8 Rockin’ Music Biopics

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  04 Sep 2015 

Director Clint Eastwood returns to theaters with Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the Tony-winning musical inspired by the story of 1960s singing sensations the Four Seasons. Boys puts the band in pretty good company: some of the most popular (as well as a few of the more obscure) musicians of all time have received the biopic treatment, and the results include some of the bigger critical and commercial successes in Hollywood’s history. In honor of Jersey Boys, we decided to take a look back at some of the most distinguished entries in the genre, and came up with a list that pays tribute to punk, classical, and everything in between.

genres
8 Amadeus
imdb
rating

8.3

Amadeus (1984)

Drama, History, Music

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been dead for nearly 200 years by the time Milos Forman’s Amadeus bowed in 1984, but his story still proved utterly compelling — even if Peter Shaffer’s screenplay (adapted from his play of the same name) took significant artistic license with the facts of the composer’s life as we know them. Imagining a version of events in which Mozart’s quirky genius so enrages rival composer Antonio Salieri that he devotes himself to thwarting his nemesis personally as well as professionally, Amadeus may or may not be 100 percent accurate, but it’s still hugely entertaining — as evidenced by the whopping eight Academy Awards the movie took home (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham, who played an older Salieri), as well as “Rock Me Amadeus,” the quirky, synth-fueled hit that Austrian pop sensation Falco took to the top of the worldwide charts in 1986 after being inspired by the film. “Forman’s tormented, iconoclastic subjects are often pitted against iconic or impersonal antagonists,” wrote Tasha Robinson for the A.V. Club, “but Amadeus‘ conflict remains rivetingly intimate, in spite of its sumptuous, larger-than-life settings.”

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The incredible story of genius musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, told in flashback by his peer and secret rival Antonio Salieri - now confined to an insane asylum.

actors:
F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri   Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze Mozart   Roy Dotrice as Leopold Mozart   Simon Callow as Emanuel Schikaneder   Christine Ebersole as Katerina Cavalieri   Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II   Barbara Bryne as Mrs. Weber   Cynthia Nixon as Lorl   Douglas Seale as Count Arco   Charles Kay as Count Orsini-Rosenberg   Lisabeth Bartlett as Papagena in 'The Magic Flute'   Martin Cavina as Young Salieri   Roderick Cook as Count Von Strack   Milan Demjanenko as Karl Mozart   Peter DiGesu as Francesco Salieri  

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7 Coal Miner's Daughter
imdb
rating

7.5

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)

Drama, Music

Sissy Spacek took home a mantel full of awards — including her only Best Actress Oscar to date — for her work in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and for good reason: she brings the life and music of country legend Loretta Lynn (who was only 48 when the movie was released) to vibrant life on the big screen, anchoring a sweetly triumphant biopic that was bolstered by all-around talent on both sides of the camera, including director Michael Apted and supporting players Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo (both nominated for Golden Globes), and Levon Helm. “The movie isn’t great art, but it has been made with great taste and style,” wrote Roger Ebert, adding that “it’s more intelligent and observant than movie biographies of singing stars used to be.”

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Biography of Loretta Lynn, a country and western singer that came from poverty to fame.

actors:
Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn   Tommy Lee Jones as 'Mooney' Lynn   Levon Helm as Ted Webb   Phyllis Boyens as 'Clary' Webb   Bill Anderson Jr. as Webb child   Foister Dickerson as Webb child   Malla McCown as Webb child   Pamela McCown as Webb child   Kevin Salvilla as Webb child   William Sanderson as Lee Dollarhide   Sissy Lucas as Loretta & Mooney's child   Brian Warf as Loretta & Mooney's child   Elizabeth Watson as Loretta & Mooney's child   Beverly D'Angelo as Patsy Cline  

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6 Control
imdb
rating

7.8

Control (2007)

Drama

Photographer Anton Corbijn’s work for post-punk pioneers Joy Division was (and remains) a crucial element of the band’s image, so it’s only fitting that when Corbijn decided to move into filmmaking, he chose to direct a biopic about frontman Ian Curtis, an infamously tragic figure whose frequently gloomy songwriting hinted at the crippling depression he struggled with even as the group started to make a name for itself. The end result benefits enormously from Corbijn’s distinctive cinematic eye, as well as Sam Riley’s career-launching work (including live musical performances), but it might be most noteworthy simply because Curtis’ 1980 suicide forces audiences to contemplate something other than your standard crowd-pleasing finale. As Garth Franklin observed for Dark Horizons, “Part of the reason this film works so splendidly is that, given its ending, it doesn’t have the luxury of pretend redemption.”

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Control is the biography of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, taking his story from schoolboy days of 1973 to his suicide on the eve of the band's first American tour in 1980.

actors:
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis   Samantha Morton as Debbie Curtis   Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik Honoré   James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Sumner   Toby Kebbell as Rob Greton   Craig Parkinson as Tony Wilson   Harry Treadaway as Steve Morris   Richard Bremmer as Kevin  

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5 La Bamba
imdb
rating

6.8

La Bamba (1987)

Drama

A year before his work in Young Guns turned Wild West outlaw Jose Chavez y Chavez into swoonworthy fodder for bedroom walls, Lou Diamond Phillips turned in an interpretation of an altogether different real-life individual: Ritchie Valens, the seminal Mexican-American rock star whose musical achievements are all the more stunning considering he was only 17 when he died — and had only started his career eight months prior to his tragic death in the 1959 plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Although he did divert from the historic record on a number of occasions, writer-director Luis Valdez gave Valens his biopic due with La Bamba, delivering an engrossing musical drama led by Phillips’ outstanding performance and a bestselling soundtrack featuring Los Lobos’ convincing renditions of Valens classics. “As Valens, Lou Diamond Phillips has a sweetness and sincerity that in no way diminish the toughness of his onstage persona,” observed Janet Maslin for the New York Times. “The role is blandly written, but Mr. Phillips gives Valens backbone.”

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Biographical story of the rise from nowhere of singer Ritchie Valens whose life was cut short by a plane crash.

actors:
Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens   Danielle von Zerneck as Donna Ludwig   Elizabeth Peña as Rosie Morales   Rosanna DeSoto as Connie Valenzuela   Esai Morales as Bob Morales   Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keane   Rick Dees as Ted Quillin   Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly   Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran   Daniel Valdez as Lelo  

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4 Ray
imdb
rating

7.7

Ray (2004)

Drama

Long before he assured a generation of Pepsi drinkers that they were chugging the right one, baby, Ray Charles carved out one of the most brilliantly groundbreaking musical careers of the modern era, fusing rock, soul, country, and anything else he felt like playing into one inimitable sound. Charles’ refusal to be defined by his blindness made him an inspiration for the physically impaired, but Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic Ray is no mere hagiography — this is the warts-and-all story of an artist whose once-in-a-generation talent was part of a package that included some fairly significant personal foibles, led by an outstanding, Oscar-winning performance from Jamie Foxx. Calling it “A very good film, regardless of whether or not you love Ray Charles’ music,” the Apollo Guide’s Brian Webster argued, “Even if it was a lesser film, Jamie Foxx’s performance would have made it worth watching.”

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Born on a sharecropping plantation in Northern Florida, Ray Charles went blind at seven. Inspired by a fiercely independent mom who insisted he make his own way, He found his calling and his gift behind a piano keyboard. Touring across the Southern musical circuit, the soulful singer gained a reputation and then exploded with worldwide fame when he pioneered couping gospel and country together.

actors:
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles   Kerry Washington as Della Bae Robinson   Regina King as Margie Hendricks   Harry Lennix as Joe Adams   Clifton Powell as Jeff Brown   Bokeem Woodbine as Fathead Newman   Aujanue Ellis as Mary Ann Fisher   Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson   C.J. Sanders as Young Ray Robinson   Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun   Richard Schiff as Jerry Wexler   Larenz Tate as Quincy Jones   Terrence Howard as Gossie McGee   David Krumholtz as Milt Shaw   Wendell Pierce as Wilbur Brassfield   Aunjanue Ellis as Mary Ann Fisher   Chris Thomas King as Lowell Fulson   Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Jimmy   Rick Gomez as Tom Dowd   Denise Dowse as Marlene   Warwick Davis as Oberon   Patrick Bauchau as Dr. Hacker   Robert Wisdom as Jack Lauderdale   Kurt Fuller as Sam Clark  

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3 Sid & Nancy
imdb
rating

7.1

Sid & Nancy (1986)

Drama, Music, Romance

The tumultuous — and eventually fatal — love affair between Nancy Spungen and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious is the stuff of legend, and although no one except the two of them ever really knew what happened on the night of her death in October of 1978, the grim details we do know are more than enough for a sickly compelling biopic/anti-drug movie, which is exactly what writer-director Alex Cox put together with 1986’s Sid & Nancy. Led by magnetic performances from Gary Oldman as Vicious and Chloe Webb as Spungen, it traces the rise and fall of their dysfunctional relationship, which started with a proposition and ended with a grisly stab wound. Vicious’ Sex Pistols bandmate John Lydon was openly (and forcefully) disdainful of the movie, but as far as most critics were concerned, the movie’s many harrowing moments outweighed any historical inaccuracies. As Roger Ebert put it, “[Cox] and his actors pull off the neat trick of creating a movie full of noise and fury, and telling a meticulous story right in the middle of it.”

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A lacerating love story, 'Sid & Nancy' chronicles the brief, intense attachment of two of punk's most notorious poster children, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

actors:
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious   Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen   David Hayman as Malcolm   Debby Bishop as Phoebe   Andrew Schofield as John   Xander Berkeley as Bowery Snax   Perry Benson as Paul   Tony London as Steve   Biff Yeager as Detective   Courtney Love as Gretchen   Sy Richardson as Methadone Caseworker   Sandy Baron as Hotelier - U.S.A.   Edward Tudor-Pole as Hotelier - U.K.   Rusty Blitz as Reporter   John Spaceley as Chelsea Resident  

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2 Walk the Line
imdb
rating

7.9

Walk the Line (2005)

Drama, Music, Romance

Johnny Cash was a songwriting genius, a titan of country music, and half of one of pop culture’s greatest love stories, but he was also a tremendously flawed human being who endured some legendary personal and legal troubles before settling into a legacy whose impact continues to endure. Summing all that up in a 94-minute movie would seem just about impossible, but James Mangold pulled it off with 2005’s Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon (who walked away with a Best Actress Oscar) as the love of his life, June Carter Cash. A $186 million hit, Line benefited immensely from two incredibly committed performances by its leads: Not only did Phoenix and Witherspoon bring their acting chops to bear on the roles, they proved talented mimics in the recording studio, where they covered a number of Cash classics for the soundtrack. “Walk the Line is unusually moving without ever becoming mawkish, in the usual biopic way,” wrote Kurt Loder for MTV. “It’s a virtual reincarnation of a peerless American artist.”

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A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash's life, from his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his rise to fame with Sun Records in Memphis, where he recorded alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

actors:
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash   Reese Witherspoon as June Carter   Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian   Robert Patrick as Ray Cash   Tyler Hilton as Elvis Presley   Johnathan Rice as Roy Orbison   Shooter Jennings as Waylon Jennings   Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips   Dan John Miller as Luther Perkins   Larry Bagby as Marshall Grant   Sandra Ellis Lafferty as Maybelle Carter   Dan Beene as Ezra Carter   Lucas Till as Young Johnny Cash   Victoria Hester as Carlene Carter   Hailey Anne Nelson as Rosanne Cash  

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1 What's Love Got to Do with It
imdb
rating

7.2

What's Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Drama, Music

To kids who grew up in the ’80s and beyond, Tina Turner was just another powerhouse singer with great legs and loads of glamour, but her story runs quite a bit deeper — and darker — than latter-day hits like “Typical Male” or “The Best” might indicate. Although Kate Lanier’s screenplay took fairly significant liberties with Turner’s true-life tale, director Brian Gibson’s 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It got some of the most important stuff right — and served as a showcase for tremendous performances from Angela Bassett (as Turner) and Laurence Fishburne (as her ex-husband Ike, the villain of the story). “It’s an astonishing movie,” wrote Stephen Hunter for the Baltimore Sun. “First because despite the pathology of the relationship, it’s not only about victimization; it’s a celebration of spirit, both religious and human, about a woman who finally found the guts (and the faith) to say ‘No more.'”

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A film about the singer Tina Turner and how she rose to stardom with her abusive husband Ike Turner and how she gained the courage to break free.

actors:
Angela Bassett as Anna Mae Bullock / Tina Turner   Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner   Vanessa Bell Calloway as Jackie   Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly as Young Anna Mae Bullock (as Rae'Ven Kelly)   Virginia Capers as Choir Mistress   Khandi Alexander as Darlene  

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