Best music biopics to stream while you’re stuck at home
Movie theaters are shut down and concerts are on hold — but you still need a strong dose of music and drama. Fear not: AXS has you covered with a list of the music biopics you need to watch.
By Lori Melton
As healthcare workers bravely battle the coronavirus pandemic on the frontlines, people everywhere are doing their part to help curb the spread of the disease by hunkering down, following stay-at-home, social distancing orders. Most of life as we know it is on hold. Schools and businesses are closed, and live entertainment events like concerts and festivals are postponed, to help keep people safe.
Doing a movie marathon of music biopics is one great way to pass the time. For music lovers, these based-on-true-story films offer two-for-one entertainment. Fans often get a more up-close-and-personal look at their favorite artists while they also rock out to a fantastic built-in soundtrack that compliments a musician’s life story or rise to fame.
From classical composers like Mozart to rap artists like Notorious B.I.G., filmmakers have given moviegoers and music fans an entertaining, engrossing, and informative look at the lives of some of music’s biggest stars. Limiting our list of favorites to around a dozen titles was a tough task, as there are scores of spectacular films about legendary artists out there. Nonetheless, we’ve compiled a list of our picks for the best music biopics to stream while you’re staying safe at home.
“La Bamba” (1987)
“La Bamba” follows Chicano heartthrob Ritchie Valens’ meteoric rise to fame before dying in a plane crash that took his life, along with Buddy Holly. Lou Diamond Phillips shines in the lead role and the film also does a brilliant job highlighting late-‘50s racial tension in Los Angeles. At just 17, Valens made an indelible impact on pop music that set the stage for Latino artists for multiple generations to come, to the present day.
Jamie Foxx, without question, totally deserved his Best Actor Oscar win for his stunning portrayal of legendary R & B singer Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic “Ray.” The film follows the indelible singer’s life from the time he went blind at the age of seven until he becomes one of R&B most beloved and influential artists. Charles connected to music in a way no other artist did.
Despite his blindness, Charles followed his mother’s charge to go after his dreams. Jamie Foxx and the film portrays him as the larger-than-life yet troubled genius that he became.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
Now 87, Loretta Lynn remains the reigning “Queen of Country Music” and Sissy Spacek nailed her Oscar-winning performance as Lynn in the biopic that was titled after her 1970 signature song of the same name. Spacek embodies Lynn at many phases of her life, including her innocent teen years and as she rises to country stardom. She also sings a string of Lynn’s hits and the soundtrack climbed all the way to No. 2 on the country charts.
There may not be any artist more influential on the music landscape than the late, great, King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley. John Carpenter’s made-for-TV biopic stars Kurt Russell in the lead role, for which he earned an Emmy nomination. Russell nailed all of Elvis’ charismatic mannerisms that drove fans around the globe wild. He also nailed his dark and brooding side that the public rarely saw. Of the many portrayals of Elvis’ life, this film is one of the best.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993)
Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne both received Oscar nominations for their unforgettable portrayals of Tina and Ike Turner. Tina Turner rose in the ranks from being a talented backup singer to an iconic R&B diva. The film pays incredible homage to her soulful onstage sass and also presents a searing look at Tina Turner’s ongoing battle with domestic abuse.
“Love & Mercy” (2014)
John Cusack stars as Beach Boys co-founder and frontman Brian Wilson. The film details Wilson’s struggles with mental illness during the ‘60s and ‘80s while also highlighting his musical genius. Paul Giamatti also gives a riveting performance as Wilson’s self-serving, manipulative psychotherapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. The soundtrack at the heart of the tumultuous story rocks.
“8 Mile” (2002)
Eminem aka Marshall Mathers made his acting debut in this film that parallels the Grammy-winning rapper’s early life in Detroit and rise to fame, though it is not touted as a true “biopic.” It’s an underdog story with lots of grit and determination. “Lose Yourself” went on to become Eminem’s signature song, which also scored the hip-hop legend an Oscar for Best Original Song.
“The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)
Gary Busey stars as Buddy Holly, one of the early pioneers of ‘50s rock and roll. The movie traces his rise to fame as part of The Crickets and their eventual breakup, which leads to Holly’s solo career and his tragic death in a plane crash in 1959. Busey captures Holly’s rock persona beautifully and the movie remains a critic’s favorite biopic over 50 years later.
“Walk the Line” (2005)
Long before “power couple” was a coined label, June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash were one of country music’s most memorable couples. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon delivered stunning performances in the lead roles, for which Witherspoon won a Best Actress Oscar while Phoenix earned a Best Actor Oscar nod. The pair of opposite music personalities had undeniable on-stage chemistry which resonated with audiences and their fans. Witherspoon and Phoenix emulated the stars’ mutual talent and attraction with mesmerizing brilliance.
“Rocketman” isn’t your “garden-variety” biopic because Elton John, its subject, isn’t your typical rock star. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, certain scenes in the film take on a fantasy feel. However, lead actor Taron Egerton nailed John’s eccentricities and struggles with addiction. He also sang all the songs in the explosive soundtrack. Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s (played by Jamie Bell) enduring friendship and game-changing musical partnership are a joy and a beating heart at the core of the film. Elton John served as executive producer with his husband David Furnish as a producer.
Judy Garland is one of the most beloved female singers and actresses of all time. Renee Zellwegger transformed herself into Garland with breathtaking authenticity – impressively singing every song in the film as well. The movie flashes back and forth between Garland’s rise as a teen sensation as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and her downward spiral with substance abuse that led up to her tragic death.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)
Rami Malek may not have seemed like the obvious choice to play the lead role of Freddie Mercury in the biopic about his life as the frontman for the British rock band Queen. However, critics and fans alike will largely agree that no one else could have done it with such grace and meticulous perfection. Malek won a Best Actor Oscar for the role, among many other awards. The film broke box office records for being the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, pulling in over $903 million worldwide. The music is powerfully uplifting and the Live Aid sequence is a spot-on depiction of the unparalleled live performance.