25 best biopics about musicians, according to critics

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January 24, 2022
Paramount Pictures

25 best biopics about musicians, according to critics

A biopic is a biographical film made about great historical figures, actors, and musicians. They tell fascinating stories, and many are peppered with a mix of fact and fiction. These films focus on childhood, rise to fame, major life achievements, relationships, and even loss and death. They inform and entertain, providing life stories for some of the most entertaining people who have ever lived.

Musical biopics, a subgenre of the biopic, cover the lives of some of the greatest musicians. Whether it is the story of a Beach Boy who struggled under the control of an abusive therapist or a country music legend and the woman who helped him battle his addiction or the tragic tale of a rock star taken too soon, these films shine an entertaining light on lives we can only imagine, and often have.

To celebrate these remarkable stories, Stacker took a look at all the biographical movies on Metacritic and ranked the top 25 biopics about musicians. To qualify as a music biopic, the film had to feature actors portraying real musicians. Films were ranked by Metascore and ties were broken by their rank among all biography films on the list, a much larger list that includes documentaries and films on non-musician subjects of all kinds.

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1 / 25
Columbia Pictures

#25. ‘La Bamba’ (1987)

- Director: Luis Valdez
- Metascore: 65
- Rank among all biographical films: #645

This popular 1980s film focuses on the brief but meaningful life of Ritchie Valens, who was 17 when he died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The title of the film is based on Valens' hit song, which was adapted from a traditional Mexican folk song often played at weddings. Actor Lou Diamond Phillips played the young rock star, and Esai Morales played his brother Bob Morales.

2 / 25
Légende Films

#24. ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2007)

- Director: Olivier Dahan
- Metascore: 66
- Rank among all biographical films: #609

Édith Piaf becomes one of France’s greatest singers despite the tragic circumstances surrounding her as she grows up the daughter of an alcoholic mother, who sang on the streets, and a circus performer father in “La Vie en Rose.” Marion Cotillard stars as Piaf and Gérard Depardieu stars as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovered the singer and who would eventually be murdered.

3 / 25
Darko Entertainment

#23. ‘Jimi: All Is by My Side’ (2013)

- Director: John Ridley
- Metascore: 66
- Rank among all biographical films: #591

Rapper André 3000 was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance as rocker Jimi Hendrix. The film focuses on the making of Jimi Hendrix who started out in New York as James Hendrix, a guy who played the guitar and moved to London to establish his career. Hendrix would go on to become arguably one of the greatest guitar players of all time before his death at 27 from a drug overdose in 1970.

4 / 25
Ecosse Films

#22. ‘Nowhere Boy’ (2009)

- Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
- Metascore: 67
- Rank among all biographical films: #581

Chronicling John Lennon’s boyhood and teen years, “Nowhere Boy” also examines the musician’s relationship with two important women in his life—his absent mother, who eventually reappeared, and Mimi, the strict aunt who raised him. The film, based on the biography written by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, also explores how John started the band the Quarrymen, which eventually became The Beatles, and it also documents the first time he met Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Lennon, and Kristin Scott Thomas plays Aunt Mimi.

5 / 25
Q Productions

#21. ‘Selena’ (1997)

- Director: Gregory Nava
- Metascore: 67
- Rank among all biographical films: #580

Before becoming “J.Lo,” Jennifer Lopez played Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla, who left her mark on fans and the world before her life ended at 23. The film touches on Selena’s childhood, her relationship with her family, and her romance and marriage to Chris Pérez, and features her rise to fame as well as her tragic shooting death by Yolanda Saldívar, an obsessed fan and head of her fan club.

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6 / 25
Goalpost Pictures

#20. ‘The Sapphires’ (2012)

- Director: Wayne Blair
- Metascore: 67
- Rank among all biographical films: #575

All-girl group the Sapphires head to Vietnam to entertain the troops from their native Australia with the help of a talent scout played by Chris O’Dowd in this musical comedy. The film is based on a play by Tony Briggs, which is loosely based on the true story of Briggs' own mother and aunt. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell play the Sapphires.

7 / 25
HBO Films

#19. ‘Last Days’ (2005)

- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Metascore: 67
- Rank among all biographical films: #564

The film “Last Days” is loosely based on Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s final days. Michael Pitt plays the Cobainesque musician Blake who lives out his existence in a beautiful but rundown mansion. Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth appears in the movie, which also stars Asia Argento, the daughter of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento.

8 / 25
Hype Film

#18. ‘Leto’ (2018)

- Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
- Metascore: 69
- Rank among all biographical films: #488

In the 1980s, the Soviet city of Leningrad had an underground rock world, and “Leto” takes its inspiration from that scene. Loosely based on the lives of Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, two well-known rockers at the time, the film throws them into a mentor/mentee situation and adds a love triangle that includes Mike’s wife. Roman Bilyk plays Mike and Teo Yoo plays Viktor in this film that blurs fact and fiction.

9 / 25
Dreamworks Pictures

#17. ‘Green Book’ (2018)

- Director: Peter Farrelly
- Metascore: 69
- Rank among all biographical films: #480

The title of this biopic is based on “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a driving guide that allowed African Americans to avoid segregation on America’s roadways during the Jim Crow era. The Oscar-winning film was inspired by the true story of the friendship that developed between African American pianist Donald Shirley and Italian American bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as they drove from Manhattan through the Deep South in 1962 for Shirley’s musical tour, with the “Green Book” as their guide. Mahershala Ali plays Shirley and Viggo Mortensen plays Vallelonga.

10 / 25
Paramount Pictures

#16. ‘Rocketman’ (2019)

- Director: Dexter Fletcher
- Metascore: 69
- Rank among all biographical films: #472

Taron Egerton plays singer Elton John in this fantastical biopic based on the eccentric artist’s life. Egerton also sang all of John’s songs in the film that focuses on the musician’s early breakthrough years. “Rocketman” snagged an Oscar for best achievement in music written for motion pictures for the original song, “I’m Gonna Love Me Again.”

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11 / 25
Bound for Glory

#15. ‘Bound for Glory’ (1976)

- Director: Hal Ashby
- Metascore: 70
- Rank among all biographical films: #441

David Carradine plays singer Woody Guthrie in this film based on Guthrie’s autobiography of the same name, which was published in 1943. Guthrie left Texas during the Dust Bowl and traveled throughout the country stirring up morale for the migrant laborers and eventually wrote the nation’s new anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”

12 / 25
Imagine Entertainment

#14. ‘Get on Up’ (2014)

- Director: Tate Taylor
- Metascore: 71
- Rank among all biographical films: #436

Chadwick Boseman plays Godfather of Soul James Brown in “Get on Up.” The film covers Brown’s rags-to-riches story from his poverty-stricken childhood to his many brushes with the law and his rise as a musician. The film also stars Dan Aykroyd, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis as Susie Brown, James' mother.

13 / 25
Fox 2000 Pictures

#13. ‘Walk the Line’ (2005)

- Director: James Mangold
- Metascore: 72
- Rank among all biographical films: #394

Based on country singer Johnny Cash’s life, “Walk the Line” featured Joaquin Phoenix as the “Man in Black” and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, a member of country music’s first family, the Carter Family. The film covered the accident that killed Cash’s brother in his boyhood, his days in the military, his failed first marriage, the drug addiction that nearly killed him, and his romance and eventual marriage to June, which lasted until her death in 2003, four months before Cash’s own death. Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash.

14 / 25
Universal Pictures

#12. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)

- Director: F. Gary Gray
- Metascore: 72
- Rank among all biographical films: #360

“Straight Outta Compton” is the story of legendary rap group N.W.A.’s rise to fame from the streets of Compton and its contribution to West Coast rap. Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, MC Ren, and D.O.C. are portrayed by Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Marlon Yates Jr., respectively, while Paul Giamatti plays manager Jerry Heller. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best writing, original screenplay.

15 / 25
Universal Pictures

#11. ‘Ray’ (2004)

- Director: Taylor Hackford
- Metascore: 73
- Rank among all biographical films: #348

Based on the life of musician Ray Charles, “Ray” stars Jamie Foxx in the titular role. The film focuses on Ray’s life from his humble southern roots to glaucoma that left him blind at 7 to his rise to fame beginning in the 1950s. Regina King and Kerry Washington also star in this biopic that won two Oscars, including one for Foxx for best performance by an actor in a leading role.

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16 / 25
Killer Films

#10. ‘I’m Not There’ (2007)

- Director: Todd Haynes
- Metascore: 73
- Rank among all biographical films: #331

Six different iterations of Bob Dylan are presented in this film that the musician approved himself. Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere, and Marcus Carl Franklin all offer their take on Dylan’s work and life when they play Bob Dylan. Blanchett received an Oscar nod for best performance by an actress in a supporting role for her work in “I’m Not There.”

17 / 25
Ansgar Media

#9. ‘Blaze’ (2018)

- Director: Ethan Hawke
- Metascore: 75
- Rank among all biographical films: #249

Based on Sybil Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” the film focuses on the life and times of the Texas singer and songwriter. Rosen was Blaze’s muse, and the film focuses on their relationship as well as the musician’s turbulent life and career and eventual murder at 39. Alia Shawkat plays Rosen, and Ben Dickey plays Foley.

18 / 25
Touchstone Pictures

#8. ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ (1993)

- Director: Brian Gibson
- Metascore: 76
- Rank among all biographical films: #224

Starring Angela Bassett as rock legend Tina Turner and Laurence Fishburne as her volatile and abusive husband Ike Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” focuses on Turner’s life, and their music and tumultuous relationship. The biopic is based on Turner’s book “I, Tina,” which she wrote with music journalist Kurt Loder. Both Bassett and Fishburne earned Oscar nods for their performances in the film.

19 / 25
Initial Pictures

#7. ‘Sid and Nancy’ (1986)

- Director: Alex Cox
- Metascore: 76
- Rank among all biographical films: #217

“Sid and Nancy” is the story of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen and their volatile relationship from start to finish. Chloe Webb plays Nancy and Gary Oldman plays Sid. Courtney Love also stars in the film, making her film debut.

20 / 25
Innovisions

#6. ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ (1978)

- Director: Steve Rash
- Metascore: 78
- Rank among all biographical films: #187

The film covers the life of Buddy Holly, including his musical success with hits like “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue,” his marriage, the breakup and makeup with his band the Crickets, and his tragic death at 22 in 1959 with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Gary Busey received an Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role for his portrayal of the rock star.

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21 / 25
Arts Council of England

#5. ‘Hilary and Jackie’ (1998)

- Director: Anand Tucker
- Metascore: 78
- Rank among all biographical films: #161

Flutist Hilary du Pré-Finzi tells the story of her sister, classic cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose life was cut tragically short after a battle with multiple sclerosis. The film was based on du Pré-Finz’s book, “A Genius in the Family.” Both Emily Watson, who played Jackie, and Rachel Griffiths, who portrayed Hilary, received Oscar nominations.

22 / 25
River Road Entertainment

#4. ‘Love & Mercy’ (2014)

- Director: Bill Pohlad
- Metascore: 80
- Rank among all biographical films: #136

Brian Wilson, the frontman of the 1960s band The Beach Boys, is brought to life in this film that documents his struggles with mental illness, his relationship with an abusive therapist, and the woman who helped him break free and eventually became his wife, Melinda Ledbetter. Elizabeth Banks plays Ledbetter, and John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Wilson.

23 / 25
Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC)

#3. ‘Shine’ (1996)

- Director: Scott Hicks
- Metascore: 87
- Rank among all biographical films: #45

Geoffrey Rush plays pianist David Helfgott in this film that documents Helfgott’s breakdown and eventual return to the piano. Rush won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role for his portrayal of Helfgott and “Shine” received six additional Academy Award nominations.

24 / 25
Universal Pictures

#2. ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

- Director: Michael Apted
- Metascore: 87
- Rank among all biographical films: #37

Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for best actress in a leading role for her portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn. The film is based on Lynn’s 1976 bestselling memoir, “Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which tells of her years growing up in Butcher Holler, Kentucky; her marriage at a young age; and her rise to the top of country music. Spacek also sang all of Lynn’s songs in the film.

25 / 25
Warner Bros.

#1. ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1942)

- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Metascore: 89
- Rank among all biographical films: #30

American entertainer George M. Cohan, who during his childhood performed with his family as “The Four Cohans,” a vaudeville act, went on to become an American treasure and the subject of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Cohan was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his Broadway hits like “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and the film itself was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including best actor in a leading role for James Cagney, who played Cohan.

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