You're setting yourself up for failure if you throw all the great musical biopics into one hopper and then try to pick a Top Five. It ain't going to happen. For one thing, there are too many to choose from, and for another, the competing genres, disparate historical timeframes, and stylistic choices are going to force you make some weird choices.
Consider: Which was the better movie: Director Clint Eastwood's Bird (the bio of jazz great Charlie Parker) or Milos Forman's Amadeus (Mozart's story)? How would you even compare those two? Or how would you compare La Vie en Rose ( Marion Cotillard playing Edith Piaf) with Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter)? Forget about it.
So let's stick with rock biographies, of which there are plenty. And before we name them, let's take care of some nasty business by announcing that Oliver Stone's The Doors (Jim Morrison's story) and Todd Haynes' I'm Not There (Bob Dylan) won't be on the list. As accomplished a director as Stone is (I loved "Wall Street"!!), his tendency to embrace sordid melodrama gets him in trouble. Subtlety has never been Stone's strong suit.
As for Haynes (who directed the excellent Far From Heaven), he made the artistic decision to present Dylan, the most enigmatic musician of his generation, in the most "enigmatic" manner possible. Alas, just as Nabokov was always trying prove how well he could write, Haynes tried to prove how innovative he could be. As a consequence, his "art" swallowed up his story. He had Cate Blanchett playing Dylan. 'Nuff said.
Here's our list of the 5 Greatest Rock Biopics, in no particular order:
CONTROL (2007): Directed by Anton Corbjin, it's the depiction of Ian Curtis (played by Sam Riley), lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division. There was just enough music, just enough chronological trajectory, and just enough personal tragedy to be riveting. The real-life Curtis, who was an epileptic and clinical depressive, took his own life at age 23.
SID AND NANCY (1986): Alex Cox directed this morbid epic. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb star as former Sex Pistols member Sid Vicious and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Think of the wholesomeness of the Osmonds and Dolly Parton. Now move 180-degrees in the opposite direction, until you encounter heroin addiction, squalor, self-loathing and death. This is an unbelievably well done, disturbing movie.
THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978): Proving that a rock bio (directed by Steve Nash) doesn't have to be all angst and despair, this exuberant film launched Gary Busey's career. Besides bearing a jaw-dropping resemblance to the real-life Buddy Holly, Busey masterfully captured the joyful vitality of 1950s rock. Great music, smooth trajectory, and a sorrowful denouement. Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a plane crash in 1959, at the height of their careers. Valens was only 17.
THE RUNAWAYS (2010): Floria Sigismondi directed this woefully underrated and underappreciated biography of the first big-time female rock guitarist, Joan Jett, played by the talented Kristen Stewart. Sigismondi taps in brilliantly to the 1970s glam rock zeitgeist and seediness of LA, and Michael Shannon (as real-life manager Kim Fowley) almost steals the movie.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989): The life and times of Jerry Lee Lewis, the inimitable piano-playing genius of the 1950s and beyond, depicted heroically by Dennis Quaid. Arguably, this is Quaid's all-time best role. Jerry Lee's professional nickname was The Killer, and Quaid flat-out killed in this part. It was directed by Jim McBride (who did the 1983 remake of Breathless, another underrated movie).
As a postscript, a movie pitch: Hollywood needs to make a bio of Janis Joplin. It needs to star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (as James Gurley), and needs Anton Corbjin to direct. Let's all meet at The Ivy to discuss it.