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There’s a love affair that music lovers have with biopics centered around our favorite musicians. It’s the participation of said acts in the story they want to tell, the recreated looks and moments, and the behind-the-scenes stories that we never knew that have captivated us for years through some of our favorite music biopics. Films like 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues inspired countless independent and major studio biopics chronicling the stories of Black artists and all that they endured: redemption, success, personal and professional losses, tumultuous relationships, addiction, and legacy. It’s these signature tropes that have gone on to define the biopic format that we’ve become familiar with, culminating in a handful of films highlighting some of our legendary musical icons.

This list is dedicated to those music biopics. You won’t see mini-series like The Jacksons: An American Dream, The Temptations, and The New Edition Story on here. But you will see defining movies like WhRay (2004)at’s Love Got to Do with It and Straight Outta Compton. These are the eight best biopic movies about Black artists.

‘Ray’ (2004)

Although the film isn’t the greatest cinematically, Ray’s story of redemption and legacy is what made it Oscar worthy. With an A-star cast including Jamie Foxx in the lead role as trailblazing R&B musician Ray Charles, Regina Hall, Larenz Tate, Kerry Washington, and Rick Gomez, Ray is one of the most definitive examples of what a well-directed and energetic music biopic can be. The narrative of how Ray lost his eye-sight, the traumatic drowning of his brother that haunted him, the strong-willed wisdom of his late mother that guided him spiritually, and the demonized effect of his drug usage and philandering ways add to the charisma and power of Charles that Foxx captures brilliantly.

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ (1993)

Taking on the role of Tina Turner wasn’t an easy task, but Angela Bassett gave a career-defining performance as the rock and soul legend in What’s Love Got to Do with It. As the film explores everything from Tina’s rise as shy and demure teenager to singing with future husband Ike and his band, it painfully captures how Tina’s road to stardom was plagued with physical and emotional abuse at Ike’s hands. As challenging a watch as it continues to be 30 years later, there’s no denying just how committed Bassett is to the role, showing how Tina’s story was more than just one of victimhood, but of survival and forced resilience.

‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ (1998)

Why Do Fools Fall in Love has everything that makes a great biographical film. A story about a forgotten teen idol from the ‘50s, quality screenwriting, an A-list cast featuring pre-Oscar Halle Berry, Larenz Tate, and Vivica A. Fox, and even a cameo from Little Richard. The film follows three women (Berry as Zola Taylor, Fox as Elizabeth Waters, and Lela Rochon as Emira Eagle) as they argue in court over who was Frankie Lymon’s (Tate) rightful wife for a claim to his estate. With millions at stake, each woman takes the stand, where their tales of lust, dysfunction, and Lymon’s addiction tell a harrowing and chaotic story of the short life of a beloved teen idol. Berry’s star power, Rochon’s tenderness, and Fox’s sly humor make the film one of the best Black music biopics to have been created in the last 30 years.

‘Cadillac Records’ (2008)

Biopics for record labels can be an overwhelming task when handling the multiple stories of various acts and figures who helped create it, and director Darnell Martin took on this ambitious task in telling the history of the underrated house of Blues and R&B, Chess Records. To be fair, the story of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess and the acts who called the label home — Etta James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf, among others — deserves a better and deeply in-depth examination of their impact on the blues. But Beyoncé, Mos Def, Columbus Short, and Adrien Brody work with the scattered material as best as they can, creating a choppy but fascinating insight into a forgotten label.

‘Introducing Dororthy Dandridge’ (1999)

Before Shonda Rhimes was known as the queen of Shondaland behind shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder, her pen gave us the screenplay for this classic about the life of actress and musician Dororthy Dandridge. With Halle Berry portraying the Black singer-actress, the film explores Dandridge’s struggle to rise to the same caliber as her white counterparts (namely, Marilyn Monroe). It’s a sentimental and depressing story of rejection and potential, with Rhimes using Dandridge’s story to explore the unfair standards Black women have to face in Hollywood and society at large, abuse, and much more.

‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)

The history of NWA has box-office gold written all over it. It encompasses so much: gangster rap, the F.B.I., the L.A. Riots, H.I.V., street violence, gang culture, police brutality, and endless feuding between the members of the iconic rap group following the release of their breakout album, Straight Outta Compton. Still, director F. Gary Gray attempted to touch on all of this while immortalizing Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella in the biopic of the same name. The acting in the film isn’t the best and there aren’t any major cinematic moments. But where Straight Outta Compton succeeds is in finding a way to embody the energy of the time period being recreated, and giving us a glimpse into the dynamic of each NWA member. The intensity of Ice Cube, the genius of Dr. Dre, the street smarts turned businessman hustle of Eazy-E, and the camaraderie of MC Ren and Yella. They each played a part and the film does a good job of highlighting how epic their story is. Although the film does fail to unpack the members’ issues with homophobia and violence (especially against women), Straight Outta Compton is a safe but enjoyable watch, the biopic a vibrant expression of ‘90s hip-hop culture.

‘Respect’ (2021)

In her directorial debut, Liesl Tommy finds a way to tell the Queen of Soul’s story as respectfully and tenderly as possible in Respect. While most would prefer Genius: Aretha, which offered a detailed look into the upbringing, musical lineage, and legacy of Aretha Franklin, Respect tends to stick to the story that Aretha wanted told — even down to the woman she wanted to play her. Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of Aretha is commanding from the moment she emerges on the screen. Through Tommy’s safe writing and careful direction, the film cautiously reveals Franklin’s trauma (and the coping mechanisms made as a result) while offering an air of mystique that still leaves you wanting more.

‘Get on Up’ (2014)

Following a nonlinear storyline and frequently breaking the fourth wall, Get on Up functions as a vehicle for Brown’s stream of consciousness as he recalls events from over the course of his life. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of James Brown isn’t the greatest and he doesn’t even look like the legendary Godfather of Soul. But what it lacks in uncanny physical similarities and mocking recreations, it makes up for in its expansive narrative. His childhood in poverty that led him to jail at 17, recording his first hit single, learning the record business, using his music as a form of activism, drug addiction, and hints at his abusive past as a husband. Get on Up succeeds in showing the complexities of a man who devoted most of his life to his craft, with a brilliant cast of notable actors — the late Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Jill Scott, and Octavia Spencer — rounding out the dynamic homage.

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