CinePile: 10 Troubled Musician Flicks

CinePile: 10 Troubled Musician Flicks

As the film AMY hits cinemas, we look at some on-screen portraits of supremely talented artists who struggled with their inner demons.

The first feature-length film about iconic singer Amy Winehouse, called AMY, is about to hit our screens, and is already being raved about by critics as a compelling and heartbreaking look at the captivating but troubled talent. While it’s the first documentary about Winehouse, it’s definitely not the first onscreen portrait of a supremely talented artist who struggled with their inner demons. CinePile takes a look at ten films with troubled musos at their centre.

Win! Thanks to Luna Palace, we have 5 doubles up for grabs to a premiere screening of the film AMY at Luna Leederville on Saturday, June 27, at 10am. For your chance to win, email with your full name and the subject line ‘back to black’, by 12pm (Perth time) Friday 26/6.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

495 the devil and daniel johnston

This documentary about the cult Texan-based songwriter / singer Daniel Johnston (who Kurt Cobain once called "the greatest living songwriter") was one of those unexpectedly great watches that ends up really staying with you for ages. Johnston, who was a severe manic depressive, is a captivating subject, and the documentary is balanced in its revelation of both his genius and madness: filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig positions Johnston's as a man whose bipolar disorder and artistic ambitions go hand in hand. If you’re not familiar, Johnston’s releases have come to be regarded as classics of DIY experimentation: his lo-fi, soulful tracks have a special place in the heart of many fans. A highly skilled pianist and guitarist, Johnston recorded most of his work in his basement on a boom box with a broken chord organ for accompaniment in the 1980s, releasing on cassette and his agent negotiated record deals while he was in a mental hospital, and was only really an underground hit until Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to the 1992 MTV Movie Awards, and his exposure grew wider. The doco mainly consists of archival video and sound recordings: we are taken through his life story - the struggles and the successes -  from high school to today, including some amusing and scary incidents when he's been off his meds. The film also highlights his visual artwork (Johnston's cartoonish drawings of devils and crucifixes have become famous in some circles), and explores his relationship with his loyal and loving Christian fundamentalist parents. As a documentary it's poignant and entertaining, with just a touch of eerie mystery. Music and art fans will enjoy this portrait of a creative genius, and even if you have no idea who he is, the documentary's still a really interesting take on madness and love. 

Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson)

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Currently showing in cinemas, this biopic about the Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson was produced and directed by Bill Pohlad (12 Years a Slave, Into the Wild) and although not the first attempt to tackle the Beach Boys story, is the first approved by Wilson and his family. The film cuts between two parts of the mercurial musician Wilson’s life, and the negative effect of fame on his psyche. The first part covers his younger days (where Paul Dano plays him), in the mid 60s, when he has a panic attack and stops touring with the Beach Boys and retreats to the studio, bringing together session musicians to record the imaginative instrumental tracks that would become Pet Sounds – it’s thrilling to watch Good Vibrations materialise, these scenes are beautifully shot and capture Wilson’s manic creativity perfectly. In the latter period we see an older Wilson (John Cusack), who is now severely troubled - Paul Giamatti stars as his overbearing psychologist Landy and Elizabeth Banks as his girlfriend, who leads him to salvation. My Dad saw the film over the weekend and had this to say of it: "A brilliant portrayal of a tortured musical genius. Well-written and acted, with many great renditions of the music we love from The Beach Boys." I would say the fact my Dad didn't fall asleep during it, as is his way with 99% of films, is a sign it's a winner. 

Control (Ian Curtis)

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I remember being really blown away when I first saw this black and white film about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, several years ago. The film’s a fictional narrative, based on Curtis’ life as a musician living in small-town, 1970s England – we watch as the ambitious musician’s career takes off, and Curtis struggles to prioritise his band commitments with the expectations of his young family, all the while battling a heavy case of anxiety and an epileptic condition. Even if you’re not the world’s biggest Joy Division fan, it’s a beautiful piece of cinema and awesome to get an insight into the exciting heydey of Joy Division, as well as a cool larger meditation on the effect of fame on the human soul.

What's Love Got to Do With It? (Tina Turner)

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Before you cringe at the thought of watching a film about the frizzy-haired, Nutbush City Limits singer, this film’s actually really decent – and one of the few films around that gives you a no-holds barred look into the dirtier side of showbiz. It tells the story of Tina’s rise to stardom (with Angela Bassett really giving it her all as Tina), delving beneath the glory for a confronting and personal portrayal of her relationship wtih abusive yet charming husband Ike Turner (played by Laurence Fishburne). As the duo hit max fame and big money, Ike falls prey to a tonne of cocaine and girls, and Tina cops the worst of him, before hatching her escape route. The music performance scenes are electric, and will give you a whole new appreciation for Tina’s music. 

Walk the Line (Johnny Cash)

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I recently re-watched this one and was reminded what a ripper of a biopic it is (if a little heavy on the melodrama at times). The film follows the early years of country legend Johnny Cash, who overcomes his lack of self-esteem in the hands of an abusive father who blames him for his brother’s accidental death to make a name for himself in music. As his track Ring of Fire takes off, so does his love of amphetamines and alcohol, and he becomes quite the unstable fella. By his side the whole time is his devoted wife and co-performer, June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash and Reece Witherspoon June Carter and it’s their performances that make the film work (Witherspoon won as Oscar for the role and Phoenix was nominated) - they also do their own singing in the film, and the concert scenes are great.

A Skin Too Few: The Last Days of Nick Drake

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This biographical documentary is only 50 minutes long, but in that time tells a tender and quite haunting tale of the 26 year-old Warwickshire British musician, who, despite his youth, became a cult hero across three albums for his strong folk-pop songwriting (you might have heard Nick’s moving music in films such as Garden State, or The Royal Tenenbaums. The introverted Nick battled depression and schizophrenia, and turned to his guitar and music for relief and escape, up until the point he became so sick he couldn’t make it through a recording session. The film’s narrated by Nick’s sister, and features his music throughout. Super cinematic and visually poetic, it’s a richly detailed but pretty devastating portrait of a young man that, despite being surrounded by love, was personally drowned in darkness.

The Doors (Jim Morrison)


This one follows Jim Morrison, the charismatic lead singer of 1960s psych-rock group The Doors, from his days as a film student in LA to his death in Paris at the age of 27. Shot by Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July), it’s been regarded pretty highly since it came out as a defining visual documentation of the rock ‘n’ roll era – the film has a super strong focus on style, with acid-tinged swirls of rainbow colours artistically washing over the screen throughout, soundtracked by no less than 25 Doors tracks. Val Kilmer (who did heaps of his own singing for the film) really kills it (apparently event he surviving Doors couldn’t tell his vocals apart from Morrisons originals) with a crazy-good performance as Morrison, who turns from respectable poet into a self-destructing drunk, as he gets overly involved in the political riots, LSD, booze, and beautiful girls that were abundant in the free-wheelin’ 60s. There’s also a great doco about the Doors, referred to as “the anti-Oliver Stone” called ‘When You’re Strange’ that’s worth a look.

Get It While You Can (Janis Joplin) (In Production)

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Currently in production, this biopic of the hard-living female rock ‘n’ roll singer, who died of a drug overdose at 27, is set to star one of Hollywood’s biggest names Amy Adams, and is due out later this year. Driving the film forward is Ron Terry, a music-producer-turned-screenwriter who knew and worked with the renegade musician - whose working with the director of The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée. Adams is reputedly being put through some intense vocal conditioning in order she reach Joplin’s lower registers – given Joplin has been referred to as “the female Elvis” for her hypnotising life performances – the pressure is on. However, Adams proved her chops in American Hustle, and is in the good hands of Vallée, who knows how to get a gripping performance out of an actor playing a real-life role, if his work with Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Matthew McConaugheyin DBC is anything to go by.

Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain)


This one gets points for originality – it strays pretty far from your regular rock documentary-artist-portrait, instead choosing to take a really intimate, visceral, and at time quite surreal look at Cobain, that perfectly matches the star’s messy and strange persona. The filmm’s creator Brett Morgen uses stuff straight from Cobain’s own archives -  art, recordings, never seen before home movies – that he blends with animation and revelatory interviews from Cobain’s family and closest friends, as he traces Cobain’s early days in through to his success and downfall as the leader of seminal grunge band Nirvana. Prepare for loud music and louder images, as you watch an artist at odds with his surroundings.  It’s actually the only authorised film about Cobain - Nirvana fans will get a new and interesting insight, while those new to Cobain will get a better appreciation of why he’s become an icon.

Amy (Amy Winehouse)

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Despite my lack of interest in car racing, a few years ago I watched Senna, the British documentary about the life (and tragic death) of Brazilian motor-racing champ Ayrton Senn. It ended up being a really thrilling cinematic experience, but more than that, a film with real heart: a look into the soul of a man struggling to constantly better himself. Same as racing cars, I’ve never really gotten into notorious British songstress/five time Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse in a big way, but I’m confident in the ability of the team behind Senna, who are helming Amy, a new biopic about Amy Winehouse, to tell her story to me in a way that will make me probably find newfound fandom for her. As everyone fell under her spell, Winehouse, who was hailed as a ‘once in a lifetime talent’ for her expressive voice and intimate lyrics, fell apart under the burning light of fame, using drinking and drugs to numb the pain. The film celebrates Amy’s artistry while looking into the questionable circumstances that led to her downturn (Amy’s filmmakers were apparently granted interviews with family members and friends, and given access to never-before-seen, super-revealing archival footage). Amy received thunderous applause from the Edinborough Film Festival audience recently, with not a dry eye in the house, and is getting rave reviews (“Amy is quite simply a superbly composed, triumphant masterpiece that must be seen, regardless of whether you like Winehouse's music or not.”) Sounds powerful – see above for your chance to win tickets.

Amy screens at Luna Cinemas Leederville and Luna SX (Fremantle) from July 16. Visit the website for more details and to buy tickets. 

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