07/16/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

What Makes a Great Rock Biopic? (Hint: It's Not Factual Accuracy)

Midway through Oliver Stone's 1991 film, The Doors, Jim Morrison and the boys are in a recording studio when a car commercial comes on television featuring a bubblegummy version of "Light My Fire." Morrison, played to dusky precision by Val Kilmer, scowls at the small screen in disbelief. Upon discovering that the other band members had sold the rights to the song without consulting him, he flies off the deep end, hurling the TV set across the room and nearly killing Ray Manzarek.

It's a terrific scene, both encapsulating Morrison's fierce distaste for corporate pomposity and signifying the onset of a rift that will ultimately break up the band. There is, however, one small caveat with Stone's account: It never actually happened. While it's true the real-life Doors sold the rights to "Light My Fire" to Buick in 1968, no commercial ever made it on the air, at least not by most accounts. Morrison did really pitch a fit when he learned that a contract with Buick was signed without his consent, but he resolved the situation by calling the company and putting a kibosh on the deal, not by throwing a TV at his keyboardist.

And yet, say what you will -- it's still a terrific scene, exaggerated melodrama and all. Such is the not-so-delicate art of the great rock 'n' roll biopic, where mythology is essential and facts are optional. I don't mean that facetiously. Some of my favorite movies are rock biopics. But with so many new ones in the pipeline (biopics on Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Michael Jackson, and Janis Joplin are in various stages of development hell as we speak), it's important for filmmakers to understand what makes them work and why.

Rock biopics, like superhero and Star Trek movies, attract audiences from three distinct circles: the rabid fans, the casual fans, and the hung-over CUNY students who just happen to be watching TBS. If you're planning to make a rock biopic, the first thing you should know is that you will never, ever please the rabid fans. They've read every book and blog post about your subject, and they know too much. They will crucify you for your scene where Lennon -- instead of McCartney -- sings "Long Tall Sally," and they will hate your movie no matter what you do. But that's fine, since they'll go to see it anyway.

That said, it's still important to adhere to the proper rock-biopic formula, which is ridiculously simple. It essentially boils down to four main rules:

1. Honor the Genre

Let's be honest: All great rock biopics are pretty much the same. We open with Joe Schmoe from Podunk, who gets picked on, or laughed at by girls, or some shit like that. Then Joe joins a band, gets famous, gets hooked on an era-specific drug, lets fame go to his head, gets mad because "it's not about the music anymore," quits the band, and either dies in a bathtub or dies in a plane crash. This is why we go to see rock biopics, and it's a proven story arc. So don't mess with what works.

Good Example:

Sid and Nancy -- Alex Cox's 1986 film is not a great movie about punk rock or the Sex Pistols, but as a rock biopic about the tragically short life of Sid Vicious, it's a win. Cox structures the movie perfectly, breaking it up into two distinct halves. The first half, set in London, is full of angst, anarchy, and energy -- aided by the Pistols' music and finessed with all the raw vigor that makes seventies punk so irresistible. The second half, which runs in slow motion by comparison, follows Sid and Nancy to the bowels of Kochville, where our antiheroes descend into heroin addiction at the Hotel Chelsea. The contrast of these two halves makes Cox's message clear: love kills, heroin kills, road wives kill.

Bad Example:

I'm Not There -- Todd Haynes's 2007 quasi-biopic of Bob Dylan features six actors portraying different facets of the legendary folk singer's personality. Wait, what? This is apparently what happens when you give a simple assignment to an indie director with too much imagination. A straight-up biopic of Dylan would have been fine. But do we really need to see Cate Blanchett in drag? Or Cate Blanchett doing anything? That fact that film critics loved this movie only bolsters my point: A great rock biopic will rarely get the approval of anyone who is paid to sit though movies by David Lynch and Todd Solondz.

2. Keep the Estate on a Short Leash

This is a dicey issue. You can't make a movie about a rock icon without the cooperation of said icon's estate. Try it, and you'll end up with André 3000 running around in a Jimi Hendrix costume and no Jimi Hendrix music to back him up -- a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. (Remember who said it.) So while you definitely need the estate's blessing, it's equally imperative that you not give family members, spouses, or former band mates any real creative control. People who are too close to a subject are the least qualified to talk about it. They take everything personally, and they don't want to see their legacies tarnished with gratuitous sex, drug use, and inter-band dysfunction, which, of course, are all the things that make rock biopics worth watching.

3. Pick the Right Actor

This is without a doubt the single most important element of a great rock biopic. The actor must embody our rock icon without resorting to caricature. It's a delicate balance, one that involves imitation without mimicry. In terms of bankability, B-listers work best. Cast a megastar, and all we'll see is Oscar bait. Cast an unknown, and we won't go see it at all.

By the way, these folks were all phenomenal: Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Sam Riley as Ian Curtis, Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, and the aforementioned Kilmer. (Sorry, Joaquin.)

4. Choose Myth Over Fact

The purpose of the rock biopic is not to recreate a play-by-play account of the rock icon's life. Rather, the filmmaker must distill those events into a readymade product that lends itself to cinematic consumption -- all while capturing the essence of what makes the subject worthy of a biopic in the first place. That means being liberal with facts -- often, if necessary -- for the sake of preserving the larger allegory at hand.

For instance, Oliver Stone got a lot of flak for that TV-throwing scene described above, as well as the many other gross dramatizations in The Doors. Indeed, that film is almost universally detested among Doors purists, including, most notably, members of the Doors themselves. (Ray Manzarek has called it a "pack of lies," understandable seeing how his onscreen counterpart was Orson from Desperate Housewives.) Despite those well-founded criticisms, however, Stone mostly fulfilled his purpose as a cinematic rock biographer. He made Morrison look completely unsympathetic, sociopathic, egomaniacal, and unlikable. But also cool.

Isn't that what being a rock star is all about?

Christopher Zara's book, Tortured Artists, is available now from Adams Media.