The Best Biopics About Musicians

Sara Portnoy | March 15, 2019 3:16 pm

Musicians live interesting and inspiring lives, so it’s no surprise that there are many beautifully crafted movies made about them. Viewers gather to watch biopics about musicians because they give us an inside glimpse on what they were like in real life. Many talented actors are able to transform into the role of a famous musician, making it difficult to tell who is who. From Jennifer Lopez’s incredible portrayal of Selena to Val Kilmer’s transformation into Jim Morrison — these are the best musician biopics of all time.

Selena (1997)

Q Productions
Q Productions

The 1997 film Selena is about the life of the late Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Jennifer Lopez famously portrays the Texas-born Tejano singer who rose to fame with award-winning albums on the Latin music charts.

The movie premiered only two years after the murder of the real Selena, so many of her fans were still mourning her loss. It was described as more of a tribute than a realistic depiction of her life, but it let her music posthumously expand to a larger global audience.

The Runaways (2010)

River Road Entertainment
River Road Entertainment

Even though The Runaways came out in 2010, it takes the audience back to the nostalgic days of the ’70s. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning lead the film as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie during their time in their all-girl teenage rock band, The Runaways. This coming-of-age biopic gives the audience a look at how the band formed and rose to fame while also exploring the relationship between Jett and Currie.

Stewart was praised for her brave performance as Jett. Her angsty attitude and confident portrayal throughout the movie matched the real Jett almost perfectly.

Love & Mercy (2014)

River Road Entertainment
River Road Entertainment

Often times musicians will have events happen behind the scenes of their personal lives that their fans won’t find out about until long after they happen. Paul Dano and John Cusack evenly split the part of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy with Dano playing the 1960s version and Cusack as the 1980s version.

The movie bounces back and forth between the two Wilsons as he struggles with his ongoing psychosis and the absolute control of his shady therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). When watching the real making of some of the Beach Boys’ 1960s albums, the movie is able to almost exactly match how it really went down.

The Doors (1991)

Bill Graham Films
Bill Graham Films

The Doors were one of the most influential rock bands of the 1960s, so their fans eagerly anticipated the 1991 biopic based on lead singer and composer, Jim Morrison. The Doors takes viewers through the ups and downs of Morrison’s life, starting with his days at UCLA and ending with his untimely death in 1971.

Val Kilmer may not have received positive reviews from everyone, but he clearly gave his all in the performance. He wasn’t afraid to unmask Morrison for who he really was and prove that even someone with immense talent can be dealing with uncontrollable personal issues.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Jerry Weintraub Productions
Jerry Weintraub Productions

Before there was Elton John, Liberace took the stage as a musician with flashy pianos, extravagant costumes, and of course his trademark candelabra. Behind the Candelabra chronicles Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) scandalous romance with his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

While the film shows a side of Liberace that many of his fans weren’t familiar with, it still gained a critical consensus stating that it was affectionate without sacrificing honesty. They were able to portray many serious issues from Liberace’s life in both an accurate and respectable way. Both Douglas and Damon earned nominations for their portrayals including Golden Globes and Emmys.

Ray (2004)

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The year 2004 was an unforeseen time for Ray Charles. He passed away on June 10, 2004 and then only four months later his biopic premiered. Jamie Foxx had the approval from Charles himself to play the title role in Ray.

It starts out with Charles’ humble beginnings in the South where he went blind at the age of seven, and then follows his journey into stardom during the 1950s and 1960s. Fans were blown away at how Foxx was able to mimic Charles’ signature movements, vocals, and piano skills, leading him to be the Best Actor winner at the 2005 Academy Awards.

8 Mile (2002)

Imagine Entertainment
Imagine Entertainment

It’s not that often that musicians will play themselves, or a version of themselves in a biopic. Marshall Mathers (Eminem) starred as Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith in 8 Mile, which is loosely based on his struggle to become a rapper in Detroit. This might’ve been his first film role, but his performance was seen as raw, vulnerable, and edgy making it similar to his actual music.

8 Mile may not be the typical biopic due to the film not placing emphasis on accuracy, but it is able to capture the story of a true underdog who is ready to share his talents with the world. It very much mirrors Eminem’s experience when he was starting out.

Walk the Line (2005)

Fox 2000 Pictures
Fox 2000 Pictures

Johnny Cash was considered one of the most legendary artists in country music. Walk the Line depicts his version of fame beginning with his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his record deal at Sun Records in Memphis. Joaquin Phoenix took center stage as Johnny Cash and it’s still one of his most memorable roles.

This film stands out due to its large focus on Cash’s creative and personal relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). It seemed like an odd romantic pairing because of their opposite personalities, but their on-screen chemistry and beautiful duets are what gave the movie its heart.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The neighborhood of Compton in Los Angeles, California is the home base for many rappers both past and present. Hip Hop culture was barely starting to emerge in the mid-1980s, so the group NWA (Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella) came out of the woodwork to revolutionize the growing music scene. They presented what it was like to try to attain an almost impossible goal from one of the most dangerous areas in the country.

Something viewers may not know about Straight Outta Compton is that the actor who plays Ice Cube is his son in real life. Even though it was his first time acting, he still earned massive praise.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

GK Films
GK Films

While Queen was one of the most popular rock bands of all time, it was the story of the late Freddie Mercury that led to the creation of biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek was courageous enough to envelop himself into the iconic role, learning to sing, dance, and move in a way that just about replicated Mercury’s star quality.

Fake teeth and all, Malek received glowing reviews for his uncanny performance of Mercury, which led to numerous wins at prestigious Hollywood award shows. Unfortunately, there were many audience members who noticed that the plot and timeline weren’t exactly historically accurate.

I’m Not There (2007)

Killer Films
Killer Films

I’m Not There featured an all-star cast playing musician Bob Dylan at different stages of his life. What’s completely unique about this biopic is that many of the actors don’t even look like Dylan. The film breaks both gender and racial barriers by placing a diverse cast into what is essentially the same role split up into separate time periods.

The casting decisions with actors such as Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Christian Bale all coming together to take on the essence of Dylan’s life reinvents what a biopic can be. It doesn’t necessarily stick to the chronology and biography of Dylan’s career, but the cinematic style and bold plot keep it vibrant and inventive.

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Ecosse Films
Ecosse Films

John Lennon brought a larger than life presence to his career, especially during his heyday in The Beatles. For fans who want to know what he was like before hitting it big, his early life is chronicled in Nowhere Boy. The biopic mainly focuses on Lennon’s adolescence and his relationships with his aunt Mimi and absentee mother Julia.

While viewers may be upset that film isn’t exactly as musicfocused as other musician biopics, the acting is what really ties it all together. Aaron Johnson transformed into the early version of Lennon with ease and charm that gave the audience a rare glimpse into his psyche.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Coal Miner’s Daughter is another classic rags to riches story about the legendary country singer Loretta Lynn. Sissy Spacek takes viewers through the eyes of Lynn from her humble beginnings in Kentucky to her rise to worldwide fame in the country music industry. The role even earned her a Best Actress Oscar.

Spacek is believably Lynn from start to finish. She can portray her as a young teenager starting to make a name from herself, a hardworking mother struggling to make ends meet, and even as the country superstar in all her glory.

Jersey Boys (2014)

Four Seasons Partnership
Four Seasons Partnership

Inspired from the Broadway musical of the same name, Jersey Boys tells the story of the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons. New Jersey serves as the backdrop for four young men from the wrong side of the tracks who come together to get their music out into the world.

Even though it seems like an engaging concept for a biopic, the safe and conventional filmmaking choices are what hinders it from audience admiration. It was critically reviewed with the consensus that it lacks originality and energy, but the musical moments are what make it worth watching.

Notorious (2009)

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

There are many hip hop artists who had a hand in revolutionizing the music industry, but rap artist Notorious B.I.G. is one that will always be remembered. Notorious gives an in-depth look into the life-and-death story of Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) as he came out of Brooklyn, New York with a fresh and innovative sound for the rap world.

For those that are less familiar with his work, this biopic covers almost everything fans should know about Notorious B.I.G.’s personal and professional life. Sadly, many viewers were upset that his true essence wasn’t captured as well as it could’ve been.

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Initial Pictures
Initial Pictures

One of the great things about musician-based biopics is that they have the ability to cover all genres of music. Sid Vicious of the British punk group Sex Pistols had as much of an interesting life on stage as he did off. Sid and Nancy took Sid’s experience in the band and also focused on his relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

When it comes down to it, Sid and Nancy is ultimately a sad story filled with surprising energy and gut-wrenching realness. The tumultuous relationship between the title characters has audiences question if the two of them are actually what’s best for each other in the end.

What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

Tina Turner can’t simply fit into one genre of music. Her songs are rhythm and blues, pop, soul, rock and roll, funk, and dance all rolled into one. What’s Love Got to Do with It, also the name of one of her hit songs, is another musician biopic that recalls a star’s rise to fame. This one in particular centers largely around her courage to break free from abusive husband Ike Turner.

Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner both received Best Actor and Actress Oscar nominations for their work in the movie. Viewers should be warned that the film features graphic depictions of domestic violence.

I Saw the Light (2015)

BRON Studios
BRON Studios

It may not be outlandish for musicians or people in the public eye to get mixed up in situations that negatively affect their lives. I Saw the Light depicted country-western singer Hank Williams’ brief life and his contribution to American music while also dealing with his health and rocky personal life.

Tom Hiddleston’s take on Williams is almost exactly spot on. He captures his persona, Southern charm, and talented singing voice for the entirety of the film. Also, the character of Williams’ fierce wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) is what essentially allows the audience to get a sense of William’s humanity or lack thereof.

Cadillac Records (2008)

LightWave Entertainment
LightWave Entertainment

There were many talented artists who recorded at Chess Records from the early 1940s to the late 1960s. Some notable musicians include Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Etta James. Cadillac Records explores the record label during that particular music era, and also puts emphasis on it being one of the first labels to sign African American artists.

Each of the actors in the film gave strong and soulful performances. It demonstrated the evolution of black musical style which was only starting to arise during that time. Beyoncé as Etta James was absolutely captivating and stood out due to her sensational vocals.

All Eyez on Me (2017)

Morgan Creek Entertainment
Morgan Creek Entertainment

Just like Notorious told the story of east side rapper Notorious B.I.G., All Eyez on Me chronicles the untold life story of the rapper on the west side, Tupac Shakur. Tupac was more than just a rapper though. He dabbled in other industries such as acting, poetry, and activism.

Demetrius Shipp Jr. was tasked with the (almost) impossible — to tackle the true identity of someone so originally iconic. His performance was well received, but the biopic was criticized for its inability to bring forth Tupac’s legacy on screen.