Why We Love Musician Biopics

Jamie Freedman

Musician biopics are all the rage right now with three in theaters and, at least, one more coming within the month. The lives of musicians make for wonderful stories, and Hollywood loves a good tragedy. Peering into the minds of our favorite creative geniuses can be heartbreaking and inspiring, but at the center of every musician biopic is the music we love so well and that’s what sets it apart.

Knowing that a beloved artist managed to make beautiful things despite enormous obstacles seems to make all of their trouble more meaningful, whether it be a tragic childhood, substance abuse, racial struggles or unhealthy relationships. Artists are relatable because we know exactly how they feel through their music. And in these movies, we can find out why they felt the things that they did, and what events inspired this music.

Over the years, we have seen numerous biopics, in many forms. Some have been great, and some have been not so great. But what is about musician biopics that we love so much?

Musician Biopics win Oscars

Arguably the two most popular musician biopics in the past decade have been Ray and Walk the Line. Not only did these movies successfully tackle decades of Ray Charles’ and Johnny Cash’s lives and musical careers (something that not many biopics can successfully do), they earned Academy Awards: Reese Witherspoon for her portrayal of June Carter Cash and Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Foxx embodied Charles so well, you almost forgot it was him, until he took off his glasses!

Musician Biopics Introduce Us to New Artists

The Chet Baker biopic, (in theaters now) starring Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue tells the comeback story of the jazz trumpeter and vocalist in the 1960s after a bout with drug abuse and medical setbacks. Baker is not necessarily as well know as some of his contemporaries but in this story he is front and center.

Musician Biopics Educate Us

Nina Simone has become a universally loved artist and is arguably more popular now than she was while she was alive. She was trained as a classical pianist but was drawn to the civil rights struggle of the time and instead wrote popular songs for and about the cause. Last year the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened Miss Simone? featured interviews from those that knew her complexities well.

On April 22,  in a limited run, theaters welcome the simply titled Nina, starring Zoe Saldana who provided her own vocals to the film. The movie has been met with heavy criticism for Saldana’s casting and because Simone’s estate declined to endorse the film.

Our Favorite Actors Become Musicians in Biopics

In the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead (in theaters now), Don Cheadle learned to play the trumpet. Cheadle had been working on getting this movie produced for so long, he started playing the trumpet years ago in preparation. However, even though he is also a saxophonist, his licks are not heard on the film’s soundtrack because the trumpet is so difficult.

Tom Hiddleston also performs his own vocals in the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light (in theaters now), he even learned to yodel for the role. And thanks to the 35 singles that Williams recorded over the course of his brief career, the movie has an excellent built-in soundtrack.

Jamie Freedman
Ethnomusicologist, singer, champion of fans and creators. In love with Outlander, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Beatles, Lady Gaga and Broad City.