clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Dakota Fanning paints her faced red in The Runaways. Image: Apparition

Filed under:

8 encore-worthy musician biopics to watch at home

From moody period pieces to triumphant underdog stories

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The dizzying highs and the crushing lows of real-life fame within the music industry have long been a source of fascination for Hollywood. Maybe it’s the ready-made “three-act structure” most of the stories fall into, or the pageantry inherent to performing music on stage that is so appealing to filmmakers. Regardless, biopics about musicians are a part of the film landscape nearly every year. This year’s big entry for the genre is Elvis. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the man behind the 2001 fantasy musical Moulin Rouge!, this latest take on Elvis Presley’s life focuses heavily on the complicated relationship Presley had with his manager Col. Tom Parker (played by multiple Academy Award winner Tom Hanks) and looks to have all the visual splendor one would expect from the acclaimed director tackling a story about the King of Rock and Roll.

To get you prepped for Elvis, we have compiled a list of quality music biopics that you can check out at home right now on various streaming services. It covers multiple eras and styles of music, but the stories of struggle, success, fortune, and temptation are captivatingly universal.

Control

Ian Curtis and the rest of Joy Division in Control. Image: The Weinstein Company

Control tells the tragic life story of Ian Curtis, frontman for the British post-punk band Joy Division. Dealing with epilepsy and severe depression, the influential singer-songwriter took his own life at 23 years old — just one day before Joy Division was set to leave for their first North American tour. Control takes a look at his life from his high school years up to his sudden death less than a decade later. It paints a picture of how sometimes all the success and familial love in the world aren’t enough to numb feelings of emptiness and isolation. This somber story is made palpable by stunning black-and-white imagery from music video director Anton Corbijn (Nirvana’sHeart-Shaped Box”), a compelling wounded lead performance from Sam Riley (Maleficent), and numerous hypnotic songs performed by the actors themselves, taken from Joy Division’s only two albums.

Control is available to watch for free with ads on Pluto TV, Freevee, Plex, and Tubi.

Get on Up

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get on Up Image: Universal Pictures

Biopics are intended to shed light on their subjects — to help humanize mythic figures for an audience of die-hards and casual fans alike. That is not what this 2014 film about the Godfather of Soul does. Don’t misunderstand; Get on Up tries to humanize James Brown. It provides a view of all the triumphs and tragedies of his life mixed in with quiet moments, and ping-pongs the viewer between them with abandon. This kaleidoscope approach to his life story is fascinating, and anchored by a performance from the late Chadwick Boseman that ranks among his best. Yet, it will not bring a deeper understanding of why James Brown was the man or performer he was. He exists in the film almost as a fully formed contradictory enigma. Get on Up captures the undeniable charisma of the man and the electric feeling of his live performances. You won’t know the “whys” of James Brown from watching this one, but you’ll be entertained and enamored all the same.

Get on Up is available to watch on Netflix.

Love & Mercy

Paul Dano and a band in Love & Mercy. Image: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

One approach biopics can take is focusing on singular moments in a person’s life rather than trying to cover the entirety of it. A good example of this is 2014’s Love & Mercy, about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. The singer-songwriter famously suffered a nervous breakdown in the mid-1960s and lived as a recluse for several years. Love & Mercy dramatizes his story by splitting it into two distinct pieces. The first is about Wilson’s deteriorating mental state as he crafts the band’s most acclaimed album, Pet Sounds (and the immediate aftermath of its commercial failure). The second is about the period 20-plus years later, when Wilson is living a solitary life under the controlling thumb of his ever-present therapist. He meets and falls in love with a woman named Melinda Ledbetter, who helps him break free of that toxic relationship and learn to live again.

The scenes with the younger Wilson (portrayed by a sweetly innocent Paul Dano) in the studio are shot in a faux-documentary style that allows the viewer to experience the joy of creation directly with him, even as he grows more and more detached from those around him. The older Wilson is embodied by an appropriately disheveled John Cusack in scenes that are more traditionally presented, as the viewer is led through the story of his budding romance with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and their struggle against the control of Wilson’s therapist (a cartoonish but compelling Paul Giamatti). The latter-day struggles of Wilson to regain his life give Love & Mercy an arc that should resonate with anyone who has found a way to persevere through hard times thanks to the people they care about.

Love & Mercy is available to watch on HBO Max.

The Dirt

Mötley Crüe performs in The Dirt Photo: Jake Giles Netter/Netflix

Mötley Crüe’s collaborative autobiography The Dirt is considered by many to be the greatest “tell-all” memoir ever written about the hair metal scene. Its epic and “so outlandish it must be true” tales direct from the members of the band about their origins, life on the road, and all the unreal excess they experienced was always ripe for adaptation. The stories in the book are chaotic and brash, and on every other page you wonder how the band managed to avoid death or permanent injury.

Directed by Jeff Tremaine (the Jackass franchise), who knows a thing or two about self-destructive bro squads, the adaptation captures the chaotic energy of the original book by using multiple narrators that sometimes contradict each other but always keep the story barreling forward from one unbelievable or melodramatic moment to the next. The result is an energetic movie that feels both cheekily meta and lively. It’s a glossy, loud, and fast-paced package that feels perfectly suited for Mötley Crüe’s brand of image-conscious mayhem.

The Dirt is available to watch on Netflix.

The Doors

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, performing in The Doors. Image: Tri-Star Pictures

The Doors is director Oliver Stone’s love letter to the idea of famed frontman Jim Morrison. Music biopics often exaggerate or simplify the facts of a story to make it more fitting for a cinematic adaptation, but here Stone completely ignores nuance and fully embraces the “print the legend” aspect of these stories. He presents The Doors’ lead singer as equal parts poetic, death-obsessed wannabe mystic and magnetic drunken buffoon. There’s no real nuance between these seemingly conflicting traits in this tale of the band’s formation and rise up until Morrison’s tragic death by overdose. The overt exaggeration, devotion to mythmaking over facts, and self-indulgent nature of the film might all be unbearable if not for Stone’s captivatingly hallucinogenic directing, Val Kilmer’s tour-de-force performance as Morrison, and a top-tier supporting cast that includes Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Mimi Rogers, and Michael Wincott. It may not be all that accurate, but The Doors feels like the perfect distillation of the vibes of the band and their long-lasting appeal.

The Doors is available to watch on Prime Video and Paramount Plus.

The Runaways

Dakota Fanning sings in The Runaways. Image: Apparition

The Runaways were never meant to last. But in the scant four years the all-girl cult rock group was active, they were hugely influential. They began trends that helped open the door for more women in the world of heavier music and launched the careers of more than one rock mainstay. However, they were teenagers at the time of the band’s inception, and not really equipped for the harsh world they had been launched into. This 2010 film, centered around guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and the band’s fleeting frontwoman Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), deals with the inevitable crash that occurred as the group tried to cope with sudden success at a young age.

Filled with great music (some even performed by the actors themselves), The Runaways encapsulates the youthful energy of the rock pioneers well. It greatly streamlines the band’s history — narrowing it to a tale of Jett’s determination and Currie’s disintegration as they mutually edge ever closer to true stardom. Stewart and Fanning are suitably alluring as the yin and yang of The Runaways. Their presence, coupled with an unhinged Michael Shannon playing their controversial manager as a sort of glam-rock mad scientist, makes the film one to check out.

The Runaways is available to watch on Hulu and for free with ads on Tubi.

Walk the Line

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon lock eyes and sing in Walk the Line. Image: 20th Century Fox

This biopic of beloved country music icon Johnny Cash is often held up as one of the gold standards of the genre. It tells the story of Cash’s rise in the music industry with all the tragedy, substance abuse, and eventual redemption typically expected from biopics. This one rises to the top because of the exceptional craft from writer-director James Mangold (Logan) and everyone else involved with its production. The other aspect that truly sets Walk the Line apart is its heavy focus on the romance Cash had with fellow country star June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have a profound amount of chemistry in the roles, which translated to them both being nominated for Academy awards due to their performances — with Witherspoon even winning the honor of Best Actress that year. Both were also part of the Grammy award-winning soundtrack for the film that featured numerous Cash and Carter songs covered by the pair.

Walk the Line is available to rent on purchase on digital VOD platforms like Apple and Google Play.

Wu Tang: An American Saga

Three performers in Wu-Tang: An American Saga hold up their fists in front of a banner that says “Eric & Rakim”. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

It’s a challenge trying to condense the story of one performer or band into a single movie. Now imagine trying to properly summarize the story of 10 highly influential musicians with a history as ripe for dramatic retelling as the individual members of the storied hip-hop collective known as the Wu Tang Clan. All those larger-than-life personalities could not be given their proper due with just the handful of minutes that a standard biopic film would allow each of them.

Wu Tang: An American Saga addresses this by expanding the biopic format from a single film into a multi-season limited series. The show tells a rags-to-riches story of rival corner kids during the crack cocaine epidemic of the early ’90s rising above the violence of their local conflicts to come together over a shared love of music. Created by Wu Tang founder RZA, this true (but appropriately embellished) approach to the group’s history should appeal to not only fans of the group, hip-hop, and biopics, but to anyone who enjoys gritty television dramas like HBO’s The Wire or FX’s Snowfall.

Wu Tang: An American Saga is available to watch on Hulu.

What to Watch

The best HBO Max originals and where to watch them

Best of the Year

The best TV shows of 2022, so far

What to Watch

John Wick changed action movies forever. Here are 10 great examples to watch at home

View all stories in What to Watch

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon