15 Great Biopics of ’60s Musical Icons

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With the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy coming to theaters June 5 and films based on Janis Joplin, The Kinks, Nina Simone and Beatles manager Brian Epstein in various stages of development, we thought we’d look back at some of the greatest biopics based on 1960s music icons. Whether it’s an Academy-award winner like Ray, a classic like What’s Love Got to Do With It or a indie favorite you may have missed like Nowhere Boy, these films will help you relive one of the popular music’s most fruitful periods.

1. Ray (2004)

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When making a list of biopics, Ray is sure to be near the top. Jamie Foxx portrays the legendary Ray Charles from his early days as a backing pianist on the “chiltin’ circuit” of African-American friendly venues, to his commercial peak in the late 1950s and early ’60s, including the recording of his most notable singles like “I’ve Got a Woman” and “Georgia on My Mind.” But what makes Ray a fantastic adaptation of Charles’ life isn’t just its focus on his musical career, but its brutally honest treatment of the late musician’s heroin addiction, legal troubles and tumultuous relationship with his wife Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington). Foxx shines in his most critically lauded role, mastering his imitation of the blind Charles like no one else could.


2. Walk the Line (2005)

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Released a year after Ray, Walk the Line is another staple in the biopic genre. The film follows the story of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) from his humble beginnings working as a door-to-door salesman in Memphis, to his early recordings at Sun Studio, to his early tours with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, where he met his wife-to-be, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). The film spends a great deal of time on the couple’s relationship, both on and off the stage, which it presents as the driving force behind the career of “The Man in Black,” as Carter helps him overcome his drug abuse in the 1960s. This all culminates in Cash’s iconic Folsom Prison performance in 1968 and his proposal to June shortly thereafter.


3. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

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French songwriter/pianist Serge Gainsbourg may not be known stateside, but in Europe, his career is one of legend. Raised in Nazi-occupied France, Gainsbourg was trained as a classical pianist as a child, and grew up being forced to downplay his Jewish faith. In the ’60s, he rose to prominence as a controversial songwriter, penning pop songs with underlying sexual innuendos and wordplay. Controversy followed the songwriter throughout his career, with recordings such as “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” which featured the sound of a female orgasm, and “Aux armes et cætera,” a reggae version of the French national anthem that many saw as distasteful. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life brings all the stories to life, along with surreal scenes of Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) talking with his inner conscience, a large puppet-like character known as “The Mug.”


4. Get On Up (2014)

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Although it was overlooked by many, last year’s Get On Up is one of the most enjoyable biopics in recent memory. Chadwick Boseman portrays James Brown, whose talent, charisma and off-stage drama was just begging to be immortalized on the big screen. The Tate Taylor-directed film focuses in on the key moments in Brown’s life, such as his upbringing in a brothel, the start of his working relationship with his sideman Bobby Byrd (Nelson Ellis), his numerous sold-out stints at the Apollo Theater and his infamous drug-fueled car chase with police in 1988. With a stellar performance from Boseman and a soundtrack of original Brown recordings, Get On Up provides an intriguing take on the life of the “Godfather of Soul.”


5. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

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Country legend Loretta Lynn’s life story was one of the pioneering films in the biopic genre and brought the world of country music to masses in 1980. Starring Sissy Spacek as Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter is a true rags-to-riches story, chronicling the singer’s journey from being an adolescent in the hills of Kentucky to becoming a mainstay at the Grand Ole Opry. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Loretta’s alcoholic/abusive husband Doolittle, whose misdeeds often inspired her biggest hits such as “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Whether you’re a fan of country music or not, Lynn’s story is one to be seen.


6. Nowhere Boy (2009)

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Before Aaron Taylor-Johnson was running supersonic circles around the Avengers or kicking ass as a vigilante, he starred in one of the few well-made Beatles biopics, Nowhere Boy . The film, which is based on the biography Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon by Julia Baird, gives us a glimpse into the life of a teenage John Lennon. This period in Lennon’s life is often glossed over, but some of the singer’s most important moments came during this period. He reunited with his mother Julia, who died shortly after they became close, bought his first guitar and met a young Paul McCartney to form The Quarrymen, the original iteration of the “Fab Four.”

What makes Nowhere Boy an essential watch for Beatles fans is Johnson’s portrayal of Lennon. With most of the god-awful Beatles TV movies, actors choose to oversell the singer’s Liverpool accent, making scenes of dialogue unbearable. Johnson chooses to use a more subtle, reserved English accent that is far more believable. On top of that, he performs his own renditions of rock classics like Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” which were performed by Lennon during his early years.


7. Backbeat (1994)

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From the most iconic Beatle to one who most aren’t aware even existed, we have the Stuart Sutcliffe biopic, Backbeat . Sutcliffe was the original bassist for the band when they were a five-piece group. The film centers on the group’s time in Hamburg, just before they became a worldwide sensation. Stephen Dorff is a spitting image of Sutcliffe and does an excellent job of showing the contrast between the divergent bassist/painter and the rest of the group. The movie also does a nice job showcasing the changing relationship between Sutcliffe and Ian Hart’s John Lennon, who you may recognize from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And don’t worry, his Liverpool accent isn’t nearly as far off-point as in those aforementioned TV movies.

Another reason for music aficionados to check out Backbeat would be its soundtrack of rock standards re-recorded by a band of ’90s rock icons like Dave Grohl while still a member of Nirvana, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. And not to be overlooked, Black Flag frontman and overall bad-ass Henry Rollin delivers a crooning rendition of “Love Me Tender,” one of Sutcliffe’s favorite songs to perform.


8. The Doors (1991)

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Oliver Stone’s controversial take on the strange life of Jim Morrison is next on our list, and is by far the trippiest film on this list. Stone takes viewers on an acid-like journey, with psychedelic Native American imagery woven in as the Doors frontman performs on a variety of drugs. These moments are a bit odd for your average biopic, but they’re also what make the film stand out. Val Kilmer gives an eerily lifelike performance as Morrison, mastering the personality and mannerisms that make the musician such a polarizing ’60s rock icon. Morrison was half philosophic poet, half drunken-junkie, and Stone and Kilmer put together a film that shows that, all while playing up the myth that the late rocker has become over the years.

9. All Is by My Side (2013)

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Another overlooked biopic was 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley’s take on Jimi Hendrix’s early career, All Is by My Side . OutKast’s André 3000 gives an uncanny portrayal reenacting the months leading up to Hendrix’s U.S. breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Zeroing in on this period of the musician’s life helps avoid glossing over key moments during this time, all while telling an in-depth story of Hendrix’s climb to fame.

The only drawback for All Is by My Side , which is currently streaming on Netflix, comes with its questionable accounts of Hendrix’s abusive relationship with Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) and its lack of Hendrix originals in the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the Hendrix estate refused to license any early hits like “Purple Haze” or “Foxey Lady.” However, Ridley works around this by featuring original blues instrumentals and having André record cover songs that were prominent in the Experience’s early sets, such as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Trogg’s “Wild Thing.” While there will surely be another, more traditional take on the life of Jimi Hendrix in the future, All is by My Side is an intriguing look at the development of one of the ’60s’ true icons.


10. I’m Not There (2007)

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I’m Not There is by far the most experimental biopic on this list, due to its collaged narratives of the different eras of Bob Dylan’s life. In each of these periods, such as his early days as the figurehead of the folk movement to his life around the recording of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, a different actor portrays a fictionalized version of Dylan. Some are more conventional choices to play the icon, such as Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, but some are a bit out there. Marcus Carl Franklin, an African-American child, plays a young version of Dylan known as “Woody,” as a reference to Woody Guthrie, Richard Gere plays a version of Dylan set in the Wild West as a nod to his role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Cate Blanchett portrays Dylan in his electric years. Blanchett’s portrayal is particularly brilliant as she fully immerses herself in the role, making you wish she had been Dylan the whole time. I’m Not There is truly worth a watch for its unorthodox approach to what a biopic can be.


11. What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)

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Tina Turner is by far one of popular music’s strongest female voices, which is why it’s such a shame that her story and music seem to be overlooked by the college-aged generation. Bursting onto the rock scene in the late ’60s with her husband Ike, the duo soon toured with the Rolling Stones and recorded some of the best songs of the era, such as “River Deep – Mountain High” and a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” What’s Love Got to Do With It , which is based on Tina’s autobiography with Kurt Loder I, Tina, recounts her journey from the small town of Nutbush, Tenn., to overcoming her abusive marriage to Ike (Laurence Fishburn) and becoming a headlining solo act. Angela Bassett gives one of the finest performances of her career as Tina, bringing her struggle and success alive in a brutally honest way.


12. Beyond the Sea (2004)

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Who knew Kevin Spacey was a pop crooner on the inside? Sure, his musical talents have surfaced a few times throughout House of Cards, but they pale in comparison to Spacey’s 19 Bobby Darin covers that make up Beyond the Sea’s soundtrack. Spacey writes, directs, produces and stars in this biopic of the early ’60s pop star known for cheesy teens hits like “Splish Splash” and ballads like “Dream Lover.” Darin is a relatively forgotten figure in a glossed-over period of pop music, but Spacey brings his compelling story to the big screen in what was a passion project for the actor. He creates a self-aware story that tackles Darin’s strive to break out of his teeny-bopper image, his marriage to Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) and his mental breakdown that came from learning that his sister was actually his mother. While it’s not the best biopic around—and it falls victim to clichés of the genre—Spacey’s passion for the project shows through, and it deserves more attention that it initially received.


13. Stoned (2005)

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While the Rolling Stones continue to be active over 50 years after the group’s inception, they lost a major piece of their sound in 1969 with the death of founding member Brian Jones. While Jones originally pieced together the band, spearheaded their initial sound and booked their first gigs, he slowly became a drug addict and became disinterested in playing with the rest of the group over the years.

This is where Stoned starts off, chronicling the guitarist’s final days in his cottage in the English countryside. Jones (Leo Gregory) is shown to be in a world of his own, discarding all financial and musical responsibilities he had at the time. He spends all his time with various lovers and his groundskeeper, Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine). His spiral is shown through a series of flashbacks depicting his loss of longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenburg to Keith Richards and other drug-fueled escapades. What makes Stoned somewhat controversial is its depiction of the theory that Jones was murdered by Thorogood, which has never been confirmed. Regardless of its angle, if you’re interested in the story of the lost Rolling Stone, Stoned is currently streaming on Netflix.


14. Jersey Boys (2014)

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Last year’s Clint Eastwood-directed Jersey Boys , which is based on the Broadway play of the same name, receives a lot of flak for its paint-by-numbers approach to a biopic. While that may be true, that doesn’t take away from the career of Franki Vallii and the Four Seasons. Despite their success in the early ’60s, the group is often overlooked and their story isn’t widely known. You’ve probably heard “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” but you most likely don’t know about the group’s ties to the mob and financial woes after their success waned. So, even though it’s plagued by cheesy songwriting scenes, big-scale musical numbers and unnecessary moments of breaking the third wall, Jersey Boys is an interesting look at one of pop’s lesser-known acts.


15. Telstar: the Joe Meek Story (2008)

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Joe Meek was one of the UK’s most successful producers in the early ’60s. He produced multiple hits in Europe, including the sci-fi-driven instrumental rock track “Telstar” by The Tornados. His unconventional recording techniques and experimentation with equipment made him one of the more influential artists of the era.

Unfortunately, Meek’s story isn’t one of success. Telstar, which is currently on Hulu, shows Meek (Con O’Neill) initially breaking through to the charts, but having trouble following up with a steady string of hits. After a homosexual relationship with one of his acts that goes awry, a false accusation of plagiarism and financial troubles, Meek takes his own life in a murder-suicide. Telstar transitions from a light-hearted comedy to a tragedy to accompany Meek’s faltering mental state, leaving viewers with an odd taste in their mouths. Regardless, O’Neill delivers an enjoyable performance with a strong supporting cast that includes Kevin Spacey and James Corden, and makes the film a compelling watch.


John Connor Coulston is a freelance pop culture writer and contributor to Paste. You can follow him on on Twitter.

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