As much as we love music, it always makes the songs a little more interesting to know about the lives that inspired them. When musicians are the subject of a biopic, as they often are, two of our favorite art forms come together: music and dramatic film.
Biopics often require some of the most demanding performances from their actors due to the notoriety of their subjects. For a biopic to be successful, it must overcome the difficult challenge of marrying the life of a real person with the structure of a captivating narrative. These 10 films accomplish this feat with some of our favorite musicians as their subjects.
Musician: Édith Piaf
From the streets of Paris, Édith Piaf rose to become a cultural icon and one of the most widely-celebrated singers in France. Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning performance marked the first time the award for Best Actress was given for a French-language role.
Musician: David Helfgott
Madness often follows genius. Shine portrays the life of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott and his constant battle with mental illness. Geoffrey Rush won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the musician.
Musician: John Lennon
John Lennon became one of the most important figures in music with The Beatles, but before he was a Beatle, he was a Quarrman. Nowhere Boy tells the story of Lennon’s early life and his first meetings with George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
Musician: Ritchie Valens
Like many great musicians, Ritchie Valens died before his time. Named after his hit song of the same title, the film chronicles Valens’ rise to fame with the songs “La Bamba” and “Donna,” cultivating in his untimely death in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
Musician: Ian Curtis
Joy Division began its career as a humble punk band, but eventually grew to become a pioneer of the post-punk movement, defining the genre with their sound and style. Unfortunately, frontman Ian Curtis was overcome with depression, and eventually took his own life before the band’s second album was even released.
Musician: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Based on the play of the same name and inspired by the life of one of the most famous composers of all time, Amadeus is a story of God-given talent, jealousy and murder. The film depicts the rivalry between Mozart and fellow composer Salieri. Although, the actual cause of Mozart’s death has never been confirmed, rumors about Salieri’s role in it began just decades after Mozart’s passing.
Musician: Ray Charles
Jaime Foxx’s performance as soul-music pioneer Ray Charles garnered him an Academy Award. The film covers 30 years of the musicians career as he broke musical and social conventions as he explored and fused various genres and challenged racial barriers, all while battling an addiction to heroin.
Musician: Bob Dylan
I’m Not There attempted to change everything about what a biopic is supposed to be. Although Bob Dylan is the subject of the film, not one character in the film is named after the music legend. Instead, the film presents Dylan as several different characters, each representing a different facet of his persona. What better way to interpret an artist who has transformed and changed over the years, perhaps more than any other? When you think about it, Bob Dylan himself isn’t even really Bob Dylan. He’s Robert Zimmerman.
The film features an all-star cast in the various Dylan roles, including Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Christian Bale (not to mention the Charlotte Gainsbourg and Julianne Moore portrayals of characters based on Suze Rotolo/Sara Dylan and Joan Baez respectively). However, the most impressive performance of the film is Cate Blanchett’s gender-bending interpretation of a Don’t Look Back-era Dylan who was knee-deep in amphetamines and breaking the rules with every action.
Musician: Loretta Lynn
Born in a Kentucky mining community, Loretta Lynn was married by the time she was 13 years old, a mother of four at age 19 and a grandmother by 29. In between, she managed to self-promote her music, tour around the county, perform for 17 weeks straight at the Grand Ole Opry and become a country music legend.
Sissy Spacek was hand-picked by Lynn for the film, and her performance was recognized by the Academy with an Oscar for Best Actress. Fellow music legend and drummer for The Band Levon Helm stars as Lynn’s coal-miner father.
Musician: Johnny Cash
Before Joaquin Phoenix took a couple of years off from conventional acting roles for Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, he gave one of his most memorable performances as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. The film tells the story of The Man in Black’s early career and his relationship with June Carter, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon who received an Academy Award for her performance.