Is this just fantasy? The highest-grossing music biopics

April 25, 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody is the biopic everyone’s talking about at the moment. Talking points vary from quibbles about editing and stylistic choices to whether or not Rami Malek really deserved that Oscar for his performance as Freddie. Nevertheless, the film shot to the top of the box office, making it the latest of many musical biopics to do so.

Why are musicians so successful at the movies? They give something a bit extra for those die-hard fans but also help us find new levels of appreciation. Are you a music lover looking for some film recommendations? If so, you’ll want to watch these seven films. These films have the accolade of being the highest grossing musical biopics of all time.


Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Box Office Gross: $901.4m

Bohemian Rhapsody has the dual honour of being both the newest and the highest grossing biopic in this list. The film charts the success of Queen and their legendarily charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury.

Bohemian Rhapsody sky-rocketed to the top of the box office. This was in spite of both mixed reviews and controversy surrounding the film’s accuracy. Director Brian Singer was pressed about the representation of Freddie Mercury’s life. His response was that “We’re making a movie here, not a documentary.” We can only imagine that die-hard fans watching the movie asked themselves, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

One thing critics and viewers could agree on was Rami Malek’s gravitas as Mercury. His performance earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. This was one of four wins for Bohemian Rhapsody, the others being Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.

Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury. However, he departed production early on due to creative differences. Cohen reportedly wanted a warts-and-all production, rather than a family-friendly Queen biopic. Malek was brought in by producers shortly after. They were impressed with both his 2015 performance in Mr. Robot and his jawline, which reportedly bore a close resemblance to Mercury’s.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Box Office Gross: $201.6m

The ‘A’ in NWA stands for Attitude, and this biopic of the gangsta rap pioneers is brimming with attitude. The scenes portraying the group’s bombastic live shows are undoubtedly highlights. These sequences do a fitting job of capturing NWA’s potency as performers. In fact, the cast re-recorded the entire Straight Outta Compton album to help them get into character.

The original cut of the film was over three and a half hours long. To say there was a lot of ground to cover is an understatement. The movie charts the conflict surrounding the meteoric rise of NWA’s career. A career marked by lengthy contractual disputes, personal tragedy, and civil unrest. The movie provides a backdrop of racial tensions and poverty in 1980s California. This context makes NWA’s hard-bitten swagger feel even more resonant.

Straight Outta Compton was produced by original NWA members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. One interesting titbit is that both Easy E and Ice Cube’s sons auditioned to play their fathers in the film. But don’t be fooled into thinking they glossed over some of the less palatable aspects of NWA’s career. Perhaps it was this unflinching honesty that led to the film receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Walk the Line (2005)

Box Office Gross: $186.4m

Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of country music legend Johnny Cash will remind you why he was the original ‘Man in Black’. Will Smith who?

Walk the Line is an interesting biopic, in that the project was pretty much initiated by the film’s own subject. The script was adapted from two autobiographies penned by Cash. The Man in Black even directly approached producer James Keach to make a movie about his life. The pair met on the set of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman when Cash played a guest role.

Cash certainly played an active role in Walk the Line. But this doesn’t mean the movie turns a blind eye to some uncomfortable subjects. Some of the darkest moments in Cash’s life are laid bare. These include the death of his brother as a child, his addiction to barbiturates, and the destruction of his first marriage.

Ultimately Walk the Line ends on an uplifting note. The final scene shows Cash falling into an on-stage passionate embrace with his singing partner and wife June Carter. Reese Witherspoon’s role as Carter won her an Oscar for Best Actress. To say the win was well-deserved is an understatement. As Cash and Carter, Witherspoon and Phoenix offer both electrifying chemistry and some impressive vocals. The pair sing all the songs in both the film and the accompanying soundtrack.

Ray (2004)

Box Office Gross: $124.7m

Charting the 30-year career of RnB legend Ray Charles, Ray’s story has roots in tragedy. Charles witnessed his brother drown at the age of seven and loses his sight shortly after.

He starts his musical career as a pianist on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ in segregation-era America. It’s only when he forges his own brand of gospel, jazz and rock n’ roll fusion that his career starts to take off. Ray tracks Charles’ tenure as both a musician and a civil rights trailblazer, as well his battle with heroin addiction.

The screenplay was written in consultation with Ray Charles. He only disputed two scenes due to inaccuracy, even though several were fictionalised. Charles died several months before the premiere in 2004.

Ray took nearly two decades to finance. However, if this were not the case the world would have been robbed of Jamie Foxx’s performance. His performance of Charles is nothing short of masterful. In fact, it can be better described as an embodiment.

It’s a common turn of phrase that a film or actor sweeps the awards circuit. Foxx, however, managed an almost unprecedented feat. His performance not only won him an Oscar for Best Actor, but also a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a Screen Actor’s Guild and a Critics’ Choice Award.

I Can Only Imagine (2018)

Box Office Gross: $85.4m

In this list of movies chronicling musicians and bands, I Can Only Imagine is somewhat of an anomaly. The movie centres on a single song, recorded by Christian rock band MercyMe. Now you may not have heard of I Can Only Imagine if you’re from the UK. The movie, however, was a hit in the USA and Canada.

What was it about this song that inspired a feature-length movie? First, I Can Only Imagine was a massive crossover hit, being the first ever Christian song to go platinum. Secondly, the film tells the story behind the song- the life of MercyMe’s lead singer Bart Millard.

Millard grew up in Texas with his mother and abusive father. He was an aspiring high school football player. His athletic ambitions were dashed following injuries to his ankles. From there he pursued a career in music.

I Can Only Imagine charts Millard’s success as a singer, and his reconciliation with his father shortly before his death from cancer. The song describes the unfathomable sensation of being in the presence of God. The lyrics reportedly only took ten minutes to write.

The film was a box office hit. However, critical reviews ranged from lukewarm to negative, with the exception of faith-based publications.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

Box Office Gross: $67.18m (equivalent to $204.28m in 2018)

So far all the biopics on this list have been from the 21st Century. Therefore, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the genre is a recent invention. Released in 1980, Coal Miner’s Daughter can comfortably be described as a pioneer of the musical biopic. The film focuses on Loretta Lynn, one of country music’s first female superstars.

As the title suggests, Lynn was born to a coal miner and was one of eight children. Having grown up in poverty-stricken rural Kentucky, the film first depicts Lynn flirting with music as a pipe dream. A mother of four by the age of twenty, Lynn begins performing at honky-tonks at the weekend. The rest is country music history.

The rags to riches arc of Coal Miner’s Daughter doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. However, the movie shines thanks to Sissy Spacek (of Carrie fame), who brings a gritty authenticity to the role. Spacek actually spent over a year with Lynn to help her get into character, even accompanying her on tour.

In what would be a recurring theme for future biopics Spacek lent her own vocals to the role. She was paid back in kind in the form of a Best Actress Oscar, and the movie was also nominated for Best Picture.

La Bamba (1987)

Box Office Gross: $54.2m

Many biopics chart the rise and fall of a music legend. Others show artists finding redemption through the hardships that inspired their greatest works. La Bamba however, tells us the story of a promising career cut short by tragedy.

The movie charts the brief but influential career of Chicano rock star Ritchie Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips. The movie references the titles of one of Valens’ biggest hits. La Bamba was originally a Mexican folk song. Valens’ 1958 recording revitalised it with the power of rock n’ roll. The song has the honour of being the only non-English track in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of all Time.

In 2017, La Bamba was inducted into the United States Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.’ The film’s cultural legacy is unfortunately bittersweet. A 17-year-old Ritchie Valens was alongside Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper” and pilot Roger Peterson when their plane crashed in 1959. The crash had no survivors, and the date (February 3rd) was immortalised by Don McLean as “The Day the Music Died.”

These musical biopics may have inspired you to become a box office sensation. But remember, you’ve got to make records before you start breaking them! Why not get started by booking a recording session at Kore Studios today?