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Posterized: Famous Singer Biopics of the Past 50 Years

Oscar loves a lot of movie-things with predictable regularity though it should be noted that those things go in and out of style (when was the last time you saw a hooker with a heart of gold?). But one thing that never seems to go out of style with filmmakers: Biopics of musicians. Whether or not Amy Adams ever gets around to her Janis Joplin picture, or Hathaway goes through with the Judy Garland picture (I'd so prefer her to do Liza Minnelli who hasn't been done!) or Jane Krakowski ever gets the greenlight for Jackie Jormp-Jormp, there's plenty to choose from in the library already. And awards bodies, not just Oscar, often choose them. It's as good a way as any to be noticed.

How do you think Get On Up, from the director of The Help will fair with AMPAS? Reviews may be mixed but they don't seem to be for Chadwick Boseman's playful performance in the energetic title role. Hollywood is always searching for "the next Denzel Washington" and he's one of the candidates even though 'the next...' is always so problematic since true stars are always their own unrepeatable thing. Remember that uncomfortably weird forcing of so many actresses into 'the next Julia Roberts' tag? Even Julianne Moore (lol) was once in that lineup in a major magazine.

Let's look back at the past 50 years within this particular subgenre and see how many films we've gotten and how many of them won awards traction. I came up with about 27 pictures (excluding biopics of musicians who weren't singers or snapshots of the industry more than individual singers because you have to narrow it down somehow) though it's possible I missed a few.

How many have you seen?


Your Cheatin' Heart (1964) - George Hamilton as Hank Williams. (no awards traction)
Funny Girl (1968) - Best Actress Babs as Fanny Brice. 8 Oscar noms including Best Pic
Star! (1968) -Julie Andrews as Gertrud Lawrence (Golden Globe nom). 7 Oscar noms


Lady Sings the Blues (1972) Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. 5 Oscar noms including Best Actress
Bound for Glory (1976) David Carradine as Woody Guthrie. 6 Oscar noms including Best Pic (but not for Carradine)
The Buddy Holly Story (1978) Gary Busey as Buddy Holly. 3 Oscar noms including Best Actor


Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Best Actress Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn. 7 noms including Best Pic
Sweet Dreams (1985) Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline. 1 nom for Best Actress
Sid & Nancy (1986) Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy. but oops... i guess this is non-singing. No awards traction beyond critical adulation.


La Bamba (1987) Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens. Golden Globe nominee for Best Pic (but none for LDP)
Great Balls of Fire (1989) Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis. (no awards traction)
The Doors (1991) Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. (no awards traction)


What's Love Got To Do With It (1993) Angela Bassett (Golden Globe win) and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner. 2 Oscar noms for Best Actress and Best Actor
Selena (1997) Jennifer Lopez as Selena (Golden Globe nom)
Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998) Larenz Tate as Frankie Lymon. (no awards)


Beyond the Sea (2004) Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin (Golden Globe nom).
Ray (2004) Best Actor Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. 6 Oscar noms including Best Pic
Last Days (2005) Michael Pitt as Kurt Cobain. (no awards)


Walk the Line (2005) Best Actress Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix as June and Johnny Cash. 5 Oscar noms including Best Actor
I'm Not There (2007) Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan. 1 nom for Supporting Actress
La Vie En Rose (2008) Best Actress Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. 3 Oscar noms


Nowhere Boy (2009) Aaron Taylor-Johnson as John Lennon (no awards)
Notorious (2009) Jamal Woolard as Biggie (no awards)
Sex Drugs and Rock N Roll (2010) Andy Serkis as Ian Dury (BAFTA nom)


The Runaways (2010) Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as Cherie Curie and Joan Jett (no awards)
Jersey Boys (2014) John Lloyd Young as Franki Valli (no awards after that Tony)
Get On Up (2014) Chadwick Boseman as James Brown (awards TBD)

What can we learn from this? It's easier for women to score playing music icons! What else?

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Reader Comments (33)

It's amazing how viewing Bassett in the context of this 50-year span does her performance more justice than viewing it among the (stacked) 1993 best actress lineup. It doesn't manage to tower in its own year, but stands over just about every other music-biopic effort ever.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I think Bassett does tower over 1993. She should have won the Oscar and is one my personal favorite Best Actress performances to be honest. Glad you agree that it is one of the best among these movies though. I'd say she's better than Marion Cotillard, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand, but that's just me.

Sissy Spacek, Reese Witherspoon, and Jessica Lange are up there with Angela Bassett from this list. I recently ranked the 20 Best Musical Biopics of All Time here:


August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

I curiously caught the final 30 minutes of WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT just last night on BET and Bassett is phenomenal, but good grief the movie is appalling. Still, if it'd been released one year later (1994 is rather infamous for best actress, no? what with Jessica Lange's second win for the long-delayed BLUE SKY) she would have won, but against Holly Hunter?

I like how you've just assumed JERSEY BOYS ain't going anywhere with awards.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Oh, and for what it's worth, THE RUNAWAYS holds up incredibly well. Stewart's performance feels stronger. The make-up and costumes still Oscar-worthy.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Can you say anything about Viola's chances in Supp. Actress?

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I know the Judy Davis biopic of Garland was a TV movie but the performance
remains one of pure brilliance ...

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I love Bassett but there are less than five nominated performances ever that could have beaten Hunter, or would have deserved.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows is so great and perfect. The ideal network TV movie/mini-series that is almost never made anymore, particularly on network. Davis and Blanchard are so well-cast that I really wish Anne Hathaway just realize she is more of a perfect Liza and do that biopic before daring to test that kind of double-greatness.

I also love Kurt Russell and John Carpenter's Elvis TV movie.

I'm Not There for what it is going for to me succeeds. It can be at times brilliant, over the top, verging on camp, messy, too arty, and weird but the pretense of multiple actors is pure Dylan. You cannot make a standard biopic hence why despite Joaquin being so good as Johnny Cash, I still find Walk the Line really lacking in artistic energy. Plus, almost nothing on Johnny's Christianity and faith, especially in a film of redemption seems so ludicrous.

I would certainly include Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. It's about Tony Wilson than say Joy Division (Closer is good though) and New Order, but I quite love how honest the film is about the phenomenon's about the economics of the music industry and luck involved for those we consider geniuses for their successes. To it is one of the great films from the aughts.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I think it is. After all women are usually way more complete performing on stage, but I guess that's my actressexuality talking.

I've seen 17 so far, 18 if you count The Rose as you should ;) Loved this particular subgenre as a kid. I became a country music fan thanks to Sweet Dreams, so I would say they're not a complete waste of time.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I 've seen 15 movies . 7 times La Bamba in a summer on a french tv ( i'm old)

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterfrenchgirl

Re: BASSETT. agree with everyone that that performance is just incredible. But nobody was beating Holly Hunter that year. sometimes people just have the misfortune to arrive in a year when there's an undeniable juggernaut.

CMG -- yeah. i loved that at the time. I have no idea why we need another Judy biopic (that isn't even the only one)

GLENN -- good to hear. I haven't seen it since then but i remember being really impressed at the time.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas got BAFTA noms in s. actress for Nowhere Boy

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjon

"....but I quite love how honest the film is about the phenomenon and economics of the music industry with such luck involved for those we consider geniuses based on their successes. It is one of the great films from the aughts."

Well that was a lousy back-half of the paragraph.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

i loved "Lady Sings the Blues" when it came out - had the album, etc. Now, I realize it's pretty awful. Should be re-made so it's more accurate.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjimmy

La Bamba is one of my favs.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I've only seen 13 of these and I liked most of them. My favorites are Coal Miner's Daughter and Bound for Glory. I also liked the performances and songs in What's Love Got to Do With It, La Bamba, I'm Not There, Funny Girl, The Buddy Holly Story, Walk The Line, Lady Sings The Blues.

The absolute worst one was Star. (It came in a set of musical DVDs). I'd read it was awful, but didn't know how it could be so bad until I saw it. The actors are filmed doing their stage numbers which are dated and unfunny and numbingly numerous. The dialogue is hair pullingly cheesy, and it goes on FOREVER.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

adri - i have never seen STAR! which is weird given my julie andrews love. But that book i'm reading ROADSHOW goes into a ton of details of what a disaster it was during the makeup. it's a little like PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION's account of Doctor Dolittle

August 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Oh! I think you will love it. It's definitely too long, but Julie's fantastic.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Let's see....
Oh dear, not much. *lol*
The Doors
Tina-What's Love got to do with it
Walk the Line
I'm not there
and La Vie en Rose

Yes, that's six. ^^"
(I liked them all-yes that includes Ray)
So a lot to catch up.

Really astonishing quite a lot of best actress wins (and noms) are portaits of singers.
Bassett was a great Tina. I'm quite sad she didn't win.... (though I don't mind Holly Hunter at all)

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I've seen 13 of these, and my favorites are Walk the Line and I'm Not There. I love Joaquin's performance in Walk the Line, it's probably my favorite of all of his performances.

Chadwick Boseman is nomination-worthy in Get on Up, he does come close to capturing the spirit of James Brown and the performance scenes in particular are amazing (the dancing!). He's the best thing about the movie. I don't know why anyone would compare him to Denzel, though.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Would you count Control (Anton Corbijn's portrait of Joy Division's Ian Curtis)? I justo saw it a few days ago and really liked it!

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I don't know why anyone would compare him to Denzel, though.
They're both black.

Hollywood is never looking for the next non-white movie star. As you say the thing that makes someone a star cannot be manufactured. Hence the natural progression of some non-white talent over others.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I'm really glad that we've all just collectively decided to forget about "De-Lovely."

Looking back on 1993's lineup, Hunter is probably still my favorite, but if ANY of those performances had been another year, they could have easily won. All five of those performances are easily better than any of the 1994 nominees. Nothing more needs to be said about Bassett, but Emma Thompson and Stockard Channing are both STELLAR. Even Winger is doing really fine work in a limiting free-spirit-turned-supporting-wife-who-dies role. Really solid year for women.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Alex -- well i didn't actually forget De-Lovely but it was about a composer and i was only doing singers. De-Lovely isn't great but it has some beautiful moments i think.

August 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R


Thanks for spoiling Shadowlands. I love Winger.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@3rtful: Sorry, I'm not about to feel bad about it since the movie is 21 years old and based on a real person haha

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

I seen 18 of these, sadly one of those was Great Balls of Fire! What a stinking pile that was with an atrociously misjudged performance by Dennis Quaid.

Star! is overproduced and overlong but some of the musical numbers are great and Julie's voice makes up for alot.

For one of my favorite musical bio-pics I'd have to go back almost another decade to 1955 for the Ruth Etting bio-Love Me or Leave Me. Doris Day's best performance, unfortunately academy ignored, and James Cagney's Oscar nominated turn as her husband Marty "The Gimp" Snyder. For a 50's movie from Hollywood's glossiest studio MGM it's a pretty warts and all portrait of a ruthless climber and her abusive spouse and the damage they inflict on each other.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Whenever I read someone's answer to the oft-asked Q "What movie will you always watch if it's on TV" I think of 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love." Vivica at her Foxiest/I'm Getting MIne Come Hell or High Water, Halle at her schemingest and here comes Lela Rochon and blows 'em both outta the water. Plus Juwanna Man in a fun turn as Little Richard. Pure cotton candy.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames

You forgot DeLovely with Kevin Kline as Cole porter:)

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdavid

David, Nathaniel explained that. Cole Porter wasn't known as a singer, but rather a composer.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Too bad "Get on Up" is getting a bad rep and underwhelmed at the box office. Chadwick Boseman was FIRE from start to finish! A "true star is born" performance if I've ever seen one, and a future Academy Awards snub in the making.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

I'm surprised to have only seen about 15 of these.

dorian -- it depends on how the fall turns out. if it's a weak year for leading men, i could still see him making it. they do love their imitations.

August 4, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I wish THE ROSE could've been included here, but I completely understand why it's not, being that it's loosely "based" on Janis Joplin

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCastro

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