As a Cinema and Media Studies major at Penn, I think it’s safe to say that I love musical movies. Though I can’t claim to have seen every musical biopic ever made, I’ve watched enough to share my favorites. I’d like to note that all of the movies on this list are ranked equally, because there’s no way I can possibly decide which one’s the best.
I think everyone should watch at least one music biopic in their life—all of the artists featured in these movies have significantly influenced either my music taste or how I want to live my life.
- Rocketman (2019) dir. Dexter Fletcher
This 2019 film follows the life of Elton John during his upbringing and through the start of his musical career. It captures the journey he took to reinvent his persona from a young boy named Reginal Dwight to the legendary artist we know today. The emotional crux of the narrative is Elton John’s relationship with Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, and how they eventually launched themselves as an incredible music duo.
Elton John is my favorite artist, so when this movie came out, I was glad see his story come to life on screen. Alongside an iconic soundtrack of Elton John’s most famous songs, the film features his exhilarating transformation from shy piano prodigy to international superstar. Rocketman also shares the artist’s battle with addiction as navigated the everchanging world of popular music as a queer man in the 70’s.
A big part of this movie’s allure is its little details. Not only does the set remind me of home (London!), but the costumes are also impressive, emphasizing Elton John’s famously elaborate concert attires. I want to wear every pair of sunglasses featured in the movie!
I recently forced my roommate to watch this movie because she claimed she didn’t know who Elton John was, but I was happy to realize that she recognized a fair number of the songs from the film—proving Elton John’s lasting legacy.
- Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) dir. Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher
On the technical side, this film is a bit shaky, since directors were switched out during filming—Singer, who was the original director, was let go due to his clashes with the cast and crew and frequent absences from set.
The beginning of the movie shares the story of Freddie Mercury in the days before the band established itself, when he worked as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and still lived with his parents. The pace of the film quickly shifts as we see the band form and become the historic musical group known as Queen.
While the group’s impact within the music industry is widely known, the movie provides a deeper perspective to how they came to fame and shaped the world, in part making it the more accepting place we know today. As one of history’s queer icons and a person of color, Mercury is known for both his immense talent and his off–stage charisma, both showcased by the film.
The climactic moment in Bohemian Rhapsody is Queen’s performance at the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, which is also one of the band’s most well–known performances. Sadly, Mercury passed away due to AIDS in 1991.
- Amy (2015) dir. Asif Kapadia
Amy does an excellent job of creating an intimate portrait of the life, career, and demise of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. Winehouse was a global pop star sensation sadly taken from the world in 2011 due to alcohol poisoning. As a British icon, Winehouse’s music has been playing on the radio since I was a little girl. In fact, I actually performed her iconic song, “Back to Black,” on a British TV show.
The movie shares archival camera footage of Winehouse’s life and personal testimonials from her friends after her death, in order to shed light on the musician’s life and upbringing—as well as the potential reasons that led to her death.
Unlike the other films discussed above, this movie is a documentary; seeing actual footage of Winehouse’s life allows us to understand just how severe her alcohol and drug problem was, and how her life was affected by fame and celebrity.
- Jersey Boys (2014) dir. Clint Eastwood
Jersey Boys, based on the 2005 Broadway musical of the same name, shares the story of American rock group The Four Seasons. The movie follows four men from the “wrong side of the tracks” of New Jersey and how they got together to form the well–known 1960’s rock group. The protagonist of the film is lead singer Frankie Castelluccio, who later changed his name to Frankie Valli—and the incident that eventually brought the iconic quartet together.
- Judy (2019), dir. Rupert Goold
The last film I recommend is Judy, an adaptation to the West End/Broadway show, End of the Rainbow. The film focuses on the adult life of Judy Garland, and the majority of the movie takes place in the last year of her, when she relocated from America to Britain in order to make ends meet.
Judy does an excellent job of incorporating flashbacks of Garland’s childhood to help the audience understand how she came to be the person she was at the end of her career, including her struggles with substance abuse and financial instability. If you ever watched or read The Wizard of Oz, then watching this film is a must.
These are not the only musical biopics out there, but a great way to start delving into the genre.