Our Ten’s List: Best Musical Biopics.
After the success of the 2pac biopic, All Eyez on Me, we look back at our favorites in the genre.
Musical biopics are a tricky genre. Nine times out of ten the subject has to be, well, dead before there is enough public interest to warrant a biographical movie. It has become such a trope of the genre, I was surprised to find that not every great biopic requires the tragic passing of their source material.
Looking back over the last 40 years, there have been many great biopics. The last ten twenty years in particular have been a renaissance of the musical biography with fantastic films based on Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and even Eminem doing solid business. Last week we saw the tremendous success of a new sub-genre: hip hop biopics. In 2009 the Notorious B.I.G. had a star studded biopic that made bank, and N.W.A. dominated the box office last year with Straight Outta Compton. All Eyez on Me continues the trend with the story of Tupac Shakur. Who could be next?
Join us as we look back at the ten musical biopics that get our toes tapping and our fingers itching to press the play button.
Ten Best Musical Biopics.
10. Selena (1997)
This biopic about the short and tumultuous career of Mexican singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez. The artist herself was a prodigiously talented entertainer who stormed the US markets and made Latin/Tejano music familiar to a new audience. At the height of her career, just as she was about to release a crossover album for US audiences, she was killed by a friend and former employee. After a short career of milestones, her posthumous album was the first by a Latin artist to enter the Billboard 200.
Though the film gives a gauzy recounting of the singer’s life that skirts many of the real world troubles she had, it managed to pay loving tribute just a short 3 years after Selena’s death. The film relied on the talents of a young Jennifer Lopez. Though she is of Puerto Rican/American descent, many were won over by her portrayal, aided by the nearly all Latin American cast (no small feat in 90’s Hollywood.) With the media in a feeding frenzy after Selena’s death, the film took the time to work with the family and friends of the slain singer, adding to the emotional depth of the film.
9. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
This biopic about country music star Loretta Lynn was a critical darling, earning lead actress Sissy Spacek an Oscar and being nominated for several more. Adapted from Lynn’s autobiography, the film was lauded by critics for its veracity and realistic depiction of Lynn’s rise from rural poverty to music fame. To this day the film remains popular, sitting with an incredible 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
8. 8 Mile (2002)
Before biopics about rap stars were popular, audiences got a big screen adaptation of the early life and rise to fame of superstar Eminem. Much like Coal Miner’s Daughter, this film relied heavily on the autobiography of the star…so much so that it also starred Eminem as himself in the film. Also like the above entry, it garnered an Academy Award, this time for best song, and featured an artist who wasn’t deceased. Will wonders never cease?
7. What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
We’re on a hot streak when it comes to biopics about artists who didn’t die. Unfortunately, part of the notoriety of this film was the subject matter: the rocky marriage and divorce of Tina and Ike Turner. Though loosely based on the autobiography of Tina Turner, the film adapts events. Both parties signed off on the venture, but Tina rightfully gets the better of it. The songs that feature both Ike and Tina were remastered and co-star Lawrence Fishburne actually sang Ike’s parts. Go Cowboy Curtis!
The star power of this film is what elevates it from a tabloid binge. Angela Basset as Tina and Lawrence Fishburne as Ike are both magnetic, and both received Oscar nods for their roles. For a story fraught with baggage, we get an uplifting and poignant film that would be compelling even if it weren’t based on true events.
6. Walk the Line (2005)
Though he’s sadly departed now, Johnny Cash was alive and kicking when this film was made, so our streak continues! This film was adapted from two autobiographies from Johnny Cash, as well as a series of interviews he gave to prospective film-makers when he was shopping around the idea of a film based on his life. It details the early period in Cash’s career and culminates in his proposal to long time partner June Carter after a moving duet.
This is another biography that lives and breathes on the performances of the leads. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash captures the visceral physicality of Cash, right down to the way he plays his guitar like a rattle-snake is crawling up his back. Reese Witherspoon hits a career high note as June Carter, and went on to win the Academy Award for best Actress for her performance. The two share a singular chemistry while on film that gives the story of their rocky romance added heft.
5. The Doors (1991)
Well, streaks over. This film covered the rock and roll icons, The Doors, but quickly turned into a Jim Morrison biopic. The band was involved in putting the project together, even going so far as to veto director Oliver Stone before eventually welcoming him, but they’re all on record now as pretty much hating the film. Thank god for that, because what we got was a cinematic tour de force that made up for inaccuracy by being a goddamn great movie.
At the heart of the film is a once in a career performance from Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. He’s out of his mind in this role playing a guy who was out of his mind in real life. Supported by a great cast featuring Kyle MacLachlan, Kathleen Quinlan and Meg Ryan, he turns this film up to eleven. Dripping with surreal visuals and mind-altering music, The Doors may not be the most factual musical biopic, but it comes closest to embodying the rock and roll ethos.
4. The Pianist (2002)
Unlike many films on this list, The Pianist doesn’t cover the life of a famous artist. Instead, it gives a harrowing portrayal of how composer and musician Wladyslaw Szpilman survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. Beginning shortly before the invasion, we’re introduced to Szpilman, played deftly by Adrien Brody. As war descends, he eeks out an existence in the Warsaw ghetto and narrowly avoids being sent to the death camps. Living in the bombed out husk of the city, he barely survives.
Directed by Roman Polanski, The Pianist is a measured but gripping tale of survival and identity. It won three Oscars and was nominated for seven. The classical score of the film nicely serves the somber atmosphere of the piece. Fine performances abound, especially from Brody and Thomas Kretschmann who plays a German officer that discovers and eventually aids Szpilman.
3. Bird (1988)
This biopic, directed by Clint Eastwood, details the life and musical career of jazz artist Charlie “Bird” Parker. A tough-minded and incisive film, Bird shows a mercurial and tormented musician, played with ferocious vigor by Forest Whitaker. The film would go on to win an Academy Award for its soundtrack.
Dealing frankly and openly with Bird’s addiction to heroin and suicide attempt, this film is not light entertainment. Mirroring the free-flow jazz of Parker, the film also hops around in time as it shows different moments of the artist’s life out of sequence. The whole experience hangs together thanks to Eastwood’s relentless style and Whitaker’s breathtaking performance. A must see about a lesser celebrated musician.
2. Ray (2004)
While few have heard about Charlie Parker, everyone is familiar with Ray Charles, and his biopic is an interesting counter-point to Bird. Blind from a young age and tormented by the accidental death of his brother, Charles went on to become a seminal figure in the music industry.
The film, directed by Taylor Hackford, doesn’t flinch from the darker elements of Charles’ life such as drug addiction, alcoholism and troubled relationships with women, but it does tell a more uplifting story of perseverance and redemption. While it takes some liberties, it was signed off on by Charles himself, who unfortunately passed away just months before its premier. Once again, the film soars on a stellar performance, this time by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Foxx went on to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards for this role.
1. La Bamba (1987)
One film that has done the most to cement the genre of musical biopic into the popular conscious is La Bamba. This film tells the tragic story of Richie Valens, his meteoric rise, and his sudden death in a plane accident that also killed musicians Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. La Bamba is the archetypical musical biography: it covers a popular musician who died tragically, delves into his troubled home life and the social implications of his life (in this case, trying to find mainstream acceptance for a Mexican-American artist), and shows the wider reverberations of his passing. Films like Selena, Notorious, and All Eyez on Me all trace this familiar pattern and owe much to the Richie Valens story.
La Bamba is not just notable to establishing many of the tropes of the genre, it is also a great movie. Like many films on this list, it features a strong performance from a young artist with Lou Diamond Phillips playing Richie Valens. The film covers much of the golden age of Rock and Roll, and has a tremendous soundtrack as a result. Director Luiz Valdez juxtaposes the sensational emergence of Rock with quiet moments of domestic drama that endears Valens to the audience, making his passing all the more tragic.