The best music biopics: great films about musical icons
Stories of the great, the good, and the ugly.
With Elvis now on the big screen, proving that there is a lot of life yet underused genre, we thought it time to run down the best music biopics.
Considering that they’re the world’s two premier art forms, it’s surprising how rarely movies have attempted to tell the stories of famous musicians.
Perhaps the replication of live performances, and the difficulty of portraying musical icons produces a barrier; there’s no doubt that to truly pull off a memorable biopic, an extraordinary lead performance is required.
Luckily, on at least 20 occasions, this has been achieved: we present our list of the must-see musical biopics in movie history.
The best music biopics
1. 24 Hour Party People (2002)
A total riot of a film, this purported to tell the story of Manchester TV and Music impresario Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan, who was seemingly born for the role), but as the legendary figure admitted during the course of the picture, “I’m a minor character in my own story”. Really, this film was an excuse to chart and champion the music of the golden period of Manchester music, featuring a host of huge and cult names: Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, Vini Reilly, Quando Qunago and many more besides, many guided by the genius/lunatic producer Martin Hannett. As if this wasn’t enough, it told the story of the rise of the acid house scene. How truthful was all of it though? As Wilson was fond of saying, “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”
2. Walk The Line (2005)
Telling the full, legendary story of the man in black was always going to be a difficult task and Walk The Line decided to focus mainly on the early years of the Johnny Cash story. Despite apparently believing that there were at least ten other actors better suited to the role, Joaquin Phoenix turned in a towering performance as the country legend, with Reese Witherspoon matching him as the great June Carter - both also producing fantastic vocal performances which did justice to the talents of their subjects. The story didn’t skirt around Johnny’s many issues with drug addiction and was, at times, a harrowing watch. While it would be great to see another biopic explore the fascinating latter stages of his life, Walk The Line will do very nicely for now.
3. The Doors (1991)
A film full of faults but for the central performance of Val Kilmer alone, this movie needs to be on the list. Kilmer is Doors' frontman Jim Morrison, all leather, posturing and psychedelia. The movie has the tics of every Oliver Stone movie (politics, surrealism, the 60s) but still manages to be a coherent look at one of the most influential bands of all time.
4. Ray (2004)
A movie that took director Taylor 15 years to make, it was well worth the wait, as Jamie Foxx’s stunning performance as Ray Charles won him an Oscar and kick-started his acting career. In addition, the movie was a box office hit, grossing over $120m. The only negative about the entire project was Charles himself sadly dying months before the premiere: we’re sure he would have approved of the finished film.
5. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Straight Outta Compton may be an official biopic (it was sanctioned by the remaining members of NWA) but there's still a brilliant menace to the whole thing. It's a powerful film filled with fantastic performances (O'Shea Jackson Jr is brilliant as his dad Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins nails Dr Dre) and a soundtrack that brought Dre himself out of retirement to produce.
6. Control (2007)
The first feature film directed by legendary photographer Anton Corbijn and boy, did it show. This was a visually stunning film but, of course, it would have been nothing without the, in turns, inspiring and heartbreaking story of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis being told in a sensitive and compelling fashion. Thankfully, for Joy Division fans everywhere, this was achieved with aplomb - not least due to Sam Riley’s stirring performance as Curtis - incredibly his first appearance in a movie.
7. Nowhere Boy (2009)
A UK-produced film which received widespread acclaim, Nowhere Boy told the story of John Lennon’s teenage years between 1955-1960, eschewing the more famous era of his life and thus becoming arguably more intriguing. This biopic had many parallels with Control - a director principally famous for photography in Sam Taylor-Wood, and Matt Greenhalgh writing the screenplay, as he did for the Ian Curtis film. A young Aaron Johnson starred as Lennon, receiving widespread plaudits, and even ended up marrying Taylor-Wood. Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono both gave their blessing to the film - so if it can unite those two, it must have been good - and it was.
8. What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)
A huge hit, but also a controversial one, with a host of scenes and storylines disputed by the parties involved. However, what was not disputed was that it was a gripping film, which captured the essence of Tina Turner’s fighting spirit and inner strength, as well as her incredible talent and pure star-quality. Whitney Houston was originally offered the role of Tina, but had to decline after becoming pregnant; no matter, as Angela Bassett turned in a powerhouse performance, matched by Laurence Fishburne as the domineering Ike.
9. Love & Mercy (2014)
Criminally under seen, Love & Mercy is a superb biopic focusing on the life of Brian Wilson. Set in two timelines, Wilson is played by two fantastic actors: Paul Dano in his younger years and John Cusack in his latter. Layered with pathos for the troubled genius behind the band, the focus of the film is on both the making of Pet Sounds and Wilson in an extreme type of therapy in the '80s. Don't come expecting a linear movie, but do expect a fantastic watch.
10. Amadeus (1984)
Milos Forman's Amadeus is one of the grandest music biopics around. While it's based around fictionalised events, it follows an idea that has been around for centuries - that Mozart and Italian composer Antonio Salieri were at war with each other. Here we see that feud take place in the most grandiose manner. This tale of jealousy and genius and the toll is takes on mental health is dazzling.
11. Great Balls of Fire (1989)
A fascinating look at one of the more controversial characters in rock and roll history, Great Balls Of Fire told the story of Jerry Lee Lewis. An astonishing piano player, and musical visionary, he was predicted to usurp Elvis as the king of rock and roll until a scandal erupted when he married his 13-year-old cousin. Dennis Quaid shone, playing Lewis, who also had to battle with alcoholism throughout his career. For the record, Lewis himself disliked the movie, but praised Quaid, saying, “he really pulled it off”. Goodness gracious: that’s a compliment.
12. Sid And Nancy (1986)
Appropriately, given the subject matter, Sid & Nancy was a controversial film, with John Lydon strongly criticising the whole thing (bar Gary Oldham’s performance as Sid) as being far removed from the reality of events - stating that “this movie is the lowest form of life”. However, critics disagreed as well as audiences - eventually; it was a box office flop, but has since established itself as a cult classic. Whatever people’s opinions, it was an essential look at one of the most fascinating characters in music history, made all the more intriguing by the fact that no-one really knows what the true story of the eponymous characters’ ending was. In addition, it created a couple of trivia classics: a pre-Hole and Kurt Cobain Courtney Love starred in a minor role after auditioning for Nancy and all five original members of Guns ‘n’ Roses were hired independently as extras for a club scene.
13. I’m Not There (2007)
Trying to tell the life story of Bob Dylan was always going to be a herculean task, so I’m Not There took a cleverly alternative approach instead. Strictly speaking, a biographical musical film rather than a straight biopic - indeed, the only time Dylan’s name appears in the film is in a caption at the start - it used six different actors to depict different elements of the ever-changing Dylan’s life. It was a successful way to tackle a compelling and chameleonic life, and was also notable for being one of the last movies to feature Heath Ledger.
14. Notorious (2009)
The story of Biggie Smalls is a real rags to riches tale, following his journey from drug dealing hustler to world famous rap star, but sadly there was no happy ending, as the East Coast-West Coast rivalry span out of control, taking the lives of both Smalls and Tupac Shakur. Not a perfect film by any means, but a fascinating look at a hip hop icon - and, of course, the soundtrack is impeccable.
15. La Vie en Rose (2007)
La Vie En Rose features a powerhouse performance by Marion Cotillard as French singer Édith Piaf who had one hell of a life. Rising from poverty - she was brought up by her grandmother in the Paris slums - to the superstar singer she became, this movie has a scattershot approach to telling Piaf's tale. It lingers longer than it should but you can't help be enthralled by the brilliant Cotillard.
16. Elvis (2022)
For those looking for a more grounded biopic of Elvis, then head to John Carpenter's fantastic TV movie (starring Kurt Russell). If you want want one that's bombastic, full of pomp and ceremony and frames the Elvis story around his devious manager Colonel Tom Parker (a cartoon-like Tom Hanks), then this is for you. It's filled and fuelled by the exuberance you have come to expect from director Baz Luhrmann but it's the central performance by Austin Butler that is standout here.
17. Last Days (2005)
In may ways a simple film, Last Days is almost hypnotic in how normal the movie is. Showcasing the last days of Kurt Cobain (framed around a musician called Blake, played by Michael Pitt), there's no big incident to latch on to - and not much music per se - as we watch the musician steep further into their mental decline. It will be seen as boring for some, but there is something poetic and unsettling about Last Days that kept us gripped.
18. The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
Yes, Gary Busey is 10 years too old to play the twenty-something Buddy Holiday but that doesn't matter when he puts in such a blistering performance. For the most part you will forget you are watching Busey as he it perfect in a film that plays a little with historical accuracy but is a great, straight-laced music biopic about a genius who was taken far too soon.
19. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)
Forget Gollum, the best performance Andy Serkis has done so far in his impressive career is that of Ian Dury. This music biopic about the punk who was stricken by polio early in his life is a brilliant look at the singer. This is one of the more experimental biopics on this list.
20. Rocketman (2019)
Bohemian Rhapsody may have gotten all of the accolades when it was released around the same time, but Rocketman is a much more assured, honest biopic. Taron Egerton steps into the specs of Elton John and makes the role his own, with flamboyance and frailty. It's a film about excess and all the trappings that come with that - even though it is produced by Elton, there are moments that will surprise. Directed by Rhapsody's Dexter Fletcher, here he offers up a more surreal, kaleidoscopic vision of his subject matter and the movie is all the more better for it.
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Additional reporting Marc Chacksfield