Many musicians secretly want to be actors — and most actors (not-so-secretly) want to be musicians. And for those thespians who don’t start their own bands with words like 30 Odd Foot of Grunts or Bacon Brothers in their names, the next best thing is to play a real-life musical genius in a movie. If the subject’s story happens to have a great rags-to-riches arc, or include a dive into drug-fueled, near-death depths with redemptive rise, phoenix-like, included in the third act, great; if such dramatic recreations attract the attention of Oscar voters, hey, all the better. But the chance to belt out a greatest-hits collection of songs from rock stars, hip-hop legends and country-and-western crooners is too tempting to pass up for most folks. You may never be Elvis — but you can play him on TV. (If you’re Eminem, however, you do get to play a barely fictionalized version of yourself. It’s complicated.)
Music biopics are a bona fide genre, and there’s no sign that their popularity is dimming in the slightest. Last year’s N.W.A origin story Straight Outta Compton was one of 2015’s biggest hits, and in the next month, we’re getting not one, not two, but three biopics on big-time musicians: the Ethan-Hawke-as-Chet-Baker opus Born to Be Blue; the honky-tonkin,’ high-lonesome tale of Hank Williams I Saw the Light; and Don Cheadle’s free-form look at several specific points in Miles Davis’ life, Miles Ahead.
So we’re counting down our choices for the best music biopics of all time. Some films weren’t considered due to technicalities (the great Gilbert and Sullivan movie Topsy-Turvy is a better backstage film than a music biopic; The Rose features a Janis Joplin-like singer, but you can’t say it’s a Joplin biopic), while others fall in a weird interzone that helped them make the cut (the main jazz player in Round Midnight hews close enough to both its inspirational subjects’ lives that it’s practically a dual portrait). But for us, these 30 titles are the ones that stay on tune as much as possible.