Make no mistake: films inspired by famous musicians are all the rage right now. With a boost from last year’s Oscar-winning Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, it seems like movies based on real musicians are everywhere. From the Elton John biopic Rocketman to the Beatles-inspired Yesterday and the upcoming Judy, starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland, audiences can’t get enough of seeing (and hearing) their favorite musicians brought to life in the movies.
Of course, the musician biopic is nothing new. Put down your headphones and grab a remote to watch the top 10 greatest movies based on real musicians.
Depending on who you ask, 1991’s The Doors is either the best or worst musician biopic. This Oliver Stone-directed film stars Val Kilmer as the gifted and doomed singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison. And, according to fans and the band alike, it focused too much on the man and not enough on the music.
Stone glorifies the weird excesses of Morrison while also distorting a number of facts and events. The result is a film that has basically been disowned by various surviving band members and friends of the band. But the film’s lasting cultural impact cannot be denied. A restoration of the film screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Get On Up
Many people missed out on the 2014 movie Get On Up. That’s a shame, as Chadwick Boseman’s performance as “Godfather of Soul” James Brown is downright hypnotic. Critics agreed, and this film is one of the most highly-rated ones on this list.
In fact, the only “bad” thing about the movie is that it focuses more on Brown’s music than his life. So, if you want more “bio” in your music biopic, you may wind up a bit disappointed. But no need to feel bad for Chadwick Boseman. He might not have found commercial success with Get On Up, but four years later he rocked the box office starring in Marvel’s Black Panther.
What’s Love Got to Do With It
The 1993 movie What’s Love Got to Do With It is a bona fide classic. It stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as they recreate the tumultuous lives and careers of Tina and Ike Turner.
Portraying Tina Turner was no easy feat for Bassett. First, she had to win the role over other major talents including Janet Jackson, Halle Berry, and Vanessa Williams. Then, filming the elaborate dance scenes, not to mention scenes of spousal abuse, was excruciating. Bassett said, “What I was asked to do physically, emotionally and psychologically. The dance numbers — 17 hours to shoot a dance sequence. I did every stunt. I lost my voice, fractured my hand, tore my rotator cuff.”
But her efforts paid off. The movie became a critical darling, and Bassett won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Tina Turner.
Walk the Line
Johnny Cash was less a musician than a force of nature. And that’s how Joaquin Phoenix portrays him in the 2005 film Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold. It also stars Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of legendary singer June Carter, who married Johnny Cash.
The film cleaned up at the Golden Globes, winning Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy categories. But comedy it is not — the film is a harrowing portrayal of Cash’s drug and alcohol abuse and its effect on his relationships.
Not all biopics focus on recent artists. The 1984 film Amadeus, for example, features the life and music of Mozart! Directed by Milos Foreman and based on the stage play by Peter Shaffer, Amadeus is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. It stars Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the musical genius with a penchant for toilet humor. In an iconic turn, F. Murray Abraham plays Antonio Salieri, the rival composer who plots Mozart’s downfall.
The movie won eight Oscars (including Best Picture), six Golden Globes, and more accolades than Mozart could wave a baton at. While Salieri’s rivalry with Mozart was fabricated for the film, in real life he did claim responsibility for Mozart’s untimely death at the age of 35. However, Salieri made the claims at the end of his life in the throes of dementia. Historians accept that Mozart died from illness, not poison.
In some cases, an actor does more than just play the role of a famous musician. Instead, he essentially becomes that musician. And that’s what happened with Jamie Foxx in the 2004 movie Ray. The film follows the life of legendary soul musician Ray Charles, including the tragic childhood death of his brother, the affliction that led to his blindness at age 7, and his struggles with heroin as an adult.
Foxx’s stunningly accurate portrayal of Charles swept the awards season. He won the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, and yes, even the People’s Choice Award for Best Actor. Sadly, Ray Charles himself never got to experience the acclaim his biopic received. He passed away several months before the film was released.
I’m Not There
Folk legend Bob Dylan has often seemed like different people at various points of his life. And that is exactly how the 2007 film I’m Not There chose to portray him — by using different actors for different stages of his life! Some of the actors portraying Dylan include Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, who made this movie before memorably starring together in The Dark Knight.
But the actor who garnered the most attention for playing Dylan was none other than Cate Blanchett, who won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for her performance. Not only did critics approve, but Bob Dylan himself offered his praise of the “incredible” actors who played him.
In this 2010 film, Twilight star Kristen Stewart shows her acting chops portraying punk rock icon Joan Jett during the formation and eventual dissolution of the band The Runaways. The film also stars Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, the original band vocalist whose memoir the movie was based on.
The Runaways was ultimately a commercial disappointment, but it got the approval of the real Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. However, each was quick to clarify that this movie was not a fully accurate representation of the band’s history and that interested fans should still read the memoir.
In the late ’90s, Eminem took the hip hop world by storm and became the most successful rap artist of all time. In 2002, at the height of his popularity, Eminem took his first step into movie stardom with 8 Mile. While not a biopic, the film was highly inspired by his own life.
In 8 Mile, Eminem portrays Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, an aspiring young rapper living in a trailer with his mother near 8 Mile Road in Detroit. The film also stars Kim Basinger as his mother, Brittany Murphy as his love interest, and Mekhi Phifer as his best friend. Memorably, the film spawned one of Eminem’s greatest hits, “Lose Yourself.” This led Eminem to become the first rap artist to win Best Song at the Oscars.
Culturally, the Beatles remain huge, even if they’re not “more popular than Jesus,” as John Lennon once noted to critical backlash. So, how do you make a movie about a phenomenon like The Beatles? In the case of the 2012 film Backbeat, you try to embrace the spirit of the band instead of the reality.
The performances are solid, particularly Ian Hart’s John Lennon and Gary Bakewell’s Paul McCartney. However, the most notable thing is the music: instead of using actual Beatles recordings, the film features early Beatles music recorded by members of Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Dave Grohl, and more. It’s an interesting experiment that the actual McCartney did not like: he praised some of the performances but took exception with events the film got wrong.