Total Recall: Walk Hard While My Biopic Gently Weeps
Opening acts: This is Spinal Tap, Fear of a Black Hat, Sweet and LowdownWoody Allen's career from the mid-1990s up until his breathtaking comeback, Match Point (79 percent), is frequently considered a morass of light comedies and experimental failures. Some deserve their reputation (Hollywood Ending [47 percent], Celebrity [39 percent]) and some are actually overrated (Deconstructing Harry), but there's treasures nestled here that recall Allen's '80s output and hinted at the tenuous upswing he's currently on. Case in point: Sweet and Lowdown (78 percent), Allen's 1999 tender biopic of fictional guitarist and all-around bastard, Emmett Ray. Sean Penn earned an Oscar nomination for his role as motormouth Ray, and Samantha Morton, as Hattie, earned her first nomination as Ray's mute love interest. A low-key comedy with some gut-wrenchingly dramatic moments and delectable jazz tunes, Sweet and Lowdown has been called "undeniably pleasant. [Morton's] performance is like nothing I've seen in recent years." (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.)
Most artists pay respects to the masters in subtle homages. Woody Allen, on the other hand, wears his inspirations on his sleeve. One doesn't have to look further than Isaac Davis rattling off his favorite things in the world into a tape recorder in Manhattan (97 percent), or the color recreations of Marx Brothers skits in Everyone Says I Love You (82 percent) for evidence. Sweet and Lowdown is quick to call Emmett Ray "the second greatest guitar player in the world" -- a droll joke and direct reference to guitar maestro Django Reinhardt. Ray passes out during a chance encounter with Reinhardt and several facets of Ray's behavior -- he's reckless, a gambler, and has just as much luck as he does talent -- mimics Reinhardt's. But it could be said those are common strains in any musician's life. After all, moral disintegration makes for great idols.
Sweet and Lowdown: You have underwear and socks to wash.
If you can't get your fix from these fictional musical biopics, there are a number of other notables sure to tickle your funnybone and tap your feet. There's the Beatles-skewering mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (88 percent), featuring cameos from George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, and Bill Murray. Tom Hanks' sweet, energetic That Thing You Do! (91 percent) tells the story of a fictional Beatle-esque band's brief moment in the sun. Chris Rock lampoons gangsta rap in CB4 (63 percent), and the Roger Ebert-penned, Russ Meyer-helmed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (62 percent) is the X-rated tale of the trials and tribulations of an all female rock band. Rock on!