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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

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. 

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

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‘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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