The movies that succeed in theaters are the ones that make for the best theatrical experience. What is better for this than music biopics. They mix incredible true-life stories with incredible showmanship and performance. Only recently have these shown to be true box office performers so expect to see many more. Below is the list, to date, of the 20 best music biopics of all time.
#20 La Bamba (Richie Valens)
Ritchie Valens was an American singer and songwriter of Mexican heritage influential in the Chicano rock movement. He recorded numerous chart-topping songs during his short run, most notably the 1958 hit “La Bamba.” Valens died just before his 18th birthday in a plane crash with fellow musicians J.P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper) and Buddy Holly and on February 3, 1959. In the film version of his life, a young Lou Diamond Phillips gives a powerhouse performance as Valens.
#19 All Eyez on Me (Tupac)
Tupac Shakur was the hottest rapper alive in the early 90s until he famously was gun downed on the streets of Las Vegas in a drive-by in 1996 at the peak of the famous Death Row v Bad Boys, East Coast v West Coast rap feud. This lower budget music biopic explores the rise and fall of Shakur in one of rap’s most famous stories.
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#18 The Buddy Holly Story (Buddy Holly)
Buddy Holly was a singer-songwriter who helped pioneer mid-1950s rock and roll. The film takes you from Buddy’s humble beginnings as a teenager in a small town in Texas, to Rock icon, to his subsequent unexpected plane crash when he was only 23. Gary Busey brings the star to life and does such a great job, is nominated for an Oscar for his performance. It was not just him though, the film won an Oscar for the musical score. There are certainly others who have done it better, but don’t count this little guy out, it clearly deserves a place on the list of best music biopics.
#17 Sid and Nancy (Sid Vicious)
Sid Vicious was a London born high school drop out and about as punk rock as you could come in 1977. Even though he had no idea how to play the bass, he had the look and the attitude and was asked to join up and coming punk group the Sex Pistols. Between Sid and the Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten, they pissing everyone off and selling a ton of records doing it. At the same time, Sid met an American woman by the name of Nancy Spungen, and after only 8 shows post their relationship starting, the band fell apart. Between 1977 and 1978 the two fell deep into drugs, which turned into murder and eventual overdose. The biopic stars Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious and focuses on the amazing success of Sid to his traumatic fall.
#16 Cadillac Records (Etta James, Chuck Berry, More)
This biopic is a little different in that it is about a place that helped launch and drive many marquee musicians. The film follows Leonard Chess, played by Adrian Brody, the founder of chess records. A man who was instrumental in the development of electric blues, Chicago blues, and rock and roll. The film exposes you to the most influential artists of the 1940s to 1960s, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, and Beyoncé as Etta James. The film was very middle of the road with critics but so very interesting to see all the historic personalities interact. The names alone put this one on the list of best music biopics.
#15 The Doors (Jim Morrison)
Jim Morrison is a rock and roller from the 60s. He was the frontman of the legendary band The Doors, known for their psychedelic rock. They were a powerhouse, releasing 8 albums in 5 years, all but on hitting the top ten. They were selling out stadiums worldwide but they were very troubled with drinking, drugs and stage antics. Jim quite music to write poetry and soon overdosed in 1971 at the age of 27. Val Kilmer plays Morrison from a student at UCLA to his rise in Los Angeles to the final unraveling of his life. Also with Meg Ryan, performances are superb and the story is both interesting and heartbreaking to watch. Easily a top music biopic of all time.
#14 Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis)
Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the pioneers of rock and roll in the fifties and sixties and had a wild man personality that made him an incredible showman and charismatic character. He brought the world gems like Great Balls of Fire. His career, however, was overshadowed by his personal life, mainly when he married his 13-year-old cousin. Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder take you through the very interesting life of Jerry Lee Lewis in this top music biopic for the ages.
#13 Get On Up (James Brown)
Affectionately called “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown was a songwriter, musician, dancer, activist and more originally born in a one-room shack in South Carolina. Chadwick Boseman plays Brown in this film that follows the legend in a nonlinear stream of conscious recalling of his life from extreme poverty in 1933, to gospel choirs, to war, to the blues and so on. In addition to the musical achievements, James Brown leads an extraordinary life and put up with a lot to get where he got.
#12 Love & Mercy (Brian Wilson / Beach Boys)
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were a revolutionary band that did many great things, but most substantially was the general contribution to music as a whole with their album Pet Sounds. The band would continue to pump out hit after hit, but as this went on, the frontman Brian Wilson got mentally sicker and sicker. This biopic is a little different in that it simultaneously explores a pre mental breakdown Brian played by Paul Dano and a post mental breakdown Brian played by John Cusack. It is very interesting to see, but a little disconnected. While it is not something that critically made any waves, it really reminds you how great he was and how great of a contribution he has made.
#11 Ray (Ray Charles)
Ray Charles was a blind pianist and pioneer of rhythm and blues. The film stars Jamie Foxx as Ray who won an oscar for his performance. It follows a young Ray going blind in the rural south when he was seven to his rise as one of the music iconic musicians of all time. Also staring is a young Kerry Washington and Regina King. With all things considered, this film definitely has a warm place on the list of top music biopics.
#10 Jersey Boys (Four Seasons)
Clint Eastwood is one of the best directors of this generation and for his take on a musical biopic, he did it right. Jersey Boys is about four kids from the “wrong side of the tracks” in Jersey. They would come together to be the iconic 1960s rock group the Four Seasons. This film shows you their rise, mainly that of frontman Frankie Vali, a little kid with a big voice.
#09 Selena (Selena)
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a multi-hyphenate in music, writing, modeling, fashion design and good old fashion good-hearted spokesperson-activist-hero to children. Called the Queen of Tejano music, her contributions to music and fashion made her one of the most celebrated Mexican-American entertainers of this generation. She died when her biggest fan tragically murdered her. This film put newcomer Jennifer Lopez on the map. With amazing acting range and incredibly pipes, she was able to justly represent Selena and bring this incredible story to the people.
#08 Behind the Candelabra (Liberace)
Liberace was known for his extravagant outfits and pianos more than anything else, but he was a world-class piano player. Given that, it makes sense that his biopic was about the relationship he had with his gay lover who ultimately died due to drugs. This was a smaller film, as it was only produced for HBO as opposed to theaters, but it still has two magnificent performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon easily making this one of the best music biopics of all time.
#07 Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn)
Loretta Lynn is an American country music singer-songwriter with multiple gold albums in a career spanning almost 60 years. Lynn is credited as being one of the main pioneers of country music as we know it. She was raised in a small little mining town in Kentucky. She traveled an interesting path to get to fame, including getting married at fifteen and heading off into the world. Sissy Spacek plays Lynn and would go on to win an Oscar for her performance. Opposite her is a very young Tommy Lee Jones. The two of them mixed with the tremendous direction of brilliant director Michael Apted makes for an easy win in the category of best music biopics.
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#06 What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner)
Tina Turner is an incredibly talented singer from the 80s that made headlines when she found the courage to break free of her abusive husband. Angela Bassett plays Turner and would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Playing her husband, Laurence Fishburne would also go on to be nominated for his performance. The performances are top-notch but it is the courage and adversity that Turner had to endure and eventually overcome that makes you want to stand up from your seat and applaud.
#05 Shine (David Helfgott)
David Helfgott is an Australian concert pianist born in 1947 who struggled with mental illness. The film is less about the music and more about the struggles he faced. From an overbearing father to struggles with the fame he received, his troubles would come out more and more. Geoffrey Rush, who would go on to win an Oscar for his performance, really captured the struggle and eventual return of this brave individual. This entry to the best music biopics list was even nominated for the Oscar best picture of the year in 1966 but ultimately lost to The English Patient.
#04 Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury / Queen)
The film is so sugar-coated your teeth hurt after you watch it, but with the amazing performances and the electric, spot-on performance by Rami Malek, you just don’t care. Queen was a British band started in 1970 that was known for their melodic sounds up against incredible rock and roll rifts. The lead singer Freddie Mercury was widely considered to be one of the greatest stage performers and songwriters of the 21st century. The band contributed so many amazing songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and so many more. The film follows the rise of queen through the unfortunate death of Mercury. What is so very special is the music and the performances, they are so good you want to clap after each one.
#03 Walk the Line (Johnny Cash & June Carter)
Johnny Cash was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, and author. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. Walk the Line follows Cash’s early years, his relationship with June Carter and his interaction with the country music scene of the late fifties early sixties. The film is beautifully shot and executed. The performances from Joaquin Phoenix who plays Cash and Reese Witherspoon who plays Carter are top-notch and their chemistry is unmatched.
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#02 Straight Outta Compton (NWA)
Straight Outta Compton took the world by storm by really showing that music biopic could cross over and be a big commercial blockbuster, grossing $162mm in the US alone. It deserved every bit of it. The story of NWA and all the interesting characters involved the most interesting story in rap history. That and it was executed as a film perfectly by director F. Gary Gray. Eazy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Suge Knight, Warren G, Chuck D, Jimmy Iovine, Snoop Dog, Tupac, they all make an appearance.
#01 Amadeus (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
One could say that Amadeus was the first music biopic. And who better to start with than the late, great Wolfgang Mozart. For coming out in 1984, the film was very ahead of its time. It was period, but the sound and execution were flawless. They nailed it and people noticed, the film would go on to win 8 Oscars including best picture. Told from the perspective of the composer who was insanely jealous of his talent and was said to have killed him, the story is interesting and very well told.