The 10 best biopics about musicians

Poster for the movie "Ray"There are lots of movies about famous musicians, covering every genre from blues to classical music. Some are playful vehicles designed to feature a band and its music, such as The Beatles in Help! Documentaries are plentiful, whether full-length or TV programs like Unsung. But I want to focus on biopics that portray a story through an artistic lens. While many are pretty decent, worth watching if you are a fan of a particular artist or band, the ten below are especially creative. The acting is first rate, and the approach is not always a predictable chronology. For longer lists of all biopics, see the links at the bottom of the post.

Bird (1988)—Constructed as a montage of scenes from the life of pioneering bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. Forest Whittaker memorably plays Parker and earned a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Clint Eastwood directed. Because the original music was recorded in lower quality mono, Eastwood had contemporary jazz musicians re-record the backing tracks. A sound engineer isolated Parker’s solos, which were integrated with the new tracks.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)—Based on the autobiography of country music singer Loretta Lynn. She personally chose Sissy Spacek to portray her. A wise choice, as Spacek then earned an Academy Award. Roger Ebert stated that the film “has been made with great taste and style; it’s more intelligent and observant than movie biographies of singing stars used to be.”

CrazySexyCook: The TLC Story (2013)—Although you would have good reason to be suspicious of a TV biopic, this movie offers a good window into the evils of the music industry. The performer Pebbles becomes a classic villain in this telling. T-Boz Watkins and Chilli Thomas, surviving members of the hiphop mega-group TLC, served as executive producers.

The Doors (1991)—A dramatization of the rise of iconic 60s counterculture band The Doors. Val Kilmer convincingly plays hedonistic front man Jim Morrison. During the concert scenes, Kilmer actually sings the lyrics instead of lip-synching.

Get on Up (2014)—Chadwick Boseman evocatively portrays Godfather of Soul James Brown in this moving tribute. The character directly addresses the camera at times, a unique approach that draws you into the story. Mick Jagger shared co-production credits. A star-studded cast including Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Jill Scott, and Octavia Spencer powerfully plays supporting roles.

Miles Ahead (2015)—Don Cheadle both directed and starred in this biopic about jazz legend Miles Davis. Cheadle approached his subject with a free-form, improvisatory feel, reflecting the music visually. Movie critic Manohla Dargis depicted the movie as “playfully impressionistic,” and was particularly impressed by Cheadle’s ability to shift between “times, moods and modes effortlessly.”

Ray (2004)—Jamie Foxx depicts R&B star Ray Charles with uncanny vividness and received an Academy Award. As with most biopics, the movie blends fact and fiction for dramatic purpose, but the result here is extraordinary.

The Rose (1979)—Although only loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin, Bette Midler gives such an amazing performance that this film deserves a mention. Prior to the movie, Midler was known primarily as a chanteuse. But she sings the tunes with such bluesy rawness that you can imagine you are watching Joplin.

Searching for Sugarman (2012)—Not really a biopic, but rather a documentary about folk guitarist Sixto Rodriguez and the influence of his music on the South African struggle against apartheid. Rodriguez had a rather obscure career in the 70s, despite some success in Australia. He was largely under the radar in America. But he became very popular in South Africa before disappearing from the scene. It’s a remarkable movie about music’s power and stardom versus obscurity.

What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)—Based on Tina Turner’s autobiography. Angela Bassett plays the powerhouse performer whose style embraced R&B, rock and pop. She earned a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Laurence Fishburne plays Ike Turner, the abusive husband and half of the popular performing duo.

Additional Biopic Resources

There does not appear to be a comprehensive list anywhere, but the following resources offer larger lists.

Wikipedia provides a fairly large beginning list, although you’ll notice many omissions.

Movies about Music and Musicians, at the UC Berkeley library, lists movies about music and musicians, some biographical and others completely fictional.

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