With all the fuss over Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody on the heels of its Golden Globes triumph, it might be the perfect time to examine it in reference to some of the other pop music biopic performances that have found success at the Oscars.
Now, before we get too deep down this road, there’s still the chance that either Malek or the film get shut out from this year’s Oscar nominees, but with wins at the Globes, as well as nominations from the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics, both seem fairly safe bets.
To lay the groundwork for what may lie ahead for the film and particularly Malek in the coming months, let’s start by going back 40 years.
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The first rock biopic to gain traction with the Oscars was this re-telling of the bespectacled one’s meteoric rise to stardom before his infamous death on “the day the music died,” and it gets this exercise rolling with one of the unlikeliest phrases most people would ever try to wrap their 21st-century brains around: “Academy Award nominee Gary Busey.”
That’s right. Gary Busey. That one.
Busey did his own singing for the role (a major bonus in consideration here) and despite looking distractingly Busey-like to today’s audiences, actually kinda nails the awkward, jittery nervous vibe that Holly was only really able to sell to a radio audience.
How did it turn out?: Busey never had a chance. Jon Voight dominated the field, winning the Oscar for his performance in Coming Home. If he hadn’t there still woulda been Robert De Niro’s Deer Hunter or even Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait to keep him from the stage.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The first rock biopic to earn its star an Oscar win was Sissy Spacek’s turn as Loretta Lynn in this hillbilly-to-the-Opry success story.
Spacek, too, earns bonus points for doing her own singing (an ask that was reportedly a ploy to scare Universal off from even casting her) and her transition from the titular humility to one of country’s biggest stars is impressive, excelling in particular at Lynn’s reluctance to embrace the limelight. The vocal inflection is also spot-on.
Spacek also benefits from a stellar supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, The Band’s Levon helm as her father and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline.
How did it turn out?: Well, you already know Spacek won, but it wasn’t without challenge as she beat out Gena Rowlands in Gloria and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. The film also nabbed an additional six nominations – including Best Picture – but came up bagel.
What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
This film, man. It’s a tough watch, which is what makes it arguably the most successful in the bunch. In terms of a behind-the-music type of narrative, it’s tough to eclipse the horrors of the Ike & Tina Turner dynamic.
In terms of the performances, Angela Bassett’s Tina Turner may be the best comparable for Malek’s Freddie Mercury. One of the greatest frontwomen and singers of all-time, Tina’s on-stage presence was a demanding ask of the 25-year-old Bassett and replicating one of rock’s most iconic voices was just a non-starter. Bassett doesn’t do her own singing, but why try to outdo a legend?
Laurence Fishburne is equally impressive as a terrifying Ike, pushing Tina’s descent through hell to rise like a phoenix with the title track by the film’s end.
How did it turn out?: If this film had come out a year earlier, it may have stood a better chance, but Fishburne and Bassett – who both received lead nominations – ran headlong into career-high performances by exceedingly likeable actors: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Holly Hunter in The Piano.
This may well be the gold-standard for on-screen musical depictions. Jamie Foxx sunk everything into his Ray Charles performance, aided in no small part by being a trained pianist and a hell of a singer, despite the fact that the film uses Charles’ originals on both fronts.
Few would have seen the performance coming, with his In Living Color past, but as Dave Chappelle quipped in Block Party – specifically about Foxx – “You never know what kind of talent a person has.”
Look, Ray itself is a flawed film. Taylor Hackford swings a bit too hard to bring viewers into Charles’ blindness and addiction through visual symbolism, but there’s very little to pick apart in Foxx’s performance, which is – pardon the pun – note perfect.
How did it turn out?: Foxx rolled awards season winning every Best Actor trophy of substance and usually doing so with his fellow nominees eating out of his hand. The film got five additional Oscar nominations –winning for sound mixing – including Best Picture and Director (both of which, yes, I realize I kinda just shit on).
Walk the Line (2005)
This one’s a two-fer! Despite being based on source material chronicling the life of Johnny Cash, the film rightly shines a light on June Carter as one of the driving forces behind his life and success. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon both nail the dynamic on- and off-stage.
While both do their own singing, it’s more the latter that makes Walk the Line tick. Witherspoon brings her Sweet Home Alabama pluck and charm to the role of June and convincingly conveys the tough-love devotion that got Johnny out of some jams, while Phoenix careens and spirals enough to convincingly portray a man who used singing in prison as a career move, but whose addictions would get so bad that he’d eventually spend two days holed up in a cave.
This film really depended on the dynamic and the two leads kinda nailed it.
How did it turn out?: Great for Reese, who won a Best Actress trophy. Joaquin got nominated for Best Actor but lost to Phil Seymour Hoffman’s Capote along with having to jockey for position with David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) and Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain). Maybe his chances mighta been better if he weren’t following up Foxx’s win. The film itself got an additional three technical nominations.
So, where does that leave Malek?
History tells us there’s no penalty for not doing your own singing and any inspection of Queen’s Live Aid set will demonstrate just how much he poured into his Freddie Mercury. It remains to be seen how far Malek can go with it, but with Christian Bale already having an Oscar and the film creeping up on $200 million box office, the stage is definitely set for him to compete for the big prize.