10 Best Rock and Roll Biopics

Rock stars lead lives that appear fun, exciting and party-filled – that’s why we all want to be one of them

Good biopics about rockers are hard to make. You have to find actors and actresses who can do a believable job of portraying famous rock stars – and that ain’t easy. You also have to make the rockers’ lives as riveting as possible, while avoiding fictionalizing for the sake of plot – or worse yet, grinding an axe. After all, the facts should be stretched as little as possible, most rock purists would probably agree.

By the way, this list only includes movies about rockers, not jazz, classical or country artists. Rockers wouldn’t have it any other way, it seems safe to suggest. It also doesn’t include documentaries – those are different types of movies altogether.

And keep in mind this list is in no particular order.

Please keep reading!

1. The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Actor Gary Busey has played many roles in American films and most have been villains. But back in 1978 Busey played legendary 1950’s rocker Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, “the day the music died,” according to Don McLean in the lyrics to his iconic pop tune, “American Pie.” Even though Holly was only 22 when he died, Busey – suitably toothy like Holly – portrayed Holly at the age of 33. By the way, for this part Busey received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In general, critics and fans liked the movie, though the Crickets, the musicians who backed up Holly in his early performances, called the flick “horrible” for many reasons. Interestingly, Busey, during filming, changed the lyrics to the song “Well All Right.” It appears Busey will always be a bad guy!

Lewis (left) with Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash
Lewis (left) with Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

2. Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

This movie is about Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding fathers of rock and roll; in fact, some think Lewis was the King of Rock and Roll, rather than Elvis, Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Dennis Quaid played Lewis, the pianist/singer, whose electrifying performances left people breathless. Often called “rock and roll’s first great wild man,” Lewis became a very successful performer and recording artist in the 1950s and his fame rivaled that of Elvis, though scandal eventually disrupted Lewis’ life and career. As many fans know, when Lewis was 22 he married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed, Myra Brown, played in the movie by Winona Ryder. At the time, many fans and authorities were outraged. In fact, in the U.K., the authorities called Lewis a child molester and threw him out of the country. Perhaps this movie deals too much with what some would call a sordid, incestuous affair. Nevertheless, the movie does a good job of showing the excitement and sexual explosiveness of Lewis’ live act during those early days of rock and roll. Oh, baby, that’s what I like!

3. Ray (2004)

In this biographical musical, Jamie Foxx plays rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles. Foxx won numerous awards for his performance in the film, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie begins by showing incidents during Charles’ childhood, including when his brother drowned in a bathtub and Charles losing his eyesight at the age of seven because of disease. Performances of many of Charles’ hit songs are included in the film too. Particularly touching is a rendition of Ray’s signature hit, “Georgia on My Mind.” Also included in the flick are scenes in which Charles uses heroin; in fact, the climax of the movie is when Charles agrees to finally kick the habit in 1965, though for the rest of Charles’ life he used alcohol and marijuana to help him stay off junk. Unfortunately, Charles died of liver disease before he could see the movie, but he did read the screenplay and, though he found it inaccurate in places, liked it for the most part.

Tina and Ike in 1972
Tina and Ike in 1972

4. What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993)

What’s Love Got to Do with It stars Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, the R&B singer who achieves worldwide fame, despite the abuse of her husband, bandleader and musician Ike Turner. Based on Tina Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, published in 1986, the film begins with Tina’s troubled childhood and then shows her meeting Ike Turner, who mentors her into stardom, but at the expense of physically dominating her. Increasing growing jealous of Tina’s talent and fame, while becoming a drug addict, Ike finally drives Tina away and Tina later divorces him, even though the split breaks her financially. Then a friend introduces Tina to Buddhism, the tenets of which help propel her into a successful solo career, which skyrockets in the 1980s when she releases the mega hit song, “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”

5. The Doors (1991)

Val Kilmer played many choice leading roles in the 1990s and into the turn of the twenty first century, and one of his better portrayals was that of Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, one of the most inventive rock groups of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the film, director Oliver Stone did a crafty job depicting the counterculture, hippie movement and explosive music scene of the 1960s. But, since Stone added much fictionalization to Morrison’s biography, particularly regarding his “Lizard King” persona, the film wasn’t well received by other members of the Doors, notably keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who has heavily criticized Stone’s cinematic inventions in this flick. Nevertheless, The Doors is exciting and enjoyable and ends on a positive note, as Kilmer’s version of Morrison, after dying in a bathtub in Paris, is shown singing “L.A. Woman” during a recording session.

6. Get on Up (2014)

Chadwick Boseman portrays soul singer James Brown in Get on Up, directed by Tate Taylor. Brown, variously known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and Soul Brother Number One, passed away in 2006. This biopic covers many of the major events in Brown’s life, including his several entanglements with law enforcement, most notably the high-speed car chase and drug bust for which Brown served two years in prison. Boseman, who did his own singing and dancing in the film, does an excellent job of playing Brown, a stern disciplinarian regarding his supporting musicians, singers and dancers. They did it his way or they were fined or kicked out of the group. For the most part, critics liked the film, particularly Boseman’s convincing performance, though some complained about omissions; but if the movie had included all of the incidents in the life of James Brown, it would have been as long as Ben Hur.

Sutcliffe (left) with George Harrison
Sutcliffe (left) with George Harrison

7. Backbeat (1994)

A list such as this wouldn’t be complete without at least one movie about the Fab Four, aka the Beatles. Backbeat dramatizes the early days of the “moptops,” that is the early 1960s, particularly when they performed in nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany. In those days there were five Beatles, a group which included bass player Stuart Sutcliffe, whose friendship with John Lennon is highlighted in the movie. Sutcliffe, also a painter of note, may have stayed with the Beatles if he hadn’t died of a brain aneurysm in 1962. (The illness may have been brought on by a blow to the head he’d received during a street fight.) Anyway, the band performs many tunes in the film, though none are Beatle songs, just covers of hits such as “Long Tall Sally” and “Love Me Tender.” Interestingly, after seeing the film, Paul McCartney said he wasn’t impressed. “They’ve actually taken the rock ‘n’ rollness off me,” he said. But the film did well at the box office.

8. The Runaways (2010)

Male rockers shouldn’t have all the fun, right? The Runaways is a biopic about an all-girl rock band that makes it big in L.A. during the middle 1970s, the dawn of the punk rock era. Based on the book Neon Angel: The Memoir of a Runaway by Cheri Currie, the Runaways’ lead vocalist, Dakota Fanning plays Cheri Currie, and Kristen Stewart portrays guitarist/singer Joan Jett, who later formed Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. As the Runaways begins to take shape, Cheri Currie auditions for the band by singing “Cherry Bomb,” a song written by Joan Jett and Kim Fowley, the band’s manager. In real life, the song reached number one on the Japanese chart, though it didn't do near as well on the American chart. Nevertheless, “Cherry Bomb” eventually became the Runaways biggest hit song (Joan Jett later recorded her version of the tune.) The Runaways didn’t make a bundle at the box office but the critics generally liked it.

9. Jersey Boys (2014)

Jersey Boys is a film adaptation of a stage production about four young crooners who form a rock group in Belleville, New Jersey in the middle 1950s. The movie is narrated by Tommy DeVito, founding member of the Four Lovers, who later became the Four Seasons. Directed by Clint Eastwood who also helped produce it, the film covers the various dramatic interludes in the lives of these four guys, particularly lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young). Throughout the film, the Four Seasons perform hit songs from the lengthy oeuvre of the Four Seasons. The major complication in the flick is when Valli discovers that Tommy has accumulated $150,000 in gambling debts, and the mob wants the money or else. So Valli agrees to keep working as a solo singer until he repays the money. As a finishing touch, the film ends as the movie’s version of the Four Seasons performs a musical number as if they were acting in the stage play, and they also talk to the audience.

Blanchett as Jude Quinn (left) and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg
Blanchett as Jude Quinn (left) and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg

10. I’m Not There (2007)

Certainly the most imaginative flicker on this list is I’m Not There, an unconventional, nonlinear story that expresses the life of folk-rock legend Bob Dylan by using six different actors who portray various Dylan-inspired personae. Perhaps the most interesting character of the bunch is shown by Cate Blanchett, who, actually looks something like Dylan, and plays Jude Quinn, a popular folk singer who, in the middle 1960s, arrives at a New England jazz and folk festival and performs with an electric rock band, outraging his devout folk audience who think Quinn had sold out, calling him Judas. (Quinn later dies in a motorcycle crash, an obvious reference to Dylan’s injurious bike accident in July 1966.) Also included among the seven characters are Marcus Carl Franklin, who portrays a Woody Guthrie-like traveling folk singer; Richard Gere, who plays Billy the Kid, an outlaw who has no idea who he really is; and Heath Ledger who offers up Robbie Clark, an actor who becomes as famous as the character he portrays in a movie. I’m Not There is narrated by Kris Kristofferson, and the inventive screenplay was written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman.

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© 2015 Kelley

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Comments 8 comments

Mills P 17 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

I've seen most of these and like your choices. Walk The Line is another good one.

Oliver Stark profile image

Oliver Stark 17 months ago from Sacramento, California

Hats off!

Some of the best biopics.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 17 months ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Mills P. "Walk the Line" is good, but it's about Johnny Cash, a country singer, so I didn't include it on this list. Later!

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 17 months ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Oliver Stark. I like writing about rockers. Later!

Mills P 16 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

While Cash is known for country as well, he has been a part of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame since 1992. His Sun recordings are more rock than country, and I don't think his covers of Hurt (from Nine Inch Nails) and Rusty Chains (from Soundgarden) are country. Besides, some singers associated with country know how to rock - Cash among them.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 16 months ago from California Author

I appreciate your comment, Mills P. You seemed to be insinuating that "Walk the Line" should be on this list. Hey, I liked the movie, but I just don't think Cash is a rocker, although he certainly seemed to like it and certainly has played some of it. Who hasn't? At any rate, I may change the list at some time. I keep thinking there's some rock biopic I've forgotten that should be here. Later!

Mills P 16 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

I would never try to tell you which pictures should be on your list. I've seen all but two of these films, and what I was trying to say is that I like Walk The Line better than some of the ones you mentioned. Your list is your list, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 16 months ago from California Author

Thanks Mills P, I like "Walk the Line" too. At the least, for country biopics it would definitely be in the top ten. Later!

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