Music Biopics That Hit All the Right Notes

In honor of the fifth anniversary of Straight Outta Compton, we took a look back at the most memorable music biopics of the last 30 years.

By Billy Nilles Aug 15, 2020 11:00 AMTags
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Straight Outta Compton was a straight-up phenomenon.

When the biopic—a depiction of the rise and fall of the groundbreaking gangsta rap group N.W.A.—arrived in theaters on Aug. 14, 2015, its reception at the box office blew everyone away. Making $24.1 million on opening day alone—the fourth biggest August opening day ever at the time—the film continued to make history as the weekend progressed. In those first few days, its $60.2 million windfall marked the fifth-best August opening weekend of all time, the highest August opening for an R-rated film, and the highest for a musical biopic ever. 

Not only that, but it also gave F. Gary Gray the best opening by a film with an African-American director—a record that would stand until Gray surpassed himself with 2017's The Fate of the Furious.

With N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, along with the late Eazy-E's widow Tomica Woods-Wright, on board as producers—not to mention MC Ren and DJ Yella attached as creative consultants—fans responded to the Universal Pictures film's honest portrayal of the group, even if it did sidestep some of the misogyny and homophobia they'd been accused of over the years.

Critics, too, found themselves enamored with the film, especially the breakthrough performance by O'Shea Jackson Jr., who made his film debut playing a younger version of his dad, Ice Cube.

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Straight Outta Compton is hardly the first musical biopic to sing its way to staggering success, though. In honor of the film's fifth anniversary, let's take a look at the films, both before it and since, that were music to our ears.

Shutterstock; E! Illustration
Ray

The 2004 film, written and directed by Helen Mirren's husband Taylor Hackford, focused on 30 years in the life of the iconic, pioneering rhythm and blues virtuoso Ray Charles. For his performance as the blind musician, star Jamie Foxx took home the Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Critics' Choice awards, becoming only the second actor in history to win all five for the same role.

The Runaways

Written and directed by music video auteur Floria Sigismondi, this 2010 film told the story of the titular band's formation in 1975, focusing on the relationship between lead vocalist Cherie Currie (played by Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) until the former's departure from the group in 1977.  Sigismondi used Currie's book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway to form the basis of her script.

I'm Not There

Eschewing tradition, this unconventional biopic from director Todd Haynes took on the life of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan by hiring six different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw) to depict different facets of the musician's public personas. Released in 2007, the film's only mention of Dylan himself comes via caption at the beginning, declaring that the project is "inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan."

Walk the Line

Based on two autobiographies written by Johnny Cash, this 2005 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black focused on his early life, romance with second wife June Carter (played by Reese Witherspoon), and ascension in the country music scene. A box office success, the movie earned Witherspoon her first Academy Award.

What's Love Got to Do with It

This 1993 film, adapted from Tina Turner's autobiography, told the story of the iconic singer's early career and tumultuous marriage with Ike Turner. Stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne both earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of the famous couple. Neither won, but Bassett did take home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Though not an entirely accurate retelling of Freddie Mercury's rise to fame as the flamboyant lead singer of the band Queen, this 2018 film was a box office sensation, grossing over $900 million worldwide. For his work as Mercury, star Rami Malek took home the Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor.

Rocketman

This 2019 film went the musical fantasia route to bring Elton John's early life and career, including the formation of his enduring partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, to the big screen. Star Taron Egerton, who did all his own singing as John, was rewarded with a Golden Globe. At the Academy Awards, John and Taupin earned their first shared Best Original Song Oscar for "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," written just for the film.

Selena

Released just two years after Selena Quintanilla's murder at the age of 23, this 1997 film told the story of her groundbreaking career and shocking death. Playing the title role provided Jennifer Lopez with the breakout performance of her career, helping pave the way for her to become a recording artist herself just two years later.

Straight Outta Compton

This 2015 biopic depicting the rise and fall of gangsta rap group N.W.A. proved to be both a commercial and critical success. Earning over $200 million at the box office, the film was also named one of the top 10 films of the year by the Nation Board of Review.

(E! and Universal Pictures are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)