As Black History Month comes to a close, we think it’s important to recognize that every month is a good time to celebrate the accomplishments of inspiring American figures of color. And when it comes to music, there’s a lot to appreciate, as African-Americans have had an unparalleled influence on this particular art form. So we’re delving into that subgenre of film known as the music biopic. Black history casts a wide net, but classic biopics, especially musical ones, encompass not only artistic expression, but sociological and political themes as well. It’s practically impossible to depict the Black artist’s journey without exploring themes of racism, segregation, self-destruction, the struggle to maintain one’s individuality, and ultimately, the strength to succeed. Although fraught with heavy material, these films are also saturated with incredible music.
Ask any music professor and they’ll tell you it’s almost impossible to discuss music history and theory without dropping names like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Sarah Vaughn, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. Dre, Michael Jackson — the list goes on and on. Aside from the expression of talent, the Black artist’s journey possesses all the tropes of a classic Hollywood film— dramatic, tragic, mythological, and purely American. It’s no wonder these stories have gotten the Hollywood treatment for nearly forty years now, which continues with recent streaming series (such as Hulu’s Wu Tang: An American Saga and BET’s Don Cornelius bio, American Soul) and promises to be on the entertainment forefront with the upcoming film release of Billie Holiday Vs. The United States.
So, here you are: the ten best black music biopics in the history of movies. Let this list remind us all to celebrate these figures and their art this month and beyond with recognition, respect, and a healthy dose of love.
10. Cadillac Records
Based on the legendary Chess Records label which started in 1950s Chicago and gifted us with musical luminaries such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Cadillac Records is the celluloid version of your favorite mixtape — it’s not a cohesive narrative, but more an assortment of stories. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the cocky and ambitious Jewish kid who started the legendary label. Jeffrey Wright mines a deep well of misery and contradictions as bluesman Muddy Waters, Mos Def gives an electric turn as Berry (he even eerily resembles the famed guitarist/singer) and Beyonce Knowles is a ball of fire as the immensely talented but self-destructive Etta James. What Cadillac Records lacks in story, it makes up for in raw enthusiasm and glorious music, all of which has left an indelible mark on the sounds of today.
Is there anything Queen Latifah can’t do? Let’s see, she can rap, she can act and she can even belt out the 1920’s Delta Blues. Nope, she can do it all. Latifah is a badass, and so is Bessie Smith. Known as “The Empress of Blues,” Smith rose to fame in the ’20s during the pinnacle of racism and poverty in the South. This HBO movie seamlessly chronicles Bessie’s grueling life, from her impoverished childhood to her fame to her bisexuality, to butting heads with a racist industry, plus several broken marriages and struggle with drugs and booze. Bessie ultimately died in a car accident when she was 43 years old. The movie feels both dreamlike and authentic in its depiction of a rugged South. Interspersed with some amazing sequences where Latifah digs deep to bellow out the blues, Bessie also features fantastic supporting performances by Mo’Nique and Michael K. Williams.
8. Purple Rain
Though it’s not a traditional biopic, Purple Rain plunges us into the art and personality of its subject more than most films. It’s a novel, more than a history book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as informative or intimate. This 1984 semi-autobiographical vehicle fortified Prince as one of the most talented performers of all time. Simply referred to as “The Kid,” the star plays a hungry bandleader in his real-life hometown of Minneapolis. Forced to constantly prove himself to the club’s manager, his peers, and his rival group, an enigmatic Morris Day and The Time, after meeting the alluring Apollonia, he is tested to his very core. For a movie about a rock star, it’s a surprisingly gritty and honest depiction of love — the pain, the passion, the jealousy, the insecurities, and the repressed emotions that rise to the surface. Sure, it’s a little cheesy at times and the acting can be subpar (except veteran actor Clarence Williams III as his father who kills it), but it’s also bursting with yearning, sexuality, and a milestone soundtrack. There isn’t a music film that matches Prince’s stage performances either— the high-heeled boots, the guitar shredding, the finger-licking, the stage-humping. You might not know that much about Prince the man when the film is over, but you’ll know everything about the music, and doesn’t that speak to the artist’s life better than a literal biography?
7. Straight Outta Compton
After the release of their debut album Straight Outta Compton in 1988, N.W.A forever changed the DNA of Rap music. Contextually, they’re the Black Sabbath of Hip-Hop as they added a layer of darkness to the music that wasn’t there before. Instead of merely looping funky beats and laying down clever rhymes, N.W.A detailed life on the streets of South Central Los Angeles with a documentarian’s precision and an artist’s rage. F. Gary Gray’s spellbinding biopic details the lives of this notorious group of outsiders (Easy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren). Starting with the group’s inception, it swiftly chronicles their stardom, their debaucherous ascent and their eventual demise (some members flourished with successful careers; others tragically did not). Like the music it depicts, Compton is brash, unapologetic, and subversively dangerous.
6. Get On Up
The late/great Chadwick Boseman gives it his all in this under-seen portrait of The Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Get On Up pulls no punches in displaying Brown’s ugly side, starting with a 1988 incident where he waved a shotgun in a maniacal rage on one of his properties. Born into extreme poverty with an abusive father and a mother who abandoned him, Brown’s rise to stardom unspools with a propulsive blast that never relinquishes its power, on stage or off. Ultimately, the film is about a broken man’s need for perfection and control, which ends up poisoning his personal life with drugs, jealousy, and violence. Boseman’s performance is impassioned and brutish but also laced with a sympathetic attentiveness. When he proclaims, practically to the heavens, “No one tells me when, where, or how long I can be funky!” you believe every word.
5. Lady Sings the Blues
There is something oddly quirky and tragic about this 1973 biography of jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Director Sidney J. Furie not only captured Harlem in the ‘30s with a dreamy, pallid composition, he also encapsulated Holiday’s childlike innocence through Diana Ross’s impassioned performance. After surviving a rape in Baltimore, Holiday ends up in Harlem, working as a maid in a brothel. Tired of living in the dregs, she introduces herself to club owners all over town and is soon singing on stage. The movie follows her career somewhat peripherally. Her career is not important in the film. Furie seems more fascinated with the singer’s inherent sadness. With the charismatic Billy Dee Williams as her lover, Lady Sings the Blues is not always an easy experience. Who enjoys watching one of their idols deteriorate from heroin? The scene where Williams sneaks a doctor into Holiday’s jail cell to inject her with morphine so she won’t die from detoxing is genuinely harrowing. This movie might be a little messy, but it’s still a genuine tribute to one of the greatest singers of all time. When she sings, Ross might not sound like Holiday, but she sure channels her pain.
4. Miles Ahead
Traditionally, music biopics are criticized for implementing cliched and predictable plot devices and formulas, marked with the usual trajectory of innocence, fame, indulgence, and redemption. But sometimes a movie will come out and lay waste to those stereotypes. Miles Ahead is one of those films. Actor Don Cheadle stars and directs this feverish and unexpectedly hilarious portrayal of jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. It’s the 1970’s and a reclusive Davis lives in his New York flat, doing drugs, hitting his punching bag, calling local DJs to tell them to stop playing Kind of Blue and stick to Sketches of Spain, while coming to terms with a fading career and the loss of his true love, Frances Taylor. When a ragged music journalist (Ewan McGregor) knocks on his door begging for an interview, this unlikely duo embark on an adventure that includes a battle for a stolen session tape, cocaine, guns, broken noses and ultimately, a bizarre exploration of the artist’s fractured psyche. With his gravelly voice and unsettling demeanor, Cheadle personifies both Miles’ tragedy and genius.
3. What’s Love Got To Do With It
In our current cultural climate, contemporary movies are often too concerned about offending their audience (and box office receipts). The result is a softened approach to difficult material with camera tricks, montages, and rapid editing. That was not the case with 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. It was a different time in Hollywood. This portrait of Tina Turner (Angela Bassett) and her tumultuous marriage to tyrant and music partner Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) is a terrifying — and honest — portrayal of domestic violence. The musical numbers are elaborate and the production design is remarkable (each decade is authentically displayed), but it’s the squeamish scenes when Ike’s rage turns ugly that distinguishes this film from other biopics. Director Brian Gibson never turns away from the brutality, forcing us to digest it all. As a result, we can’t trivialize the sadistic nature of abuse or deny that it can happen to anyone, even a music icon. It’s a tough but important movie.
Clint Eastwood is one of the most complex figures in Hollywood. The renowned actor turned director never followed Hollywood’s rules, either. He’s a Libertarian (but not a Trump supporter), he picks projects at random (from the gritty noir of Mystic River to the absurd satire of The Mule) and at 90 years old, he directs a new film every couple of years. Eastwood’s also a music aficionado. Not only does he write the scores for his movies, he worships at the altar of jazz. If you need proof, look no further than his portrait of bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker in 1989’s Bird. Forest Whitaker plays Parker as a jubilant vagabond with a deeply troubled soul (he died of a heroin overdose at 34). Eastwood paints ‘40s New York with thick brushstrokes and every frame is soaked with lush, murky tones and opaque cinematography. The narrative swims through Parker’s life, fluidly touching one memory to another like a meandering note in a sax solo. It’s a smoldering and virtuosic film that makes us wish Eastwood would return to his love of jazz and make another musical movie instead of the tired, anti-government fare he’s been putting out lately.
Jamie Foxx took home the Academy Award for his uncanny turn as legendary R&B pianist and singer, Ray Charles, for good reason. The movie alternates between the artist’s childhood when he loses his sight at nine to his worldwide fame in the ’50s and ’60s, while plunging us into Charles’ tempestuous battle with heroin and infidelity. Taylor Hackford’s virtuoso directing elevates Ray above your average autobiography using intricate cinematography, warm tones (especially the great moments during the recording process) and inspired performances. It’s a beautiful film. The supporting performances are top-notch as well. Kerry Washington is great as Charles’ conflicted wife, but Regina King truly sparkles as Ray’s troubled lover, backup singer, and drug-addled muse. Unlike the blinding fodder of Bohemian Rhapsody (which has the texture of a glorified music video), Ray takes the time to peel back the layers of the man’s life with patience and attention to detail, helping us to see him as the multi-faceted, flawed human being and the genius musician he truly was. ❖