Every Pop Music Biopic of the 21st Century, Ranked

From the electric to the downright cringe, we ranked every musical biopic from this century

May 17, 2024 6:01 am
Musician biopics
Some are brilliant, and some are downright painful, but we ranked every 21st century musician biopic.
Danica Killelea

The pop-music biography has been a part of the cinematic landscape for ages. At a time when westerns were everywhere, for example, frequent collaborators Anthony Mann and James Stewart broke from their usual genre to make The Glenn Miller Story, chronicling the life of the popular big band leader. But there’s been a particular bumper crop of movies about real-life pop stars in the 21st century, maybe as a kind of grown-up branding. Older audiences may not be interested in the made-up exploits of the sixth iteration of Batman or locating the latest Star Wars on the master timeline, but a movie about Aretha Franklin or Freddie Mercury… those are real people they already care about. Look no further than the Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black, which is opening in theaters everywhere during the thick of the summer movie season, with the expectation that it can compete with (or counter-program) new movies from the more fantastical universes of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max and Garfield the cat.

But all pop biopics are not created equal. In fact, most of them are created pretty poorly, especially now that they’ve become greatest-hits baubles in an increasingly troubled music industry. People may not buy albums en masse anymore (especially when artists aren’t around to actually put them out), but maybe they’ll pony up some extra money to see a big-budget re-enactment. Detailed documentaries or well-researched books may be the place to go for more dimensional, nuanced insight into our pop heroes, but for pure crowd-pleasing, the form remains irresistible — for estates, performers, filmmakers and audiences.

Here’s a ranked list, then, to help you sort through two-dozen such 21st century offerings, including this week’s Winehouse picture. Here are the ground rules: We’re sticking to movies from 2000 and later — the biopic-boom era — and subjects that could be broadly considered pop stars. In other words, no jazz or classical; rock, rap, country and more are all fair game, so long as the artist in question has some kind of broader popular recognition. Movies about more niche figures, like Ethan Hawke’s Blaze, or movies about a scene/record label/movement, like Cadillac Records, feel like a somewhat different beast, less confined by popular expectations. Those expectations may also affect how deep into the genre film-watchers will want to go. Plenty of them are watchable, disposable entertainment, but if you want to limit yourself to the really good ones, make like Rob from High Fidelity (sort of a music-geek biopic) and just go for the top five.

24. I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022)

Imagine a movie that looks at the triumph, tragedy and talent of Whitney Houston’s storied life and career, and offers as a takeaway, in the obligatory post-movie on-screen text, that she sure did win a lot of American Music Awards. It’s a minor detail, but a telling one about the scattered, tone-deaf approach to this Houston bio, somehow directed by Kasi Lemmons, of the far superior Eve’s Bayou. These biographies are, more often than not, produced after the subject’s death, often untimely, which means wrestling with a variety of difficult subjects and tones without an obvious solution. I Wanna Dance with Somebody manages the rare feat of failing to depict the full, harrowing scope of Houston’s addiction issues while managing to affect a downbeat, depressing tone anyway, all while choosing some of the weirdest stuff to emphasize in crucial moments.

23. Stardust (2020)

You know the old saying: If you can’t get David Bowie songs, liberally imitate a famous sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a wonder that Stardust, a Bowie Without Bowie speculation about the beloved shapeshifter spending some time in the U.S. in 1971, doesn’t rifle through the archives to find other stuff that sounds like the titles to the Bowie albums and songs that weren’t allowed to be included here. Perhaps he could be seen reading a Spider-Man comic where the webslinger goes to Mars? Holding a Bob Dylan album while saying “I’ve got a song for you”? Meeting an unseen Andy Warhol? Only one of those things happens in the movie, but if any of it sounds too stupid or on-the-nose, maybe don’t bother with Stardust, which also at one point drops a reference to the lyrics of “Heroes” into a spousal argument. Johnny Flynn, a British singer who has semi-inexplicably received countless shots at movie stardom, plays a dithery version of Man Who Sold the World-era Bowie, led on a ramshackle American tour by the only label rep who’ll have him (Marc Maron, in his first of two appearances on this list). There’s a sliver of novelty of the niche but persistent problem the movie addresses: How to break a particularly British artist in a country as big and unwieldy as the United States. But most of Stardust is so minor, its conversations so circular and protracted, and its ideas for scenes so thin (Bowie meets Lou Reed only to find out that it was actually Doug Yule!) that the whole thing starts to look exactly as low-rent as “fake Bowie sitting in cars without playing any songs” sounds — and more monotonous, to boot, even when it shifts gears and decides it’s about Bowie’s relationship to his troubled brother. Maybe just don’t make a movie about the lead-up to the creation of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust (the movie kind of conflates the two, among its musical crimes) without a note of the music your character is writing! The documentary Moonage Daydream doesn’t have every single hit either, but it’s a more immersive look at Bowie’s career and impact. 

22. Back to Black (2024)

Say this about Marisa Abela’s performance as Amy Winehouse: She does come across like a singer. In this movie, so undercooked that it feels like it could have been released eight months after Winehouse’s tragic death, it means that Abela’s vocal imitation of Winehouse’s songs is strong and confident (if sometimes over-polished), and her between-singing moments are prone to self-conscious overacting. What’s missing is the erratic rawness of the real thing; Abela, swiveling her head faux-soulfully and issuing Spice Girls-slagging sound bites, plays it too cute by half. It’s probably not Abela’s fault; director Sam Taylor-Johnson (who appears further up this list with the movie that put her on the map and probably helped get her the Winehouse gig) has to guide her through a skim of her life so superficial, it barely even registers when she’s supposed to be experiencing a life-changing ascent, or has begun writing or recording the massive hit album that gives the movie its title. The movie seems profoundly uninterested in Winehouse’s music as anything more than an outgrowth of her personal troubles, which matches with its heavy reliance on the presence of paparazzi for its storytelling and even, in a few shameless shortcuts, for its drama. Once in a while, the movie slows down enough to sink into what feels like an actual experience, as in the extended sequence where Amy meets her toxic husband-to-be Blake (Jack O’Connell). The rest is so synthetic, it might as well be performed by animatronics. 

21. All Eyez on Me (2017)

Tupac Shakur presents a very post-rap difficulty as the subject of a biopic: The man was an occasional and magnetic screen presence himself, which means an actor playing him isn’t just competing with and/or imitating his charisma as an artist; it means fans may have seen the guy in a proper film or two, and are therefore watching two potentially insufficient imitations in one. (All Eyez on Me even recreates a scene from Juice at one point, inviting a difficult comparison.) Demetrius Shipp Jr. was cast for his physical resemblance to Tupac, and it’s not really his fault he can’t measure up; the movie gives him clumsy dialogue, clunky narration and an uninspired overview of Shakur’s life. There is some extended-universe trivia that gives All Eyez a slight edge on the worst of the genre: Jamal Woolard, who had already played Biggie Smalls in Notorious, reprises the role here. 

20. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (2022)

In an appropriately goofy inversion, Weird, a spoof biopic made about, and with full participation of, a real musician, feels ersatz next to Walk Hard, a spoof biopic made about a thoroughly made-up one. It’s delightful that Weird Al Yankovic wanted this expansion of a Funny or Die trailer to exist, delightful that Daniel Radcliffe agreed to play the parodist with a straight face, and delightful that Evan Rachel Wood performs a stylish, extended bit of character assassination as ’80s-era Madonna. Now imagine how delightful the movie would be with more than 20 minutes’ worth of jokes! Instead, there are lazy “ironic” uses of devices no actual musician biopics employ, like a dramatic third-person narrator. Is this movie still stuck in fake trailer mode? Whatever the reason, Weird isn’t nearly weird enough. For a peek inside Al’s head, just watch UHF instead.

19. Bob Marley: One Love (2024)

On paper, One Love does what these sorts of movies are supposed to do, having learned lessons from more comprehensively cheesy accounts: It limits its portrait of Bob Marley to a relatively short period and doesn’t overload on exposition for the uninitiated. Marley (Kingsley Ben-Adir) tries to throw a big concert, survives a violent attack on his family and decamps for London to record his landmark album Exodus. That the movie doesn’t add up to much beyond some lovely songs and a showcase for Ben-Adir’s charm may be a testament to the sheer volume of biographies that have attempted to adapt and created a glut of similar-looking pivots instead. This is a curiously flat story that’s aiming for inspirational liftoff.

18. Jimi: All Is By My Side (2013)

This Jimi Hendrix movie isn’t exactly Jackie Jormp-Jomp in terms of telling a prominent musician’s story without anyone’s approval; it’s not even as bad as Stardust. But it is, unavoidably, a Jimi movie without the songs. As it happens, director John Ridley’s concentration on a single year in the early career of Hendrix (Andre Benjamin from Outkast — now there’s a band that could inspire an interesting film, although it would be competing with their own oddball musical Idlewild), and his relationships with two very different women played by Imogen Poots and Hayley Atwell, almost excuses the Experience-free experience. (Again, it acquits itself better than the Bowie version of same.) But the movie still has a diffuse, overly fussy energy that fails to give Benjamin the proper terra firma for a memorable performance, especially without more of the actual music to fall back on. 

17. Beyond the Sea (2004)

Before he got himself booted from Hollywood with unrepentant creep shit, Kevin Spacey realized his dream movie by writing, directing and starring in a movie about Bobby Darin — no matter how many years past viability he was in terms of playing a man who died at 37. (Spacey was in his mid-40s when he made the movie, which includes scenes of Darin as a teen idol.) Spacey was a snappy performer in his prime (even if that came decades later than Darin’s), and Kate Bosworth adds some additional vigor as Sandra Dee; the passion in this misguided passion project does shine through. But if you’re making a few crucial selections for which handful Spacey performances to save from the rubbish bin, this probably shouldn’t be among them (though Spacey himself would doubtless disagree, about that and many other critical matters).  

16. Notorious (2009)

The only movie on this list to share a title with a Hitchcock classic, Notorious was an early signal that estate approval would become more common in 21st-century pop biopics, with managers and the mother of Biggie Smalls all signing off on a soft-pedaled, middle-of-the-road puff piece about the gone-too-soon rapper. It’s well-acted, with Jamal Woolard striking some sparks opposite an all-stars-playing-all-stars cast including Anthony Mackie (as Tupac), Derek Luke (as Sean Combs), and Naturi Naughton (as Lil Kim), plus Angela Bassett as Biggie’s mom. (Hey, if you’re making a movie that features you as a character, get the best!) But like so many of these movies, it elides what is often the trickiest and most interesting aspect of these artists: their creative process and developing. Biggie’s skills mostly evolve offscreen, and more clunky narration fills in the gaps. 

15. Ray (2004)

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for Ray. That’s become the movie’s defining characteristic, moreso than anything that actually happens in it, or anything, for that matter, about the real Ray Charles, who died mere months before its premiere. Foxx gives it his all, but the movie is pure formula — and often kind of dull, especially now that two or three of these come out every year.

14. Get On Up (2014)

On his way from his smash adaptation of The Help to directing soapy trash like Ma and Ava, actor-turned-filmmaker Tate Taylor tried to free-associate his way through the erratic life of James Brown. The movie benefits slightly from its scattershot approach and immensely from being one of about half a dozen movies where the late, great Chadwick Boseman embodies a famous cultural figure with enormous energy. Anyone tasked with playing Boseman in any future biopics about his own too-short career will have their work cut out for them.  

13. Respect (2021)

Stage director Liesl Tommy assembles a strong cast including Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans and Marc Maron (apparently a musician-movie mainstay) to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul. At the center, though, is Jennifer Hudson, the big-voiced American Idol star (and, yes, Oscar winner) who, I’m sorry, just does not have the juice as a movie star. (In that respect, this is the opposite of Ray.) This actually brings some tension to early scenes of Franklin struggling to find a hit song, as Hudson’s nondescript, subtext-free performing style matches well with a singer struggling to figure out what her voice sounds like outside the confinement of familial and cultural expectations. But then it undermines the movie as Aretha finds herself, because Hudson’s performance never really grows into this change. She’s mostly the same wide-eyed, slightly stiff good girl, and compared to the genuine article, her singing is more technical (and loud) than electrifying. It’s too bad, because Franklin’s particular experience as a Black artist — particularly as one who took many albums to truly hit — is fascinating, and the movie doesn’t sugarcoat her hardships or indulge in a lot of embarrassing shortcuts. On top of that, an extended sequence where Franklin and her session band put together the titular song is a joyful look at the process by which artists can take control of a pre-existing tune and makes it their own. All together, it’s a pretty good (though overlong) drama that happens to lack a presence as galvanizing or memorable as Aretha herself. 

12. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Plenty of pop-music biopics were successful before this committee-approved recreation of Queen, but Bohemian Rhapsody raking in nearly a billion dollars at the global box office and winning multiple Academy Awards assured that they’d be here for years if not decades to come; it became the platonic ideal of the genre’s blockbuster-level financial success and creative failure. As such, this movie almost gets… maybe kind of a bad rap? (Except from your parents, who probably loved it.) Sort-of directed by Bryan Singer in the midst of torpedoing his career, Bohemian Rhapsody certainly isn’t very good, and its Academy Award for editing is a puzzler for the ages, assuring that all of your film-snobbiest friends have an understandable grudge against it. But Rami Malek (rocking an undeserved Oscar of his own) is certainly memorable as a neutered version of Freddie Mercury, and one thing the movie does well that many of its predecessors and imitators do not is actually depict the creative alchemy of the band — probably because the surviving members of Queen were, as ever, collaborating to depict themselves as equally important and blameless in the band’s creativity, even if Mercury is ultimately the star. It’s a financial model for plenty of bad movies since (and probably plenty more to come), but Bohemian Rhapsody is at least somewhat entertaining crap. There are reasons this stuff still does well, and the movie’s extended Live Aid sequence is probably one of them.

11. Control (2007)

Even limiting this list of biopics to movies of the past quarter-century, so many of the movies concern Boomer-era artists from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Maybe Generation X should feel relieved that the music of their youth has largely escaped the Hollywoodization process — and that includes Joy Division, who get a very un-Hollywood treatment here, with black-and-white cinematography and a director, Anton Corbijn, who can boast firsthand experience with the band in question. The movie is really about Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), before and during his time with Joy Division, including his 1980 suicide. It’s appropriately bleak, austere stuff, which makes it as admirable as it is difficult to watch. 

10. Jersey Boys (2014)

Credit due to Clint Eastwood: He made his movie musical well before Steven Spielberg — or any number of directors who have expressed interest in the genre but haven’t managed to pull the trigger. Full-on jukebox musicals are typically the domain of Broadway, where the Four Seasons chronicle Jersey Boys was a smash; just seeing this style of story translated into film is inherently more fun than biopic boilerplate. That said, does Eastwood’s 2010s-era sepia-ish tones and laconic one-take sensibility really match the joy of either early rock and roll or the great movie musicals? No, not especially. That’s also part of what makes the movie interesting, if perhaps more as part of Eastwood’s filmography than as part of the pop-music firmament. 

9. Rocketman (2019)

Dexter Fletcher, the ghost director of Bohemian Rhapsody in the wake of a Bryan Singer meltdown and firing, got another shot at the genre, and has a lot more fun than either that unimaginative entertainment or Clint Eastwood’s jukebox musical, turning the life of Elton John into a series of actual production numbers. When Rocketman stages elaborate versions of songs like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” it unleashes exhilarating flights of fancy that communicate the best of John’s music (and his friend Bernie Taupin’s lyrics). In between, you can hear the voice of producer Elton John echoing through the more literal life-story stuff, even (or especially) when the movie attempts to dig into the personal troubles he encounters along the way.

8. Nowhere Boy (2009)

The upward arc of the Beatles’ recorded output defies the First Album Syndrome that plagues so many music fans. But sometimes with biopics, especially those profiling figures as legendary as John Lennon, the early stuff really is the best. Nowhere Boy, a low-key teen-years biography from Sam Taylor-Johnson, avoids almost all of the problems that plague her Back to Black: It focuses on small moments rather than hastily checking milestones off a list, sidesteps clichés about fame by taking place entirely before Lennon experienced any of it, and it’s not freighted with doomy inevitability over the musician’s tragically early death. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who married the director shortly after making the film) gives a warm and funny but still prickly performance as the iconoclastic future Beatle, and the relationships the movie depicts between his young, somewhat flaky mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the more responsible aunt who raised him are gracefully entwined with his discovery of rock and roll music. There’s a little shouty melodrama, too, but mini John meeting mini Paul and bringing him into the mini Quarrymen is cute enough to overcome it. 

7. Straight Outta Compton (2015)

You can almost see the current biopic era materialize before your eyes: The first half of Straight Outta Compton packs visceral, electric thrills in the story of the rap group N.W.A. coming together and catching lightning in a bottle as they translate their life experiences into game-changing music. Then, sometime past the midway point, the movie switches from propulsive story to pored-over legal agreement about a fair and equitable division of blame (or lack thereof) for the group’s split, ending with a stunningly dopey ending that teases the emergence of Dr. Dre’s own record label (what?!) like it’s promoting a much-anticipated Marvel sequel. Still, that first half includes some of the best, most muscular filmmaking in the varied career of F. Gary Gray, showing a surprising affinity for hardscrabble artists after more typically making movies about heists, hostage-taking and crime comedy.

6. Walk the Line (2005)

Another year, another Oscar: Just a year after Jamie Foxx took home Best Actor, Reese Witherspoon got a matching Best Actress trophy for playing June Carter Cash opposite a nominated Joaquin Phoenix in the Johnny Cash chronicle Walk the Line. (Phoenix was beaten out by another real-life figure: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote.) Phoenix and Witherspoon are both terrific in James Mangold’s sturdy biopic; it’s no wonder that this and Ray form the basis of the evergreen spoof Walk Hard. The fact that Cash didn’t die young gives the movie perhaps more to work with than it knows what to do with, but it also means Mangold doesn’t have a fake a sense of hard-won triumph. 

5. Last Days (2005)

The same year as Walk the Line, Gus Van Sant made a decidedly less traditional musician movie, completing his so-called “death trilogy” (following the similarly experimental Gerry and Elephant) with a movie based on the last few days of Kurt Cobain. As played by Michael Pitt, the artist in question stumbles around his Pacific Northwest home like a ghost, as various visitors and hangers-on pass through the square-ish frame. This is a fictionalized version of Cobain given a different name, so it’s admittedly questionable as a proper biopic. (I’ve compromised by placing it a little lower than it might rank otherwise.) Yet Van Sant makes such a genuine, unnerving attempt to place the audience in the headspace, and physical space, of the Nirvana frontman that to overlook it in favor of so many glorified TV movies would seem like a dereliction of duty. Besides, it’s the appropriate flipside to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie movies without the proper songs, which seem like child’s play by comparison. More of these movies should be made with so much freedom that attaching the artist’s name becomes legally dicey.

4. The Runaways (2010)

Surprisingly few music video directors have made pop-music biographies, and Floria Sigismondi (who has done clips for David Bowie, Dua Lipa, The White Stripes and Katy Perry, among others) suggests that this may be an oversight. Her account of the Cherie Currie/Joan Jett punk band has a youthful buzz so often missing from more staid, grown-up tellings of these stories — it feels more immediate than a nostalgia narrative, even as it’s packed full of period style. 

3. Love and Mercy (2015)

The model of the small-slice musical biopic turns on a pair of bravura intercut performances: Paul Dano plays Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson as a younger man making Pet Sounds and attempting to follow it up with Smile, while John Cusack plays an older version two decades later, emerging from an overmedicated haze to pursue a better course of therapeutic treatment. By keeping to these two periods, director Bill Pohlad creates a genuine feeling of time’s passage, a point of struggle for so many overreaching biographies, resulting in a far more shaded portrait of Wilson than a straightforward Beach Boys picture likely would have given us. God, we’re going to have endure something like that produced by Mike Love at some point, aren’t we?

2. Elvis (2022)

It’s kind of stunning that it took this century 22 whole years of constant biopics before Hollywood took another crack at Elvis Presley. Baz Luhrmann’s take isn’t as much of as full-on musical as his masterpiece Moulin Rouge!, but it has the director’s unmistakable, paradoxical style of frenzied control; he cuts the performance scenes together with virtuosic grandeur that threatens to fly off the rails — and therefore evoking the expert hip-shaking performer and the weak-at-the-knees audience all at once. Austin Butler famously had trouble dropping his Presley affect after immersing himself in the making of this film — which also tells the Elvis story as the fever dream of his dying manager Tom Parker (a going-for-it Tom Hanks). Elvis is a powerful reminder that the structure of these types of movies doesn’t have to be innovative or boundary-pushing; the broad framing of Presley’s life is pretty conventional. It’s Luhrmann and Butler’s showmanship that makes it sing. 

1. I’m Not There (2007)

It’s almost unfair; Todd Haynes so expertly deconstructs the pop-music biopic that it’s difficult to picture another one so satisfying. He does it through a relatively simple, even potentially pedestrian, concept: Looking at Bob Dylan in a number of guises, reflecting different phases of his career (at least through the early 1980s; the lack of an Old Man Dylan feels even more glaring now than it did at the time of its initial release): There’s a young folkie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a protest musician who has a later born-again Christian phase (Christian Bale), a philosopher-poet (Ben Whishaw), an actor with marital problems (Heath Ledger), a cowboy (Richard Gere) and an eccentric iconoclast (Cate Blanchett). All of the hallmarks and pitfalls of the genre are here, some turned inside-out: In the matter of competing documentaries that outshine the fictional versions, there are scenes inspired by the Dylan doc Don’t Look Back; for stunt-y imitations that get awards attention, there’s Blanchett’s gender-bending turn that did wind up garnering an Oscar nomination even as it seems to take the piss out of that pipeline; there’s even a now-prescient, probably accidental nod to the unauthorized biopics by the fact that none of these characters are actually called Bob Dylan. It does all this, though, without particularly calling attention to itself; as showy as the idea is, I’m Not There is too purely entertaining and unpredictable to dismiss as a pretentious exercise. Haynes has a few other movies that sometimes feel as if they’re indulging academics over emotions, but this, one of his more formally experimental movies, is also one of his most playful. In other words, it reflects the spirit of Bob Dylan perfectly. So many contemporary pop-music biopics have all the artistry of a press release, but occasionally you get a reminder that they can become their own weird art form.