The best music biopics about musicians

The best music biopics about musicians, according to critics

Legends attract film makers, fact. Along with fame and fortune can come tales of triumph and tragedy, addiction and recovery, all with killer soundtracks.

As the Queen biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ proved to be one of the best music biopics can have a cultural impact that goes far beyond devoted fans., it was not as true to life as it could have been, so what beat it to number 1?

In biographical dramas about musicians, we often see stories of addiction and recovery, and of tortured souls whose only solace is in their art. Maybe that’s because many musicians lives and careers share similar trajectories; maybe it’s because those are stories that filmmakers know how to tell; and maybe it’s because those are the stories that we want to see. Regardless, we’ve built a mythology around the lives of musicians, to the point that we’re almost surprised when an artist’s life doesn’t conform to it in some way: A rock star who has never experienced a significant substance abuse disorder and tends to their mental health hardly feels like a rock star at all.

To some extent, the movies have taught us to think this way, and have left us with the troubling idea that true artists need to be tortured, and to live lives that are at least a bit tragic. There’s plenty of that in nearly every musical biopic, but the best of them offer a different and deeper perspective—considering the lives and careers of their subjects with a bit more humanity and thoughtfulness, and veering away from narrative tropes, even when they feel conveniently true to life.

5. Elvis (1979)
Elvis has never done much for me—I can appreciate the appeal, but generally I’d rather listen to the Black artists from whom he drew inspiration. The closest I’ve come to really getting it is in this weird outlier in the career of John Carpenter, at the beginning of his long run of collaborations with Kurt Russell. Though it was eventually released theatrically, it began life as a TV movie—and all that implies—but it’s not as though Carpenter ever had trouble working within a tight budget. The appeal is two-fold: even if he doesn’t sing, Russell magically captures Elvis’ stage presence, offering up a real sense of the sex appeal that drew fans in the thousands. It’s also a film that reckons with some of the darker aspects of Elvis’ life, offering up chilling moments of rage from the performer that are soft-pedaled in other accounts. (A perhaps more definitive, and certainly flashier, take is coming from director Baz Luhrmann later this year.)

4. The Runaways (2010)
At the ’70s intersection of punk and glam rock, the Runaways had a brief moment in the sun before several of its members went on to greater fame in their solo careers. Kim Fowley, played here with creepy charm by the great Michael Shannon, assembled the group with less of an interest in musical talent than with an eye toward the jailbait-style sex appeal of the young women he’d recruited. The film turns, instead, on the band’s unexpected success, and the fierce talents of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, played with great style and attitude by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The two were able to turn something slightly sleazy into legendary careers as punk icons, and the movie does their feats justice.

3. Ray (2004)
It’s not just Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance that sells this take on the troubled rise of Ray Charles; he’s flawless, but every main performance here is great—Regina King, Kerry Washington, and Clifton Powell, in particular. Some of the beats here are pretty recognizable, but the performances create the feeling that we’ve gained some essential insight into these characters and the real-life individuals they represent.

2. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
One of the biggest releases of 2018, Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has already blown away the competition in the commercial sense, with Billboard dubbing it the highest-grossing music biopic of all time at the end of the year. Critically, however, it’s also been a phenomenon, attracting multiple industry awards, including the coveted Best Actor for Rami Malek’s magnificent portrayal of Freddie Mercury. It’s completely changed all expectations of what the best music biopics can achieve.

1. Rocketman (2019)
Released in the shadow of the incomprehensibly successful Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody—which somehow earned Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar, very nearly won Best Picture, and earned nearly $1 billion in ticket sales despite the fact that it is very bad—this colorful take on the even more colorful life of singer-songwriter Elton John is so much more thoughtfully constructed, insightful, and entertaining that its relative underperformance with audiences feels like a cinematic crime (and weirdly, it was directed by the guy who stepped in for the disgraced Bryan Singer when erratic behavior and a sex scandal got him booted from that blockbuster).

Rocketman rules because of how it chucks the usual formula, instead using the music of Elton John (neé Reginald Kenneth Dwight) to serve as the songs in what essentially becomes a Broadway musical-style review of the man’s journey from obscurity to stardom and the accompanying descent into drug addiction. By eschewing reality, it feels far more faithful than would a straightforward rendition.

OTHERS that are worthy of a mention include:
The Buddy Holly Story
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Walk The Line
Straight Outta Compton
La Bamba
8 Mile


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Scott Baber
Scott Baber
Senior Managing editor

Manages incoming enquiries and advertising. Based in London and very sporty. Worked news and sports desks in local paper after graduating.


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