25 Musical Biopics That Actually Rock
Moviegoers love to see movies based on true stories, which is part of the reason musical biopics are so popular. The other being, of course, that the musicians who are the subjects of such movies themselves are also incredibly popular. There's something exhilarating about watching a movie about a famous singer, seeing a behind-the-scenes look at the songs we know so well. These movies often show us what we don't get to see on stage: the struggles, the determination, the falls from grace. And there's definitely something appealing about watching actors perform as musicians—either lip-syncing along to famous tracks or tackling vocals themselves. While there are almost too many movies about musicians to count, here are the 25 best musical biopics ever made.
25| The Runaways
Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, respectively, in this behind-the-scenes look at the early days of teen girl rock band The Runaways. Michael Shannon co-stars as infamous record producer Kim Fowley in this movie based on Currie's memoir.
24| The Doors
Oliver Stone lends his outrageous hand to this biopic of Jim Morrison, The Doors, and the wild sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the '60s counterculture. Meg Ryan and Kyle MacLachlan co-star as Morrison's girlfriend Pamela Courson and bandmate Ray Mazarek, respectively.
23| The Nowhere Boy
Julia Baird's memoir of her brother John Lennon serves as the basis for this biopic about the musician's early life, which stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the young man who would become one of the most famous musicians in the world.
22| Love and Mercy
This biopic of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as the musician. Love & Mercy alternates between Wilson in the 1960s, during the recording of the seminal album Pet Sounds, and the 1980s, depicting his struggles with mental illness and his psychotherapy program.
21| Get On Up
Years before Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman had a starring role as the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, in this underrated biopic that co-stars Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Dan Aykroyd.
20| Bound for Glory
An early standout in the contemporary musical biopic genre, Bound for Glory stars David Carradine as legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. Hal Ashby's gorgeous film earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and won the award for Best Cinematography.
19| The Buddy Holly Story
Gary Busey earned an Oscar nomination (you read that right) for his iconic performance as rock musician Buddy Holly. The 1978 film is another classic biopic that set the standard for the genre, charting Holly's successful but short career—and his lasting impact on American culture.
Ethan Hawke co-wrote and directed this biopic of the often-overlooked singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey), who helped spawn the Texas outlaw movement that later made Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson major stars. The film follows Foley's unconventional life and career—both cut tragically short.
17| Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross made her film debut in this Motown-produced film about the turbulent life of jazz great Billie Holiday, adapted from her own autobiography. Co-starring Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, the biopic follows Holiday from her humble roots, to stardom, to her subsequent heroin addiction and career comeback.
16| 24 Hour Party People
The Manchester music scene from the late '70s to the early '90s serves as the backdrop to Michael Winterbottom's cult classic, which stars Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, the Factory Records head responsible for the success of Joy Division and New Order.
Photographer Anton Corbijn's directorial debut tells the story of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), one of the most compelling performers in the late-'70s post-punk scene. Based on the memoir of Curtis's wife, Deborah (played here by Samantha Morton), the film is shot in stark black and white—a stylistic choice that compliments Joy Division's dark and moody songs.
14| La Vie En Rose
Marion Cotillard's breakout performance as famed French singer Édith Piaf—whose life was marked with tragic events as she rose from an impoverished young street performer to international star—earned the actress an Oscar.
13| Velvet Goldmine
While it's not a true David Bowie biopic—Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays an androgynous musician named Brian Slade, modeled on Bowie, Jobriath, and Marc Bolan—he did threaten to sue writer-director Todd Haynes for his glam rock epic that co-stars Christian Bale as a music journalist and Ewan McGregor as a Iggy Pop-Lou Reed hybrid.
The short life and career of Tejano music star Selena is the subject of this movie, which stars Jennifer Lopez in her breakout film role. The film portrays Selena's rise as a singer who breaks out of the Latino music scene and becomes an international pop star before she was murdered by the president of her fan club.
Clint Eastwood directs Forest Whitaker in this Oscar-winning film about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who battles mental illness and drug addiction throughout much of his life—but whose signature style of performing changed the jazz world forever.
10| 8 Mile
Eminem plays Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith in this slightly fictionalized film based on his own life as a young white rapper who breaks free from an abusive household in Detroit and becomes a rap superstar. (The rapper won an Oscar for Best Original Song for the film's famous track, "Lose Yourself.")
Jamie Foxx nabbed an Oscar for his realistic portrayal of R&B legend Ray Charles, who went from a blind child of sharecroppers in the South to one of the greatest American musicians of all time.
8| Straight Outta Compton
Hip-hop biopics are becoming a dime a dozen (you can skip the films about Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac), but Straight Outta Compton offers a powerful and emotional look behind the founding and early success of N.W.A. (and features O'Shea Jackson Jr. playing his own father, Ice Cube).
7| Walk the Line
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon both won Oscars for their performances in this film about country musicians Johnny Cash and June Carter, following Cash's career as a solo artist and eventual musical and romantic partner to Carter.
6| Sid and Nancy
Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb give incredible—maybe even unbelievable—performances as Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, whose love affair devolves into drug abuse, violence, and Nancy's murder—all set against the rise of the punk scene in late-'70s London.
5| La Bamba
Lou Diamond Phillips plays Chicano musician Ritchie Valens, who also perished on the same airplane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly. La Bamba follows the typical biopic mold, charting Valens's meteoric rise as a teenage rock and roll star.
4| What's Love Got to Do With It
Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne both earned Oscar nominations for their searing portrayals of Tina and Ike Turner in this biopic about the former, who rises from backup singer to star—and narrowly survives an abusive relationship, ultimately breaking free and taking her own place in the solo spotlight.
3| I'm Not There
Todd Haynes makes the most of another biopic-shy subject—this time Bob Dylan. Rather than delivering the traditional biographical narrative, Haynes recruited six actors—Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw—to portray the various public personas of the celebrated singer-songwriter. It's wild, beguiling, and full of incredible covers of Dylan's classic songs.
2| Coal Miner's Daughter
The platonic ideal of the musical biopic, Coal Miner's Daughter stars Sissy Spacek as country legend Loretta Lynn, who went from poor teenager to music stardom thanks to her charming and whip-smart persona. Spacek won an Oscar for Best Actress and contributed her own vocals to the soundtrack. Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as Lynn's husband and manager Doolittle, while Beverly D'Angelo appears as Lynn's friend and mentor, Patsy Cline.
You know what they say: Rock me, Amadeus. Sure, while classical composers may not have had the gritty and wild reputation of our contemporary rock stars, they really did command similar attention. And Milos Forman's epic, Oscar-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer's acclaimed play hones in on the competitive rivalry between the wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the lesser-known Antonio Salieri—whose hatred for the former turns deadly in this drama that's full of debauchery, comedy, and obsession.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.