Top 10: Best Music Biopics

Taron Egerton in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

Rocketman,” which covers the life and career of legendary singer, Elton John, is now in theaters. The film is the latest in a long line of music biopics and should offer a window into the flamboyant and enigmatic rockstar. Sex and drugs will be featured in ample measure, much like many of the entries on this list. Let’s count down the top ten music biopics of all time.

10“Selena” (1997)
dir: Gregory Nava

Through years of television airings, Jennifer Lopez has become audience’s image of the vivacious star. Gone too soon, Selena was a Mexican-American cultural icon and the film has only cemented her status over the years. The film is certainly a deification of the star, but it never feels false. The movie came along just two years after her death and helped to seal-in the sentiments of fans around the world.

9“La Vie en Rose” (2007)
dir: Olivier Dahan

La Vie en Rose” comes from the other end of the spectrum. Édith Piaf was a French singer whose biggest hits came throughout the 1940s-50s. By the time this particular film came along, she was already one of the most celebrated performers of the 20th century. But what sets this particular version of her story apart is that Marion Cotillard gave a transformative performance. Like many celebrities, Piaf struggled with addiction and the pressures of fame. Cotillard’s performance perfectly captures the singer’s descent. So well, in fact, that she was awarded Best Actress by the Academy for her work.

8“Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
dir: Michael Apted

The #8 entry on this list is also famous for producing a Best Actress winner in Sissy Spacek. The film is a straightforward retelling of Loretta Lynn‘s rise from poverty to stardom, but Spacek’s wholly credible performance gives the film heft. Against a bleak Kentucky backdrop, Lynn’s rise comes across as a heartwarming journey and Spacek’s performance is the reason. She even managed to carry the soundtrack to #2 on the Country charts on the back of her own vocals.

7“Ray” (2004)
dir: Taylor Hackford

Jamie Foxx is legendary for his impressions. They were a staple in his standup routine and even came in handy for his recent role in the live reboot of “The Jeffersons.” In “Ray,” Foxx is called upon to use this talent and the result is a spot-on recreation of music legend, Ray Charles. The mannerisms, vocal inflections and general air of assuredness were on full display and would wind up winning Foxx the Best Actor Oscar. It is easy to forget we’re not actually watching Ray Charles in this three-hour tour of the life of the singer.

6“I’m Not There” (2007)
dir: Todd Haynes

Music biopics are sometimes made even more interesting when their subjects are difficult to understand. Bob Dylan, the historically reclusive folksinger, is about as enigmatic as one can be while also remaining a mainstay of culture for the last 50 years. In order to do justice to that mystery, the film uses six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, to capture different elements of Dylan’s public persona. This technique has the effect of creating a disorienting, but compelling, look at the Nobel laureate. The non-linear approach to storytelling was well-received and even earned Blanchett a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

5“Straight Outta Compton” (2015)
dir: F. Gary Gray

N.W.A. is one of the all-time great rap acts. They were known for their charged messages and even more charged personalities. Capturing that on film was always going to be a challenge, but F. Gary Gray‘s film rises to the occasion. On the back of strong performances – particularly from O’Shea Jackson Jr. (playing his father, Ice Cube) and Jason Mitchell (playing Eazy-E) – the film manages to stay true to its hip-hop roots while channeling a universal message of the pressures that come with fame.

4“Walk the Line” (2005)
dir: James Mangold

Johnny Cash is a legend. But there have been countless movies about legends that just did not work, falling into cliched territory. What those films were missing was Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The film puts Johnny and June Carter’s romance center-stage and Phoenix and Witherspoon deliver. The result is a movie that feels raw and genuine. This is not the glossy biopic it could have been and that helped to ensure it did “The Man In Black” justice.

3“8 Mile” (2002)
dir: Curtis Hanson

8 Mile” is the autobiographical film debut of rap superstar, Eminem. The film came at the peak of his fame and produced one of the all-time great soundtracks in movie history. But what surprised most was the depth and clarity Eminem brought to the role. Yes, he was playing himself. But people often struggle to find the kind of truth Eminem offers in the role. The classic rap battles and sharp writing only enhanced the final product.

2“What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (1993)
dir: Brian Gibson

Most movies would be lucky to have one performance as good as Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne are in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Brian Gibson was fortunate enough to get two. The pair are incandescent as the famous couple whose rocky relationship was filled with violence and manipulation. Bassett perfectly captures Tina Turner‘s stage presence and Fishburne embodies the manic rage that consumed Ike Turner. The film’s handling of the domestic violence in their story is still a cultural touchstone for many and emblematic of the film’s lasting impact.

1“Amadeus” (1984)
dir: Milos Forman

Of all the movies on this list, this is the only one that managed to win the Best Picture Oscar. So much about the lavish period drama is a treat. It is the quintessential tale of envy and revenge, with Antonio Salieri lamenting the fact that Mozart would render his legacy largely non-existent. The costumes, staging and timeless narrative combine to create a film that will forever feel relevant. Add in F. Murray Abraham‘s Oscar-winning lead performance and it is easy to understand why this film finds itself atop the list.

Which music biopics are your favorites? Comment below and share!

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