50 music biopics to see before you die

From rap renegades to popstar sensations

Words by Mark Beaumont

’24 Hour Party People’

With Steve Coogan playing the missing link between Alan Partridge and Tony Wilson, Michael Winterbottom’s retelling of the Factory Records story (misadventure? Farrago?) was a ferocious rock ’n’ roll farce of a biopic shot through with tragedy, rebirth, vision, extravagance, blood-inked record contracts and some of the worst business decisions this side of Elon Twitter.

Where to watch: Prime Video

‘8 Mile’


Ostensibly fictional, Eminem’s gritty cinematic debut as struggling Detroit battle rapper B-Rabbit was a semi-autobiographical outing more thinly veiled than Matt Hancock’s contempt for the public. Add in an award-winning original soundtrack and this de facto Marshall Mathers: The Movie began looking like rap’s own Rocky.

Where to watch: Netflix


Deciding not to let the inconvenient facts of history get in the way of a good yarn, Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman concocted a fictional clash of the classical titans as the young, flighty and alcoholic Mozart – renowned pop star of the powdered wig – becomes embroiled in a deadly rivalry with court composer Antonio Salieri.

Where to watch: Rent it on Rakuten TV


With anything beyond Beatlemania presumably considered too over-documented – or simply sanctified ground – filmmakers have leant towards The Beatles’ lesser-known early years. And the tragic romance of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe and his fiancée Astrid Kirchherr, and his troubled relationship with John Lennon, was a fascinating, little-told story that helped illuminate the near-mythological Hamburg era, recreated for the soundtrack by a supergroup of Dave Grohl, Greg Dulli, Thurston Moore and Mike Mills.

Where to watch: Blu-ray available on Amazon

‘Behind The Candelabra’


Michael Douglas and Matt Damon won plaudits aplenty for their portrayals of one-man Vegas show Liberace and the “assistant” and lover he tried to mould into a younger version of himself, right down to actual plastic surgery. A case study in how loneliness, obsession and addiction can sometimes come emerald-studded.

Where to watch: Prime Video


Forest Whitaker’s breakthrough performance was as revered jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker in Clint Eastwood’s time-hopping, impressionistic biopic, delving into his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie at the dawn of bebop and his ultimately fatal descent into hard drugs. The jazz club scenes, though, offer full ’40s immersion.

Where to watch: Rent on Prime Video, YouTube and others


The stories of lesser-known figures meeting early ends before their genius is fully appreciated tend to add a heart-wrenching twist to the genre of tragic music biopics. Ethan Hawke’s evocative and music-filled tribute to country singer Blaze Foley who, after a string of misfortunes which saw all three of his studio album recordings confiscated, lost or stolen, was shot dead at 39.

Where to watch: Rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play and others

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

For all its powerful recreations of musical landmarks like the Live Aid set, it was Rami Malek’s Herculean achievement in bringing Freddie Mercury to life in all his stage-stealing glory that made the Queen biopic unmissable, and a bar-setter for the big name biopics to come.

Where to watch: Netflix and Disney+

‘Born To Be Blue’

The drug-drenched days of classic jazz proved rich territory for the music biopic in the wake of 1988’s Charlie Parker flick Bird. Robert Budreau’s semi-fictional portrait of Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke, was more cavalier with the facts than most, taking Baker’s biography as a launch point for its own engrossing interpretation of the master.

Where to watch: Freevee

‘Bound For Glory’

Loosely adapted from an already semi-fictional autobiography, Hal Ashby’s film about Woody Guthrie hitch-hiking and box-car jumping his way to Los Angeles to find work during the Great Depression, there to become a musical voice for downtrodden casual workers and one of radio’s first protest singers, was distant cousins to the truth by the time it reached the screen. But a beautiful evocation of Guthrie’s formative Americana and its marriage to the nation’s landscapes and principles nonetheless.

Where to watch: DVD available on Amazon

‘Cadillac Records’

Revolving around the colourful stories of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf – played by a starry cast list including Mos Def and BeyonceCadillac Records was to Chicago of the 1940s-60s what 24 Hour Party People was to the Manchester of the 1970s-90s. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess of the legendary Chess Records, and even Keith Richards makes an appearance, albeit played by Marc Bonan.

Where to watch: Rent it on Apple TV, CHILI and more

‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’

Sissy Spacek perfectly captured Loretta Lynn through the ages, from troubled teens through honky-tonk hardships and the Grand Ole Opry to her years of celebrated – and equally troubled – 1960s successes. Recording the soundtrack herself, Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of the First Lady Of Country Music.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Google Play and more


One-time NME photography legend and video director for U2 and Depeche Mode, Anton Corbijn was ideally placed to tell the cinematic story of Joy Division, based on Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From A Distance. His moody, monochrome visual aesthetic carried the film all the way to the Oscars.

Where to watch: Sky and Now Cinema

‘Creation Stories’

If Factory deserved a biopic, Creation was undoubtedly next of the rock ’n’ roll independent labels in line. Alan McGee’s life has been lived as on-the-edge as many of the bands he signed (besides maybe Primal Scream) and – in a film co-written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh – Ewen Bremner captured his brash, wild-at-heart vivacity and vision, and the drug-fuelled chaos of the label itself, in this indie cinephile’s fantasia. Oasis, the Mary Chain, the Scream and My Bloody Valentine all feature and the soundtrack is virtually a Best Of of ‘80s and ‘90s indie rock.

Where to watch: NOW


Baz Luhrmann brought every ounce of his Moulin Rouge energy and pizazz to The King’s full biographical span, spotlighting his turbulent and exploitative relationship with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Austin Butler’s Elvis, meanwhile, challenged Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury for the most convincing on-screen rendition of a seemingly unplayable icon.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV and more

‘Funny Girl’

With Barbra Streisand reprising her Broadway role in her first cinema outing, several stars were reborn with Funny Girl: Streisand as an acclaimed screen actress – she won an Oscar for a performance that Roger Ebert described as “more fun to watch than anyone since the young Katharine Hepburn” – and Fanny Brice, the singer, actress and comedienne from the 1920s whose life story, and stormy relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein, was plucked from the annals of entertainment history, Hollywood-ed up a bit and transformed into one of the finest cinema musicals ever made.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV and more

‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’

From his childhood in occupied France during WWII to his affairs with the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s rise to fame might have been more charmed than heroic. But Joann Sfar’s biopic injected surrealist notes into an already mysterious life story – Gainsbourg’s animated alter-ego The Mug, for instance, guides him down dark paths at pivotal moments – making for a fantasy-meets-reality movie as enigmatic as Gauloises cigarette smoke.

Where to watch: Prime Video/Studio Canal

‘Get On Up’

From the pen of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, James Brown’s biopic was an unconventional, non-linear, stream-of consciousness affair, all the better to portray one of funk’s most conflicted characters: Godfather Of Soul, abusive husband, civil rights activist, gun-toting drug maniac and more. With this much drama, and Chadwick Boseman strutting and leaping like the sex machine in overdrive, who needs a fourth wall?

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV+ and more

‘Greetings From Tim Buckley’

Delivering two folk heroes for the price of one, Daniel Algrant’s Buckley dynasty biopic centres more around the younger Jeff than the elder Tim as he wrestles with the legacy of a father he’d only met once, as well as his own burgeoning talent. Sensitive and touching, it highlights the inter-generational power of music; a bloodline when all else is staunched.

Where to watch: Rent it on Google Play and YouTube

‘I’m Not There’

By his own calculation, Bob Dylan contains multitudes. In trying to capture him on celluloid, then, director Todd Haynes clearly decided one actor would never be enough. Instead, he cast six separate actors, including Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett, to play separate fictionalised facets of Dylan’s persona, interlocking into a bizarre but brilliant impression of both myth and man.

Where to watch: ITVX

‘Jimi: All Is By My Side’

The simple idea of Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix – surely the most no-brainer casting in music biopic history – made Jimi… a must-watch. And, for all its faults (not least the factual ones, with Hendrix’s lover Kathy Etchingham proclaiming the depiction of her relationship with the guitar god “absolute nonsense”) ‘Dre’s charisma carried the film so convincingly you’d barely notice they couldn’t clear any of Hendrix’s songs.

Where to watch: Prime Video/Curzon


Renée Zellweger earned herself an Oscar by taking on the life and songs of the iconic Judy Garland, revisiting her childhood and tortured Oz years in flashback from the struggles of her final year on the London stage. Zellweger’s barnstorming and heartbreaking renditions of Garland classics power the movie along; no Johnny One Note, she.

Where to watch: Disney+

‘La Bamba’

Overshadowed for several decades for the misfortune of having died in the same 1959 plane crash as Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens finally had his story told in La Bamba, a rags-to-far-too-brief-riches tale packed with drama, exuberance and sentimentality, which made stars of both Lou Diamond Phillips (as Valens) and soundtrack mainstays Los Lobos.

Where to watch: To rent on Amazon Prime, CHILI and more

‘Lady Sings The Blues’

Noting, perhaps, the awards heaped upon Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, Diana Ross made the screen that bit more silver in the role of Billie Holiday, a part which was all diva but precious little glamour. Pulling no punches in portraying the drug and alcohol abuse which saw Lady Day dead at 44, this was Ross as downtrodden as we’ve ever seen her and Holiday as the very embodiment of the blues.

Where to watch: Roku

‘Last Days’

Gus Van Sant’s depiction of the final hours of Blake – a fictionalised Kurt Cobain (yes, it counts as a biopic) – was a solemn, mundane watch, encapsulating the thin façade of fame and the everyday nature of mental collapse. Michael Pitt’s blankness, whether entertaining Yellow Pages reps, dead-eyed in a rock club or simply wandering the house waiting for the right time to die, spoke volumes.

Where to watch: CHILI

‘La Vie En Rose’

The story arc of a legendary torch singer surviving a gritty childhood to rise to fame through the clubs, then descend into hard drugs and romantic trauma and die at 47 – particularly when told in non-linear flashback from backstage at their final show – has become something of a biopic cliché. But Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf movie transcended the genre largely thanks to Marion Cotillard’s Oscar winning (albeit lip-synced) performance.

Where to watch: Prime Video, Disney+ and more

‘Love & Mercy’

Flitting between the psychological tumult surrounding the recording of ‘Pet Sounds’ in 1966 and his mistreatment at the hands of Dr Eugene Landy in the 1980s, The Beach Boys’ tortured keystone Brian Wilson received a sensitive and touching portrayal in Love & Mercy. Atticus Ross’ hallucinogenic soundtrack, melting Beach Boys harmonies into kaleidoscopic soundscapes, made it all the more relevant.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV+ and more


With Roger Daltrey playing Franz Liszt, Ringo Starr as the Pope and Rick Wakeman as Thor, Ken Russell’s surrealist fantasy vision of the world’s first pop star played merry hell with the facts – although, to be fair, history doesn’t record whether Liszt could maintain a 10-feet erection or cheated death to fly back to earth from heaven in a spaceship to destroy a vampire Wagner, who had transformed into a Frankenstein Hitler with a machine gun guitar. But everyone involved, including the modern viewer, has a blast.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV+ and CHILI

‘Miles Ahead’

More time-hopping around the life of a drug-troubled jazzster, this time focusing on Miles Davis’ reclusive late-‘70s period. Don Cheadle is convincing as the numbed-out Davis and Ewan McGregor brings the (fictionalised) drama as a music writer who convinces him to get his career back on track by chasing down lost recordings of recent work. As free-form as jazz itself, Miles Ahead was an impressionistic triumph.

Where to watch: Prime Video/Freevee


The first cinematic retelling of the East Coast-West Coast feud between Biggie Smalls and Tupac had all the trappings of a blockbuster – drugs, guns, sex, money, assassinations – but made for a more insightful, human experience by probing the man behind the hip-hop bravado. Naturi Naughton’s Lil’ Kim is a scene-stealer too.

Where to watch: Disney+

‘Nowhere Boy’

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s directorial debut took Julia Baird’s biography of her half-brother John Lennon’s early life as the basis for a dramatic dissection of Lennon’s tangled teenage years. With the formation of The Quarrymen with Paul McCartney and George Harrison acting as a backdrop, Lennon’s dislocated relationship with his mother Julia, and its tragic end, help root Lennon’s artistic fire in the ultimate roc k’n’ roll origin story.

Where to watch: Disney+


Among all of the jazz, blues and R&B legends with a hardship tale fit for the big screen, Ray Charles had one of the toughest – poverty, abuse, blindness, family loss, heroin, affairs, arrests, rehab, Charles survived it all. Jamie Foxx brought all this to vivid life, and plenty of stunning performance scenes to boot.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Google Play and more


It was a tough ask for Jennifer Hudson to live up to the Queen Of Soul’s formidable vocals, but the sheer drama of Aretha Franklin’s life is gripping enough on its own. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, tragedy and assault, though somewhat glossed over here, fuel Franklin’s powerhouse songs, which still bulge the screen.

Where to watch: Prime Video


Having scored a major hit with Bohemian Rhapsody, director Dexter Fletcher turned his lens to another flamboyant superstar of the era; Taron Egerton slipped into Elton John’s devil-falcon jumpsuit with the requisite vivacity, and charted his descent into hedonistic addiction, depression and isolation with convincing pathos. Happily, unlike so many biopic’d singers, Elton emerges, well, still standing.

Where to watch: Rent it on Apple TV+, Prime Video and more


Jennifer Lopez came into her own as a screen darling with her portrayal of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla Pérez, murdered at 23 by the embezzling president of her thriving fan club. Released just two years after Selena’s death, the film was more of a fact-setting exercise than a deep dive into Pérez’s character, but Lopez tackled it with relish.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, YouTube and more

‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’

Having become the king of motion capture by playing a virtual Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings franchise as well as King Kong, Andy Serkis turned his physical skills to the more subtler cause of depicting polio-stricken new wave icon Ian Dury, carrying Mat Whitecross’s tribute with appropriate cockiness.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Google Play and more


Having restarted the piano lessons he gave up at 14, Geoffrey Rush picked up an Oscar for his portrayal of disturbed Australian pianist David Helfgott in Scott Hicks’ celebrated Shine. The film followed the troubled home life of this piano prodigy up to his breakdown while becoming obsessed with perfecting Rachmaninov’s highly challenging ‘Concerto No. 3’, named after the number of hands you need to play the damn thing.

Where to watch: DVD for sale on Amazon

‘Sid And Nancy’

The least romantic Romeo & Juliet in rock ’n’ roll history, the fatal love affair between heroin addicts Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen is viscerally delivered in Alex Cox’s fittingly punk portrait of the doomed duo. Gary Oldman’s Sid gained most plaudits, but you can also spot Iggy Pop, Nico, Courtney Love and a pre-fame Slash in there.

Where to watch: Rent it on Apple TV+, Prime Video and BFI Player

‘Straight Outta Compton’

Riots, FBI raids, internal fights and electric gigs; Straight Outta Compton’s official depiction of the rise, split and resurrection of N.W.A. is amongst the most vital music biopics of all time. And if you’re after casting authenticity, having Ice Cube’s own son play him was a stroke of genius.

Where to watch: Sky and NOW

‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’

Years before Team America: World Police, Todd Haynes made this short college biopic of Karen Carpenter largely using modified Barbie and Ken dolls to play the characters on scaled-down sets, and featuring a completely unlicensed soundtrack. One copyright infringement lawsuit from Richard Carpenter later the withdrawn film became a cult classic, although we may never know why Barbie Karen was being spanked so much throughout.

Where to watch: You’ll have to seek this one out yourself…

‘Telstar: The Joe Meek Story’

Adapted from Nick Moran and James Hicks’ play, Telstar… set about detailing the madcap sonic inspirations and strange obsessions (poltergeists, aliens, Phil Spector bugging his phone) of schizophrenic 1960s producer Joe Meek, right up to the mysterious circumstances of his death, shooting his landlady and then himself. Con O’Neill is a live-wire tour de force; nice cameo from The LibertinesCarl Barat as Gene Vincent too.

Where to watch: Prime Video, Rakuten TV and Pluto TV

‘The Buddy Holly Story’

As riveting as any disaster movie, Holly’s legendary end on February 2, 1959 – The Day The Music Died – looms as large as Titanic’s iceberg over The Buddy Holly Story, a film akin to the opening chapter of a regular biopic that’s cut horrifically and meaninglessly short. Gary Busey’s Holly – setting the bar for actors playing and singing the songs in music films – injects the whole thing with a fitting rock ’n’ roll fervour and, in cinema history, tragedy has rarely struck at such a high.

Where to watch: Rent it on Apple TV+

‘The Doors’

Hazy and hallucinogenic – the “kiss the snake” acid trip in the desert sequence is so iconic in drug cinema circles that The Simpsons spoofed it – Oliver Stone’s Doors movie captured the mythology of Jim Morrison to sensual and whiskey-sodden perfection. Val Kilmer plays the Lizard King as a beautiful/doomed rock poet caught halfway between Sunset Strip and the seventh dimension, pure self-destructive hedonism in human form.

Where to watch: Prime Video/Studio Canal

‘The Pianist’

That Roman Polanski’s WWII drama concerned the real-life Polish-Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman, a popular Polish radio artist and composer, was almost secondary to the film’s importance as a record of the inhumanities of the Holocaust. Still, with music a lifeline helping Adrien Brody’s Szpilman survive the atrocities of the Warsaw Ghetto, it remains one of the most powerful music films to date.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Apple TV+ and more

‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’

A bit of a muddle of a movie – and some jazz experts even question the premise that the FBI targeted Holiday with drug charges to stop her singing civil rights ballad “Strange Fruit” – but Andra Day inhabits Holiday with a hypnotic intensity and vulnerability in Lee Daniels’ spotlight on her tempestuous 1950s.

Where to watch: NOW

‘Velvet Goldmine’

Transposing Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Berlin era onto the fictional Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), adding elements of Bryan Ferry and Marc Bolan – and with Ewan McGregor as an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed – Todd Haynes mashed the ‘70s rock world into a colourful and surreal blast of glam pop culture, and a love affair between British and American music (we’re counting it).

Where to watch: Netflix

‘Walk The Line’

The rags-to-riches-to-drugs-to-breakdown story is the blueprint for most music biopics. But James Mangold’s exploration of the life and many hardships of Johnny Cash stands apart for its ability to channel the pain of the man into the impact of his music, largely thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s glowering presence as Cash and Reese Witherspoon’s charming June.

Where to watch: Disney+, Prime Video

‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’

Proudly proclaiming that no actual research into accordion pop spoofster Al Yankovic’s real life was conducted for the film, Weird… is a canny pastiche of the rock biopic, covering Al’s ‘childhood’ being told to give up on his dreams by his parents to his rebellion teenage polka parties, a spoof-pop revelation over a packet of bologna and the LSD trip that inspires him to write ‘Eat It’ before Michael Jackson. An affair with Madonna? Brushes with the Pablo Escobar cartel? Dan Radcliffe goes along with it, so you do too.

Where to watch: Roku

‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’

Angela Bassett – a future music biopic regular – got her breakthrough as Tina Turner in Brian Gibson’s unflinching portrayal of the singer’s abusive marriage to singing partner Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) and her subsequent ascendence to solo superstardom.

Where to watch: Disney+

‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’

One of the earliest examples of the form saw James Cagney take on the role of Broadway showman, producer and composer George M Cohan, writer of ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘Give My Regards To Broadway’. Three Oscars later, it cemented the music biopic as an award-winning concern.

Where to watch: Rent it on Prime Video, Google Play and more

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