As we’ve discussed previously, musical biopics are a mainstay in popular cinema. Why? Well, the stories are among some of the most compelling. Musicians tend to lead lives of excess, inherently full of drama, so film is a perfect medium to translate their stories. Add the public’s fascination with celebrities personal lives and the ingredients for audience draw and pundit interest is piqued. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that this tends to come ready-made with a killer soundtrack. Throughout film history, musical biopics have come in all shapes and sizes, often winning Academy Awards along the way for the actors and actresses essaying the title roles.
With “Rocketman” hitting theaters this week, we’re ranking the ten best musical biopics to date. Below are the cited works, though honorable mentions include “8 Mile,” “Bird,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” No genre is as laden with Oscar love, which suggests we won’t see this type of film disappear anytime soon.
“The Doors” (1991)
dir: Oliver Stone
Filmmaker Oliver Stone certainly had the requisite lunacy to tackle Jim Morrison‘s life. With a game Val Kilmer inhabiting The Doors’ frontman, the movie plays up his hedonism to bombastic degrees. What sets it apart and makes the work worthy of this list is Kilmer’s commitment to the role. Morrison is rock and roll chaos personified, which the actor taps into. Stone goes all in on style, while Kilmer is committed on rock substance.
“Bound for Glory” (1976)
dir: Hal Ashby
Perfectly capturing the connection that Woody Guthrie had to the American heartland, “Bound for Glory” finds Hal Ashby paying tribute to the musician. The man who would inspire countless artists, from Bruce Springsteen on, is feted in a biopic that contemporarily feels like a riff on a Springsteen tune. Gorgeously captured, David Carradine‘s Guthrie heads west looking for meaning. While the highs of 1970’s cinema looked at the gritty city streets, this underrated work headed out into the wild blue yonder, to stunningly immersive effect.
dir: Ethan Hawke
A great musical biopic can introduce audiences to an artist previously way below their radar. Blaze Foley certainly fits receives such treatment. Ethan Hawke‘s tribute to the late musician is a perfect introduction to the man. From our rave review: “Blaze Foley didn’t want to be a country star. He wanted to be a legend. Because “a legend stands for something that lasts forever.” Ethan Hawke’s new directorial achievement, “BLAZE” seeks to share the story of a legend.” In giving Foley’s life a tall tale sheen, Hawke makes him immortal. Hypnotically effective, it’s impossible not to mourn the loss of Foley after watching this film.
“The Runaways” (2010)
dir: Floria Sigismondi
Joan Jett is a badass and Kristen Stewart knows it. Her razor sharp performance, along with Dakota Fanning‘s lower key turn as Cherrie Currie bring audiences inside The Runaways and their band dynamics. Moreover, their dealings with manager Kim Fowley showcase with anger yet restraint what women in the music industry must over come simply to share their songs. Michael Shannon gives one of his most vile turns as Fowley, sparring with Stewart’s Jett for control of the band. A much needed infusion of female resilience, this was one of the better examples of how women are just as powerful rockers as men.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
dir: Michael Apted
The type of musical biopic that make the formula as crisp and unfussy as possible, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” soars on Sissy Spacek‘s Oscar winning turn as Loretta Lynn. Spacek took home the Academy Award for Best Actress playing the country star, leaning in deeply to her humble beginnings. A tribute to her perseverance and talent, this is a clear cut example of when the genre can celebrate overcoming the odds. Underdogs are commonplace among this list, though none had smaller beginnings than Lynn.
“Behind the Candelabra” (2013)
dir: Steven Soderbergh
What musician is more garish or larger than life than Liberace? Kudos to director Steven Soderbergh and star Michael Douglas for embracing the literal glitz. At the same time, Douglas and Soderbergh are unafraid to paint Liberace as a sealed off figure who looked towards younger men for a sustenance the rest of the world couldn’t provide. It’s a daring choice, made even more compelling by seeing Matt Damon play his long time lover. It took a singular storyteller like Soderbergh to mix the glamour with the ghoulishness in such a way.
“Walk the Line” (2005)
dir: James Mangold
The key to why “Walk the Line” is a superior musical biopic rests within the dueling performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. They imbue their characters with true fiery dedication and love. Johnny Cash could have been the subject of a mediocre standard issue tribute piece. Instead, James Mangold frames this as a study of his relationship with wife June Carter Cash, both personally and professionally. That raises the stakes and gives this effort more heart than any other film of its ilk.
dir: Milos Forman
Mixing a full bodied period piece into the genre generated absolute catnip for Academy voters. Best Picture, along with seven other Oscars, came the way of this look at the classical music genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beyond the luster of the period trappings, the film hovers over Mozart’s rivalry with Antonio Salieri, arguably doing more for the legacy of the latter than the former. Bringing prestige and scale into the equation puts this effort squarely toward the top of any musical biopic list.
“Love & Mercy” (2015)
dir: Bill Pohlad
Too few examples in the genre try to delve into the mental aspect of music. With “Love & Mercy,” it’s all about mental health, or lack thereof when it comes to The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. In a stroke of genius, two distinct periods of his life are studied, with John Cusack the wrecked “after” to Paul Dano‘s headed towards darkness “before” portrait. Together, they make beautiful music and shed some light on how this brilliant artist could have come so close to the abyss. In addition, not only is this a top flight musical biopic, it’s a heartbreaking depiction of mental health struggles as well.
“I’m Not There” (2007)
dir: Todd Haynes
No biopic could do Bob Dylan justice, so Todd Haynes didn’t even try. Instead, the director broke down Dylan into a half dozen different facets and cast them all in their own movies. Employing, among others, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger to bring various Dylan personas to life, Haynes explores music’s most enigmatic figure. It’s frustrating at times, but incredibly brilliant. By embracing the unknowable, Haynes and company crafted the definitive musical biopic. They broke the rules and set the creative standard.