It’s Grammy month and what a year it was for music! From crazy Miley Cyrus antics at the MTV Video Music Awards to Beyoncé’s secret album release, this has been a year full of musical surprises. To celebrate the Grammys, which air Sunday January 26th, here are my Top Five Films Based on Musical Acts.
5. Dreamgirls (2006)
Speaking of the Queen B, Beyoncé stars alongside Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, and Eddie Murphy in this film loosely based on the story of The Supremes and Motown. First made into a Broadway musical, the film follows the lives and careers of The Dreamettes, later The Dreams, an all female singing trio. They go from backup singers to pop stars over the course of four years, during the 60s, with the civil rights movement as a backdrop. The film is full of all those things that make an exciting story (sex, drugs, music, backstabbing plotlines, redemption), and the music is excellent, as are the performances. Jennifer Hudson’s heart wrenching rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” was well worth the Oscar she won. As far as accuracy goes, like I said, it is loosely based on the histories of The Supremes and Motown.
4. Ray (2004)
Another Jamie Foxx feature makes its way onto the list. I’m not a huge fan of his but I do think these happen to be his two best films (these and Django Unchained, of course). He plays the legendary Ray Charles in this biopic that covers the singer’s life up until 1979. The film highlights key moments in his career, while showing his early life through flashbacks. We get a small look at the formative years of Charles’ childhood, including the discovery of his oncoming blindness and the death of his brother. Jamie Foxx is superb as Ray Charles. He has all of his mannerisms down perfectly and gives the character an air of arrogance mixed with a little darkness and sorrow. This is one of his most memorable performances to date and again, it was an Oscar well-earned.
3. Nowhere Boy (2009)
What I really like about this film is that they chose to focus on a very small but important part of John Lennon’s life. Rather than try and tell the whole story of The Beatles, we’re given just a glimpse into Lennon’s adolescence and how it helped shape him into the man he would become. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does a nice job in his portrayal of the young Lennon and I find Sam Taylor-Wood’s approach to storytelling very interesting. The film has a leisurely pace and is a bit conventional in its structure but I think that’s the point. He really was just a boy trying to figure out life and all its quirks, something many people can relate to. The insight into his relationships with his aunt and mother are the main focus of the film, and what makes the story so interesting. The fact that he started the most famous band ever is almost a sidenote. That’s a story we all know, so let’s watch one we don’t.
2. Walk the Line (2005)
Johnny Cash is one of the most recognized and influential singers in American country and rock music. His life is well known and taking on the task of representing his story through film is a great risk. Thankfully, James Mangold and his crew knew what they were doing. The angle the film takes on Cash’s life is his love affair with June Carter, and her ability to save him from his demons. It is beautifully told, with images from Cash’s youth mixed with the rise of his musical career, and everyone looks and sounds the part. Reese Witherspoon holds her own as the tenacious June Carter with a heavy country twang in her voice and attitude, and Joaquin Phoenix becomes Johnny Cash on screen. This happens to be one of my all time favorite films and Joaquin Phoenix is probably my favorite living actor, due in large part to this role. His voice, while perhaps not a perfect match is damn close, sounding a little rough around the edges when speaking, just like Cash’s actual voice, and reaching a deep baritone when singing. I still think he was robbed of the Academy Award for Best Actor (no offense, Philip Seymour Hoffman).
1. Amadeus (1984)
The oldest film on the list, both in terms of release year, and subject, is the best. Coming in at two hours and forty minutes, it is also the longest film on the list (although it beat Ray by only eight minutes). Depicted in a series of flashbacks, the story is told from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart, as a form of confession. He claims to have been responsible for Mozart’s death and tells a priest his story of how his jealousy of Mozart’s talent drove him to a terrible crime. It is an interesting take on the story of the famous musical prodigy. While there is a level of mystery involved, and Salieri features heavily in the story, it nonetheless depicts Mozart as the genius (and possible crazed one at that) he undoubtedly was. The actors are outstanding and the film is put together marvelously. It is no wonder it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and that both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were nominated for Best Actor (Abraham won in the end).