Movies and music are a match made in heaven. Filmmakers understood this in the days of silent film, where a live pianist would accompany the action happening on screen. And when the talkies came along, the relationship between music and film only grew stronger. After all, what would Bruce the shark be without the sinister Jaws theme? And James Bond would be just another MI6 agent with a license to kill if not for the iconic guitar theme that accompanies him anytime he does something cool. There’s no question that music makes movies better, but when it comes to movies about music, the results are often mixed. That’s because many music biopics are by fans, for fans, and these biopics often succeed in servicing their fans. But in following an often glossy cradle-to-the-grave arc, they can fall short of telling a compelling story.
While there are a lot of bland, boring or plainly bad biopics, there are plenty of movies that actually manage to reflect not just the talent, but the humanity of the troubadours that they follow. Films like Born to be Blue and Behind the Candelabra will make you care about their protagonists, even if you’ve never listened to Chet Baker or Liberace.
Besides biopics, there are a lot of great movies ranging from sincere (A Star is Born) to silly (Walk Hard) that tell the story of made-up musicians. These movies can make you fall as in love with these fictitious artists as if you’d grown up listening to their records. And if you want to understand your favorite artist in their own words (or voice, for that matter), there are many great documentaries that either peel the curtain back on their personal lives or give you an opportunity to be there for an iconic concert or recording session. And finally, there are the mockumentaries and satirical biopics that poke fun at the tropes in all of the genres listed above. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite music movies that you can rent, stream or buy on Amazon Prime.
The best narrative films about real musicians take you inside not only their creative processes, but they also let you get up close and uncomfortable with their personal demons and obsessions.
1. Behind the Candelabra
Where many biopics shy away from touchier topics in deference to their subjects, Behind the Candelabra pulls no punches in depicting Liberace’s disturbing behavior toward his younger lover, Scott Thorson. The film is based on Thorson’s memoir of the same name, setting it apart from most biopics in its telling of the story from the partner’s perspective, rather than the musician’s. Steven Soderbergh’s typically assured direction and Michael Douglas’ and Matt Damon’s incredible performances as Liberace and Thorson make this HBO-produced film a must-watch.
2. Born to Be Blue
Born to Be Blue takes an impressionistic, loosely biographical look at the career of west coast jazz legend Chet Baker. Instead of situating itself at the height of his fame, it follows Ethan Hawke’s Baker as he mounts an attempted comeback after his popularity has waned. Racked by insecurity and a drug problem, he struggles to play the trumpet. These struggles become literal; there’s one visceral scene in which, after he’s attacked on the street and has his teeth knocked out, he feebly attempts to play the trumpet as blood dribbles out of his mouth. Hawke’s chemistry with Carmen Ejogo’s Jane is strong enough to make you forget that she’s actually playing a composite character and not a real person in Baker’s life.
3. Straight Outta Compton
Produced by its subjects and starring one of the protagonist’s actual sons, it’s no surprise that Straight Outta Compton seeks to portray hip hop icons NWA in a sympathetic light. But the film is still willing to delve into some uncomfortable areas in its exploration of the rifts that developed between the members of the group. The film also features portrayals of some of the important figures of the time who’s paths crossed NWA’s, including Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg and Warren G.
Mockumentaries and Parodies
Movies like This is Spinal Tap take apart some of the tropes of the overly glossy concert documentary and rock biopic, and they do so hilariously.
4. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Walk Hard transcends the title of “parody biopic” thanks to its great cast, catchy songs and characters you can actually cheer for. The film follows the fictitious Dewey Cox’s rise to fame and touches on familiar biopic subjects: young love, drug use and the dangers of fame. It follows a familiar biopic arc, but it’s jam-packed with references, cameos and hilariously offbeat jokes. The bit where Dewey Cox, referring to his desire to avoid falling off the wagon by crying out “Oh, the temptations” only for the band The Temptation themselves to burst into an a capella rendition of “My Girl,” is alone worth the 96-minute runtime.
5. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Popstar is deeply stupid, in the best way possible. It stars Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, who bring the music and comedy chops they honed as the Lonely Island to this music mockumentary. The film follows the fictitious boy band Style Boyz, and tells the story of Andy Samberg’s Conner4Real as he attempts to launch a solo career. It features an incredible slate of cameos including 50 Cent, Nas, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.
6. This is Spinal Tap
Directed by comedy legend Rob Reiner, This is Spinal Tap follows a fictitious hair metal band called Spinal Tap. It takes a satirical approach to the over-glamorized rockumentaries and concert films, and the film is packed to the brim with visual gags and hilariously absurdist jokes. In one scene, the members of the band list off the increasingly stupid ways their earlier drummers died, including a “bizarre gardening accident.” The film is credited with launching the mockumentary genre, and while progenitors usually eventually have their work improved upon, This is Spinal Tap may very well be the best of its kind.
Movies like Inside Llewyn Davis and Dreamgirls may take inspiration from real musicians, but their narratives and characters exist firmly in the world of fiction. Songs like “And I’m Telling You” and “Shallow” are very real, though.
7. A Star is Born
It takes guts to adapt a story that’s already been told three times by icons like Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland, and giant brass balls to do it as your first movie as a director. But that’s what Bradley Cooper did with 2018’s A Star is Born, and he pulled it off with aplomb. Lady Gaga and Cooper shine as Ally and Jackson Maine, and songs like “Maybe It’s Time,” “Always Remember Us This Way,” and, most notably, “Shallow,” have worked their way into the collective pop-culture consciousness.
Dreamgirls follows a fictitious group called the Dreamettes, but it takes heavy inspiration from Motown girl groups and The Supremes in particular. The band consists of Anika Noni Rose’s Lorrell, Beyonce Knowle’s Deena and Jennifer Hudson’s Effie White, and it focuses on the fractious relationship between them and the label head Curtis Taylor Jr, who is based on Motown founder Berry Gordy and played by Jamie Foxx. The cast is rounded out by stars like John Lithgow, Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy, who delivers a Golden Globe-winning performance.
Whiplash is all about the lengths people will go to fulfill their ambitions. Miles Teller’s Andrew is trying to prove himself as a jazz drummer to JK Simmons, who nabbed a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as Andrew’s brutally cruel music teacher, Terence. Andrew is willing to push himself to the breaking point and breaks up with his girlfriend to focus on music. The on-screen dynamic between Teller and Simmons is powerful. In this case, their chemistry isn’t romantic; it’s seethingly acrimonious. But unlike some antagonists, these two are less different from one another than they might think.
10. Inside Llewyn Davis
Films like The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Fargo have made the Coen Brothers film icons, but gems like Inside Llewyn Davis have earned them their devoted following. It takes place over a week in the fictitious folk singer Llewyn Davis’ (Oscar Isaac in his breakout role) life and features both traditional folk numbers as well as original songs. Like many Coen brothers films, the plot takes a backseat to the ambiance of the film. Watching the 60s New York folk scene of Inside Llewyn Davis feels like putting on an old cardigan you found in your grandpa’s attic that’s somehow both scratchy and soft.
Whether they’re retrospectives about beloved icons or in-the-moment concert films, documentaries can help us better understand our favorite musicians.
11. Gimme Shelter
Whether it’s the moon landing or a Muhammad Ali knockout, there are times when a photographer knows exactly where to point their lens to capture an iconic moment. But then there are times when you happen to capture an unexpected, history-making moment, whether it’s the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination or Sam Shere’s photo of the Hindenburg disaster. Gimme Shelter, which documents the Rolling Stones’ disastrous and generation-defining concert at the Altamont Speedway, fits into the latter category. What started as an innocuous concert doc ended up catching the moment an armed concertgoer pointed a revolver at Mick Jagger and got fatally stabbed by the Hells Angels, who were providing security for the band. Released in 1970, it’s been described as an emblematic metaphor for the end of the counterculture movement. Jagger’s shell-shocked expression at the end of the film speaks volumes.
Amy tells the story of Amy Winehouse, with the foregone conclusion of how it would end; the documentary was released four years after Winehouse’s death. Easily the most heartbreaking film on this list, it explores the consequences of what happens when you’re beloved but unloved. Some of the people close to her sought to gain from her success, while those that cared about her were unable to intervene against her self-destructive behaviors. But the film doesn’t just indict those around her; it turns a mirror on us as a culture, examining our obsession with watching celebrities unravel.
13. 20 Feet From Stardom
20 Feet From Stardom focuses on the undersung talents of backup singers, who are often as instrumental to the recordings they appear on as the famous stars themselves. It features interviews with both well-known talents (Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen) and the many singers that supported them on recordings and tours. Arguably the centerpiece of the film is Merry Clayton’s isolated vocals on The Rolling Stones track “Gimme Shelter,” which have to be heard to be believed.