Top 7 Best Music Biopics, According To Film Critics

From the glitz and glamor of the rock ‘n’ roll era to the gritty underground scenes of hip-hop and jazz, music biopics have long been a favorite genre among film enthusiasts. These films not only give us a glimpse into the lives of our favorite musicians but also provide a deeper understanding of the cultural and historical context in which they thrived. This is why today we decided to take a journey through the early days of Vaudeville with Fanny Brice to the streets of Compton with N.W.A. and explore some of the best music biopics ever made, delving into stories that captivated audiences and left an indelible mark on the world of cinema.

Considering how many notable musicians throughout history have had films about their lives, narrowing it down to just seven is no easy task. Especially when you factor in how strongly people feel about biographical pictures, especially when it comes to being nominated at the Oscars. In 2020, Renee Zellweger was awarded for her work portraying Judy Garland in “Judy,” and just last year, Austin Butler was nominated for Best Actor for his work in “Elvis.” However, a poll done surveying people about the big award show back in 2022 showed many people felt that the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson, was specifically snubbed for a chance at the iconic golden statue. The Oscars have also snubbed “Get On Up,” the James Brown biopic starring the late Chadwick Boseman. However, anyone who’s seen the films can agree they feature one-in-a-lifetime performances that truly exceed any statute reward. 

But why are people so passionate about music biopics? Music biopics have a unique ability to resonate with people on a deep level. One reason for this is the power of music itself. Music has a way of evoking emotions and connecting with our own personal experiences, and when we see the story of a musician unfold on the big screen, it becomes a window into their world and their creative process. Moreover, music biopics often delve into the personal struggles and triumphs of these artists, shedding light on the human side of their larger-than-life personas. This vulnerability and relatability allow audiences to empathize with their journey and find inspiration in their resilience.

There’s no greater example of the journeys described above than the films on this list. The seven movies that made the ranking are all epic tales of self-discovery and the importance of music in one’s life. As always, we at StudyFinds have researched across eight expert sources to bring you today’s list of the top seven best music biopics of all time. Of course, everything is subjective, and you may not share the same opinion, which is why we would love to hear from you in the comments below. Now, onto the list!

➡️ How Our “Best Of The Best” Lists Are Created

StudyFinds’ “Best of the Best” articles are put together with the idea of taking the work out of common consumer research. Ever find yourself searching for a product or service on Google and reading multiple reviews to find items listed across many of them? Our Best of the Best lists are created with that process in mind, with each item ranked by how frequently it appears on expert reviews or lists. With Best of the Best, you are getting consensus picks — making them truly the best of the best!

Johnny Cash's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Johnny Cash’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Photo by Hayk_Shalunts on Shutterstock)

The List: Best Music Biopics That Fans Recommend

1. “Funny Girl” (1968)

YouTube video

Yeah, the guy said, “Honey, you’re a funny girl!” And no girl was funnier than Ms. Fanny Brice. From her days in the Ziegfeld Follies to portraying the loveable but annoying Snooks, Fanny Brice set a tone for all comedians to come. August Man describes this film as a “masterpiece,” starring none other than Barbra Streisand in an Oscar-winning performance as the Jewish icon.

Though it’s difficult to imagine, according to The Guardian, this was Streisand’s on-screen debut. She plays the pre-war singer and comic star with such chutzpah that she transforms Brice’s silliness into an amazing and distinctive character. Her songs, particularly “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” are obvious hits, as she exudes brilliance, femininity, Jewish identity, sensuality, and vulnerability all in one performance. 

“Funny Girl,” which centers on Brice’s career and relationship with gambler and con man Nicky Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif), was inspired by the Broadway musical of the same name, reports Forbes. The movie musical became the highest-grossing film of 1968, and in 2022, Beanie Feldstein made her Broadway debut in a revival of the iconic play. 

2. “Elvis” (1979)

YouTube video

Next up is “Elvis.” Though Austin Butler’s take as the King of Rock’ N Roll is fresh in people’s minds, it is Kurt Russell’s take from the 1979 film that proved to be a standoutGQ notes that “one major point of difference” between this movie and Baz Luhrmann’s most recent creation is that the former concentrates on the subject’s early years and ends in 1970, just as his health begins to worsen, rather than following him from birth to death. This enables filmmaker John Carpenter to highlight the importance of his mother and Colonel Tom Parker’s ties and highlight the impact these individuals had on the King.

Since the King’s untimely death in 1977, a number of Elvis Presley biopics have been produced, but this made-for-TV film, directed by John Carpenter, is still “one to beat,” raves Rolling Stone. Russell lip-synced to country music musician Ronnie McDowell’s voice instead of singing for the movie, but his performance scenes nonetheless capture a great deal of the intensity and visceral thrill of Presley’s onstage presence. 

The film follows him from his early years, when Shelley Winters played his mother, Gladys, to his celebrity years, when Pat Hingle played Colonel Tom Parker. Russell delivers a powerful yet delicate performance that is unforgettable as an Elvis impersonator. Just three years after Presley passed away, Russell’s brilliant and entertaining rendition effectively started the worldwide fad of Elvis imitation, which is still practiced today in pubs, clubs, and hen parties all over the world, but mostly “without Russell’s skills,” jokes The Guardian.

3. “Ray” (2004)

YouTube video

The next biopic to make the list is 2004’s “Ray.” Written, produced, and directed by Taylor Hackford, this movie “focuses on 30 years in the life of pioneering soul music/R&B icon Ray Charles,” writes U Discover Music. It follows the trajectory of Charles’s career from his early club days to his crossover success with Atlantic Records, his commercial downfall in the 1970s, and his incredible return, which earned him a Grammy for his work with Chaka Khan.

Jamie Foxx, who earned an Oscar for his captivating portrayal of American musician Ray Charles in this movie, is at his best ever. The narrative traces his modest beginnings in Florida, where he studied piano instruction before experiencing the twin traumas of his brother’s murder and total blindness. It also depicts the background of his relationships and his involvement in the civil rights struggle as his career soars. “Amongst many other things, Ray is cold hard proof that ‘Georgia on my Mind’ is one of the greatest songs ever written,” adds GQ.

Foxx portrays Charles with a brilliant performance, perfectly capturing his eccentricities and physical gestures, particularly his rolling walk, which is a cross between a star’s swagger and a blind man’s cautiousness. Charles is seen experimenting with a variety of musical genres, including blues, country, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and, most importantly, gospel. The Guardian claims that the entire film is, in a sense, “evangelizing for Ray Charles.”

4. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)

YouTube video

Once upon a time, a woman named Loretta Lynn was born to a coal miner in Butcher Holler. She would make history and personally pick one Sissy Spacek to play her in this biopic. Which, according to U Discover Music, was arguably a “career-best performance.” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which is based on Lynn’s autobiography and also stars Levon Helm and Tommy Lee Jones, chronicles the story of the iconic singer from her impoverished upbringing to her rise to fame. 

“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which takes its name from a song and album that Lynn released, features an Oscar-winning performance by Spacek as the country artist, mentions Forbes. Spacek’s portrayal of Lynn is considered one of the most authentic and compelling performances in the history of biographical films. Her dedication to the role and her ability to capture Lynn’s essence on-screen earned her critical acclaim, among other accolades.

Even though Lynn is shown singing nonstop throughout the film, Sift Pop reviewers were shocked with how much the film focuses on her background before jumping into her music career. A large part of the film particularly centers on how she meets and marries her husband. The fact that Beverley D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) and Spacek both sang the lead roles is remarkable. According to Sift Pop, seeing how Lynn’s life changes from the first scene to the last scene is “striking” and a fantastic way to visually wrap up the movie.

5. “Straight Outta Compton” (2015)

YouTube video

The official history of the hip-hop pioneers, “Straight Outta Compton,” was produced by the band’s remaining members. The film delves deeply into the internal conflicts, the Faustian deals, and the touring excesses that contributed to the N.W.A.’s explosive nature, but the performance scenes are especially intense. The trio rediscovers its “lightning-in-a-bottle vibrancy,” states Rolling Stone, and from Eazy-E discovering his voice in the studio to them being jailed for singing in Detroit, the film captures the raw energy and passion of N.W.A.

This biopic “pulls few punches” and tries to be realistic, “at least from the group’s perspective,” notes U Discover Music. “Straight Outta Compton” was a captivating film that won several accolades, including the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It also served as the inspiration for Dr. Dre’s highly successful solo album “Compton.” The film not only showcased the rise to stardom of N.W.A, but it also shed light on the systemic racism and police brutality that the group faced. The raw and authentic portrayal of their experiences resonated with audiences worldwide, sparking important conversations about racial inequality and the power of music as a form of protest. 

Through their sharing of their experiences in Compton, California, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), and the rest of the group became the voices of a generation. “Straight Outta Compton” also showed how much controversy the group caused along their journey. In the parts of Cube and Dre, Jackson and Hawkins are excellent. Eazy is not as well-known as those two, even if those of us born in the 1990s are familiar, but “Mitchell is just as good as — if not better than — than his co-stars,” adds Sift Pop, delivering what may be the most poignant performance.

6. “Walk The Line” (2005)

YouTube video

The next biopic we are going to discuss is about the man in black himself. The man who, over the course of his almost five-decade career, sold 90 million albums worldwide, was inducted into the GospelCountry, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, and will indubitably continue to rank among the all-time greatest musicians in sales, mentions Collider. That’s right, it’s time to talk about Johnny Cash and the hit film “Walk The Line.”

The Johnny Cash biopic was one of the most popular and much-awaited movies of 2005, and it did not disappoint. “Walk The Line,” which is based on two separate autobiographies written by the renowned singer-songwriter, explores the highs and lows of Cash’s life, from his musical career and romance with June Carter to his struggles with drugs and alcohol and his legendary shows at America’s infamous Folsom Prison. The film featured “electrifying performances by Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter,” raves U Discover Music.

Because it centers on Cash’s artistic and personal connection with June Carter and expertly portrays both parts, James Mangold’s biopic made this ranking. Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix make an unusual romantic duo in any case— “he brooding and self-serious, she bright and energetic,” according to Rolling Stone — but their opposites-attract chemistry explains their tense relationship off-screen and their lighthearted duets on stage, where they both perform brilliantly. 

7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

YouTube video

“Ay-Oh!” Come on, now you say it. That’s right, the next and final pick on our list is the biopic of the legendary band Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The film follows the incredible journey of Freddie Mercury, “brilliantly” portrayed by Malek, writes August Man, as he teams up with Brian May, Roger Taylor, and James Deacon to create one of the most influential bands in history.

The Queen biopic was one of the biggest releases of 2018, dominated the box office, and ended the year with the highest-grossing title ever for a music biopic. On the other hand, it was also a critical and commercial phenomenon, winning several accolades, most notably the coveted Best Actor Oscar for Rami Malek’s “magnificent portrayal of Freddie Mercury,” reports U Discover Music.

The film mainly focuses on Mercury’s journey from his humble beginnings to the height of his rockstar fame in Queen. Unfortunately, in 1991, “the band and fans worldwide took a heartbreaking blow when Mercury sadly died from AIDS-related compilations,” adds Collider. However, his music and contributions live on today, and this film proves to be no greater testament to his impact. 


Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This article may contain affiliate links in which we receive a commission if you make a purchase.

Follow on Google News

About the Author

Jilly Hite

New York raised and Florida-based Jilly Hite studied screenwriting and theatre at The Lee Strasberg Institute before becoming a full time content creator and podcaster. She loves old movies, musical theatre, and her pup Ted.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer