Is this the Real Life, Or is this Just Fantasy? Music Biopics vs Music Docs

Adam Fay,

With Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic storming the world, we thought it was time to ask some questions about music movies and how we watch them.

Are Music Biopics simply becoming sanitised snapshots of these music legends? Designed more as crowd-pleasers than truth-seekers? Or should we stop overthinking them and just enjoy the music, the spectacle, and leave the deeper study of these icons to in-depth Documentaries?

The answer to that depends mostly on what you want to know about an artist, and if you want to delve beyond the hit songs. Some Biopics do the job well enough, while some fall short of painting the whole picture.

Below we look at several examples of Music Biopics vs Music Documentaries in the hope of guiding which is the best fit for you.


BIOPIC:

Elvis (2022)

From his rise to fame to his unprecedented superstardom, rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley maintains a complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker, over the course of 20 years.

DOC:

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)

Elvis Presley became the biggest star in music, thanks to a staggering range of influences that created a revolutionary sound in his lifelong search for self-expression. This documentary reveals his creative journey from childhood through to his final recording sessions in 1976.

Biopic or Doc?

For those looking for a rollicking good time and not necessarily fussed about learning the deeper motivations about “The King” and what made him tick, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis will both entertain and keep the toes tapping. True to form, Luhrmann’s frenetic direction is full of quick-cuts, montages and show stopping set pieces, with a knockout performance from Austin Butler playing the swivel-hipped legend.

If you are after a more steady-paced and revealing journey into the life and times of Elvis Presley, we would definitely point you towards Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This 2-part HBO Doc is the definitive guide to who Elvis was, what drove him, and how he became the superstar from humble beginnings.

Verdict?

The Biopic is suited to the casual admirer, and is guaranteed to entertain and dazzle as only Baz can. For those who want to learn more about Elvis the man, check out the absorbing Doc. We recommend both will work beautifully as companion pieces.


BIOPIC:

The Doors (1991)

A biographical depiction of 1960s rock band singer Jim Morrison aka the ‘Electric Poet’. Initially a film student, Morrison rose to fame as the band’s lead singer-songwriter but died at the age of 27.

DOC:

When You’re Strange (2009)

Uncovering historic and previously unseen footage, When You’re Strange provides new insight into the revolutionary impact of the music and legacy of The Doors, tracing their journey from their formation in 1965 through to Jim Morrison’s untimely death in 1971.

Biopic or Doc?

At the time, Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison was lauded as something special. 30 years later, rewatching The Doors is a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Sure, Kilmer embodies Jim and is a dead ringer, but the film itself borders on…cheesy. More interested in the myth of Morrison than exploring anything significant about him. The music is all there, and Oliver Stone does a decent job of plotting Morrison’s journey, but it all feels…well…a little naff.

When You’re Strange take a slightly less worshipful route than Oliver Stone’s movie. Focusing more on the wider band as a unit instead of narrowing the focus on Jim Morrison. It’s a Documentary that is hardly breaking any new ground, but for curious fans who don’t know the story and wanting to know more, it does a much better job of painting the band as more than a one man show.

Verdict?

We suggest trying the Doc for a better exploration of what The Doors were about. As the years pass, we feel the Biopic gets more and more cringe and drifting into more a curiosity piece than anything more.


BIOPIC:

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

A foot stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury, who defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet.

DOC:

Queen: Days of Our Lives (2011)

In 1971, four university students got together to form a band. Since then, that certain band called `Queen’ have released 26 albums and sold over 300 million records worldwide.

Biopic or Doc?

The massive success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rami Malek’s Oscar winning portrayal of Freddie Mercury made it an easy target for film buffs and music aficionados to shoot the movie down in flames. The film provides a decent look at the life of Mercury, without touching on much of what made the guy interesting, and instead bringing the music to the front. The culmination of which makes Bohemian Rhapsody more a ‘jukebox celebration’ of the Queen catalogue (and live show) than a serious study of a unique band or individual.

For a deeper look at this side of things, Queen: Days of Our Lives is a comprehensive Documentary that reveals the triumph and tragedy of the iconic rock band in equal parts. Making this study feel much more like the real story as opposed to the Hollywood stylised version. The demise of Mercury alone is captured here with sensitivity and sadness, providing a more compelling and raw document of his life.

Verdict?

For a thigh-slapping, head-nodding good time, Bohemian Rhapsody is hard to beat, and has many rousing moments. But for those wanting to explore more, we’d recommend diving into the Doc to find a more accurate story of the band.


BIOPIC:

Walk The Line (2005)

The Oscar-winning film chronicles the birth of a new kind of American artist, Johnny Cash, who had to move past raw anger, the ravages of addiction, and the temptations of stardom to discover the voice that would make him a hero to generations.

DOC:

Johnny Cash: American Rebel (2016)

A celebration of the larger-than-life Johnny Cash, from the unique perspective of the Man in Black’s greatest songs. Each song brings to life a chapter in the story of America from the 1950s to the modern day, as we tour the life of musical and artistic expression of one of music’s most notorious rebels.

Biopic or Doc?

Arguable one of the best Biopics of its kind, Walk the Line succeeds in capturing the essence of Johnny Cash and his music. The performance of the leads (in particular, Joaquin Phoenix’s dedicated portrayal) contributes to a wholly entertaining and faithful look at the life of ‘The Man in Black’ without pulling punches.

Johnny Cash: American Rebel (AKA – I Am Johnny Cash) is a fairly straightforward retelling of the great man’s life and features a number of famous talking heads recounting their stories about Cash and what his music meant to them. The Documentary leans away from the drug use and darker side of his mythology, but features enough great concert and TV footage to make it a worthy companion piece to the Oscar winning movie.

Verdict?

We are going to go the Biopic here. We feel it gives a broad enough picture of Johnny Cash and showcases what made him a legend. For many, this may prove more than enough.


BIOPIC:

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Chronicles the rise of the ground-breaking gangsta-rap group N.W.A. The legendary rap group burst onto the music scene in 1988 with a controversial yet undeniably compelling view of the violence and brutality of gang-ridden South Los Angeles.

DOC:

N.W.A & Easy-E: Kings of Compton (2015)

A unique look at N.W.A, the most influential rap group in history and the inventors of gangster rap. Chronicles the life and death of controversial rapper Eazy-E and the birth of the careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre through never-before-seen candid interviews, personal photos, and touching stories.

Biopic or Doc?

Brilliant casting and dedicated direction makes Straight Outta Compton a true winner. Not only does the movies successfully document the rise of N.W.A and the personalities within the group, but perhaps more importantly, it manages to capture the social impact at the time – something few biopics have managed to do successfully. Despite the violence, the injustice and the sadness within the story, you still manage to walk out of the movie feeling excited, exhilarated and even optimistic.

N.W.A & Easy-E: Kings of Compton is a lazier account of the legendary group. A shame for such a great story. It offers a so-so retelling of what made N.W.A special, but the low budget nature impedes what should have been a more thorough and enlightening document. Here’s hoping a more dedicated piece gets made one day.

Verdict?

Definitely go the Biopic, which is one of the best ever made. The Doc is only recommended for true fans who aren’t overly fussed by some shoddy details.


BIOPIC:

Respect (2021)

Following the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom, RESPECT is the remarkable true story of the music icon’s journey to find her voice.

DOC:

Amazing Grace (2018)

A documentary presenting Aretha Franklin with choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles in January 1972.

Biopic or Doc?

Jennifer Hudson commands the role of the great Aretha Franklin in a part she was seemingly born to play. And while Respect is a loving tribute to the icon, it never quite soars. Still, for fans and newcomers alike it’s a decent tribute to a class act, and the songs are so damn good that they succeed in breaking up the hefty runtime.

Amazing Grace on the other hand is a one in a million. Less a Documentary and more a concert film, it still somehow does a better job of capturing the essence (and sheer brilliance) of the undisputed Queen of Soul. It’s a vivid snapshot of its troubled time and a tribute to one of the world’s greatest singers all at once. With tears, joy and feeling captured through both Aretha’s performance and on the faces of the people in the audience.

Verdict?

While the recommendation is usually the reverse, in this case we’d suggest watching the the Doc first, and then moving on to watch the Biopic. Respect is a nice second act, but Amazing Grace is the perfect opener.


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