Today marks the anniversary of Woodstock, the landmark concert festival in 1969 that instantly became one of the most iconic moments in music history. 500,000 hippies attended, and some of the most greatest rock performers ever graced the stage for 3 days of music, peace and drugs. What was ultimately seen as the peak of the countercultural movement was never to be repeated (although tried and failed many times). And so we commemorate with these, some of the best rock biopics of all time, a genre that has now become so routine it can be easily spoofed (see Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but that nonetheless almost always manages to illicit great performances, and even greater music.
- The Buddy Holly Story (1978) Gary Busey, Don Stroud. Dir. Steve Rash. The short, sweet life of the great Buddy Holly is documented here, in an Oscar nominated performance by Busey, who seems to embody the legend entirely, despite the scant physical resemblance. Covers the barely two year period in which the teenage Holly revolutionizes early rock and roll, by insisting on writing and producing his own music, and playing to majority black audiences. The music is incredible, made more so by the cast doing their own singing and playing. Holly’s life was cut tragically short in that infamous plane crash, but few manage to do so much in so little time, as his impact was felt for generations.
- What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne. Dir. Brian Gibson. The life of Tina Turner takes center stage, based on her autobiography and brought to vivid, fierce reality by the two central performances of Basset as Tina and Fishburne as Ike. It’s a portrait of an abusive marriage, one that would forever cement Ike Turner’s image as the monstrous wife beater Fishburne embodied. It’s a powerful, emotional experience, with the two stars (both nominated) in high speed mode from start to finish. Likely to stay with you for days.
- The Doors (1991) Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan. Dir. Oliver Stone. Stone’s chronicle of the 60’s band The Doors and frontman Jim Morrison has polarized some, garnering criticisms for being indulgent and overlong, a somewhat fitting critique of Morrison himself, excellently portrayed by Val Kilmer. Nonetheless, Stone renders a vision of late 1960’s America with scenes of brimming energy and tremendous power that places you squarely in the center of the action, caught up in the excitement of the times. And the music is pretty damn great too.
- Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones. Dir. Michael Apted. One of the best of the straightforward biopics that takes you through 60’s and 70’s country superstar Loretta Lynn’s entire life, from poverty-ridden childhood in West Virginia to adolescent marriage to eventual chart topping success, nervous breakdown and beyond. Best Actress winner Spacek’s most celebrated role, she inhabits Lynn fully, even doing her own singing. This is an example of the routine by-the-numbers format later biopics would take on, but the material here is fully fleshed out and given life by Apted’s feel for Loretta’s cultural roots and background, especially in the early, pre-fame scenes.
- I’m Not There (2007) Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger. Dir. Todd Haynes. Bob Dylan is given the biopic treatment by a director who would never condescend to the routine, especially when it comes to Dylan. He's played by seven actors who represent different facets of the Dylan mystique, accompanied by various filmmaking techniques to shape and sort the assorted incarnations, which may or may not resemble episodes from the real Robert Zimmerman's life. It's an endlessly fascinating puzzle and thereby an ideal tribute to the artist himself. Includes an amazing all Dylan soundtrack in accordance.