The roar of the audience, the fading lights as the music starts, and all the pain and glory—everybody loves a good music biopic. Most of all, we love to discover the story behind the songs that soundtrack our lives.
Dive into ten of the best music biopics ever made—you may learn that rockstars really are just like us! If you want to become one yourself, check out Drum Center of Portsmouth.
Joy Division may be the least well-known group on this list, but they might be one of the most influential. The Manchester prophets of all things doom and gloom presided over ’80s alternative rock-like imperious monarchs.
2. Straight Outta Compton
In the 1980s, the Los Angeles-based hip-hop and rap group NWA took America by storm. Their confrontational, anti-establishment lyrics and fearless performance stunts captured the minds of the country’s angry, dispossessed youth. Their hard-hitting rap and unapologetic politics earned them the label of “most dangerous group” in the world.
Gary Gray’s 2015 homage to the group is a faithful retelling of their obscurity to notoriety, fame, infamy, obscurity, and back again in a whirligig of a story. And it boasts a cast of music industry legends, including O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of founding member Ice Cube, portraying his father.
It’s been almost thirty years since the tragic murder of the promising young starlet of Tejano music, Selena Quintanilla. She could sing ballads; she could sing power pop. She sang in English and Spanish and could dance, act, and write lyrics.
Selena had it all, and Jennifer Lopez, another Latin pop queen, starred in her breakout role as the singer in this fantastic 1997 film. Selena lives on as a cherished icon, even 50 years on, thanks to the film.
4. Bound for Glory
It’s a shame that the American folk singer Woody Guthrie isn’t as widely revered as the hero that he was. He wrote thousands of songs, many of which other artists would remix, reinterpret, and outright steal and remake into much more popular, lucrative songs. Throughout it all, Guthrie was a tireless advocate for social justice.
The 1976 film Bound For Glory, based loosely on Guthrie’s memoirs of the same name, mostly chronicles Guthrie’s career-long project to chronicle the fallout from the great Dust Bowl drought years between 1930-1940.
5. Coal Miner’s Daughter
Some would say that this biopic of the first lady of country music, Loretta Lynn, is the quintessential biopic. Starring a then-unknown Sissy Spacek, this rags-to-riches story is thrilling in its story, heartbreaking in its love story, and a deep pleasure to listen to, thanks to Lynn’s catalog of classic tunes.
Since Lynn has just passed, there’s never been a better time to watch a classic of music cinema, Coal Miner’s Daughter. Named after the iconic Loretta Lynn song about being “born in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Hollow,” the film tracks her upbringing as the poor youngest child of a struggling Kentucky family. You also witness her rise to fame by recording and playing her own compositions on local radio, her tumultuous marriage, and her ascent to superstardom.
6. I’m Not There
Bob Dylan may be the quintessential 20th-century American musician. He wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime, collaborated with everyone from Joan Baez to Joni Mitchell to James Taylor, and made staggering leaps forward in the innovation in folk, blues, and country music.
How could a film ever depict such a life? Well, Todd Haynes’ 2007 experimental musician biopic offers one way—multiple, in fact.
The film depicts Dylan as a shifting and unknowable mystery, portrayed by multiple actors as “aspects” of Dylan’s personality, from Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), to the bandit Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), to the tragic groupie Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett).
It’s a kaleidoscopic, one-of-a-kind take on a legendary singer-songwriter.
7. What’s Love Got To Do With It?
She sang jazz, soul, rock’ n’ roll, funk, blues, metal, and even electronic music. Tina Turner is a highly distinctive musician who deserves an expansive, glowing biopic, and she got exactly that with 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It?
The film gets its name from one of the singles that rehabilitated the singer’s image as a solo musician after her messy break from husband/star-maker Ike Turner. Angela Bassett stars as the explosive performer in one of her signature roles.
Jamie Foxx showed what he could do as an actor by portraying the legendary blind musician Ray Charles in this 2004 biopic. Ray traces Charles’ life from impoverished origins in Florida to travel the country on the Chlitlin’ Circuit to finally making a name for himself as a piano virtuoso.
This film is for you if you love Charles’ classic songs such as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack.” And let’s be honest, who doesn’t? It’s an excellent film to watch and sing along to for the whole family.
9. Walk the Line
Another titan of American songwriting, Johnny Cash is every bit of country music royalty as Loretta Lynn. Walk The Line won Reese Witherspoon the Best Actress award at the Academy Awards for portraying the first lady of the Appalachian country, June Carter Cash.
But the standout performance here is a fantastic Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black himself, Johnny Cash. Seeing him recreate the infamous Folsom Prison concert is reason enough to pay the ticket price.
10. Lady Sings the Blues
What list of classic biopics would be complete without Diana Ross’ star turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues? Directed by Sidney Furie, this film showed what Ross could do, as she depicted a singer so far from her in temperament, tone, and vocal range with exquisite ease.
“Lady sings the blues so well,” Holiday once sang, and Ross certainly does.
Find the Rhythm
Let the music take you. Biopics are a fantastic way to both learn about a new favorite artist and rejoice in the life story of one of your favorites. Either way, you’re guaranteed a perfect movie night.