While You Wait for 'Sexual Healing': 6 Other Great Musician Biopics

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye

Word on casting for the upcoming Marvin Gaye biopic, “Sexual Healing,” continues to trickle in. Lenny Kravitz, as the venerable soul singer, is out. Jesse L. Martin (of “Law & Order” fame) is in, along with fellow “Law & Order” alumna, S. Epatha Merkerson who is on board to play Gaye’s mother, Alberta. Though the film, which focuses on the final years of Gaye’s life, has hit some roadblocks along the way -- with the singer’s son Marvin Gaye III threatening legal action against the producers -- filming is likely set to begin later this month.

We have great hopes that Martin, who showed his musical chops as Tom Collins in the Broadway smash Rent (and the lesser film adaptation), will do justice to both Gaye’s legend and his troubled personal life. If he’s looking for inspiration, here are six great musical biopics that got it right.

"I’m Not There" (2007)
The big question with any musician biopic is: Who’s going to play the star? A lookalike? A soundalike? If well cast, a film can capture the ineffable essence of the artist’s spirit and talent. Done poorly, and you’ve got Dennis Quaid in “Great Balls of Fire.” With his unconventional Bob Dylan biopic, director Todd Haynes managed to avert casting controversy by choosing not one but six actors to play different versions of the ever-metamorphosing musical legend. Don’t like Cate Blanchett in the part? Well, here comes Heath Ledger or Ben Whishaw or Richard Gere. In this postmodern biography, there’s no character actually called Bob Dylan, but each of the actors represents a different manifestation of the singer’s winding, unpredictable, artistic journey, creating a difficult -- but ultimately mesmerizing -- portrayal of Dylan’s life and work.

"Ray (2004)"
When Jamie Foxx was cast as the legendary Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic “Ray,” there was some question of whether the actor, then best known for playing Wanda, the ugliest woman in the world, on the sketch show “In Living Color,” could do justice to the soul music pioneer. Fast-forward a decade to the 2013 Presidential Inauguration when Foxx reprised his Oscar-winning interpretation of Charles to serenade Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, with “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” To play the singer, Foxx dropped more than thirty pounds, wore uncomfortable prosthetics over his eyes to simulate blindness, and allowed himself not only to inhabit the best parts of Charles -- his talent, passion, and humor -- but also to explore the artist’s darker corners, namely, his womanizing and drug addiction. It’s a performance that has indelibly linked the two men in our collective consciousness, and as New York Magazine pointed out, delivered some of “the best lip-syncing … ever seen on film.”

"What’s Love Got to Do with It?" (1993)
Whitney Houston was originally favored to star in this movie adaptation of Tina Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, but when she turned down the role because she was pregnant, Angela Bassett stepped in to Turner’s stilettos. We mean no disrespect to the late great Houston (whose own inevitable biopic has been linked to everyone from Rihanna to daughter Bobbi Kristina), but Bassett owned this part. While the actress didn’t lend her voice to the role, she gave everything else to her depiction of Turner, dieting and working out to build up those impressive guns she rocked in the film, mastering the singer’s high-octane dance moves (the dizzying “Proud Mary” sequence took two seventeen-hour days of shooting), and most of all, delving deep into Turner’s story to understand how this talented powerhouse endured years of domestic abuse. Together, with Laurence Fishburne (seductive and terrifying as Ike Turner), Bassett created what Roger Ebert heralded as “one of the most harrowing, uncompromising showbiz biographies I’ve ever seen.”

"Sid and Nancy" (1986)
Musician biopics often get a bad rap for being schmaltzy, sentimental tales of tortured artists overcoming childhood traumas through their music, only to fall victim to the hubris of success (and usually an addiction of some sort) before finding the road back to feel-good redemption. “Sid and Nancy” is the cure to the common biopic -- a gonzo, drugged-up love story about Sid Vicious, the bassist for the groundbreaking British punk band the Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen. As Vicious, Gary Oldman (who grew up in the same part of working class South London as did the musician) nails both the hungry desperation and heedless childishness of the bassist and with Chloe Webb as Nancy, creates a musical romance that’s sexy, scary, and, yes, moving, but definitely not feel-good.

"Amadeus" (1984)
The setting for “Amadeus,” the opulence of eighteenth-century imperial Vienna, couldn’t be further removed from the world of modern popular music in which the rest of our choices take place. But strip away the courtly dress and lavish rococo décor, and this film, about the rivalry between the obscenely talented Mozart (Tom Hulce) and bitter court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), is basically dealing with the same themes: ambition, jealousy, sex, and the quest for musical greatness. And like its compatriots, “Amadeus,” based on the Tony Award-winning play by Peter Shaffer and directed by Milos Forman, benefits from some amazing musical numbers, including a glorious performance of Don Giovanni (filmed at the Tyl Theater, where the opera originally debuted).

"Coal Miner’s Daughter" (1980)
Tommy Lee Jones may not have been impressed by Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig at this year’s Golden Globes, but as Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” he sure was smitten with Sissy Spacek as the country music sensation Loretta Lynn. And rightly so. In this adaptation of Lynn’s autobiography, Spacek (who was the singer’s first choice for the role) sang her own songs, aged from thirteen to mid-thirties, and earned herself an Academy Award in the process.

Tell us: What musician biopic has made it onto your own list of favorites?

  • Andrew

    Walk The Line deserves recognition just based on Phoenix's inhabitance of Cash.

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