The 10 Most Rocking, Soulful and Inspiring Diva Biopics
We gather the fiercest women of song into the ultimate movie watchlist
Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection; Courtesy Everett Collection; Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
En español | On Aug. 13, Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in the new biopic Respect. With this role, she joins a pantheon of acclaimed actresses who have starred as music legends, including Diana Ross (77) as Billie Holiday, Angela Bassett (62) as Tina Turner (81) and Sissy Spacek (71) as Loretta Lynn (89). Before paying your “respects” to the Queen of Soul by watching Hudson's roof-shaking performance — she of course does her own singing — stream or rent these 10 other biographical films (here in chronological order), dedicated to some of the fiercest and most fabulous female singers in music history.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
The star: Diana Ross (77) as Billie Holiday
The plot: The former Supreme made her film debut — and earned her first and only Oscar nomination — playing the jazz great, opposite Billy Dee Williams (84) as Holiday's husband, Louis McKay, and Richard Pryor as her pianist. While the Motown Productions film was criticized for some of the narrative liberties it took, Ross’ star power was undeniable. “When the movie was over I wrote ‘I love it’ on my pad of paper,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, “Factually it's a fraud, but emotionally it delivers.”
Best musical moment: When Holiday sings “Good Morning Heartache” directly into the camera while inebriated and in desperate need of a fix.
Watch it: Lady Sings the Blues is not currently available for streaming online, but you can buy the Blu-ray for $14.99 on Amazon Prime
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
The star: Sissy Spacek (71) as Loretta Lynn (89)
The plot: Arguably the standout film in the musical biopic genre, the ultimate rags-to-riches tale traces Lynn's unlikely ascent from a coal miner's cabin in Appalachia to marriage at 15 (Tommy Lee Jones, 74, plays husband Doolittle Lynn) to country music superstardom. Lynn handpicked Spacek for the role, and the actress shadowed her on tour to perfect her mannerisms and singing voice. The hard work paid off: The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards (winning best actress), while its soundtrack hit the Billboard top 40 and won album of the year at the CMA Awards.
Best musical moment: When Lynn closes out the movie with the title track ("Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter/In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler") — a tuneful summation of, well, everything you've just seen in the story.
Watch it: Coal Miner's Daughter, on Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, or YouTube ($3.99)
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Sweet Dreams (1985)
The star: Jessica Lange (72) as Patsy Cline
The plot: Beverly D'Angelo played Cline to great acclaim in Coal Miner's Daughter, but the “Crazy” singer got her own biopic treatment five years later, starring Jessica Lange, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role, and Ed Harris (70) as her abusive husband, Charlie Dick. The film has been criticized for fictionalizing many aspects of the singer's life, but if you swoon over classic songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walkin’ After Midnight,” you'll find something to love in this entertaining — if a bit melodramatic — movie.
Best musical moment: When Cline sings the title song, backed by a lush string band, after triumphantly asserting her independence from her husband.
Watch it: Sweet Dreams, on Cinemax on Amazon Prime Video
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Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
The star: Barbie as Karen Carpenter
The plot: Biopics can be a bit paint-by-number, but not so this 1987 cult classic by future Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes, 60 (Carol, Far from Heaven). Filmed over the course of 10 days at Bard College, this very weird arthouse film — don't say we didn't warn you! — uses Barbie and Ken dolls to tell the tragic story of Karen Carpenter and her battle with anorexia. A copyright infringement lawsuit by Richard Carpenter (74) successfully blocked the film's release.
Best musical moment: When the Carpenters sing “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in a montage that intercuts their rise up the charts with scenes of the Vietnam War.
Watch it: You can find bootleg copies of the film on YouTube.
What's Love Got to Do With It (1993)
The star: Angela Bassett (62) as Tina Turner (81)
The plot: Adapted from Turner's blockbuster 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, this decades-spanning film charts the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll's abusive relationship with husband and musical partner Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne, 60) and the eventual transition to her record-setting solo career, and you can't help but root for her every step of the way. Armed with Turner's trademark toned biceps and legs worthy of a marathon runner, Bassett beat out the likes of Halle Berry (54), Whitney Houston, and Pam Grier (72) for the role, which earned her a Golden Globe Award.
Best musical moment: When a radiant and newly single Turner belts out the title track — which then segues into a video of the real Turner singing the hit song.
Watch it: What's Love Got to Do With It, on Amazon Prime Video
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The star: Jennifer Lopez (52) as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez
The plot: J. Lo earned a Golden Globe nomination for her breakout role as the South Texas–born Tejano star, beloved by American and Mexican audiences alike for such songs as “I Could Fall in Love” and “Dreaming of You.” If you want to learn more about the groundbreaking Grammy winner — whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 23 when she was murdered by her fan club president Yolanda Saldívar — watch Netflix's 18-episode Selena: The Series, which premiered last year.
Best musical moment: When Selena sings “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” in a montage of different tour stops, in a scene that shows off Lopez's undeniable onstage charisma.
Watch it: Selena, on Apple TV, Google Play ($3.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.99)
La Vie en Rose (2007)
The star: Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf
The plot: Nicknamed “la môme piaf” (Parisian slang for “the little sparrow") due to her tiny stature, France's national chanteuse rose from a childhood living in a brothel to international acclaim, beloved for her distinctive alto and a slew of standards like “La vie en rose” and “Hymne à l'amour.” Cotillard fully transformed into the singer, shaving her hairline back and redrawing her eyebrows, and she became only the second actress after Sophia Loren (for Two Women in 1961) to win a best actress Oscar for a performance in a foreign language.
Best musical moment: When a frail and sickly Piaf — who looks decades older than her 47 years — performs “Non, je ne regrette rien” at the Olympia music hall shortly before her death.
Watch it: La Vie en Rose, on Apple TV, Google Play ($2.99), Amazon Prime Video ($3.80), or YouTube ($2.99)
The Runaways (2010)
The stars: Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie (61) and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (62)
The plot: In this 1970s-set flick, a teenaged Joan Jett teams up with record producer Kim Fowley (played by Michael Shannon) to form an all-female rock band, and they recruit the David Bowie–loving Cherie Currie as frontwoman. They never quite reached superstardom in the States, but the band's backstory is filled with enough booze, drugs and in-fighting to fill an entire season of VH1's Behind the Music.
Best musical moment: When the Runaways tear through their punk-tinged single “Cherry Bomb” at a concert in Japan, where they experienced a Beatlemania-style welcome and the song hit number one on the charts.
Watch it: The Runaways, on Netflix
The star: Renée Zellweger (52) as Judy Garland
The plot: Featuring flashbacks to Garland's teenage years on the set of The Wizard of Oz, this cinematic adaptation of Peter Quilter's West End and Broadway play End of the Rainbow focuses on the last year of the icon's life. It's 1968, and Garland agrees to a sold-out run at London's Talk of the Town cabaret in what would prove to be some of her final public performances before her accidental overdose the next year at the age of 47. Zellweger, who did her own singing in the film, won her second Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and a Critics’ Choice Award for the role.
Best musical moment: When Garland is overcome with emotions during a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the audience joins in to help her finish the song.
Watch it: Judy, on Hulu
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
The star: Andra Day as Billie Holiday
The plot: Holiday's story is too dramatic to be contained by just one film. Born Cassandra Monique Batie, R&B star Andra Day — who's best known for her single “Rise Up” — took her stage name from Holiday's “Lady Day” nickname, so it's no surprise that she connected deeply with the singer. Directed by Lee Daniels (61), the film focuses on the government's ongoing attempts to stop Holiday from performing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” For her efforts, Day pulled off an upset at this year's Golden Globes, beating Frances McDormand (64) and Viola Davis (55) for best actress.
Best musical moment: When Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” — decked out in her trademark red lipstick and white gardenia — at a Southern tour stop in defiance of the KKK.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.