A music biopic can help cement the legacy of any musical artist. For Black musicians, it’s a great outlet to tell their story (or at least, parts of it). Of course, not all biopics are equal. There are the good (HBO’s Bessie), the okay (Cadillac Records), and the what-were-they-thinking (Nina, All Eyez on Me, Notorious). But, overall, biographical films can bring new recognition to the artistry and contributions of well-known and forgotten musicians.
Here are some amazing biopics about Black musicians you need to watch.
What's Love Got To Do With It - Tina Turner
The classic, What’s Love Got to Do with It, tells the story of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tina Turner from her early beginnings to her meteoric comeback in the 1980s.
Audiences get to see Turner’s triumphs and adversity chronicled. It magnifies her difficult relationship with her parents and her turbulent marriage with Ike Turner (played by Laurence Fishburne). Outside of the drama, the film is filled with a stellar performance by Angela Bassett. She channels the music legend’s energetic performances with numbers like “Shake a Tailfeather,” “Rolling on the River," and “River Deep, Mountain High.” Channeling the entertainer scored Bassett a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, along with Fishburne.
Ray - Ray Charles
The Oscar-nominated Ray follows the life and career of pioneering musician Ray Charles from going blind as a child to achieving music stardom.
Viewers get to learn more about Charles’ backstory, including drug addiction and early exploitation. His adversities are only the beginning, as his womanizing and love for his late mother are put on display. Of course, it’s Jamie Foxx’s spot-on performance that comes through with moments like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “I Got a Woman," and “What’d I Say.” Inhabiting Charles’ spirit earned Foxx multiple accolades, including a Best Actor Oscar. But, his supporting cast, including Regina King and Sharon Warren, bring the whole story together.
Leadbelly - Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter
The forgotten gem, Leadbelly, focuses on pioneering folk musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life before achieving musical notoriety.
Audiences will see how Ledbetter’s rough upbringing in the Jim Crow South affected his music. It doesn’t shy away from his legal troubles while putting a spotlight on racism and segregation in the early 20th century. The film allows viewers to hear and see Ledbetter’s folk-country sound with songs like “Good Night, Irene” and “Pardon Song.” Those stellar performances are courtesy of Magnum P.I. alum Robert E. Mosley, with a supporting cast including Art Evans and Madge Sinclair.
Lady Sings The Blues - Billie Holiday
The Oscar-nominated Lady Sings the Blues chronicles the life and times of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday from her humble beginnings to her challenging times in the music spotlight.
Viewers get to watch the abuse, addiction, and racism Holiday experienced while touching on her co-dependent male relationships, including her husband and manager Louis McKay. While Holiday’s dramatic life serves as the backdrop, Diana Ross channels Lady Day’s mannerisms with performances like “All of Me,” “Strange Fruit," and “God Blessed the Child.” This paid off as Ross scored a Best Actress Oscar nom, with co-stars Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams giving stellar performances.
Bird - Charlie Parker
The Golden Globe-nominated Bird examines the short but prolific life and career of influential jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Audiences get a full picture of Parker’s life as the film uses a montage-filled narrative to jump between present-day and past events. The story is honest about the psychological and physical turmoil of his addiction. At the same time, it examines his relationships with his wife and backbone, Chan Parker, and other jazz greats of the period. But, it is Forest Whittaker using his technique in jazz standards like “Now’s the Time,” “April in Paris," and “This Time the Dream’s on Me” that sell the film. The Oscar winner earned Cannes’ top honor, while Samuel E. Wright and Keith David turn in notable performances.
Why Do Fools Fall In Love - Frankie Lymon
The cult classic Why Do Fools Fall in Love puts a spotlight on forgotten teen idol and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Frankie Lymon.
The film brings Lymon’s tragically short tale to life through accounts from his three wives, mixing present-day and past events. It gives a window into his career and financial setbacks, as well as his spiraling drug addiction. The best moments occur when Larenz Tate channels Lymon’s powerful charisma in songs like the film’s namesake, “The ABCs of Love," and “Little Bitty Pretty One.” Along with Tate’s outstanding performance, Lela Rochon, Halle Berry, and Vivica A. Fox as his three wives turn in standout performances as well.
Straight Outta Compton - NWA
The blockbuster Straight Outta Compton explores the life and times of the seminal West Coast rap group NWA, which recounts their short yet impactful music career.
Audiences get to see how the collective formed with a spotlight on prominent members Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. Besides highlighting the group, the film shows West Coast hip-hop’s uphill battle against East Coast bias and a racially charged 1980s Los Angeles. The biopic delves into the group’s issues leading to their demise. It captures what made the group special through performances of the film’s namesake, “Boyz-n-the-Hood," and “Fuck Tha Police.” These moments came to life through stars O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr, and Aldis Hodge. Of course, the supporting cast, including Paul Giamatti, helps to build their world.
Get On Up - James Brown
The biopic Get on Up brings the story of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Godfather of Soul James Brown to life.
The film gives viewers a full picture of Brown’s life as the music icon narrates pivotal moments erratically. His humble beginnings and career highs and lows are highlighted as Brown recounts his activism and personal issues like drug addiction and childhood trauma. It touches on his complicated relationships with women stemming from his absentee mother. Of course, the real centerpiece is the legendary star’s music, as Chadwick Boseman captures his energy with numbers like the titular single, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud," and “Try Me.” Along with Boseman’s acclaimed performance, the Oscar nominee is surrounded by an all-star supporting cast, including Brandon Mychal Smith and Nelsan Ellis.
Miles Ahead - Miles Davis
The 2015 film, Miles Ahead, showcases a career comeback for influential jazz musician Miles Davis, after a long absence from the spotlight.
Viewers get to see Davis’ story emulate his music as it skips around his timeline. The film takes an honest turn as it highlights his creative peak in the 1960s through his battle with substances and mental health issues. Amongst the chaos, there is a spotlight put on his turbulent marriage to performer Francis Taylor, who served as his muse. Mixing his music and life is a perfect showcase for Don Cheadle, as we hear jazz standards like “So What," “Seven Steps to Heaven," and “Duran.” While the Oscar nominee channels the late jazz icon, there are outstanding supporting performances from Emayatzy Corinealdi and LaKeith Stanfield.
Respect - Aretha Franklin
The 2021 biopic, Respect, chronicles the life and times of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin with her ascension from the church to music royalty in the 1960s and 1970s.
The film touches on Franklin's difficult life from sexual abuse to racism and sexism in the music business to her relationships with her parents and first husband, Ted White. But, the real centerpiece is the legendary singer’s music as Jennifer Hudson channels Franklin for the headlining song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Hudson earned a SAG nom and NAACP Image win. The film’s all-star supporting cast, including Forest Whittaker, Audra Macdonald, and Mary J. Blige, fleshes out the singer’s life story.
Like other music-focused biopics, these films serve as a salute to these Black musicians and their legacies. In the meantime, there are more Black music icons getting the biopic treatment. Movies for legendary reggae artist Bob Marley and The Ronettes frontwoman Ronnie Spector are in development, with One Night in Miami’s Kingsley Ben-Adir and Zendaya attached, respectively. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and Queen of R&B, Whitney Houston, are the subjects of Michael and I Wanna Dance with Somebody, with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s Naomi Ackie playing Houston.
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