Rock and reel: Rockbiopics go lo-fi

From Ian Curtis to John Lennon, musical heroes have long fascinated film-makers. As a raft of new biopics hits our screens, Geoffrey Macnab explains the eternal love affair
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The Independent Culture

The low-budget rock'n'roll biopic is fast emerging as British cinema's favourite new genre. Anton Corbijn's Control (2007), about Joy Division's ill-fated lead singer, Ian Curtis, kick-started a wave of films that has continued with Nick Moran's Telstar (about record producer Joe Meek), and now Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy (about the youthful John Lennon) and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (about Ian Dury). A feature is being planned about The Kinks and there have also been a rash of British-made feature documentaries about everybody from Scott Walker to Joe Strummer and Dr Feelgood. The new wave of rock biopics follows on from films like 24 Hour Party People, Backbeat and Stoned.

Where does this cinematic fascination come from? In the late 1990s, in the wake of Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the fad among ambitious and irreverent young British film-makers was for making gangster pics. Too many misfires and too much macho posturing soon put paid to that cycle. Costume dramas and literary adaptations remain staples of our national cinema. We have kitchen sink realism and a fairly robust tradition of making low budget horror films, but we don't do sci-fi especially well. We don't make Westerns. We don't have the budget for more than a handful of war films. If British film-makers want to tell stories about colourful, larger-than-life characters, it is only natural that they turn to the gallery of British rock and pop icons.

To understand just why film-makers are so obsessed with our rock'n'roll past, just watch the opening moments of Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple's rousing and affecting new film about the 1970s pub rockers Dr Feelgood. This is when we are first introduced to the band's former guitarist Wilko Johnson as he clambers onto his roof and into his homemade astronomer's hut. "My terrible job is to stay up all night, scanning the heavens for the rescue ships," Johnson confides. The Canvey Island guitarist looks as if he might indeed have landed from space. He is eccentric and intense – a troubled visionary with a very British sense of humour. In other words, he is a "type" that recurs again and again in British rock history.

With the Brit-rock biopic, the old cliché of "stranger than fiction" applies. Screenwriters would surely have struggled to create characters as compelling and outlandish as Ian Curtis, the doomed singer of Joy Division, or Joe Meek, the recording wizard fashioning his version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound in a Holloway Road flat, or polio-victim turned punk troubadour Ian Dury, or even the swaggering young John Lennon.

Perhaps surprisingly, the music isn't foregrounded in these biopics at the expense of everything else. Control plays as a love story as much as a film about a troubled and suicidal rock star. Its drama comes from the conflict Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) experiences as a result of his extramarital affair. Nowhere Boy is an embroiled family melodrama, exploring the tensions between Lennon's mother and his aunt and his ambivalent feelings toward them both. Oil City Confidential is as much an Iain Sinclair-style essay about Englishness and the psychogeography of Canvey Island as it is a conventional account of the rise and fall of Dr Feelgood.

The new Brit-rock biopics are also relatively low-budget affairs. These are not Walk the Line-like epics with big Hollywood stars and production values but films made against the odds, often with unknowns playing the young would-be rock idols. They make excellent calling cards for first-time directors like Corbijn and Sam Taylor-Wood.

Writer Matt Greenhalgh, who scripted Nowhere Boy and Control, points out that both films are "pretty much contained." They don't offer a panoramic view of British music culture. Instead, they focus very tightly on the stories of their protagonists. That's what gives the films their intensity. It is also a way of keeping costs down.

"English people are quite lively and music is so much part of the fabric here," the Dutch rock photographer turned film-maker Anton Corbijn (director of Control) says of the lure of rock musicians as movie subjects. "The English are born actors. The way they tell stories is very vivid. Making music is another way of storytelling. These characters are colourful and therefore maybe good subjects for films."

As a young man growing up in Holland, Corbijn used to read the NME avidly, poring over stories about the irreverent, self-destructive heroes of the punk era. When he came to Britain at the beginning of the Thatcher era, he was startled by the poverty he encountered and by the ferocious intensity of the best bands. He describes seeing skinny, chain-smoking kids wearing too few clothes, shivering in the cold outside concert venues.

"They're all great stories and great characters," Damian Jones, producer of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, agrees of the attraction of rock biopics to film-makers. "That's the connection between all of them."

Nostalgia also drives the film-makers. Whether the punk-era Manchester of Control or the Liverpool of The Quarrymen and the Cavern Club depicted in Nowhere Boy or the seedy, Joe Orton-like 60s north London of Telstar, all the recent rock biopics have been period pieces. "A lot of what you do comes out of your teenage years. A lot of your actions now are caused by obsessions in those years," Corbijn says of what pushed him to recreate the world of Ian Curtis and Joy Division.

Many of the recent rock biopics have been coming-of-age stories. Their rebellious and charismatic protagonists have a touch of J D Salinger's Holden Caulfield about them. The connection between their musical identities and their sex lives is always drawn explicitly. "Rock and Roll means sex," John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is told by his headstrong mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). In their portrayal of angry and dreamy anti-heroes chafing against their provincial backgrounds, Nowhere Boy and Control also echo Sixties British pictures like Billy Liar and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Jones was keen to make a rock movie and alighted upon Ian Dury after flicking through the first 20 or so issues of The Face magazine, which was launched in 1980. He had also considered Marc Bolan and Freddie Mercury but decided that "Dury was the most interesting and the least obvious."

Watch a trailer for 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll'

The air of mystery adds to the films' allure. In Nowhere Boy, Greenhalgh was writing about a national icon. "It's John Lennon! If you don't get it right or you're treading water and have made a bad film, you are going to be told." However, this is Lennon as a young man, before the birth of The Beatles. His complex relationship with his mother and aunt hasn't been explored in any other Beatles documentaries or feature films. Lennon may be a familiar figure, but Nowhere Boy uncovers a hidden part of his biography.

Ian Curtis likewise remains an enigmatic figure. "The great thing about people from the 60s and 70s is that there was more mystery left because not everything was recorded and revealed. That was very clear when I tried to do the research on Ian Curtis. There is not a single interview on visual tape," Corbijn points out. "There is a lot more to discover – and mystery is always a good thing for films."

For that reason, Corbijn suggests it would be very hard indeed to make a biopic about U2's Bono, with whom he has collaborated many times on photo-shoots and promos. "Everybody knows so much about him and he is still very active." (Both Curtis and Lennon died almost 30 years ago, in 1980.)

Julien Temple has described his many music films, starting with The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle in 1980 and continuing with Oil City Confidential and his forthcoming Kinks biopic, as part of an ongoing history of "rebel culture in England either side of the 1970s." The other film-makers behind the recent spate of rock biopics bristle at the idea that their films are part of an emerging mini-genre. They see their own rock films as one-offs and make it clear that they have no plans to make further biopics. Most are now moving in a very different direction. Corbijn, for example, is busy editing a new George Clooney thriller called The American. Jones is planning Eurovision: the Movie, a comedy about the Eurovision Song Contest written by Dan Mazer (best known for his work with Sacha Baron Cohen on films like Borat and Brüno). Greenhalgh is working on a new screenplay called Gangs of Manchester, about gang warfare in 19th-century Manchester that he hopes he can persuade Sam Taylor-Wood to direct.

There are plenty of other maverick British rock idols whose stories haven't yet been told on film. As Greenhalgh puts it, "Britain has been at the forefront of youth cultural music for quite a long time. We have a very rich history of these characters who go on to lead the world in this sphere." It's a fair bet, then, that we won't have to wait too long for the next wave of biopics to come rolling along.

Nowhere Boy is on general release, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is released on Friday. Oil City Confidential is to be launched across the UK on 2 February with a screening and a concert by Wilko Johnson beamed live from Koko in London

Best of British: Four homegrown biopics

Control (2007)

More Dostoevsky's 'Notes From the Underground' than 'Top of the Pops'. Joy Division's frontman, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide aged 23, was the antithesis of the typical narcissistic rock star. Dutch director Anton Corbijn knew Curtis and his biopic, shot in black and white, is moody, compelling and a touch lugubrious. Helped by a febrile performance from Sam Riley as Curtis, Corbijn shows how the singer's intensely troubled private life drove him as a musician.

Rock'n'roll rating 2/5

Some suitably gloomy rumpy-pumpy between Curtis and his wife, a bit of drug abuse and lots of backstage rock'n'roll grottiness.

Backbeat (1994)

Iain Softley's underrated film about the Beatles in their early days shows the virtues of taking an oblique and unexpected approach to familiar material. The film is less about Lennon and McCartney than it is about Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), the "missing" Beatle. It helps, too, that Softley recruited the mercurial Ian Hart who excels as a fiery Lennon.

Rock'n'roll rating 3/5

Lots of unrequited love – Lennon's for Sutcliffe – little drug use, and oodles of rock'n'roll tunes, though McCartney later complained of the film, "they've actually taken my rock'n'rollness off me".

Sid and Nancy (1986)

It's debatable how accurate Alex Cox's biopic was in its portrayal of The Sex Pistols. Its depiction of Johnny Rotten has come in for particular criticism. Nonetheless, Cox had Gary Oldman at the height of his powers playing Sid Vicious as a tragic hero in an utterly compelling performance.

Rock'n'roll rating 5/5

Copious heroin and an awful lot of punk excess: Vicious carving letters in his chest with a razor blade, the thwacking of a reporter with a bass guitar and ultimately murder and an overdose.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

It's a pity that Michael Winterbottom didn't recruit the real Tony Wilson to play himself in this biopic about the TV personality behind Factory Records and The Hacienda club. Steve Coogan is funny enough as Wilson without ever exorcising memories of Paul Calf and Alan Partridge. No masterpiece but the film has a scattergun energy about it that many more stately rock biopics lack.

Rock 'n'roll rating 4/5

Pretty smutty – there's a blow-job in the back of a van – with bundles of cocaine-snorting and pill popping and heaps of shambolic rock'n'roll capers, including Shaun Ryder firing a gun into a Hacienda mirror.