Two of the most popular forms of entertainment are music and movies and the two are combined in the music biopic.
The earliest example of the genre – sort of – is a short released by the Edison Company in 1909 with the self-explanatory title “The Origin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata,” which depicts the moment the great composer was inspired to create that famous piece. Other classical composers and musicians, including Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Puccini, and Paganini were the subject of biopics in the first part of the 20th century, as were big band and jazz legends like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and Gene Krupa.
More recently, numerous country, rock, and rap stars have received the filmed biography treatment. To identify the most successful music biopics of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed gross domestic box office figures – not adjusted for inflation – from Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, for the 20,000+ movies in our database identified as “musical,” “music,” and “biography” on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon. Movies about fictional musicians were excluded from consideration. (Information on plot and stars is from IMDb.)
The top five music biopics are “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which Rami Malek plays Queen frontman Freddie Mercury; “Walk the Line,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash; “Rocketman,” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John; “Ray,” for which Jamie Foxx won an Oscar playing Ray Charles; and “La Bamba,” featuring Lou Diamond Phillips as the pioneering Chicano rock star Ritchie Valens. (These are the best movies for country music fans.)
Several of the movies on our list are about performers who died tragically young. Valens, the was only 17 when he died in a plane crash. Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was 23 and rapper Tupac Shakur was 25 when they were shot to death. Jim Morrison, the main subject of “The Doors,” died at the age of 27. (These are 30 famous musicians who were murdered.)
By contrast, “Rocketman” Elton John is still making hits after six decades in the music business.
18. La Vie En Rose (2007)
> Ticket sales: $10.3 million
“La Vie en Rose” is about the life of French singer Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard’s performance as Piaf received critical acclaim and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress – the first time an Oscar had been given for a French-language role
17. Love & Mercy (2014)
> Ticket sales: $12.5 million
“Love & Mercy” is about Beach Boys co-founder and leader Brian Wilson and his struggles with mental illness. It stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as the young and middle-aged Wilson. The title comes from a 1988 song by Wilson.
17. Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998)
> Ticket sales: $12.5 million
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is a romantic drama about Frankie Lymon, lead singer of the rock-and-roll group Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers for one year. Lymon was played by Larenz Tate. A single from the soundtrack, “I Want You Back” by Melanie Brown featuring Missy Elliott, became a hit.
16. De-Lovely (2004)
> Ticket sales: $13.3 million
Kevin Kline plays the lead in “De-Lovely,” about the life of composer and songwriter Cole Porter, who wrote many of America’s most famous “standards” between the 1920 and 1950s. The title comes from his song “It’s De-Lovely.”
15. Great Balls of Fire! (1989)
> Ticket sales: $13.4 million
“Great Balls of Fire!” stars Dennis Quaid as rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. The title comes from one of his biggest hits.
14. Respect (2021)
> Ticket sales: $24.3 million
“Respect” is a musical drama based on the life of Aretha Franklin. The film stars Jennifer Hudson as Franklin and follows her life from her childhood as a musical prodigy to the recording of the live album “Amazing Grace.”
13. Get on Up (2014)
> Ticket sales: $30.5 million
“Get on Up” stars the late Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul – James Brown. The film uses a nonlinear narrative, following Brown’s stream of consciousness as he recalls events from his life.
12. The Pianist (2002)
> Ticket sales: $32.5 million
“The Pianist” is a biographical war drama produced and directed by Roman Polanski. It stars Adrien Brody as Polish-Jewish pianist and composer WÅadysÅaw Szpilman. Polanski and Szpilman were both Holocaust survivors.
11. The Doors (1991)
> Ticket sales: $32.7 million
Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, “The Doors” is about the life of singer and songwriter Jim Morrison, played by Val Kilmer. It portrays his rock-and-roll and counterculture lifestyle, including his drug use.
10. Selena (1997)
> Ticket sales: $35.4 million
“Selena” is about the life and career of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-PÃ©rez, who was murdered at the age of 23. It stars Jennifer Lopez in her breakout role.
9. Shine (1996)
> Ticket sales: $35.9 million
“Shine” is an Australian film based on the life of David Helfgott, a pianist who suffered a mental breakdown and spent years in institutions. Geoffrey Rush won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the lead role.
8. What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
> Ticket sales: $38.9 million
Based on the life of singer Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” takes its title from one of her many hit songs. It follows her life from childhood to stardom, including her abusive marriage to Ike Turner, played by Laurence Fishburne.
7. All Eyez on Me (2017)
> Ticket sales: $44.9 million
Tupac Shakur, one of the most influential rappers of all time, was shot to death in 1996. “All Eyez on Me” takes its title from Shakur’s fourth studio album and the song of the same name. Demetrius Shipp Jr. stars as the rapper.
6. Jersey Boys (2014)
> Ticket sales: $47 million
Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the musical of the same name, “Jersey Boys” tells the story of the musical group The Four Seasons. Original band members Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio were executive producers.
5. La Bamba (1987)
> Ticket sales: $52.7 million
“La Bamba” features Lou Diamond Phillips as Chicano rock-and-roll star Ritchie Valens, who died in the 1959 plane crash that also claimed the life of Buddy Holly.
4. Ray (2004)
> Ticket sales: $75.3 million
“Ray” stars Jamie Foxx as the legendary blind rhythm and blues singer and pianist Ray Charles. Foxx won an Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice awards for his performance.
3. Rocketman (2019)
> Ticket sales: $96.3 million
“Rocketman” is a musical fantasy drama based on the life of Elton John, and is named after his 1972 hit “Rocket Man.” It stars Taron Egerton as John and Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother, Sheila Eileen.
2. Walk the Line (2005)
> Ticket sales: $119.5 million
“Walk the Line” is based on two autobiographies by singer songwriter Johnny Cash, “Man in Black” and “Cash: The Autobiography.” It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash.
1. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
> Ticket sales: $216.3 million
“Bohemian Rhapsody” tells the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, from the formation of the band up to the 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.
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