30 Best Music Biopics of All Time – Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

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

Universal/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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.

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

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

Mary Evans/Universal/Ronald Grant/Everett, Universal/Everett, Weinstein Company/Everett

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

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.