. The black-and-white film centres on Ian Curtis, portrayed strikingly by Sam Riley, and his struggles with epilepsy, relationships and the pressures caused by his band’s success. It’s a stressful, melancholic watch and a truly extraordinary film, a powerful look at the all-too-short life of one of music’s most fascinating figures.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Bohemian Rhapsody is not great, but it was massively successful. One of the best things that can be taken from its bunch of Oscars and box office take of nearly a billion is that it might lead to more good rock biopics. It does every biopic cliché out there, like Queen effortlessly improvising some of their greatest hits; a central performance that might be good acting but at the same time might just be what anyone wearing some big false teeth and a moustache would sound like; a lot of incredibly on-the-nose dialogue and some massive censoring of history. However, it also got Alice Cooper to hire a screenwriter to work on his own life story, which will most likely be a better film, so that’s something.

Honourable mention: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Featuring a career-best central performance from John C. Reilly, Walk Hard is a pitch-perfect parody of Hollywood biopics featuring laugh-out-loud songs, fantastic running gags, incredible cameos (Jack White as Elvis! Paul Rudd as John Lennon! Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly!), some truly reckless hammering, and the funniest unexpectedly-penisful scene ever shot. It’s one of the most hilarious films ever made, and will have you repeating the line And you never paid for drugs!” for years afterwards.

Posted on May 11th 2021, 3:00p.m.
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