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30 Best Music Biopics of All Time

From 18th-century composers to hip-hop legends, the greatest musician stories to ever grace big and small screens

Biopics; I'm Not There; 8 Mile; Cate Blanchett; Get On Up; Coal Miner's Daughter; Straight Outta Compton

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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. 

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30

‘Selena’ (1997)

Arriving just two years after the murder of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, Selena is an elegant, deified portrait of the "Queen of Tejano." The biopic allowed Selena to posthumously cement the crossover success she tragically didn't live to experience, while also thrusting actress Jennifer Lopez — who earned a Golden Globe nomination in what was her first leading role — on her own path to superstardom. Although more of a warts-free tribute than a realistic depiction of the singer's life, Selena served both as a worthy memorial her still-grieving fan base and a compelling introduction for those unaware of her massive impact. DK

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29

‘Notorious’ (2009)

Directed by George Tillman Jr., this competent biopic chronicles the Notorious B.I.G.'s too-brief growth into one of the greatest rappers who ever lived, and his tragic 1997 murder at the age of 24. But it gets too many small details wrong, whether it's Angela Bassett's wavering Jamaican accent as Violetta Wallace; or the scenes of Biggie's "Big Poppa" peaking at Number One on the Billboard charts before the infamous November 30th, 1994, Quad Studios shooting of 2Pac, even though the reverse happened in real life. More importantly, rapper and first-time actor Jamal "Gravy" Woolard isn't quite good enough to carry an entire film, although he does a decent job of evoking Biggie's legendary charisma. Strong supporting performances aid Woolard, including a gregarious Derek Luke as Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Anthony Mackie as crazy ol' 2Pac. Naturi Naughton (formerly of Nineties R&B act 3LW) nearly steals the movie with her visceral depiction of Lil Kim. M.R.

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28

‘The Runaways’ (2010)

Biopics live or die on their performances, and Floria Sigismondi's take on the early days of the pioneering all-female rock band has two dynamite ones in Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett and Michael Shannon's Kim Fowley. The Runaways walked a thin line between exploitation and empowerment; Fowley assembled the group and gleefully played up their jailbait appeal, but Jett and her bandmates used success to wrest control from their Svengali's hands. (The movie was released before the band's latter-day bassist, Jacqueline Fuchs — a.k.a. Jackie Fox — went public with allegations that Fowley had drugged and raped her; Fuchs is not a character in the film.) Dakota Fanning doesn't come close to Cherrie Currie's confident strut, but Stewart's Jett is pure badass, and Shannon manages to make Fowley both charismatic and repellent. SA

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27

‘La Vie en Rose’ (2007)

If you'd have assembled a shortlist of actresses to play the chanteuse extraordinaire Edith Piaf in a movie, Marion Cotillard might have shown up somewhere between Mariah Carey and Martha Plimpton — the French actress had already proven she was much more than a pretty Gallic face, but there was little to suggest she'd be perfect to portray the Little Sparrow. Which makes her astounding take on Piaf that much more impressive, as Cotillard channels the vulnerability, volatility, and perpetual defensiveness of the woman who sang her guts out from the gutter to the grandest music halls. Neither Olivier Dahan's typical cradle-to-grave take nor the combo of fake teeth and frizzy can diminish her accomplishment — she may be lip-syncing, but the Oscar-winner is the reason the movie sings. DF

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26

‘Liztomania’ (1975)

Short on fact and long (really long) on phallic symbolism, Ken Russell's 1975 musical salute to 19th-century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is so unhinged that it makes his nutty take on the Who's Tommy seem measured and dignified. Roger Daltrey stars as Liszt, who was said to drive female fans wild with his passionate piano performances; his reputation as "the world's first rock star" is all the excuse Russell needs to conjure up dreams of having a ten-foot dick, a Scouse-accented Pope (played by Ringo Starr), and the composer from the dead to defeat the Nazis during World War II. Oh, and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman appears as the Norse god Thor. Any questions? DE

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25

‘Backbeat’ (1994)

If there's a worse idea than stuffing a movie full of Beatles imitations, it's re-recording their music as well. But what Backbeat's soundtrack lacks in authenticity, its songs, performed by an alt-rock supergroup that included Thurston Moore, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills and Greg Dulli, make up in anarchic energy. (It helps that the movie focuses on the then–Fab Five's Hamburg days, back when they were still playing Little Richard covers.) Reprising his role from Christopher Münch's The Hours and Times, Ian Hart plays John Lennon with an eerie verisimilitude that goes beyond mimicry into channeling, but Iain Softley wisely throws the spotlight on the group's forgotten early members, especially doomed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, played by Stephen Dorff. Like John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, Backbeat is about icons before they were icons, just discovering the traits that would soon make them immortal. SA

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24

‘Love & Mercy’ (2014)

Longtime producer Bill Pohlad stepped into the director's chair for this touching, challenging dual portrait of Brian Wilson, showing him as he prepares to make Pet Sounds (played by Paul Dano) and in the 1980s as he's struggling to pull himself out of depression (played by John Cusack). Love & Mercy jumps between time periods, forcing us to see the life of a genius not as a straight timeline but as a collection of events and impressions, the past and the present constantly in conversation with one another. Both Wilsons are superb in their own way — Dano is sweet and restrained, Cusack melancholy and haunted — but the best performance may belong to Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda Ledbetter, a onetime model who helped Wilson break free of the controlling therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) in the Eighties. It's through Banks' tough but compassionate turn that the troubled Beach Boys star finally finds his happy ending. TG

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23

‘The Doors’ (1991)

At the time of its release, film critic Roger Ebert complained of The Doors, "Watching the movie is like being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk, when you're not drinking." Perhaps, but Oliver Stone's celebration of Jim Morrison is so kinetically, preposterously grandiose that it's magnificently bombed out on its own rock & roll excess. Val Kilmer gave the performance of his life as the Lizard King, not by deifying the singer (who died at 27) but by making him the embodiment of 1960s L.A. hedonism, doped up on hormones, liquor and smack. His Morrison is both heroic and ridiculous, full of shit but also full of poetry, and Stone refuses to judge, creating an orgy of psychedelic sound and images that would point the way for his later films JFK and Natural Born Killers. Few watching The Doors will want to emulate Morrison's arrogant self-destruction. But it's a hell of a ride. TG

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22

‘CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story’ (2013)

While TLC would go on to become one of the decade's most successful and popular groups, the lives of the three members were marred by Behind the Music levels of drama. A decade after Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes' untimely death and the group's essential dissolution, 2013's VH1 film Crazy, Sexy, Cool: The TLC Story cast real-life musicians Keke Palmer (Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas), Drew Sidora (Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins) and Lil Mama (Left Eye), whose performances eschewed histrionics in favor of believable performances and striking resemblances. Perri "Pebbles" Reed, the group's former manager, is the closest the film gets to a villain, with Rolling Stone noting in 2013 that the film portrays her as "a parasitic thief who knowingly bilked millions from the naive group." Still, there's no shortage of crazy moments, music-industry scum and dubious characters that lend the film its requisite air of tabloid intrigue. JN

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21

‘The Pianist’ (2002)

You don't have to know much about Wladyslaw Sziplman's acclaimed career as a concert pianist to be moved by this harrowing depiction of his survival in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. Directed by Roman Polanski and based on the late Jewish musician's autobiography, Adrien Brody embodies the Polish composer's struggle to maintain his artistry through years of horrifying scenes, from watching in despair as his family is sent to a labor camp; to using his gifts as a pianist to try to convince a Nazi officer to spare his life, even as he trembles from malnutrition and jaundice. Brody's haunted portrayal earned him the 2003 Oscar for Best Actor. The Pianist may not show much actual music, but it's still one of the best classical-music films ever made. MR

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20

‘Get on Up’ (2014)

This James Brown biopic, which flopped at the box office in the summer of 2014, deserves a second look primarily for Chadwick Boseman's tremendous performance as Mr. Dynamite. Forget the actor's mastery of Brown's cadence — it's his capturing of the man's strutting, bulletproof confidence and otherworldly sexiness that electrifies every scene in Get on Up, even when the legendary artist isn't onstage. Directed by Tate Taylor, Get on Up jazzily reshuffles Brown's story, jumping around from the 1980s to the Sixties to the Thirties, connecting events through their thematic links rather than straight chronology. In the process, the movie makes the case that Brown was larger than any decade, greater than any single generation — the Hardest Working Man in Show Business who couldn't be contained by a single nickname. TG

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19

‘La Bamba’ (1987)

Buoyed by stellar performances from Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens and Esai Morales as the doomed rocker's troubled half-brother Bob, La Bamba richly details the last eight months of the 17-year-old Valens' life, from high school student to unlikely overnight sensation to victim of the tragic plane crash that forever reshaped the music world. La Bamba doesn't just offer a sanitized portrait of Valens as a gone-too-soon rocker; it also tackles the racial tensions that percolated in Los Angeles in the late Fifties as well as the day-to-day struggles of the Latino community. However, at its heart, the film remains a stunning reminder of Valens' lasting impact on pop music: Fittingly, La Bamba helped bring Los Lobos' cover of his signature song to Number One upon its release. DK

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18

‘Last Days’ (2005)

Kurt Cobain died proclaiming it was "better to burn out than fade away," but the barely veiled Cobain doppelgänger at the center of Gus Van Sant's Last Days is so faded he's practically transparent. Shuffling around a large, empty house in the Washington woods, surrounded by hangers-on who take notice of him only when they want money or drugs, Michael Pitt's Blake seems less like a man about to take his own life than one who's already died and is waiting for his body to catch up. Like Elephant's riff on the Columbine massacre, this fictionalized version of a rock star's path to suicide offers ambiguity in lieu of explanation, challenging the biopic's inherent promise of tidy explanations and comforting rationales. It's as cryptic and fragmented as Cobain's lyrics, but with none of the cathartic anger that for a time burned away the fog. SA

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17

‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ (1993)

Director Brian Gibson's adaptation of Tina Turner's best-selling autobiography is unfortunately best remembered for its graphic and borderline salacious depictions of domestic violence. But that viewpoint overlooks the subtler early scenes between the excellent Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner and Angela Bassett as Tina — who rightly earned Best Actor and Actress Oscar nominations for their performances — which demonstrate how the artists' clear rapport with one another is ultimately betrayed by Ike's abuse. Throughout the film, Bassett ably embodies Tina Turner's purposefulness, whether strutting across the stage as she sings "Proud Mary," or learning to chant "Om" as a Buddhist convert. MR

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16

‘Control’ (2007)

Anton Corbijn spent most of his life hanging out with rock stars, photographing everyone from U2 to Depeche Mode to Tom Waits. So it's little surprise that, for his directorial debut, he made a movie about a singer. In Control, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) is a melancholy boy even before committing suicide at age 23, but what gives this stripped-down drama its pathos is its lack of illusions about the unhappiness that dogged him throughout his short life. In this way, Control eschews the typical rags-to-riches-to-rags biopic narrative: Riley doesn't play Curtis as a raging egotist but, rather, as a deeply troubled soul who turned his pain into beautiful music for as long as he could before the pain eventually consumed him. Just like Joy Division's albums, Control is gloriously, candidly bleak. TG

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15

‘The Jacksons: An American Dream’ (1992)

Based largely on Katherine Jackson's 1990 autobiography My Family, this biopic on the brothers Jackson charts the rise of the chart-topping siblings from their early "ABC" days to the Victory tour — as well as the subsequent solo career of Michael as he tries to both retain a fleeting sense of normalcy amid superstardom. Tawdriness is inescapable when dissecting America's most famous musical family, and it's now impossible not to view the movie through the lens of the allegations that would haunt the Thriller hitmaker for the rest of his life. But real clips of the group interspersed with dramatic re-enactments still makes this a compelling portrait of pop's first family. JN

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14

‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013)

The first project after his "retirement" from making movies, Steven Soderbergh's HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra went further than a Hollywood feature would in detailing the full scope of Liberace's hermetic lifestyle. Michael Douglas' lead performance attracts and repels sympathy for the Vegas legend, showing him at worst as a vampiric narcissist who drained the life out of young and beautiful men and at best as a sensational performer who glittered in the spotlight. Liberace's relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a lover he seduced and abandoned, brings him down to earth, but Douglas's charisma makes it impossible to push him away. Soderbergh paints him as a tragic figure, isolated by fame and fiction, living out his dreams while confined to gilded cage of his own creation. ST

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13

‘Ray’ (2004)

Jamie Foxx's uncanny, Oscar-winning incarnation of the late Ray Charles dominates this chronicle of the beloved rhythm & blues pioneer's Fifties and Sixties heyday. He gets everything right about Charles, who died just before the box office hit was released in the fall of 2004, from the blind pianist's look and shuffling gait to his vocal intonations. The movie is filled with terrific acting, like future Scandal superstar Kerry Washington as Charles' wife, Bea, and Clifton Powell as Charles' long-suffering assistant, Jeff Brown; Regina King's portrayal of one of Charles' mistresses and backing singers, Margie Hendricks of the Raelettes, is a true revelation. She should have been nominated for an Oscar too. MR

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12

‘Round Midnight’ (1986)

Dexter Gordon embodies his lead role of the aged, world-weary tenor saxophonist Dale Turner (based loosely on both Bud Powell and Lester Young) so well that the late musician had to remind people that Round Midnight is a work of fiction. His Oscar-nominated performance is complemented by Bertrand Tavernier's solid direction, which gives his flick the smoky, melancholic atmosphere of a slow blues. Watch for Gordon's sessions with fellow jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as a cameo from Martin Scorsese as a New York club owner. MR

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11

‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

Sissy Spacek received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of country queen Loretta Lynn in this straightforward approach to the singer’s story, from her impoverished beginnings in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky to her eventual ascendance to country stardom. Completely believable whether portraying Lynn as a love-struck teen, harried working mother or the “Queen of Country Music,” Spacek also impresses with her singing; the film’s soundtrack, featuring her vocals instead of Lynn’s, would actually make it all the way to No. 2 on the country charts. Everyone from Tommy Lee Jones to Levon Helm and Beverly D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) turn in strong performances — and Apted’s attention to visual detail really brings the late Fifties/early Sixties world of honky-tonks and C&W radio stations to dusty life. DE

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10

‘Bound for Glory’ (1976)

Were it not up against one of the greatest Best Picture slates in Oscar history — All the President's Men, Network, Rocky and Taxi Driver were the other four — Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory might have gotten the recognition it deserved. As it stands, this gorgeous Woody Guthrie biopic — which netted a second Oscar for the late cinematographer Haskell Wexler — speaks profoundly to the relationship between the artist and the ravaged land that inspired and absorbed his music. Set during the height of the Great Depression, the film follows Guthrie (David Carradine) on a westward migration from his home in Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the fertile promise of California. Typical of Seventies heroes, Carradine's Guthrie is a flawed, difficult, enigmatic figure, but a potent symbol of righteousness and relief for a country that ached for understanding. ST

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9

‘Amadeus’ (1984)

Based on Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, this lavish period drama puffs up the supposed rivalry between 18th-century composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) into a fabulously entertaining drama about male competiveness and the mystery of genius. Told through flashbacks, the film finds an elderly Salieri recounting his sad life, lamenting that his legacy has been erased because of Mozart's brighter star, which sets the stage for a story of envy and revenge. "With MTV on the scene, we [had] a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes," director Milos Forman later recalled about the risk of bringing Amadeus to the screen, but its success (eight Oscars, including Best Picture) speaks to the film's timeless themes — not least of which is our collective nervous suspicion that, like Salieri, we're merely the supporting player in someone else's grand narrative. TG

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8

‘8 Mile’ (2002)

Loosely inspired by Marshall Mathers' life as a struggling rapper in Detroit, 8 Mile is a 21st-century Rocky, with the man who dubbed himself Eminem bobbing and weaving through his first starring role. But there's no point worrying over the biographical details: What matters is that Em's naturalistic performance as the scrappy, blue-collar Rabbit embodied the same raw vulnerability and edgy candor that powered his music. (The movie isn't as shockingly funny as The Marshall Mathers LP, but it shares with that album the scared bravado of a troubled young talent ready to break free.) Directed by L.A. Confidential filmmaker Curtis Hanson, 8 Mile was a word-of-mouth hit that didn't settle for Hollywood fantasy or pat happy endings. When Eminem's steely underdog finally wins the big rap showcase, the moment of triumph quickly gives way to him having to catch his next shift at the auto plant — an apt illustration of the lowered expectations of the movie's working-class heroes. TG

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7

‘Walk the Line’ (2005)

There are two ways of looking at this Johnny Cash biopic: As a middle-of-the-road highlight reel of formative childhood events, eureka moments, and the rise-and-fall (and rise again) trajectory of a great musician, or as a genuine standard-bearer for the genre. James Mangold's biopic walks on the right side of the line, mainly because it puts Cash's creative and personal relationship to June Carter at the heart of the movie and casts both roles perfectly. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon would be an odd romantic pairing in any circumstance — he brooding and self-serious, she bright and energetic — but that opposites-attract chemistry makes sense of their playful duets onstage (where both acquit themselves beautifully) and their charged relationship off it. ST

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6

‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)

Produced by the surviving members of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton is the authorized biography of the hip-hop trailblazers, and the worst thing that could be said about it is that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube have made a glossy monument to their own importance. But that's the best thing about it too: For inner-city black men forced to work with powerful white gatekeepers in the music industry — and getting ripped off most of the time — it's a triumph that they'd be the ones to print the legend nearly three decades later. The movie goes deep into the internecine squabbles, the Faustian bargains and the touring excesses that made N.W.A. such a volatile bunch, but the performance sequences are particularly electric. From Eazy-E finding his voice in the studio to the group getting arrested for singing "Fuck tha Police" in Detroit, the film rediscovers their lightning-in-a-bottle vitality. ST

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5

‘The Buddy Holly Story’ (1978)

Big up Gary Busey, who sang Holly's songs live during the filming of Steve Rash's take on the late, great Texas rocker, and received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his efforts — he injected the film with a legitimate rock-and-roll energy of the sort rarely seen in Hollywood music films. Ultimately, the movie's lasting legacy is that it successfully re-introduced Holly's music to American listeners; at the height of the disco movement, the film's buzz helped propel the greatest hits collection Buddy Holly Lives to Number 55 on the Billboard album charts. DE

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4

‘Sid and Nancy’ (1986)

Alex Cox's account of ex–Sex Pistol Sid Vicious' descent into drug addiction, culminating with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, and his fatal heroin overdose, now looks less like punk than prog: It's a movie of grand, orchestrated gestures rather than guttural immediacy. (See the slow-motion shot of Vicious and Spungen kissing against a dumpster while trash rains from the sky above them.) But Gary Oldman's incarnation of Vicious' self-abnegating charisma is so magnetic than even the Pistols' John Lydon, who told Cox after seeing the film that he ought to be shot, was moved to praise the performance. And Chloe Webb's glass-shattering Nancy is the perfect soul-sucking Bonnie to his malignant Clyde. SA

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3

‘Elvis’ (1979)

Several Elvis Presley biopics have been made since the King's premature death in 1977, but this John Carpenter-directed made-for-TV movie is still the one to beat. Still chiefly known for starring in live-action Disney films as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Kurt Russell received an Emmy nomination for his memorable portrayal of the King, perfectly capturing the singer's brooding intensity without ever lapsing into parody. Russell didn't actually sing for the film — he lip-synced to vocals done by country artist Ronnie McDowell — but his performance sequences still tap deeply into the power and visceral excitement of Presely's stage presence. It doesn't soft-pedal the darker side of his personality, either; the scene in which Russell shoots up a hotel television may be as iconic as anything from any of Elvis' actual films. DE

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2

‘Bird’ (1988)

Less of a straight-up biopic than a long, dreamlike series of impressionistic sequences, Clint Eastwood's atmospheric paean to jazz legend Charlie Parker focuses as much on the heroin addiction that shaped (and consumed) the man they called Bird's short life as on the development of his revolutionary sound. But Forest Whitaker delivers a monumental performance as the be-bop pioneer, fully radiating the joy, passion and torment of Parker's creative process. Eastwood doesn't dumb down the music or its milieu; part of the film's enduring appeal lies in its expertly staged nightclub scenes, which thrillingly transport the viewer back to the jazz demimonde of the Forties and Fifties. DE

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1

‘I’m Not There’ (2007)

How do you possibly try to encapsulate the life of Bob Dylan — one of the rock era's greatest shape-shifters — in a single film? If you're Carol director Todd Haynes, by splitting that life into different eras and influences, casting everyone from Cate Blanchett to Richard Gere to Heath Ledger to Christian Bale to portray separate shards in Dylan's rich, confounding mosaic. I'm Not There is both thrilling and inquisitive, staying away from chronology and straight biography to grasp, in a larger sense, how Dylan remade the world while constantly reinventing himself over the years. On one level, the film is merely a joyride through cinematic styles — aping the look and feel of Godard, A Hard Day's Night, 8 1/2 and 1970s revisionist Westerns — but, more profoundly, it pays the singer-songwriter the highest compliment by crafting a fractured, often brilliant exploration that's as vibrant as the man it honors. TG

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