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All shook up: The 5 best musical biopics like Elvis

If you’ve seen Walk Hard, you know what the beats of a musical biopic are. There’s the early success, the drug use and dissolved marriages, and the return to prominence after the musician has redeemed themselves in the eyes of the public. With Elvis just around the corner, many are wondering whether director Baz Luhrmann will fall prey to these same conventions or rise above them to create something that feels truly new.

Either way, Elvis will be far from the first movie to take on a famous musician as its central subject. These movies all laid the ground for what Elvis may ultimately be like, and each one of them succeeds because they are willing to play with the formula that is so familiar to most of us now.

tick, tick... BOOM! (2021)

tick, tick... BOOM!
74 %
7.5/10
pg-13 120m
Genre Drama
Stars Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut could have gone off the rails in so many ways, but instead, we got a delightful adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! that also serves as a biopic of the legendary Rent composer. Thanks to some great songs and some wonderfully staged sequences, the movie feels consistently vibrant. Andrew Garfield’s central performance is wonderfully wild and alive, and the movie gets a lot of steam out of its story of an artist who tries and fails over and over again, knowing that failing is part of what it means to be an artist.

Love & Mercy (2015)

Love & Mercy
80 %
7.4/10
pg-13 120m
Genre Drama, Music, History
Stars Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, has not had an easy life. In Love & Mercy, we follow Wilson through two separate periods — the 1960s, as The Beach Boys are recording their wildly acclaimed album Pet Sounds, and the 1980s, when Wilson is being abused by a manager as he struggles with mental illness. Anchored by strong performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack as two versions of Wilson, the movie is deeply empathetic to a genius who still struggles with mental illness today. It’s a lovely movie about how important it is to be cared for, and it pushes past the clichés that have often limited the genre.

I'm Not There (2007)

I'm Not There
73 %
6.8/10
r 135m
Genre Drama, Music
Stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin
Directed by Todd Haynes
Perhaps the most unusual biopic on this list, I’m Not There tells the story of Bob Dylan, but asks several different actors to take on the role over the course of his career. I’m Not There is not a literal interpretation of the beats of Dylan’s story, but it’s an appropriately poetic way to get at the fascinating life he led as he became one of the influential musicians on the planet. Performances from Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett (who was awarded with an Oscar nomination for her work), and a slew of other terrific actors keep you constantly on your toes, even as each actor gets at different elements of what made Dylan great.

Rocketman (2019)

Rocketman
69 %
7.3/10
r 121m
Genre Music, Drama, History
Stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Perhaps the movie with the most in common with ElvisRocketman is a flashy tour through Elton John’s origin story that manages to feel thrillingly original in spite of the drugs and sexual awakenings that make up so many musical biopics. The movie succeeds on the back of Taron Edgerton, who plays Elton wonderfully and brings verve and energy to every frame of the film. Some sequences are better than others in Rocketman, but the movie is unafraid of taking some pretty bold swings, and that’s a huge part of what ultimately makes the movie a roaring success.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra
83 %
7/10
118m
Genre Drama, Romance
Stars Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Telling the story of the relationship between Liberace and his much younger lover, Behind the Candelabra is riveting in large part thanks to the central performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Coming from director Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra knows how to avoid many of the pitfalls that are usually associated with this genre, and it does that in part by focusing as much on Liberace’s lover as on Liberace himself. It may not hold up perfectly today, but Behind the Candelabra still has plenty of elements that are worth recommending. 

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