Musicians often make popular subjects in biographical films. In fact, there are so many that the term “music biopic” has become sort of a subgenre for the regular biopic. While they tend to focus on older performers from past decades, they remain captivating and popular with moviegoers, as evidenced by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018, and a strong debut for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis more recently.
While most of these biographical films are about established, real-life artists, occasionally filmmakers dare to use the conventions of a music biopic while reporting on fictional artists. This can be done as a way to pay tribute to certain artists without using their name or likeness directly, or as a way to parody certain real-life artists, sometimes in a mockumentary style. The next seven films follow music biopic conventions to some extent, but focus on fictional musicians, making the storylines less predictable and giving the filmmakers behind the films more opportunities to take a wider range of risks.
‘Velvet Goldmine’ (1998) – Brian Slade & Curt Wild
Todd Haynes’s strange, visually dazzling tribute to the glam rock music scene of the 1970s is sometimes seen as a David Bowie movie that doesn’t officially feature Bowie as a character. Instead of, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade feels like a mythical music legend with some strong similarities to Bowie, while Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild is very much a depiction of another music legend from that decade, Iggy Popin everything but his name.
This means that velvet gold mine can get much more surreal and fantastic than the average music biopic, as the unusual story told here doesn’t quite apply to the real-life figures who inspired it. Also, part of the movie is built around the rivalry between Slade and Wild, and in real life Iggy Pop and David Bowie were actually pretty good friends, and while the real story of the collaboration between the two is interesting, it’s not a with a lot of conflict or potential for drama.
‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ (2007) – Dewey Cox
Run Fast: The Story of Dewey Cox may not have killed the music biopic by being a great parody of the genre, but the most formulaic ones are harder to take seriously in its wake. It follows Dewey Cox, who shares many similarities with Johnny Cashalthough this is a comedy, his life story is of course much funnier and more ridiculous.
Walk Hard shines with memorable lines, great scenes and music that is crazy, but also a little catchy. It also has a really memorable lead role of the great John C. Reilly† Honestly, if Joaquin Phoenix could score an Oscar nomination for playing the real-life Johnny Cash in the biographical drama Walk the linewhy couldn’t Reilly also get some more love awards for playing a comedic version of that part?
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013) – Llewyn Davis
A Coen Brothers film set in the early sixties – when folk music became popular – Inside Llewyn Davis focuses on a decidedly unpopular fictional musician, Llewyn Davis. The universe seems to hold a grudge against Davis, but at the same time he is a tormented and often embittered person who fights back against the forces that bring him down, only making his situation worse. It’s a sometimes funny, sometimes very gloomy film, and one of the best of the Coen Brothers.
The film has a cyclical, spiraling nature and it captures the endless toil of a creative person who can never find success in his chosen field. A music film about failure and despair almost has to be about a fictional person because if a real musician is famous enough to have a biopic made about them, chances are they’ve found at least a little bit of success in life. . Maybe someone like Llewyn Davis really existed, and the world never learned who they were. The fictional Llewyn Davis in this masterful film serves as a personification for all those musicians throughout history who have tried their best to make it big, only to find that their best was unfortunately never good enough.
‘This is Spinal Tap’ (1984) – Spinal Tap
This is Spinal Tap is admittedly more of a documentary parody than a biopic parody, but it’s just too great a movie to pass up when talking about movies depicting fictional musicians. And honestly, because those musicians are fictional, it ends up reaching a similar kind of comedy as something like Run hard: a Dewey Cox Storywhich does not present itself as a mockumentary.
The film follows the fictional rock band Spinal Tap, and although the actors playing the band members have since recorded actual albums of character, the film came first, and in the film they are absolutely fictional. It’s a film packed with iconic scenes and hilarious improvised dialogue, and words really wouldn’t do justice to the film’s jokes. This is Spinal Tap sheds light on the absurdity of a rock and roll lifestyle by literally turning its humor and madness to 11, making it one of the greatest comedies of all time.
‘I’m Still Here’ (2010) – Joaquin Phoenix (the rapper)
I’m still here is a strange, strange movie. It’s the kind of movie that you watch and then read and still have no words when it comes to describing it. At the time of its release, it claimed to be a documentary about Joaquin Phoenix quitting acting to pursue a hip-hop career (a phoenix-like rebirth/transformation, if you will), and for what it’s worth, Phoenix devoted herself so fiercely at the role that some people believed him to be in 2010.
But his subsequent continuing acting career has confirmed that Joaquin Phoenix, the rapper, was just another character who played Joaquin Phoenix, the actor masterfully. So although Phoenix is a real person, I’m still here is very much about a fictionalized version of Phoenix. Confused? Good, because Phoenix and director Casey Affleck probably want you to be.
‘The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash’ (1978) – The Rutles
Released six years earlier This is Spinal Tap† The Rutles: all you need is cash is perhaps the first full-length film with music. While it’s not as well known or funny as that 1984 classic, it’s still a very funny movie that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the mockumentary on Spinal Tap.
Instead of criticizing rock bands in general, The Rutles: all you need is cash is very focused on spoofing the career and popularity of The Beatles, which it does very well. It is also notable for the presence of two members of Monty Python† Michael Palin and Eric Idle, the latter of whom also wrote and directed the film. As such, it’s also easy to recommend to fans of the legendary British comedy troupe’s sense of humor.
‘I’m Not There’ (2007) – Six people who are a little, but not quite, Bob Dylan
Made almost 10 years later velvet gold minedirector Todd Haynes takes a similar approach to imagining Bob Dylan in movie in I’m not here† It is heavily inspired by Dylan’s life and music, but with six actors playing different characters who all embody Bob Dylan in different ways without one of them literally being Bob Dylan.
It’s a strange concept and somewhat hard to get your head around, which may be why it’s far from one of the most popular music movies in recent memory. Still, Bob Dylan was (and is) a mysterious, even mythical figure within the music world, so telling his life story in the style of a straightforward, traditional biopic probably wouldn’t have done the perennially enigmatic singer justice.
NEXT: Biopics That Are Thrilling, Entertaining And Won’t Put You To Sleep