10 Best Musician Biopics, Ranked


Biopics that follow the stories of the music industry’s biggest and most iconic stars have certainly become a popular trend when it comes to filmmaking in the modern era. Massive films like Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis, and the recently released Bob Marley: One Love continue to show the continued enthusiasm and audience for these stories being brought to life on the big screen. With upcoming massive projects like Sam Mendes’s Beatles Biopics and the Michael Jackson Biopic, this trend of musician biopics shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

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However, while this trend may have exploded in terms of recently released films, musician biopics have been a part of film history long before they became the stars of the biopic world. There have been many creative, groundbreaking, and highly emotional musician biopics from the golden age of Hollywood, with extensive deep dives into the faces of music of each era. While there’s certainly nothing like seeing the life and story of a beloved musician brought to the big screen, those who succeed the best in this vision are a truly special cinematic achievement.

10 ‘Rocketman’ (2019)

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Image via Paramount Pictures

Rocketman follows the story of the life of legendary British singer Elton John, following the humble beginnings of his life and childhood alongside his rise in fame with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. From his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music to his time at the top of the world as one of the biggest musicians in the world, the life of Elton John is filled with talent, drama, and emotion.

While the standard argument for modern-day musician biopics is that they all feel the same tonally and visually, Rocketman stands out from other modern-day biopics through its wild and colorful execution. In a way to fully embrace the flashy style of Elton’s performances and his music, the film tells its story in the style of a musical, with sprawling musical numbers, imaginative effects and choreography, and an embrace of all things extravagant. Combined with a powerful lead performance from Taron Egerton, Rocketman is seen as one of the best musician biopics to come from the modern era.

Rocketman

A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years.

Release Date
May 31, 2019

Runtime
121 Minutes

Rent on Amazon Prime

9 ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

Director: Michael Apted

Sissy Spacek singing on stage in Coal Miner's Daughter
Image Via Universal Pictures

Coal Miner’s Daughter follows the story of legendary country and western singer Loretta Lynn and her incredible story of rising up from poverty into the upper echelons of fame and celebrity status. Loretta’s life is filled with countless monumental ups and downs, from being married at the age of 15 and a mother of four at age 19 to the chaos of balancing her new, completely unexpected life as a star known around the country.

While it is easily overlooked nowadays in favor of the more stylish modern musician biopics, Coal Miner’s Daughter set the standard to which all awards-budding musician biopics would follow. The film was a massive critical and financial hit upon its release, earning 7 nominees at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and notably awarding Sissy Spacek the award for Best Actress. Spacek’s performance easily set the standard for which all musician biopics would be compared to going forward, leaving a massive mark as one of the most important films in the entire genre.

Coal Miner’s Daughter
Release Date
March 7, 1980

Director
Michael Apted

Runtime
125

Rent on Amazon Prime

8 ‘Ray’ (2004)

Director: Taylor Hackford

Ray Charles singing with a microphone
Image via Universal Pictures

Ray follows the story of Ray Charles, one of the most legendary and beloved musicians in American history, with the fundamental genius behind the craft of his work despite being blinded during childhood. Despite being blind at such a young age, his independent mother was able to instill powerful and self-determinate values within him, allowing him to pursue and find his calling in playing the piano. He eventually found himself touring the Southern circuit, combining gospel and country to create a signature voice that would define a generation and give him worldwide fame.

Ray is the premiere example of a modern musician biopic done right, being able to do justice to the enigmatic lead figure and their story, while having enough filmmaking chops and strengths to work well as a standalone film. The clear highlight of the film is the lead performance from Jamie Foxx, who transforms into Charles in a way that still enthralls and enchants audiences to this day. Foxx would end up winning an Academy Award for Best Actor, along with the film’s 5 other nominations, including Best Picture.

Ray
Release Date
October 29, 2004

Runtime
152

Rent on Amazon Prime

7 ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)

Director: F. Gary Gray

Cast of Straight Outta Compton (2015) posing with N.W.A hats on
Image via Universal Pictures

Straight Outta Compton tells the origins and rise of N.W.A, one of the most prolific and controversial hip-hop groups of the late 80s, comprised of icons of the scene like Ice Cube, Easy-E, and Dr. Dre. It tells the surprising true story of the group’s underdog status, using their music and vision to stick it to the man and the industry in a way that had simply never been seen by musical artists at the time. They quickly rose up as being considered some of the most dangerous yet respected groups in music, not afraid to cover the harsh truths of society and the hood in their music.

Especially with so many musician biopics focusing on non-controversial and humbling feel-good musicians, Straight Outta Compton‘s raw and untethered story of pushing the needle struck a chord with audiences worldwide. Even almost 10 years later, with a wide multitude of other musician biopics having been released, few have such a distinct voice and power that director F. Gary Gray gives to the story of N.W.A.

Straight Outta Compton

The rap group NWA emerges from the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California, in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes Hip Hop culture with their music and tales about life in the hood.

Release Date
August 11, 2015

Runtime
147

Watch on Hulu

6 ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2007)

Director: Olivier Dahan

Édith Piaf singing in La Vie En Rose.

Image via Icon FIlm Distribution

La Vie en Rose is a French musician biopic that follows the story of Edith Piaf, one of France’s most popular and most celebrated performers of the 20th century, best known for her work in cabaret. The film sees her rise to stardom from the Belleville district of Paris to the limelight of New York concert halls, having transformed from a nervous brothel worker to an icon of France. Even despite its hurdles as a French film in an era that rarely gave international films a voice, La Vie en Rose made a massive mark on critics and audiences around the world.

Many musician biopics are often considered to just be avenues and roundabout ways for outstanding actors and actresses to show off their chops in a demanding and powerful lead performance. Even with all the great performances that the genre has brought to the world, Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of Edith Piaf goes above and beyond and is still considered one of the best lead performances of all time. She became the first and so far only person to win an Academy Award for a performance spoken in French (in this case Best Actress), a testament to the power and grace of her performance.

Rent on Vudu

5 ‘Love & Mercy’ (2014)

Director: Bill Pohlad

John Cusack standing to Elizabeth Banks who is looking at him in Love & Mercy
Lionsgate

Love & Mercy takes a much more grounded and dramatic approach towards a musician biopic to tell its powerful story of growth and love coming from unexpected places and despite all odds. The film follows the story of Brian Wilson, founding member and lead singer of the Beach Boys, who in the late 60s, while producing the album « Pet Sounds », begins to lose his grip on reality. The film shifts between the 60s, in the time leading up to Brian’s worsening condition, and the 80s, where he is now incredibly sick and at the whims of a controlling therapist, but is finding love again in Melinda Ledbetter.

Love & Mercy sets an outstanding bar for exactly how musician biopics should be told, instead of telling the same stories of rise and success and fame, actually telling the real stories of growth and strength surrounding powerful artists. With tremendous performances from Paul Dano, John Cusack, and Elizabeth Banks, the film is able to do justice to Wilson’s story without simply relying on his great music, actually letting the beauty of the story create an outstanding work of art.

Love and Mercy
Release Date
May 29, 2015

Director
Bill Pohlad

Runtime
120

Watch on Amazon Prime

4 ‘Walk the Line’ (2005)

Director: James Mangold

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash playing the guitar in Walk the Line
Image via 20th Century Fox

Walk the Line chronicles the journey of Johnny Cash, one of the most recognizable icons of country music who would cement his status as a legendary figure in American culture. The film sees him from his early days at an Arkansas cotton farm to his unexpected rise to fame in Memphis, recording alongside other legendary musicians such as Elvis Presley. Through all the ups and downs of his career, it becomes apparent that there is simply no other country singer quite like Johnny Cash.

Walk the Line is widely considered to be the quintessential musician biopic of the 21st century, for which many of the other great musician biopics would follow and find inspiration. The film features many positive aspects, from the masterful lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix to the perfect blending of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in Cash’s life and career. Walk the Line perfectly knew how to create an engaging and intuitive cinematic experience from the story of one of the most iconic musicians in American history.

Walk The Line

A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash’s life, from his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his rise to fame with Sun Records in Memphis, where he recorded alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.

Release Date
September 13, 2005

Runtime
136

Watch on Max

3 ‘Funny Girl’ (1968)

Director: William Wyler

Fanny Brice smiling while surrounded by men in Funny Girl.

One of the first true examples of just how well-made a musician biopic could be done, Funny Girl follows the life of legendary comedienne and illustrated song model Fanny Brice. The film goes from her early days in the Jewish slums of the Lower East Side all the way until the height of her career with the performing group that she accompanied, The Ziegfeld Follies. While she was certainly an icon of her era, it would be this retelling of her story that would give Brice’s story a second wave of fame and recognition well after her death.

Funny Girl made massive waves upon its release as one of the originators and trailblazers for the entire genre of musician biopics as a whole. Even in this early instance of the genre, there are still numerous key components and takeaways that are still seen today, most notably, an emphatic and electrifying lead performance, in this case by Barbra Streisand. Streisand would even end up winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, alongside Funny Girl‘s 7 other nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Funny Girl
Release Date
September 18, 1968

Director
William Wyler

Runtime
2 hr 29 min

Watch on Amazon Prime

2 ‘Control’ (2007)

Director: Anton Corbijn

A man smoking a cigarette in front of buildings in Control
Joy Division biopic

Control is as much a film about the undeniable talent and skill of a legendary music group as much as it is about suffering, anxiety, and heartbreak. The film follows the tragic story of English rock band Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, telling his complete story starting from his humble schoolboy days in 1973. However, Curtis’s story builds up to its painful yet inevitable conclusion, as he would famously take his own life the night before Joy Division’s first American tour in 1980.

The story told in Control is one that is as equal parts heavy and painful as it is thematically poignant and powerful, creating a dynamic must-watch experience, even for non-Joy Division fans. It’s rare that a story such as Curtis’s is given the level of gravitas and respect in the medium of film, yet the film acts only to further the emotional weight of his story. Nearly every aspect of Control‘s execution plays into the film’s themes and symbolic strengths, finding a way to give true justice to the story of Ian Curtis.

Control
Release Date
September 26, 2007

Runtime
121

Watch On Tubi

1 ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ (1987)

Director: Todd Haynes

Barbie dolls on a couch in Superstar Karen Carpenter
Image Via American International Video Search, Inc.

Before director Todd Haynes would go on to create dramatic masterpieces like Carol and May December, he would create a one-of-a-kind work of art in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The film blends together documentary and biopic in its retelling of the final 17 years of the life of legendary singer and member of The Carpenters, Karen Carpenter. However, despite the film’s darker and adult themes and story beats, the experience is juxtaposed by the film being nearly entirely performed by modified Barbie dolls.

The easy complaint towards musician biopics is that they continue to all feel the same and fail to experiment, yet it’s difficult to find a musician biopic more experimental and meticulously crafted than Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The decision to have the film’s events play out through Barbie dolls is far from just a ploy for shock, however, as it plays perfectly into the themes of the film and the iconography that The Carpenters presented for their careers. It ironically acts as the perfect, albeit brief, way to retell the story of Carpenter, bringing focus to her life that was glamor and beauty on the outside, but dead and lifeless on the inside.

Watch on Youtube

NEXT: 20 Best Biopic Movies of the 21st Century So Far

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