A History of Rock and Roll Biopics (Inspired by the New ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Film)


Hollywood has had a long love affair with pop stars. Considering their often outrageous personas, lifestyles, talent and high profiles, pop music figures are naturals for movie biographies about them, and many have been shot. The release of Bohemian Rhapsody is likely to revive and rev up the film genre of rock and roll biopics. By this we mean biographical pictures about actual rock ’n’ roll musicians, in the way that Bohemian Rhapsody depicts Queen and its front man, Freddie Mercury.

They may cover all or a significant portion of singers and musicians’ lives — Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, focuses on 15 years in Mercury’s life. Rock and roll biopics usually focus on an individual or band and purport themselves to be at least in part fact-based.

So flicks about fictitious musical artistes like 1970’s Performance starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive rocker or 1983’s Eddie and the Cruisers (and its sequels) aren’t considered here. Neither is Prince’s 1984 Purple Rain, because it is only semi-autobiographical and his character is credited as “The Kid” – not as “Prince.” And although 1968’s Head stars the Monkees, this zany psychedelic pic (co-written by Jack Nicholson!) has no bio info about Davy Jones, etc., so it doesn’t qualify either. Nor do concert films like 1968’s Monterey Pop and 1970 Woodstock, which mainly record live performances but don’t tell musicians’ life stories.

In this stroll down movie memory lane, we remember many of the best and most offbeat rock and roll biopics. Most of the films considered in this eclectic look at rock biopics are feature films with actors, scripts, etc., with some outstanding exceptions. And as we’ll see, some of these films about rock’s greatest artists have been made by and star the cinema’s top talents. We begin our cinematic survey with some notable pre-rock precursors about blues musicians, folksingers, and end with one movie memorializing a classical composer.

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