June is African-American Music Month. A holiday to honor and celebrate African-American Musicians. To celebrate I compiled a list of biographical films and television specials about prolific African-American musicians throughout history. This list excludes films like Sparkle and Dreamgirls because those were fictional portrayals. Purple Rain is excluded because it is also a work of fiction.
These films are important because they highlight many different eras of music. The impact of the social climates of the times as reflected on the artists work and life. For this list, I’m looking at the overall success of the films and portrayals from the actors. This is also a spoiler-free post but we all know what happened to most of the musicians.
So without further ado, here are the Top Ten Music Biopics of All Time!
#10 Notorious (2009)
Based on: Notorious B.I.G
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Naturi Naughton
The first entry on our list is the story of Hip-Hop martyr The Notorious B.I.G. Based on the rapper’s short-lived life. The film chronicles the rapper’s days as a drug dealer to his rise as one of the most respect MCs of his time. The film, however, has been met with controversy for portraying Biggie as some sort of saint diminishing his past domestic abuse towards then-girlfriend Lil Kim as well as Kim dissing the casting of Naturi Naughton in her likeness.
#9 Lady Sings The Blues (1972)
Based on: Billie Holiday
Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams
In the 1970s Diana Ross had just left the Supremes with her eyes set on crossing over and becoming a household name. This was catapulted by her breakout role as legendary Blues singer Billie Holiday in the 1972 classic biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Named after the Billie Holiday song of the same name the film sees Ross in one of her best film roles to date.
#8 Get On Up (2014)
Based on: James Brown (1933-2006)
Starring: Chadwick Boseman
Before he takes the mantle as the Warrior King T’Challa in next year’s Marvel film, Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman wowed audiences as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown in the 2014 biopic Get on Up. Brown known to be one of the major players in early pop music had a tumultuous life with women, substance abuse, and fame.
Opening in 1993, Get on Up is told using a nonlinear narrative through James Brown’s stream of consciousness, including asynchronous events and frequent breaks in the fourth wall.
#7 CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013)
Based on: TLC
Starring: Keke Palmer, Lil’ Mama, and Drew Sidora
A little bit of Crazy, a little bit of Sexy, and a little bit of Cool. These are the ingredients to make the best-selling girl group of all time, TLC. Chronicling the group’s formation to their rise as the only girl group to have a diamond-selling album.
Originally airing in 2013 on VH1, CrazySexyCool unveils untold stories that happened within the group as well as major moments in their history. Such as Left Eye burning down her Boyfriend’s house, T-Boz fight with Sickle cell, and of course their highly publicized bankruptcy.
#6 The Jackson Five: An American Dream (1992)
Based on: Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five
Starring: Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Angela Bassett
Over the years there have been several attempts to retell the rise of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. But none have come close to the masterpiece that was The Jacksons: An American Dream. Originally airing in 1992, this film chronicles the rise of the Jackson family from poverty to fame. The Jackson brothers are played by various different actors most famously a young Terrence Howard as Jackie Jackson and Jason Weaver as a young Michael Jackson.
The film also sees an array of iconic Black actors such as Angela Bassett as Katherine Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, Vanessa L. Williams, Margaret Avery, and Holly Robinson-Peete.
#5 Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Based on: NWA
Starring: Oshea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins
Accolades: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
Arguably the best hip-hop biopic to date, Straight Outta Compton was an instant hit with audiences. Compiling the stories of NWA, Ruthless Records, and Dr. Dre’s career post-NWA. The film garnered praise for its casting, specifically Oshea Jackson Jr, as his father NWA member Ice Cube.
However, the film received criticism for the omission of key women who played a part in their success such as, Michel’le and JJ Fad. As well as omitting Dr. Dre’s long history of abusing women like Dee Barnes which is something that was no different than Biggie’s portrayal in Notorious.
#4 The New Edition Story (2017)
Based on: New Edition
Starring: Bryshere Gray, Luke James
The newest entry on the list, The New Edition Story is a three-part miniseries about the R&B group New Edition, from their rise to fame as a boy band from the Orchard Park Projects of Roxbury, Massachusetts, to becoming a successful adult act.
Possibly the best cast on this list, starring a relatively unknown leading cast. The biggest names being that of Empire star Bryshere Gray as Michael Bivins and R&B singer Luke James as Johnny Gill. However, Woody McClain’s take on bad boy Bobby Brown was a showstopper within itself. The film garnered 4.2 Million views during its three-night run on BET as well as scoring a 100% Rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film has done so well that BET has begun production on a Bobby Brown spinoff biopic.
#3 The Temptations (1998)
Based on: The Temptations
Starring: Leon, Charles Malik Whitfield
Accolades: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding TV Movie or Miniseries
The third miniseries on the list, The Temptations is perhaps the most appreciated of the three. Based on the Motown vocal quintet, the biopic follows the group’s formation in the 50’s to their demise in the late 70’s.
Featuring a standout performance by Leon as the outspoken member David Ruffin, who had a knack for drugs and fast living. The film eventually went on to garner praise for it’s attention to detail to the respected era of music.
#2 What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)
Based on: Tina Turner
Starring: Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne
Accolades: Golden Globe for Best Actress (Bassett)
In the early 90’s Angela Bassett had gained a steady career as the go-to actress for biopics. She had appeared as both Kathrine Jackson and Betty Shabazz, but nothing came close to her iconic role as Tina Turner. Bassett gave a convincing portrayal of the Queen of Rock. Documenting her life from her rise to stardom in the 60’s to her fall in the 70’s and eventual comeback in the 80’s. The driving force of the film was the dynamic between Bassett and Laurence Fishburne’s iconic portrayal of Ike Turner.
Upon its release, the film received acclaim scoring both Bassett and Fishburne Academy Award nominations for both Best Actor and Actress. Bassett eventually went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.
#1 Ray (2004)
Based on: Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Regina King
Accolades: Best Actor (Foxx)
In 2004 Jamie Foxx wowed audiences with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rhythm and Blues legend Ray Charles. Taking place over a thirty year period of the singer’s life, Foxx embodied the true essence of the titular character. From his mannerism on the piano to even giving a convincing performance as a blind man. The film is also bittersweet because it was the last project Ray Charles was involved with.
The film was praised for truly capturing the many different eras in American culture from the 1930’s through the 60’s. Also highlighting the many social changes that were reflected in Charles’ life.
Charles was given a Braille copy of the film’s original script; he objected only to a scene showing him taking up piano grudgingly, and a scene implying that Charles had shown mistress Raelette how to shoot heroin. The film garnered several awards and nominations, including a win for Best Actor by Jamie Foxx.
Miles Ahead (The Miles Davis Story)
Cadillac Records (The Story of Cadillac Records)
The Little Richard Story
Why Do Fools Fall In Love (The Frankie Lyman Story)
Celia (Celia Cruz Story)
Unbreak My Heart (The Toni Braxton story)
Surviving Compton (The Michel’le Story)