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15 Top Movies About Musical Genuises

From Miles Davis to Mozart, biographies make for great films

  • Don Cheadle is Miles Davis in 'Miles Ahead'
    Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

    Sounds and Songs on the Silver Screen

    Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic is just the latest in a genre that has intrigued Hollywood for decades. Maybe that’s because so many musicians' backstories lend themselves to great storytelling. Spice the film up with their signature works, and you’ve got a surefire hit. Here’s a look at some of the best. See our review of Cheadle’s Miles Ahead.

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  • Love and Mercy

    ‘Love & Mercy’ (2015)

    The factual lapses in Bill Pohlad’s superb biopic about the Beach Boys’ front man are eclipsed by the players’ masterly performances: Paul Dano and John Cusack portray the younger and older Brian Wilson, respectively, coming to grips with his musical genius and mental deterioration. Paul Giamatti shines as Eugene Landy, Wilson’s Svengali-like psychologist.

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  • Straight Outta Compton
    Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)

    Hip-hop has always provided rich material for the rags-to-riches film genre. The mesmerizing cast of this audience favorite includes O’Shea Jackson (playing his own father, Ice Cube) and Paul Giamatti as the manager of rap group N.W.A. Briskly and grittily, Compton traces the group’s rise and fall against a backdrop of urban decay and police tensions.

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  • Get On Up
    Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Get On Up’ (2014)

    Chadwick Boseman superbly captures the kinetic dancing, iron-fisted control and crackling sex appeal of Mr. Dynamite, James Brown. Though director Tate Taylor’s nonlinear narrative makes for some jarring cuts, don’t miss standouts Viola Davis as Brown’s absent mother; Jill Scott as his second wife, Dee Dee; or Nelsan Ellis as singer and confidant Bobby Byrd.

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  • Control
    Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Control’ (2007)

    This is Anton Corbijn’s haunting film debut about the brief, tragic life of Ian Curtis, lead singer of British post-punk band Joy Division. Though shot in black and white, Control is richly colored with warmth and compassion, thanks to Corbijn’s close collaboration with the band. Sam Riley (Curtis) and Samantha Morton (his wife, Deborah) positively ignite the movie.

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  • I'm Not There
    Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘I’m Not There’ (2007)

    How does it feel to make a film about such a quicksilver subject as Bob Dylan? Todd Haynes answered that question by asking six well-known actors — Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere and, yes, Cate Blanchett — to depict various people and periods in the troubadour’s life. The result is this unconventional, baffling and brilliant movie.

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  • Walk the Line
    20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Walk the Line’ (2005)

    With chameleon-like ingenuity, Joaquin Phoenix transforms himself before our eyes into country legend Johnny Cash. Though the film occasionally verges into formula — the Man in Black weathered childhood traumas, superstardom and drug addiction — Phoenix’s chemistry with Reese Witherspoon (June Carter) keeps our “eyes wide open all the time.”

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  • Ray
    Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Ray’ (2004)

    Fifteen years to finish a film? It was well worth the wait to watch TV comedian Jamie Foxx settle down and channel Ray Charles, exposing the traumatic roots of the man’s iconic jazz and blues compositions. Foxx walked off with an Oscar, and Ray also made a star of Kerry Washington, now the leading lady on TV’s Scandal.  

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  • What's Love Got to Do With It
    Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ (1993)

    Tina Turner’s marriage to music partner Ike Turner ruined her financially, but she rose from the ashes to make a stunning comeback with her 1984 solo LP, Private Dancer. Its hit single, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” became the thematic fuel for this survivor film, starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. That’s Tina’s trademark raspy voice heard on screen, belting out rerecorded versions of her hits.

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  • Great Balls of Fire
    Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Great Balls of Fire!’ (1989)

    Perhaps only piano banger Jerry Lee Lewis could be sanitized by a film yet retain his wild air. Dennis Quaid deftly conveys the erotic tingle of Lewis’ outrageous performances amid the buttoned-up 1950s, while Winona Ryder charms one and all as — scandal! — the younger cousin he married. If the stylized high jinks tip the movie into camp, it still delivers on its title.  

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  • Bird

    ‘Bird’ (1988)

    Some jazz fans love this movie directed by Clint Eastwood; others argue that it fetishizes the dark, drug-fueled jazz scene that was the ruination of pioneering alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker). With most of the scenes filmed in claustrophobic nightclubs, the music comes across as intense and insular. We could have used more of what made Parker great, not what did him in.

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  • La Bamba
    Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘La Bamba’ (1987)

    Lou Diamond Phillips stars as Ritchie Valens — America’s first Chicano rock star — in a melancholy but strangely gentle film about a musician’s life cut short by the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. As the film also tackles race relations between whites and Mexicans, teen romance and sibling rivalry, the music consistently delights.   

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  • Amadeus
    Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Amadeus’ (1984)

    The extravagant costumes and set design may tempt you to brand this Mozart biopic as “so ’80s!” Yet with Tom Hulce manically playing the musical genius opposite F. Murray Abraham as his seething rival, Antonio Salieri, Miloš Forman’s tour de force raked in eight Academy awards. In retrospect, Falco’s cringe-inducing hit, “Rock Me Amadeus,” is merely collateral damage.

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  • Coal Miner's Daughter
    Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

    Nothing beats a Cinderella story — just one reason for the smash success of this Loretta Lynn biopic. To prepare for the starring role, Sissy Spacek toured with Lynn for a year, giving extra authenticity to her grand-finale performance of the country star’s autobiographical 1969 hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Watch for cameos by country icons such as Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff.

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  • Lady Sings the Blues
    Courtesy Everett Collection

    ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (1972)

    A chorus of naysayers said svelte Motown singer Diana Ross was supremely unqualified to portray voluptuous Billie Holiday. Once audiences witnessed how Ross could warble Lady Day’s precise brand of sophisticated, emotionally complex jazz, however, it turned out to be a triumphant career move. And how’s this for a supporting cast: Billy Dee Williams, Scatman Crothers and Richard Pryor.

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