5 Musical Biopics Done Right (And 5 Done Wrong)

Musical biopics cover a broad range of artists, however for all the times they get things right, there are just as many times they get things wrong.

Straight Outta Compton passed over at Oscars 2016

Fans love them for the amazing music they inevitably get to hear in them, and because they offer unique insight into the lives of their favorite singers and bands. Actors love them because they get to transform themselves into musicians with complex stories of grandeur and delusion. They are musical biopics, a genre in cinema both loved and hated for their horrible inaccuracies or gritty authenticity.

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For all those that sang along to Bohemian Rhapsody last year, or are looking forward to the Elton John biopic Rocketman this year, here are some of the very best musical biopics that were right on the money with their subject matter, and some of the ones that would make their subjects roll over in their graves.


Whether or not you're an Oliver Stone fan, fans of The Doors should be pleased with the treatment this biopic gives them. It's a successful telling of a bands formation and rise to fame as well we the personal struggles of its lead singer, which is no easy feat, given that usually attention is paid to one aspect more than the other.

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Val Kilmer IS Jim Morrison in this, going so far as to actually sing all the songs so well the real band said they couldn't tell the difference between his voice and the real Morrison's. Plus it has a cameo by Billy Idol, which never hurts.


Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire

Besides the creep factor of the real-life Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin, this movie is riddled with historical inaccuracies as well as timeline fallacies. It doesn't paint the noted rock 'n' roll hellcat as anything but a tamed kitten.

It's helped by strong performances from Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder, but it goes for sentimentality when Lewis was the sort of performer that made Elvis look angelic. It stops just short of the dark time period where Lewis went from getting paid thousands of dollars at nightclubs to a hundred bucks, which is the real stuff that fans of biopics want to see.


Jamie Foxx in Ray

Jamie Foxx so fully embodied Ray Charles it was like he was born to play him. From the singing to the piano playing, it is a perfect tribute to the musical legend, who heavily advised on the film.

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Though it has been said by the ladies in his life that Ray Charles was not always as amiable as his onscreen depiction, its not hard to see why certain unsavory moments from his past were not included so as to not detract from his accomplishments.


The mellifluous vocal stylings of Bobby Darin were beloved by many, including Kevin Spacey who wanted to make a biopic about the crooner back when he was 34. Studios didn’t bite, citing his age, and he finally had to pony up the money himself to fund production ten years later, when he was now 44.

Ageism aside, the movie lacked the energy and pizzazz associated with a Bobby Darin performance, perhaps because Spacey was twice the age Darin was in his prime. Sometimes actors who really want to portray their idols just shouldn't.


It’s hard not to shake your hips to Lou Diamond Phillips as he struts and sings like the late Latino rocker Ritchie Valens, but that’s about the extent of what recommends this glossy and schmaltzy recounting of the singer’s career.

The biggest complaint aside from historical inaccuracies, is that Diamond Phillis doesn’t look a thing like Ritchie Valens, who was a chubby, supremely awkward man that never had the runway looks that his contemporary Elvis Presley had, which makes it hard to believe any women would be fainting away at his concerts.


Walk the Line

A country singer that manages to unite country fans and non country fans, Johnny Cash was an imposing musical icon. Joaquin Phoenix amply filled his shoes, and the rest of the films lives up to expectations based on the conviction of the cast and writers.

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Fresh off her foray into romantic comedies, Reese Witherspoon took an impressive stab at playing June Carter, in a role that critics called inspired and sympathetic. She wasn’t overshadowed by the man she married and the pair made a fantastic musical duo, much like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born.


One would hope that having an original member of the Runaways on hand, the fearless and talented Joan Jett, would lend credibility and gravitas to this film about the pioneering women of punk rock. Unfortunately, the narrative and overall pacing of the tone make it impossible to tell where her advisement entered the picture.

The movie is a role-reversed story of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, more intent on showing the young women getting down and dirty anywhere but on stage. Also, Kristen Stewart’s one note performance isn’t raucous enough to embody Joan Jett.


The Godfather of Soul came to life with a dynamic performance by Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, whose visceral energy and stage presence would make you swear you were watching James Brown himself.

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The movie didn’t shy away from chronicling the highs and lows of Brown’s tumultuous career, from heavy drug use and spousal abuse to the release of platinum records and healing a nation through song after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. With a great supporting cast and director (The Help, 42) it isn’t to be missed.


Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the most celebrated singers of the last century, as well as a fierce advocate for civil rights. She faced discrimination about where she could perform, but she rose from lounges in Harlem to gracing the grandest stages in the world.

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That’s why when it was announced that Zoe Saldana would portray the songstress, fans were less than enthused. The tall, lithe, light-skinned Zoe looked nothing like Nina Simone, and would require extensive makeup and prosthetics to resemble her. In the end, it languished unreleased for four years before finally quietly opening to horrible reviews.


From an era still alive with arena rock and New Wave pop, a revolutionary group of hip hop pioneers rose to fame in 1988; N.W.A. With the oldest son of real-life N.W.A. founder “Ice Cube” playing his father back in his younger years, the film is a rush of gritty authenticity.

Rather than pander to most musical biopic formulas, it elevates the story by exploring what happens to disc-jockey Dr. Dre and drug dealer Eazy-E after the group’s formation as well, and pulls no punches in telling an emotionally human story.

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