Big Picture Depiction: Vintage Rock’s Top Rock Biopics

Many of the great rockers, from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis have all been the subject of some top rock biopics. While many of our favourites – Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Roy Orbison and Fats Domino – have yet to have dramatised depictions of their story told on the big screen, it’s surely only a matter of time

While some pictures can occasionally miss the mark, often when comes down to lead casting, there is no doubting that our favourite rocknroll icons and their incredible tales need to be told. Often celebrating triumph over adversity and featuring cautionary tales about the trappings of fame… the sex, the drugs, and the rock’n’roll, these movies are all soundtracked by the most memorable music.

Whether you love or loathe the rock biopic, they remain one of the most important ways to introduce the art of Vintage Rock’s most cherished stars, to younger audiences.  Here we pick our top rock biopics:

Top Rock Biopics - little richard

Director: Robert Townsend
Starring: Leon

This NBC television flick written by Bill Kerby and Daniel Taplitz, directed by Robert Townsend, is based on the 1984 book, Quasar of Rock: The Life and Times of Little Richard. Starring Leon [Leon Preston Robinson] in the titular role, it chronicles the rise of Richard Wayne Penniman from his poor upbringing in Macon, Georgia to achieving superstardom as one of the pioneers of rock’n’roll as well as the conflicts between his religion and secular lifestyle. Leon earned nominations for Best Actor in the Black Reel Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. Surely the Georgia Peach demands a big-budget Hollywood celebration?

Top Rock Biopics - hank williams

14 I SAW THE LIGHT (2015)
Director: Marc Abraham
Starring: Tom Hiddleston

Tracing Hank Williams’ rise to fame and premature death at the age of 29, I Saw The Light stars Hiddleston as Hank opposite Elizabeth Olsen playing first wife Audrey. To prepare, the actor practiced with country artist Rodney Crowell. Crowell, who was executive music producer, said: “I’m as respectful of the man’s work ethic as I’m mystified by his transformational skills”. While Williams’ grandson, singer Hank Williams III, was not so complimentary, granddaughter Holly praised the passion of Tom’s performance. 

Top Rock Biopics Woody

Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: David Carradine

This partially fictionalised autobiography of folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie, brings the Dust Bowl era to authentic life. Director of photography Haskell Wexler won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography at the 49th Academy Awards for his opulent cinematography which expertly captures the desperate plight of refugees in California during the Great Depression, while, Guthries earnest music resonates throughout.

Top Rock Biopics Aretha
RESPECT (2021)

12 RESPECT (2021)
Director: Liesl Tommy
Starring: Jennifer Hudson

The biographical musical of soul legend Aretha Franklin was in development for many years and Franklin herself was involved in early pre-production. Indeed, before her passing in 2018, the singer requested J.Hud portray her… respect enough one might say. Spanning 20 years, we first meet the Detroit singer in 1952, and the picture concludes with the recording of the landmark live gospel album Amazing Grace in 1972.

Top Rock Biopics James Brown
GET ON UP (2014)

11 Get On Up (2014)
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman

The late great Chadwick Boseman gives it his all as Soul Brother No.1, James Brown, in this overlooked biopic. With an impressive supporting cast of Nelsan Ellis (as Bobby Byrd), Dan Aykroyd (Ben Bart), Viola Davis (Susie Brown), Craig Robinson (Maceo Parker), and Octavia Spencer (Aunt Honey), this is a dynamic homage to the Godfather of Soul. While Boseman is explosive as Mr. Dynamite, Brandon Smith also received praise from critics for his scene-stealing performance as Little Richard.

Top Rock Biopics Tina

Director Brian Gibson
Starring: Angela Bassett

Written by Kate Lanier from a uncredited story draft by the late Howard Ashman and based on Tina Turners 1986 autobiography I, Tina, this Brian Gibson-directed picture stars Angela Bassett as Tina opposite Laurence Fishburne as her husband Ike Turner. While the film is mostly remembered for its graphic depictions of domestic violence, and was disapproved of by the singer for certain inaccuracies, Bassett and Fishburne received nominations at the 66th Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Actor for their stellar performances.

Top Rock Biopics Beach Boys
LOVE & MERCY (2015)

9 LOVE & MERCY (2015)
Director: Bill Phoned
Starring: John Cusack

Inspired casting sees both Paul Dano and Cusack star as a young and middle-aged Brian Wilson in this biographical drama about the Beach Boys’ auteur. Highlighting the genius’ struggles with mental illness during the 1960s and 1980s, the film is as revealing as it is riveting. On first viewing Wilson told Billboard: “It’s quite a thrill to have a movie made of my life… It was a trip to see.”

Top Rock Biopics John Lennon

8 NOWHERE BOY (2009)
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
Starring: Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson delivers a scintillating performance as a teenage John Lennon in this affecting coming-of-age tale. Scripted by Matthew Greenhalgh, who wrote the screenplay for the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Nowhere Boy covers five years in Lennon’s life, from the death of his Uncle George in 1955 to his departure for Hamburg with the embryonic Beatles, via the creation of the Quarrymen.

Top Rock Biopics Joe Meek

Director: Nick Moran
Starring: Con O’Neill

Credit writers James Hicks and Nick Moran for spotting the potential in the intriguing life of producer Joe Meek. Having topped both the UK and US charts with The Tornados’ multi-million selling instrumental Telstar, his success was short-lived and sadly his life ended tragically. The film, however, includes some great cameos, such as Clem Cattini, Chas Hodges and John Leyton who also appear as characters themselves played by James Corden, Ralf Little and Callum Dixon.

Top Rock Biopics Ray Charles
RAY (2004)

6 RAY (2004)
Director: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Jamie Foxx

Foxx became the second actor ever to win all five major lead actor awards (Academy, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice) for his performance in this independently produced 2004 picture. Often referred to as “The Genius”, Ray Charles had planned to attend a screening of the completed film but died of liver disease in June 2004, months prior to the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Top Rock Biopics Elvis
ELVIS (2022)

5 ELVIS (2022)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Austin Butler

While the lavish film, co-produced and directed by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, divided both fans and critics theres no doubting that Elvis was created with much love and respect. Detailing the relationship between Elvis and his manager  Colonel Parker, it is a visual spectacle. Austin Butlers portrayal of The King was nothing short of dazzling, while an almost unrecognisable Tom Hanks relishes his role as Parker. Nominated for eight awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, at the 95th Academy Awards, Presleys former wife Priscilla told Today: “I felt honoured they worked so hard to really get his essence, to feel his essence. Austin captured that so beautifully.”

Top Rock Biopics Ritchie Valens
LA BAMBA (1987)

4 LA BAMBA (1987)
Director: Luis Valdez
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips

Deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and recommended for preservation, by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the Golden Globe Award-nominated La Bamba celebrates the short life of Ritchie Valens. Valens’ family directly requested that Los Lobos appeared in the picture and that they performed the music. Also appearing is Stray Cats’ singer Brian Setzer who makes a cameo as Eddie Cochran.

Top Rock Biopics Buddy Holly

Director: Steve Rash
Starring: Gary Busey

Featuring Joe Renzetti’s Academy Award-winning musical score, The Buddy Holly Story is celebrated for its authentic on-stage performances with actors singing and playing their own instruments. Aged 33 when he tackled the eponymous lead role, a heavyset Gary Busey trimmed down considerably to portray the 19- to 22-year-old bespectacled rocker and earned both praise and an Oscar-nomination for his efforts.

Top Rock Biopics Jerry lee

Director: Jim McBride
Starring: Dennis Quaid

Adapted from the 1982 book, co-written by Jerry Lee’s former wife Myra Gale Lewis, played here by Winona Ryder, this rollicking flick charts The Killer’s tumultuous rise and dramatic fall. Quaid, who learnt to play pianner the Lewis way, won praise for his portrayal: “He was born to play me,” admitted the modest icon, “and playin’ me in this film is gonna make him into one hell of a damn star.”

Top Rock Biopics Johnny Cash

1 WALK THE LINE (2005)
Director James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix

Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash opposite Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter, Walk The Line was based on two autobiographies: 1975’s Man In Black and 1997’s Cash. Nominated for five Oscars at the 78th Academy Awards and walking away with a Best Actress win for Witherspoon, the movie’s soundtrack (including nine songs performed by Phoenix and four from Witherspoon), scooped the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album at the 49th annual awards.

Did you enjoy this article? Why not check out Elvis – The Reel Life