Top 10: From Mozart to NWA, the Best Music Biopics So Far

Who doesn’t love a good music biopic?

This subgenre has all the ingredients of what people love about the movies. The central roles give A-list actors the chance to transform into a similarly physical music artist. People get to hear their favorite songs dramatized into cinema. For a while, these films seemed like automatic dead ringers for acting Oscars. From Robert Duvall to Marion Cotillard, many actors have won Oscars for playing either fictional or real life music stars.

The latest trend in music filmmaking has been the music documentary. This weekend sees the release of “Whitney,” which documents the life and tragic death of Whitney Houston. Just a few years back, “Amy,” the story of Amy Winehouse, rode critical and commercial success all the way to the Oscar stage.

In honor of Whitney, let’s take a look at the ten best music biopics to grace the silver screen. Hopefully, “Whitney” will enjoy some of the successes these movies saw.

10. “La Vie en Rose” (2007) – Edith Piaf

Marion Cotillard deservedly won the 2007 Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Edith Piaf. Cotillard skillfully brings to life Piaf from ages 19 to 48. That’s not just a testament to the Oscar-winning makeup that transforms Cotillard. She’s able to create distinct performances and modulations at each age. The movie hits nearly all the familiar beats one sees in a traditional musical biopic. There’s the rise to prominence followed by a tragic flaw. While the film fails to make many of these plot points seem fresh or unique, Cotillard makes Edith Piaf a beautifully tragic figure.

9. “Behind the Candelabra” (2013) – Liberace

The thrill of music biopics is watching A-list stars transform into A-list musicians. There are few musicians more glamorous and A-list than most movie stars, and that’s Liberace. Michael Douglas perfectly embodies the glitz and glamour of Liberace’s lifestyle. Yet, it’s Matt Damon who walks away with the film as Scott, the young man drawn into Liberace’s home and world. What starts out as a May-December romance turns into a horror story as Scott spirals out on drug and alcohol while going through multiple surgical procedures to look more like a young Liberace. Director Steven Soderbergh expertly brings to life the over-the-top nature of Liberace. His home and world are just as tricked out as his shows. Yet, there’s a horror inherent to the glamour that Soderbergh revels in showing. The movie is never subtle. But hey, neither was Liberace.

8. “Love and Mercy” (2015) – The Beach Boys

Balancing two competing timelines can be an arduous task. “Love and Mercy” attempts to do this, with mixed to positive results. The film follows Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson as he struggles with mental illness while writing Pet Sounds. Flash forward to the future and Wilson is a captive of his manager and seeks refuge in a kindly car saleswoman. On their own, both timelines are interesting and engaging. Paul Dano wonderfully conveys what makes Wilson brilliant also drives him mad and keeps him from happiness. The real star of the film, however, becomes Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter. She plays the kindly car saleswoman who falls for the older Brian Wilson. As the movie progresses, she becomes the active protagonist of that storyline, fighting for Brian to leave his manager and regain full autonomy of his life.

7. “Ray” (2004) – Ray Charles

Jamie Foxx received countless accolades for his transformative performance as Ray Charles. His Oscar win was just the last stop after months of speeches and headlines that read “Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles.” The movie serves as little more than a plot to hang this showcase performance on. It’s true. Foxx nails the mannerisms of Ray Charles and gives a powerful and engrossing performance. What people should talk more about are how the supporting female performances elevate a movie that frequently shies away from telling their stories. Kerry Washington as Della Bea Robinson, Ray’s long-suffering wife, proves to be a natural screen presence. However, it’s Regina King as Margie Hendricks, Ray’s mistress and backup singer, who deserves to have her own movie. Her fire and indignation as she fights for Ray’s love is powerful.

6. “The Pianist” (2002) – Wladyslaw Szpilman

This searing Holocaust drama would strike few as being part of the musical biopic genre. However, the film does a great job of giving us a sense of Wladyslaw’s accomplishments as a pianist. Even as a well-regarded member of the arts, Wladyslaw had to go through grueling lengths just to survive the Holocaust. The horrors aren’t restricted to the lower classes. The planned extermination of a race was real, pressing and widespread. Adrien Brody expertly takes us through Wladyslaw’s different measures to make it out alive. As Wladyslaw adjusts himself to each new level of hell he must contend with, Brody shows his desperation and desire grow in equal measures. Roman Polanski’s epic may not fit cleanly in the musical biopic genre. However, he connects how Wladyslaw Szpilman’s horrific ordeal informs his haunting music.

5. “Straight Outta Compton” (2015) – NWA

When “Straight Outta Compton” became an instant sensation in 2015, people seemed shocked. How could this NWA biopic revitalize a genre that’s primarily associated with old white men who crooned country tunes? “Straight Outta Compton” works for the same reason NWA defined the 90s. It contextualizes itself within the time period it’s talking to. The film becomes just as much about the Rodney King riots and the state of racial unrest as it is about this legendary music group. It speaks to the audience not as if this period of tension has been solved. The “F**k the Police” performance scene hits home because dynamics like that are just as present in our country today.

4. “Walk the Line” (2005) – Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash

Coming out at the height of the modern boom of music biopics, “Walk the Line” brings to life every expected beat of the genre. There’s the drug addled musician battling his demons – Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). Enter the angelic woman with a heart of gold who just might be his salvation – June Carter (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon). Add a disapproving first wife, tough relationship with a Father and dead brother and you’ve won music biopic bingo. So why is it the best modern music biopic? The central performances truly sing.

Phoenix connects with Cash’s deep levels of grief but also endears himself to the audience as he struggles to be a better man. With her performance, Reese Witherspoon gives June her own set of internal conflicts and contradictions. She’s a woman who built her life becoming the picture perfect vision of an old fashioned Southern Bell. However, she also struggles to find her own worth when she doesn’t live up to her own standards of conveying this image. A perfectly cute grocery store scene ends with a gut punch as a stately Christian fan of June’s stops her in her tracks and insinuates her family should have disowned her for her divorce. June doesn’t fight, she recoils. The 2005 Best Actress Oscar race isn’t as highly regarded as others, but despite limited screen time, Reese more than earns her rightful Best Actress trophy.

3. “Amadeus” (1984) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri

Nothing is more exciting to watch than a good bit of competition. In many ways, “Amadeus” functions more as a sports movie than a music biopic. The grand music halls, with their pomp and grandeur, are the football stadiums for these composers to battle for fame, glory, and attention. Tom Hulce as Mozart commands the screen as an effervescent upstart taking the music scene by storm. Meanwhile, F. Murray Abraham more than earns his Oscar win as the jealous and brooding Salieri. Milos Forman’s epic holds the test of time thanks to the palpable chemistry and excitement around the war between these composers. Music biopics are odes to familiar artists with built in interest. “Amadeus” recognizes that the greatest travesty in Salieri losing popularity against Mozart is that his name was not as famous or synonymous with great composing.

2. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) – Loretta Lynn

Few performances are as masterful and soulful as Sissy Spacek’s take on Loretta Lynn. She makes Lynn a confident performer but a wilted woman in the real world. Her accomplishments are hampered by the abuse she’s subject to at the hands of her husband, Doolittle Lynn (a young, but still surly Tommy Lee Jones). Even as she becomes a sensation, Loretta still feels like the girl from impoverished rural Kentucky. It’s a fantastic portrayal of what it means to rise to prominence, but still feel the emotional and physical scars of poverty. This is expertly dramatized during a meeting with similarly huge female country musician, Patsy Cline (wonderfully played by Beverly D’Angelo). Loretta Lynn changed the future of country music as she opened up her wounds for the world to see. It’s a powerful and wrenching film that sticks with you long after you watch it.

1. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (1993) – Ike & Tina Turner

The whole genre of music biopics is obsessed with the fall that comes as a result of the rise and fame of a musician. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” takes a more interesting perspective. What if fame and fortune doesn’t solve the darkness that’s always been there in your relationship? Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett jolt to life as Ike and Tina Turner. They inhabit the talent and toxicity of the central relationship with startling realism. Most biopic performances are lauded for nailing the performance aspects of their famous subjects.

The greatest moment of this film takes place with Tina at her lowest. After a frightening scene of abuse at the hands of Ike, she turns to a local concierge for help. Angela Bassett shows us a Tina Turner that isn’t just an R&B musical legend. She shows us that she’s a human – scared and in need of help. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” succeeds because it’s less interesting than the larger than life tale of stars. It’s more interested with the harrowing drama between a husband and wife with significant problems that can’t be solved.

What are your favorite music biopics? Share with us in the comments.

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman


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