From John Lennon to Bob Dylan: The 10 best musical biopics of all time
As the brand new David Bowie biopic Stardust gets its first trailer and the collective gasps of the Starman’s fanbase can be heard across the land, we thought there was no better time to bring you our definitive list of the greatest musical biopics of all time. The new Bowie film is destined to split audiences and those diehard Bowie fans will know that the film has already failed on two counts — it doesn’t have the blessing of Bowie’s son Duncan and, because of this, it doesn’t have rights to use his music either. It’s a combination which could see the film already dead in the water despite the alluring idea that it tells the story of David before he became Bowie.
In fact, pretty much all music biopics are an alluring prospect. The chance to peek behind the curtain and reveal the person behind the music is not only one that tantalises fans but captures the imaginations of the actors playing them too. After all, who doesn’t want to have a go at playing their favourite musician? It’s meant that in recent years a slew of different musical biopics have popped up across the genre spectrum. While a few of them feature in our list of favourites, its a reminder that the interest in some of the 20th century’s most potent musicians is only gathering pace.
Whether it’s an origin story and walking talking version of VH1’s Behind The Music, the truth is that we love to know more about the lives that were lived behind the wall of PR-friendly interviews and performances. If that story is expertly dramatised with sex, drugs, violence and everything else that makes a movie brilliant, then all the better. However, as you’ll see, the films in question needn’t have a crazed protagonist to capture the hearts and minds of their audience, they need only be authentic to grab our attention.
We’re not going to pretend that there are only 10 great biopics out there — there are far more. However, none tell the stories so perfectly as these ten. That said, there are some omissions which certainly deserve a viewing, such as the story of Richie Valens La Bamba or indeed The Buddy Holly Story. Equally, Clint Eastwood’s depiction of Charlie Parker in Bird is naturally arresting as is Don Cheadle’s performance in Miles Ahead, the story of Miles Davis. Simply put, there’s probably a musical biopic out there just waiting for you to watch and enjoy it as for every genre there’s at least one film to suit.
However, below, we’ve done some hard graft for you and are bringing only the best of the best.
10 best music biopics of all time:
10. Nowhere Boy – John Lennon
2009’s Nowhere Boy has a habit of dividing audiences. Those who arrive at the film hoping to see the man behind some of The Beatles’ greatest songs or the reason John Lennon told us all to ‘Imagine’ will be disappointed. This film, as the title suggests, is about John Lennon the boy. Based on the biography written by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, the film details the struggles Lennon suffered in his adolescents.
Separated from his mother at age five, the film depicts the difficult decisions that surrounded his upbringing. It looks at his troubled relationship with his mother, Julia, and his most inspirational figure Aunt Mimi. It’s a piece of cinema which is focused far more on than sensibilities of Lennon rather than his musical aptitude but that doesn’t discredit it in any way.
We’re offered a striking view of how John Lennon first formed The Beatles and although the film cuts off before we see him, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr dominate the musical world, it does offer up a view of the formative years of the man who would orchestrate the whole thing.
9. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
If your life as a band can be accurately described as an action movie, then chances are your biopic is set to be a box office smash. That can certainly be said for 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, the authorised biography of N.W.A. With the backing of the group’s surviving members, the story told here is riddled with rhymes, bullets, violence, sex, drugs and gangsters. If this was sold as fiction you’d likely buy it, yet somehow it’s all true.
There’s no doubt that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube have made themselves a pretty impressive monument to their success with the film, but wasn’t that the point of N.W.A in the first place? The film is an action-packed triumph and left us wondering if there was also a computer game franchise in there somewhere too. The film doesn’t shy away from what lifted and eventually bright down the group though.
The film allows us to see the bargaining that went on behind band members’ backs, it shows off the debauched touring schedules the band shared and how laden with women and guns they always were. But the best moment of the whole film comes as Eazy-E, Dr Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren get arrested in Detroit for performing ‘Fuck Tha Police’ in a perfect act of civil disobedience. It’s a joy to watch from start to finish.
8. Sid & Nancy – Sid Vicious & Nancy Spungen
There’s no doubt that the romance shared between Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols bassist and punk poster boy, and Nancy Spungen was passionate and intense. Alex Cox’s film from 1986 tries and succeeds to capture that with a sincerity that is often missing from such films. In it, we not only see the pair’s intrinsic connection but their plight too, as they descend into heavy drug use and guttural glamour.
Johnny Rotten, after seeing the film, told Alex Cox that he deserves to be shot, so that’s about as high a recommendation as one can get. Equally, Rotten was firmly moved by the performance of Chloe Webb as Nancy and the esteemed performer Gary Oldham as Sid.
Oldham and Sid’s connection goes back a long way as Oldham was born just a few miles away from Sid in the same London borough. His incarnation of Sid is not only definitive but simply heartbreaking as he perfectly captures the troubled and vulnerable figure behind the posturing and posing that punks always seem to perfect.
7. Ray – Ray Charles
If your performance wins you an Oscar then you know you’ve done something right. For Jamie Foxx, he not only got to play the incandescent talent of Ray Charles but he also picked up the Academy Award for it too. Charles sadly died just before the box office smash was released in 2004, adding perhaps the only dark point to the film. Otherwise, it is a movie built on the legacy of a true legend.
We needn’t go on about just how vital Ray Charles was to modern music as it’s far better to watch this film and sees the story of one of the greatest R&B pioneers of all time unfurl in front of you. An expert impressionist, Foxx absolutely nails the depiction of Charles from his unphased look to his iconic gait and vocal performance. It is quite simply inch-perfect.
The film is littered with impressive performances, too. Kerry Washing as Bea Charles is impressive while Clifton Powell as Charles’ long-suffering assistant is also noteworthy. Both Regina King and Margie Hendricks, as one of the singer’s mistresses and back-up singers respectively, are also spellbinding. All in all, it’s a damn fine film that deserves re-watching whenever you can.
6. 8 Mile – Eminem
So far, the inclusion of our favourite biopics has been pretty simple fare. But on Eminem’s 8 Mile, things get a little bit more tricky. Firstly, the story is allegedly only ‘loosely based’ on the rapper’s life, though we imagine that’s a catch-all to save movie buffs picking out inaccuracies. The next issues arrives with the lead actor — Eminem himself.
That aside, 8 Mile is a fine film. It never caught the attention of the critical public when it was released, largely relegated to the bottom shelf thanks to its hip-hop story arc and Eminem as the central figure, but has since gained a fearsome cult following. Effectively, the film acts as a hip-hop infused vision of Rocky in the 21st century. Em’s character, Rabbit, fights every day for his dream only to realise it and then be hit with reality once more.
There are some laughs along the way and certainly some rhymes, if that’s your thing. But the real reason people love 8 Mile is that it felt tangibly real. Biopics for so long had been about artists and musicians who seemed too far away from our modern lives but this one managed to connect all the dots. The fact it ends with Eminem holding the figurative rap championship belt yet still having to go to work the next day makes its message all the more poignant.
5. Bound for Glory – Woody Guthrie
The biopic of Woody Guthrie would always be a rich hunting ground for those in love with folk music. Arguably one of the forefathers of the modern-day movement of the genre, what Guthrie didn’t do in folk wasn’t worth attempting. His biopic would also have likely bagged itself an Oscar had it not been released in 1976 and been up against one of the toughest Best Picture card of all time.
The film was tasked with challenging All the President’s Men, Rocky and Taxi Driver and stood no chance—but not because it isn’t a great film. The film doesn’t concern itself too greatly with the iconography that surrounded Guthrie thanks to artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan but the artist’s connection to the world he saw around him. With David Carradine playing the iconic folk singer, things were always going to get off to a good start.
The film follows Guthrie on a westward journey. Set in the Great Depression, Guthrie is moving out of the Dust Bowl Oklahoma and heading for the promised land of California. Naturally, Carradine’s figure of Guthrie is expertly flawed and wonderfully enigmatic, providing one of the most engrossing visions of the singer we’ve ever come across. Simply brilliant.
4. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Ian Dury
Not necessarily one of the most well-known figures of music on the list many people would have scoffed when brought the idea of making a film about the life and time of Ian Dury. But when Andy Serkis, the acclaimed actor behind Golem and other CGI giants was involved, things got off the ground quickly.
Ian Dury was, for a time at least, the final bastion of creative spirit in England as the leading man for The Blockheads. A singer and poet, Dury brought not only searing politically conscious lyrics, nor just a rhythmic bounce that couldn’t be beaten but a self-deprecating viewpoint on his own polio-induced disability. It’s how Dury manages to deal with this within a competitive world of music which is the basis of the film.
Overcoming the issues put before him, Dury becomes a mouthpiece for the freedom of living the way he determined to be correct, of course, it wasn’t without its casualties. Many of which are perfectly captured in the film.
3. Control – Ian Curtis
Anton Borijn’s directorial debut was always meant to be a musical biopic. The photographer has made a vital career out of capturing bands at their peak. Everyone from Depeche Mode to Tom Waits has been caught on camera by the snapper. But perhaps his most treasured work is of Joy Division and New Order. Meaning when he was given his chance to direct Control, a biopic about the life of the band’s lead singer Ian Curtis, he was the perfect man for the job.
Another person who can claim to have grabbed the perfect role in the film is Sam Riley as Ian Curtis. Riley is so good, in fact, that many people have accidentally accredited his performances in the film as genuine Joy Division shows. Of course, his biggest challenge except for Curtis’ idiosyncratic dancing was to capture the troubled mind of the singer and try to add some extra texture to his tragic suicide.
Curtis was only 23 when he took his own life meaning that the window we’re given into his life within the film is comparatively short. Still, we are given an accurate vision of a melancholy outsider not satisfied with the pale grey rendering of life in Northern England. He wanted to be Bowie, Iggy or Lou, not just stuff envelopes in civil servant jobs for the rest of his life. In Corbijn’s film, we’re shown how he achieves it and the disaster that follows.
2. Walk The Line – Johnny Cash
As with many of the films included on this list, Walk The Line has a habit of polarising its audience. Some will argue that the film brokered new ground as it offered an accessible viewpoint on one of the most esteemed performers of his generation in Johnny Cash. While other, perhaps the more correct others, suggest that the film doesn’t go far enough to depict the wild and wonderful life of The Man in Black. However, as a piece of cinema, it’s hard to deny the film’s power.
The rise and fall of Johnny Cash is a musical tale that many would have been aware of when Walk the Line was released. But, as ever, new generations cotton on to the talent of Johnny Cash — and they always do — Cash’s story must be presented once more as a vital piece of pop culture and musical iconography. Director James Mangold tells that story with Hollywood glamour and country & western grit in equal measure.
Not only does the film perfectly describe the professional and then romantic partnership Cash shared with his wife June Carter, but it also shows the struggles Cash suffered while with her. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon take on those central roles while another key figure in his story is the singer’s spiralling drug addiction. However, in the most perfect of Hollywood stories, Carter becomes Cash’s crutch and helps him find himself once more and yet again become a musical powerhouse. Cinematic gold.
1. I’m Not There – Bob Dylan
If one figure of music has been courted for a film more than the freewheelin’ troubadour himself, Bob Dylan, then we’d like to meet them. Dylan, as well as being one of the most revered musicians of his time, is also one of the most mysterious characters of it too. Never one to put his personality in the spotlight, Dylan has always preferred his music to do the talking. Well, I’m Not There, the biopic about his life told through a myriad of tales, has got a large part of the conversation for you.
Directed by Todd Haynes, the filmmaker does a great job of not falling into the holes of such a grand figure of popular culture. Instead of a sprawling piece of cinema which, so jam-packed with notable moments, could have a running time of days not hours, Haynes instead employs actors like Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett to play the singer at different points of his life. It allows us to not only see differing views of Dylan but how he connected us all together.
Dylan spent much of his career reinventing himself so this portrayal not only feels innovative but authentic too. It’s a joyride of cinematic prowess and although forgoes most of the classic biopic tropes, it still lands heavily as a fan-orientated piece. In fact, we imagine the person most happy with this style of telling Dylan’s music is Dylan himself. After all, providing such a project as a fractured and fragmented reality is something Dylan has done throughout his career.