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Top 10 Greatest Music Biopics

VO: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
We love the music, and the stories behind it. For this list we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Music Biopics. These are best biographical films about real-life musicians, excluding biopics that are more fiction than fact, such as “Amadeus”, and those loosely inspired by true stories, such as “8 Mile”.
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Top 10 Music Biopics

We love the music, and the stories behind it. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 10 Music Biopics.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the best biographical films about real-life musicians, excluding biopics that are more fiction than fact, such as “Amadeus”, and those loosely inspired by true stories, such as “8 Mile”.

#10: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

We know that this is a contentious place to start, and there’ll surely be many a naysayer in the comments, but hear us out. While this musical biopic about legendary rock band Queen and their magnetic frontman Freddie Mercury failed to live up to its potential, said potential was so high that even as it fell short, it remained a cut above most. The story is at times oversimplified, and Mercury’s personal life is unfortunately sanitized/glossed over. But even so, Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury manages to elevate the entire film, even when the dialogue disappoints. For all that the film lacks, it’s still a rousing celebration of an icon.

#9: “La Bamba” (1987)

Though actor Lou Diamond Phillips is perhaps better known for his television work, in 1987 he owned the big screen as young rock n’ roll legend Ritchie Valens. A modest movie that was produced on a budget of just $6.5 million, it admittedly looks like a made-for-tv offering by today’s standards - but there’s nothing made-for-tv about Phillips’ performance. The film isn’t afraid to be sentimental or sweet in retelling the Valens story, which was cut tragically short when the musician died in a plane crash at the tender age of 17. “La Bamba” explores his family life and youth, making this a refreshing musical biopic with more heart than rockstar trappings.

#8: “Love & Mercy” (2014)

Considering its legendary subject, it’s shocking how few people have seen or even heard about “Love & Mercy”. The film stars one of Hollywood’s most consistent talents, Paul Dano, as young Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson, and the great John Cusack as Wilson in his middle years. Supported by a superb cast that includes Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti, Dano and Cusack expertly convey both the brilliance of Brian Wilson and his struggles with mental health. Wilson himself called it “very factual” while critics and fans alike deemed it brilliant.

#7: “Coal Miner's Daughter” (1980)

Sissy Spacek is best remembered for her role as the titular Carrie in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal horror story. However, when she was tasked with bringing to life country music icon Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner's Daughter”, she once again delivered a transformative performance. Written by Tom Rickman and directed by Michael Apted, the 1980 biopic is a moving film that dives deep into Lynn’s voyage from abject poverty in rural Kentucky to a household name. It might not break new cinematic ground, but “Coal Miner's Daughter” is thoughtful and packs an emotional punch, getting the one thing right that matters most in a biopic - the story.

#6: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993)

Many notable actresses nearly stepped into the sizable shoes of Tina Turner for this 1993 biopic, including Halle Berry, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Vanessa L. Williams. But it’s hard to imagine any of those talented women turning in a better performance than the one delivered by Angela Bassett. Adapted from Turner’s autobiography, “I, Tina”, the film was met with critical acclaim, with the reviewers highlighting Bassett and Laurence Fishburne’s performances as Tina and Ike. Despite being an excellent film start to finish, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was largely overlooked by the Academy Awards, a snub that people still reference today.

#5: “Straight Outta Compton” (2015)

Speaking of Oscar snubs, how about this seminal hip hop biopic that the Academy somehow only nominated for one category, Best Original Screenplay, despite it being one of 2015’s best films? Retelling the story of landmark gangsta rap group N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is expertly directed. Where some many biopics struggle to find their pacing, it marches forward with the same unflinching confidence that made N.W.A. into music icons. The actors bringing the rap legends to life all turn in excellent performances, making “Straight Outta Compton” a rare biopic that truly fires on all cylinders.

#4: “Sid and Nancy” (1986)

Never got into The Sex Pistols? It doesn’t matter! Despite its niche subject matter, this musical biopic is a must-watch for any fan of tragic love, or just good cinema. It follows the story of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his volatile relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Admittedly, it’s a messy tale that’s sometimes tough to watch, but it’s also - in its own twisted way - a beautiful and touching film.This punk rock Romeo and Juliet may have failed at the box office, but it’s one of the best musical biopics ever made, in no small part thanks to the performances of Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.

#3: “Walk the Line” (2005)

Now this film requires very little introduction. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, and expertly directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay, “Walk the Line” reintroduced Johnny Cash to an entire new generation of listeners. Tracing singer-songwriter Johnny Cash’s life from his childhood to the point of superstardom and beyond, this film is perfectly paced, and deeply moving. It’s biggest strength lies in the way Cash is portrayed, avoiding the pitfalls of deification or demonization by showing him instead as the fascinating but flawed man that he was. Boasting stellar performances from both Phoenix and Witherspoon, “Walk the Line” was one of 2005’s best films, rightfully taking home numerous awards.

#2: “I'm Not There” (2007)

Though a very unconventional biopic, Todd Haynes’s 2007 exploration of the life and legacy of folk icon Bob Dylan feels like a perfect approach to a similarly unconventional star. Rather than attempt to summarize the life of the mysterious and arguably unknowable man, Haynes instead breaks down Dylan into the many faces he wore over the years, charging a different actor with bringing each one of to life. Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw all play characters NOT named Bob Dylan, who, together, give us a far greater understanding of the icon than we ever could have hoped to see onscreen.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

“The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)

“Get On Up” (2014)

“Selena” (1997)

#1: “Ray” (2004)

When it comes to music biopics worthy of their subject, 2004’s “Ray” feels like flawless execution. As Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx rightfully swept the awards circuit, taking home an Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and Critics’ Choice Award. The thing is… Foxx didn’t just deliver a solid performance, he made us believe that he WAS Ray Charles. Sure, you can find fault with the screenplay, but even when the pacing or dialogue goes astray, the incredible acting of all parties involved, paired with the incredible true story at its heart, ensures that the film stays on track. It’s a triumph within the genre, and everything a musical biopic should be.
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