Top 10 Best Music Biopics

Top 10 Best Music Biopics

Feature Photo: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

Our top 10 best music biopics bee-pop and rock their way through music history from Buddy Holly to The Runaways. Biopics just can’t be contained. Especially after the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, biopics are riding high with new features released every year. Our list of music biopics delves into the lives and struggles of the most beloved entertainers in music history. In the case of #6 on our list, Almost Famous, that epic film explores the early career of rock journalist Cameron Crowe and pays homage to 1970’s rock music like no other.

While other history-based movies didn’t make the list, they deserve an honorable mention for their content and originality such as Lady Sings the Blues (1972 about Billie Holiday), La Bamba (1987 about Ritchie Valens), and Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980 about Loretta Lynn). Without a doubt, the term “biopic” comprises a wide ranging category including many diverse subjects, and the style of filmmaking runs the gamut, too. Clearly, the trend is not slowing down with newer releases telling the compelling stories of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Selena. Also on the horizon are features about Cher, The Bee Gees, and Bob Dylan–that’s just tipping the iceberg.

If you love a great biographical novel or a classic documentary, a rock biopic will do the trick as well. You can also find a story about someone intriguing such as Fred Astaire or Warhol that may pique your interest. All in all, spend a Saturday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy a biopic about one of your favorite artists. Here, we present our Top 10 Best Music Biopics.

#10 – Jimi: All Is by My Side

We travel back to mid-sixties Britain for our first top 10 best music biopics with a film by screenwriter John Ridley. The lesser known gem, takes on guitar great Jimi Hendrix, who took flight across the pond before becoming a huge star in America. Jimi: All Is by My Side largely qualifies on the list for its unique storyline about a short but pivotal time in the guitar legend’s career. Early on, Jimi Hendrix worked as a backing guitarist for other musicians before honing his own style and sound. Chas Chandler, the former Animals bassist, caught Jimi playing in NYC then enlisted him as a client and subsequently coaxed him to Britain.

In 1966, Jimi Hendrix arrived in London and quickly impressed the ladies like new girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. Then of course fans and fellow guitar gods caught on as well. Chandler, along with Jimi Hendrix’s other on and off girlfriend, and advocate, Linda Keith, helped him along the scene. Unlike most biopics, this 2013 release focuses on a few years in the artist’s career. The film offers a birds eye view into the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and their growing pains.

Actor/singer, André Lauren Benjamin (known as André 3000) pulls off the Hendrix moves and nuances adeptly. In reality, Waddy Wachtel provided the guitar playing for the film. In a disappointing turn, the movie avoids any songs written by Hendrix, since his estate denied the director’s request. Alternatively, the songs included in the movie are ones that Hendrix performed in 1966 and 1967 before the release of his debut album, Are You Experienced? What’s most appealing are the little details about Hendrix and the mid-sixties Britain music environment. Namely, the time The Jimi Hendrix Experience played an unforgettable show at London’s Saville Theatre. As the ultimate tribute to The Beatles, the band boldly played the title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album only three days after its release. Oh yeah, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were in the audience!

#9 – The Runaways

An all-girl band running wild in the 70s–unfortunately that’s the image a mere mention of The Runaways conjures. The original lineup of Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Cherie Currie, did inspire many young female artists. However, this 2010 film looks back toward a harder time for female rockers. Modern-day starlets play the main characters, Dakota Fanning as Currie, and Kristen Stewart as vocalist and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett. The movie focuses on the relationship between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie and the latter’s eventual departure from the band. Well, not surprisingly, since the film is largely based on the book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by vocalist Cherie Currie. Still, the movie could have presented the band as a whole, but that’s Hollywood. However, the pic offers a cool perspective on the touring life of an all-girl band and the Los Angeles rock climate during the 1970s.

The film also stars Michael Shannon as the infamous record producer Kim Fowley who put the band together. He later came under fire for his sexualization and treatment of the band. At the end of the day, The Runaways were a great band with bombastic, girl-power emboldened songs. The vibrant, 70s biopic will inspire a spin of “Cherry Bomb” on the turntable.

#8 – The Buddy Holly Story

The Buddy Holly Story came out in 1978 and plays out the life and career of early rock and roll icon Buddy Holly. Though biopics like Lady Sings the Blues and later La Bamba were popular, this one really set the stage for rock n roll stories. Gary Busey in those dark rimmed glasses channels Holly tremendously. Early in the band’s career as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, they played Roller rinks and local fairs, and made their way onto the radio airwaves. The sound at the time was considered very rebellious by today’s standards and Holly influenced many bands that would incorporate his style.

The Buddy Holly Story, with an Academy Award-winning musical score, celebrates American rock music at its finest. A great moment in music history is the band’s Ed Sullivan show appearance, which depicts a groundbreaking rock performance. Unfortunately, you know it’s coming, the movie details the untimely death of Buddy Holly who was killed in a plane crash along with other musical greats of the era. A moment that proves a heartbreaking end and the sobering reality of traveling musicians who have also lost their lives due to plane crashes.

#7 – Elvis

This 2022 biopic spotlights Elvis Presley through the lens of avant garde director Baz Luhrmann. Eye-popping cinematography and Hitchcock-worthy camera angles make for a visually mesmerizing film. Up-and-coming actor Austin Butler won praise and a Golden Globe for his sensitive and hip-shaking portrayal of The King. Heartthrob status aside, Elvis Presley rose to fame in an era of complex social change in America. The film captures his challenging journey from blue collar truck driver to worldwide superstar. Helping young Elvis along is eccentric music manager,  Colonel Tom Parker who saw the marketing potential in the white rhythm and blues singer. As played out in the pic, the icon’s partnership with “the Colonel” (played by Tom Hanks) is a legendary, but dysfunctional one.

Throughout the performance sequences, snippets of real footage cut in when you least expect them adding a dose of reality for maximum impact. A beloved talent, Elvis Presley also befriended many musicians along his rise to fame, which started in the churches of Tupelo, Mississippi, and later Memphis, Tennessee. Luhrmann wonderfully snapshots the singer’s idealism by recreating a 1950’s Beale Street including Sun Records and the rousing club scene. Amongst this exciting time in music history, B.B. King, gospel singer/guitar pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a young Little Richard circle the King’s world. Elvis admired many musicians and some greatly influenced his sound and style.

Every decade of his life is explored, even the tragic, drug-addicted, paranoid Vegas-era Elvis. However, these moments come off as surreal, sympathetic vignettes unlike the tabloid press he attracted. Ultimately, it takes a large scale film to portray a one-of-a-kind character like Elvis Presley. To that point, the time-hopping, rocking biopic tells his life story fabulously. Through it all, no matter what, his booming signature voice touched his audience and still does.

#6 – Almost Famous

Teenage rock journalist Cameron Crowe lived the life in the early seventies touring with his favorite bands and writing for Rolling Stone Magazine. Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical film about the idealistic Crowe on his way to becoming a top music writer and later director. Not your standard biopic but gets big love for a story highlighting one of the great eras in class rock history. Crowe, who wrote and directed the film, was married to Nancy Wilson when this film was made. Not surprisingly, the Heart great also helped score the film and select the perfect songs to bring this rock saga alive. The film has a mix of fiction along with factual bits and centers around the fictitious band-on-the-rise, Stillwater. Crowe based the group on several bands he interviewed such as Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and others. Groupie or self described “band-aid” Penny Lane played by Kate Hudson, gives a poignant and humorous performance.

What this film gets to the heart of is the fans’ love for their favorite bands. Moreover, it vividly depicts an era in rock history with authenticity from costumes to production environments. A time when bands arrived in stretch limos and magazines, radio and word-of-mouth were the primary sources of music news. Plus, an absolutely excellent soundtrack makes for an even better biopic.

#5 – What’s Love Got to Do With It – Tina Turner

Our fifth best biopic comes in like a lightning bolt. Incredibly, Tina Turner survived abuse from her former husband Ike Turner, and walked away with her name and her dignity. In some of the most brutal scenes, this biopic sheds light on domestic abuse. Turner rose to fame alongside her ex-husband in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She found her voice and as the film details, she danced and howled larger than life. In fact, her voice probably saved her life. It’s been written about and covered time and again that Ike abused her. That’s one thing, but to see what she really endured in a full-scale feature film is very profound and heartbreaking.

Capturing the energetic stage performances of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll would be challenging, but actress Angela Bassett tributes Turner in a very realistic and empowering light. The precisely choreographed “Proud Mary” captures the glitz and energy of Turner’s live shows. What’s Love Got To Do With It powers through the singer’s life from leaving Ike with nothing to re-emerging as one of the biggest female rock singers stars in history.

#4 – The Doors

The Doors biopic takes a cinematic look at one of the most prolific bands in classic rock history. With a great cast, and not so bad looking hairstyles and costuming, this epic film takes viewers on a trippy ride through the band’s history. The biopic about the famous 1960s rock band centers around their mysterious singer Jim Morrison. Directed by Oliver Stone (Platoon, The Kennedys, Wall Street), it stars Val Kilmer, who depicts Morrison’s mannerisms and stage persona to a tee. The band’s famous concert performances peppered with details of the time period capture the essence of The Doors’ live shows.

While on and offstage, most bands of the 60s and 70s experienced their fair share of infighting and creative differences. The Doors were no different, and with Morrison’s rebellious nature and drug and alcohol addiction, that’s more than enough material for any compelling rock drama. Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek form the band and connect cosmically in the movie. Then along with guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore dominate the Los Angeles club scene and beyond. The film covers it all from the singers’ childhood flashbacks, and Whisky a Go Go days to his death in 1971. Whatever bad vibes that followed this band (or an unpredictable frontman) their wondrous songwriting and intense live performances remain unforgettable.

#3 – Walk the Line – Johnny Cash

No doubt Johnny Cash was the coolest cat in music history and his story is our number three best biopic. Not many can walk through both tragedy and fame with grit, individuality, and grace the way he did. Key moments of the icon’s life unfold in the well-made dramatic biopic, Walk The Line. The hit 2005 film focuses on Johnny Cash’s tumultuous childhood, struggles with substance abuse, then his eventual rise to stardom. Walk the Line goes deep exploring his first marriage to Vivian Liberto and then his early romance and eventual marriage to June Carter.

Hollywood drama aside, Cash’s two autobiographies fueled the screenplay: Johnny Cash: Man in Black: The Story in His Own Words (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997). On the big screen, Joaquin Phoenix won the starring role as Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon played June Carter. The main cast members have fantastic chemistry as they sing, fight, fish and capture the hearts of music audiences around the world. Joaquin duplicated Cash’s unique playing and quirky moves excellently. Additionally, Reese sang the songs on point and gave a sassy, heartfelt performance while taking home an Oscar for Best Actress.

Visually, the sets, costumes, studios, and concert halls are authentically presented. Standout moments are the duo performing “Going To Jackson” and the scene-stealing Folsom Prison performance. The film gains momentum with powerful and humorous scenes that showcase the evolution of the prolific singer/songwriter. In keeping with any good biopic, notable artists who crossed paths with Johnny Cash get a nod including Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Overall, the biopic captures the essence of Johnny Cash as an unmatched performer and songwriter, woven through a story of love and endurance.

#2 – Ray – Ray Charles

Ray Charles had quite a life. Going blind at age seven, and haunted by his little brother’s tragic drowning, the icon overcame massive hurdles on his way to becoming a top recording artist. His mother taught him to be strong and not to be treated like a “cripple.” Time and again, this theme of self reliance plays out in a story of his well fought achievements. Ray awesomely shows scene by scene the challenges Ray Charles faced from traveling to earning a living on the Chitlin circuit. Everyday challenges like earning a living needed a strategy. For instance, he made the club promoters pay him in one dollar bills to make sure he didn’t get shorted. Sadly, like many music stories, Ray Charles too succumbed to heroin addiction.

The musician’s masterful playing and knack for writing and arranging songs is highlighted beautifully. A vivid picture of the early days of the recording business is painted. His personal life had its fair share of ups and downs, but the artist’s love for his music took center stage. He fought for eliminating segregated concerts down south, and at the time was even banned from playing in the state of Georgia for some time. Eventually, the state acknowledged their wrong doing and praised him for his resilient stance. All in all, through his uplifting concert performances and big dreams he prevails. The best of the best in the biopic genre reminds the world about his amazing catalog of hit songs and commanding vocal and playing ability.

#1 Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody is the crowning queen of all music biopics. Released in 2018, it got rave reviews for its poignant look at the life of Freddy Mercury and the band. If you had the chance to see it on the big screen, consider yourself very lucky. The band’s larger than life performances like their Live Aid appearance are worthy of a big panoramic viewing and sonic experience. Lead actor Rami Malek studied Freddy Mercury intensely, honing his moves, speech and playing. It paid off as he owned the performance and all the quirks of the operatic singer.

The film was a huge success at the time, breaking box office records for biopics. Although a few points are off base as far as the band’s recording timeline, some details were adjusted for cramming the band’s history into a feature film. Overall, it’s a great telling of the band’s formation and their days navigating England’s club environment. Many of their biggest hits get time on screen and insight into the evolution of their catalog and record company dealings. As you can expect the movie gives an in-depth look at the story of Freddy Mercury and his personal struggles and ultimately his tragic death from AIDS. In an all-time great biopic scene is a medley of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid set to millions of viewers basking in the glory of this epic rock band.

Top 10 Best Music Biopics article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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