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10 music biopics that are actually good

Formulaic music biopics are ten a penny nowadays. Here’s a list of ten that are actually good though.

Paint-by-number music biopics are ten a penny nowadays. You increasingly get the sense they’re made as more of a promotional tool to fortify certain artist’s legacies (and their estate’s bank accounts) than to uncover any searing truths about the creative minds behind the songs that have soundtracked our lives. And that’s why most of them kind of, well, suck.

Flimsy and formulaic films rely almost entirely on an impressive, Oscar-baiting central performance (see Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody or more recently Bob Marley: One Love), and the biopics that don’t have even that to the hide the cracks are just simply awful (see The Doors, Nina, Stardust). 

Factual inaccuracy or dramatic licence isn’t the issue – there are documentaries to delve into for that. But biopics are asking to be scrutinised for tampering with pop cultural icons we hold so dear when these portrayals are often so predictable, poorly written, and ultimately stale.

That said, here’s a list of ten music biopics that are actually good: 

Sid & Nancy (1986)

Alex Cox’s biopic of the heroin-addled romance between The Sex Pistols’ self-destructive bassist Sid Vicious and his doomed girlfriend Nancy Spungen is grimy, engrossing, and at times just gross. Pulling no punches when it comes to the calamitous punk icon’s idiocy and misdirected frustrations in the wake of the Pistols’ implosion, a remarkable performance from soon-to-be Hollywood heavyweight Gary Oldman alongside Chloe Webb’s accurate and irritating portrayal details a year-long love affair that ends in inevitable tragedy. Bolstered by a stunning score by Pray For Rain and Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, Sid & Nancy is a bonafide cult classic. 

sid and nancy biopic

READ MORE: Roger Deakins interview: “If you aren’t nervous, you aren’t doing it right”


I’m Not There (2007)

An ambitious biopic for one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th century, Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There intertwined various non-linear character narratives all of which are individually based on different eras or personas of Dylan’s. With Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger (in what was the final film released before his death) making up its star-studded cast, its soundtrack of Dylan cover versions is equally as stellar.

i'm not there biopic

Control (2007)

In his directorial film debut, famed photographer and music video maker Anton Corbijn studies the final days of the fragile Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, played with vulnerability and poise by up-and-comer Sam Riley. As Curtis’ control of his own life was steadily slipping away as his band’s profile rose, Control captures depression and the days leading to his suicide in monochromatic majesty.

control ian curtis biopic

READ MORE: Disorder! | When a Joy Division gig became a riot


Love & Mercy (2014)

Split between arguably the two most crucial timelines in Brian Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy sees Paul Dano and John Cusack take on The Beach Boys legend’s struggles with mental health and psychosis. Dano plays a younger iteration of an embattled Wilson crafting Pet Sounds, whilst Cusack’s Wilson suffers mistreatment and malpractice at the hands of his dangerous psychologist Eugene Landy, in an underrated biopic that is at times painful to watch unfold.

Love-Mercy biopic

8 Mile (2002)

Why bother casting a Hollywood star when you can just play yourself? That was Eminem’s logic for his quasi-biopic 8 Mile, a fictionalised account of his own life as he attempts to carve out a career in hip-hop. Though it might not be a biopic in the truest sense, it depicts Marshall Mathers’ misfortune-ridden early life and eventual rise to respect with captivating rap battle sequences that propelled the film to critical and commercial success.

8-mile biopic

READ MORE: 8 Mile: When Eminem learned how to act


Maestro (2023) 

Bradley Cooper’s labour of love about Leonard Bernstein received criticism from some corners for nullifying the extent of the exuberant composer’s bacchanals, but Maestro is nonetheless a luxurious and immersive watch. Cooper’s dedication to the cause should be admired, spending six years learning how to re-enact Bernstein’s conducting physicality. His preparation and precision paid off.

bradley cooper maestro

READ MORE: ★★★★☆ Maestro review | Bradley Cooper’s latest melodrama is beautifully sad and swooning


La Vie en Rose (2007)

Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of the diminutive Edith Piaf is anything but. Rightly winning plaudits for her transformation – including an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Actress – La Vie en Rose is a beguiling exploration of a life that was a consistent balancing act between joy and tragedy.

la vie en rose biopic

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s on-screen debut in Funny Girl as pre-war singer and comedy sensation Fanny Brice helped pave her way to EGOT status. Reprising the role she dazzled with on Broadway, Babs’ strides through with comedic charm and winking sex appeal in a pitch-perfect performance that can allure even the most stoic of musical deniers. It frequently features on “best ever” lists for a reason.

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Elvis (1979)

Nope, not Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy, stretched-out music video, but the Kurt Russell-starring, John Carpenter-directed biopic from 1979. The made-for-television movie stands head and shoulders above a sea of Elvis Presley on-screen impersonators that this film largely inspired. No shade on Austin Butler’s painstakingly studied performance, but Russell (despite lip-syncing the songs throughout) plays a subtler, steadier Presley in what was the first notable portrayal of the star after his premature demise. Detailing his life until 1970, the ‘Master Of Horror’ Carpenter doesn’t do Elvis the disservice of delving into the Vegas years either.

elvis 1979 kurt russell

READ MORE: Elvis soundtrack | Why the music for Baz Luhrmann’s new film has so much hype


What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993) 

Tina Turner’s destructive marriage with her musical partner Ike Turner was brought to the fore in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, a biopic which put an uncomfortable focus on the traumatic years of abuse she faced at the hands of her husband. A disturbing reminder of the behind-the-scenes domestic abuse that women of all profiles can suffer, the biopic offered Turner a renewed respect as a survivor who battled her way to independence first, and a career resurgence next. The only real shame about What’s Love Got To Do With It was that Angela Bassett – having embodied Turner in every way despite not really resembling the ‘Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – didn’t take the Oscar home for her powerful portrayal. 

what's love got to do with it tina turner biopic

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