These Must-Watch Music Biopics Truly Hit the Right Note

Photo Courtesy: IMDb

Even though we’re making great strides when it comes to returning to some semblance of normal, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed the live music landscape. If you’re looking for a way to honor some of music’s most memorable icons — or simply in search of a way to recreate the feeling of a live performance at home — biopics might just be the answer. From the late Chadwick Boseman’s incredible performance in Get On Up (2014) to Jennifer Lopez’s unforgettable portrayal of Selena, here are some of the best music biopics streaming right now.

Bessie (2015)

The made-for-HBO film Bessie sees director Dee Rees teaming up with Queen Latifah to tell the story of American blues singer Bessie Smith. When the film hit screens, audiences and critics alike flocked to their TVs to watch Bessie Smith’s (Queen Latifah) transformation from struggling songstress into "The Empress of Blues." In fact, by 2016 it became the most-watched HBO original film of all time and garnered four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Television Movie.

Photo Courtesy: HBO/IMDb

Praised universally for Queen Latifah’s star performance — as well as Mo’Nique’s supporting role as fellow blues icon Ma Rainey — Bessie was described in The Black Film Canon as "one of the best and most unabashedly honest portrayals of Black womanhood and sexuality put on screen." Ren Jender, a writer for Bitch Flicks, echoed that sentiment, saying that although the biopic follows the genre’s usual beats, a film about "a queer Black woman (Smith was bisexual) [made] by an out queer Black woman... is unusual" and, therefore, needed.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Produced by former members of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton illustrates how the now-iconic hip-hop group came to be — and how, even from their start, the group revolutionized music and pop culture. In addition to showcasing electrifying musical performances, the film also takes an honest, harrowing look at police brutality in Southern Los Angeles — something that feels ever-relevant today.

Photo Courtesy: New Line Cinema/IMDb

And even though the actors who starred in Compton were relative unknowns at the time, their performances leave a lasting impression worthy of the film’s groundbreaking music group. Writing for Variety, Scott Foundas noted that, "[If] Compton is undeniably of the moment, it’s also timeless in its depiction of how artists and writers transform the world around them into angry, profane, vibrant and singular personal expression."

Selena (1997)

This biopic recounts the tragically short, but undoubtedly incredible, life and career of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. The film is perhaps most well-remembered for Jennifer Lopez’s breakout performance, which Roger Ebert called, "star-making." And he wasn’t the only one to applaud JLo’s acting chops.

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros./IMDb

In his review of the film, film critic James Berardinelli wondered "if Selena's family, upon watching this performance, felt an eerie sense of déjà vu." Needless to say, if you’re looking to be wholly transported by a biopic, Selena is a must-watch. And, if the 1997 film isn’t enough, be sure to check out the new Selena: The Series on Netflix.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marks a career best for Oscar-winner Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, who made his final appearance in the film. For those who aren’t familiar with the legendary blues singer, Ma Rainey was a trailblazer back in the 1920s: She sang on over 100 blues records and became one of the first Black artists to sign with Paramount.

Photo Courtesy: Netflix/IMDb

In the film, Ma Rainey and her band gather at a Chicago-based recording studio in 1927, and the tensions in the film are something of a microcosm of the icon’s life. In an interview with the The New York Times, Davis noted that Rainey was "a woman who was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic about her worth." And the film certainly captures both of those things: Unlike other recent musician biopics, Ma Rainey’s bisexuality isn’t erased — and, in the face of dismissal, Ma Rainey always knows her worth.

Get On Up (2014)

Get On Up provides viewers with a window into the life of James Brown by highlighting some of the moments that made him into one of the most iconic singers in history. In fact, the film establishes just how monumental and beyond-his-era Brown’s contributions to music were.

Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures/IMDb

Undoubtedly, the film is worth your time for Chadwick Boseman’s legendary performance alone. Called a "fittingly dynamic homage" to the Godfather of Soul, Get On Up may get the music right, but it has been rightly criticized by writers like Aisha Harris, who notes that the film "fall[s] short" when it comes to covering Brown’s "well-documented social activism, a a significant and often contentious aspect of his character" (via Slate).

La Bamba (1987)

La Bamba tells the story of rockstar Ritchie Valens, whose career and life were cut short due to a plane crash. The Chicano singer famously turned "La Bamba," a Mexican folk song, into a rock and roll hit. And he was only 17 years old when this all happened.

Photo Courtesy: Columbia Pictures/IMDb

From Valens’ (Lou Diamond Phillips) complicated family dynamics to the way race impacts his life, La Bamba captures the exuberant highs and tragic lows of this late, great music icon’s life. "This is a good small movie, sweet and sentimental, about a kid who never really got a chance to show his stuff," Roger Ebert noted in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times. "The best things in it are the most unexpected things."

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

This 1972 classic sees Diana Ross, lead singer of the vocal group The Supremes (a.k.a. Motown's most successful act during the 1960s), portraying jazz singer Billie Holiday. Ross is joined by an incredible ensemble cast, which includes actors like Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, and the role would secure her a Best Actress nomination at the 1973 Oscars.

Photo Courtesy: Motown Productions/Paramount Pictures/IMDb

In fact, Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for a total of five Oscars — even though it contended with some mixed reviews. Quite a few critics noted that the film isn’t a very factual depiction of Holiday, but it was also quite universally acknowledged that Ross’ performance is worth the price of admission. Roger Ebert wrote that Ross gives "one of the great performances of 1972" and noted that it "has most of the clichés we expect — but do we really mind clichés in a movie like this? I don't think so."

Walk the Line (2005)

Based on two autobiographies authored by singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, Walk the Line tells the story of Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon). From Cash’s farm boy origins to his memorable performance at Folsom State Prison, the film tries to cover it all — even the unflattering moments.

Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/IMDb

"Knowing Johnny Cash's albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to," Roger Ebert wrote in his review. "The closing credits make it clear it's Joaquin Phoenix doing the singing, and I was gob-smacked." While Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar, it was Witherspoon who won an Oscar for her career-defining portrayal of June. All in all, it’s a must-see biopic.

Ray (2004)

Without a doubt, Ray Charles’ definitive biopic is bolstered by a truly incredible ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx, who earned a well-deserved Oscar for portraying the legendary musician, is joined by Emmy winner Kerry Washington; NAACP Image Award winner Clifton Powell; and Oscar and multi-Emmy Award winner Regina King.

Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures/IMDb

The film traces Charles’ life, from childhood to the moments that cemented him as a soul-music pioneer. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote that, "Jamie Foxx gets so far inside the man and his music that he and Ray Charles seem to breathe as one." Needless to say, if you’re a fan of Charles’ work — or a music lover — Ray is a must-see biopic.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

Director Lee Daniels says his life was changed by the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, which saw Diana Ross portraying jazz singer Billie Holiday. And this formative viewing experience eventually led him to craft his own Holiday biopic. Set in the ‘40s and ‘50s, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the later years of the artist’s career and explores her status as a civil rights leader.

Photo Courtesy: Hulu/IMDb

The then-Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) pressured Holiday to stop singing "Strange Fruit," a song that the film describes as a "lyrical, horrifying description of a lynching." In addition to casting a light on the song’s (and Holiday’s) connections to protest and resistance, the film allows Andra Day to give a "career-defining performance" as the "unapologetic Black artist" who has since become a blues legend.

I'm Not There (2007)

Directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Velvet Goldmine), I’m Not There is self-described as "inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan." In short, it might be the most unique approach to making a biopic that we’ve seen in awhile. Throughout the film, six actors depict Dylan’s public personas.

Photo Courtesy: Tobis Films/IMDb

The lineup includes Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw. But, undoubtedly, Blanchett received the most acclaim, garnering awards from the Venice Film Festival and Golden Globes as well as an Oscar nomination. Called a "deliciously unconventional experience," I’m Not There may be innovative, but it does capture Dylan’s spirit.

What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)

Based on the life of Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to Do with It stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner respectively. The film traces Tina’s rise from local St. Louis performer to R&B superstar — and it doesn’t shy away from Ike’s growing jealousy either.

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With powerhouse performances from both Bassett and Fishburne, What’s Love Got to Do with It is more than the average biopic — it’s "a powerful, joyful, raw, energetically acted" one (via Chicago Tribune). However, both Ike and Tina had some reservations: Ike felt that he had been completely vilified, while Tina felt she’d been turned into a victim, telling Oprah Winfrey in 2018, "I didn't realize they would change the details so much."

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