Across the vast plains of American film, certain niche markets can be made out. Horror, for paradise 8, has a sizable following and must be catered to, as must the fans of romantic comedies and whatever it is that Tom Hanks has decided to do these days. One of the more unexpected of these oases is the movie-about-a-famous-musician-or-group genre.
Sometimes these films are not really intended as serious art but are rather a cynical effort to cash in on what is assumed to be fleeting celebrity. Most of the Beatles' movies fall into this category. Sometimes the musician in question is cashing in by playing himself over and over in multiple films - as did Elvis, repeatedly. Others, however, are more in line with the classic biopic of interesting and famous people and are often a good way for both the musician-if he's still performing-and the studio to attract entirely new fans from each other's audiences. Here, then, are just a few of the films that fall into the latter category in that they revolve primarily around musicians.
The first group of such films to be considered is the straight biography. Many of these films are scripted in much the same way and follow almost identical trajectories, and so may be considered together. These are the films that chronicle the rise and fall of an early-50s rock star, and which usually manage to include a nod to the shaping influence of the jazz and spirituals of the south. The first of these was "The Buddy Holley Story," released in 1978, and starring a still-totally-okay Gary Busey. The plot, as is the case with all such films, is fairly straightforward: Buddy Holley was a simple nobody from nowhere, but through drive and ambition and talent, he grew to legendary status before cruel death took him away.
"Great Balls of Fire" follows a similar path, minus the death - unless one counts the petit mort of Jerry Lee Lewis' great scandal. Dennis Quaid brings the fire in this movie from 1989, and is greatly helped by teenage love interest Winona Ryder and World's Greatest Actor Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart. Steve Allen is also in this movie, playing himself - of course.
One of the nice things about movies of this type is the ready-made soundtrack. The music these performers played on their way up is, of course, the reason people are interested in them in the first place. It's also a wonderful device for escaping what would otherwise be the very serious consequences of the performer's behavior. Such is doubly the case for 2005's "Walk the Line," which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter. Unlike several of the less-fortunate musicians of his era, Johnny Cash was good for some five decades of troublemaking that included-seriously-nearly driving the California condor to extinction by accidentally starting a forest fire and burning out several thousand acres of a wilderness reserve. Cash was also good for decades of great music, which came in real handy when the soundtrack was being compiled. Unlike most movie soundtracks, "Walk the Line" is entirely without fluff or filler of any kind. Such was the life's work of the Man in Black.
Special notice should also be given here to "The Doors," which came out in 1991 and starred Val Kilmer. Strictly, it should be lumped in with the preceding films, as it is technically of the same style, but the subject was Jim Morrison and the director was Oliver Stone, which-even if nothing else was known about the movie-puts it in a different league entirely.
Also in a class by itself is "What's Love Got to Do with It?" This film, released in 1993, and starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, departs from the standard formula in many ways, notably that the subject is a woman, the music is R&B, and the action revolves largely around the relationship between Ike and Tina Turner. It should be noted that the film was based on the book of the same name by Tina Turner herself, with coauthor Kurt Loder. It should further be noted that Kurt Loder is awesome.
Speaking of awesome, no discussion of music-oriented film would really be complete if it omitted reference to "Cool as Ice," the 1991 remake of "The Wild One," which featured Vanilla Ice on a motorcycle in place of Marlon Brando. What makes this film so appealing is its unmistakable dynasticism. This is a movie from 1991 - not from 1990 or 1992. "Cool as Ice" could only have been made in the approximately 10-month period from December 1990 to September 1991, when the various cultural ephemera-remember Crystal Pepsi?-showcased in the film all came together to unite actress Naomi Campbell with Mr. Robert van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice.