The Highest Grossing Music Biopics of All Time
The music biopic is back in a big way.
Three of the five most successful films in the genre have been released in the last few years, including the long-awaited "Bohemian Rhapsody," which shines a spotlight on the rock band Queen and its lead singer, Freddie Mercury. It arrived in theaters in November 2018 and promptly set records.
So now it’s the note-perfect time to revisit the big-screen music biography hits of the past, to see the most lucrative combos of film and musical personalities. From Mozart to N.W.A, here are the top 16 box office grossing music biopics (excluding documentaries) of all time, as determined by Box Office Mojo. Numbers are not adjusted for inflation.
16. “The Doors”
Gross: $34.4 million
In his memoir “Light My Fire,” the Doors' late keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, called director Oliver Stone's often over-the-top portrayal of the band's 1960s' rise to superstardom a "grotesque exaggeration." Film critics weren't particularly kind either. Yet the movie was a sizeable hit and renewed interest in the group's iconic songs — from "Break On Through" to "LA Woman."
Val Kilmer, starring as Jim Morrison, does most of his own on-screen singing — and it's not bad. Among the movie's many cameo appearances, look for real-life Doors' drummer John Densmore playing a recording studio engineer.
Gross: $35.3 million
Shortly after the tragic 1995 murder of Tejano music sensation Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, work got underway on producing a movie about the star's working-class upbringing and rise to fame.
Tapped to play the singer on celluloid, Jennifer Lopez gives a terrific, enthusiastic performance that inspired her to pursue her own music career.
Gross: $35.9 million
Geoffrey Rush bagged a Best Actor Oscar for wowing audiences with his portrayal of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, who suffers a mental breakdown. The role requires some serious acting chops.
At the time of its release, critics charged that some events depicted in this true-life tale were wildly inaccurate and/or downright fabricated. But watching the DVD some three decades later, the film is so good as to render these complaints mute.
13. “The Soloist”
Gross: $38.3 million
A Los Angeles Times columnist (Robert Downey Jr.) encounters a schizophrenic homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) who plays violin magnificently. After learning Ayers was once a musical prodigy who studied cello at Julliard, the journalist begins writing columns about their ensuing, difficult friendship.
An uplifting tale of redemption, it did well in theaters thanks in large part to the popularity of the Times' newspaper columns, which were adapted into a book.
12. “What's Love Got to Do with It”
Gross: $39.1 million
Both Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne deliver powerhouse performances in this sometimes harrowing movie about the life of Tina Turner and her husband and musical partner, Ike Turner.
The film serves as an inspiration to women trapped in abusive relationships. And as a triumphant bonus, you'll see the real Tina Turner perform the title song in concert before the end credits roll.
Gross: $44.4 million
The tumultuous life of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. gets a by-the-numbers treatment in this flawed yet enjoyable biopic starring actor/rapper Jamal Woolard as "Biggie." One of the movie's producers is Sean "Puffy" Combs, who in 1993 founded Bad Boy Records and signed Biggie to his first solo recording contract.
10. “All Eyez on Me”
Gross: $44.9 million
After six long years in the making, you'd hope this bio flick about innovative rapper Tupac Shakur would live up to his fascinatingly messy life. Instead, Pac fans are simply given a disjointed mess of a movie with none of the rhythm or rhyme that made his raps so highly influential. Do yourself a favor. Skip this pic and play your old "All Eyez on Me" CD instead.
Gross: $52 million
This list's sole Academy Award Best Picture winner stars Tom Hulce as the boorish, hedonistic Mozart, and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as rival composer Antonio Salieri. Beautifully filmed in Prague, director Milos Forman has crafted a movie that accomplishes the rare feat of taking a highbrow subject and making it accessible to the masses.
8. “La Bamba”
Gross: $54.2 million
The movie version of 1950s' Mexican-American rock-n-roller Richie Valens' all-too-brief career finds Lou Diamond Phillips delivering a sincere performance in the lead role. Another highlight is the soundtrack with Valens' songs, including the signature title track, performed by East Los Angeles rock band Los Lobos.
7. “Coal Miner's Daughter”
Gross: $67.2 million
Prepping to portray "The Queen of Country Music," Loretta Lynn, actress Sissy Spacek spent a year with Lynn, even joining her on a concert tour. For Spacek, the work, including doing all her own singing, paid off in Best Actress Oscar gold.
The rest of the cast is none too shabby either. Along for the Kentucky-rags-to-Nashville-riches tale are Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn's husband; Beverly D'Angelo playing Patsy Cline; and Levon Helm as "Lorretty's" coal miner father.
6. “Jersey Boys”
Gross: $67.7 million
Director Clint Eastwood's film version of the Tony Award-winning musical about 1960s' pop group The Four Seasons hits the screen with a somewhat heavy handed thud. Sure, you still get the fun, toe-tappin' songs ("Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry"), but too much of its two-hour-plus running time plods along without the pop of the original stage show.
5. “I Can Only Imagine”
Gross: $83.5 million
In the early 2000s, Christian rock band MercyMe scored a massive crossover hit with the inspirational single "I Can Only Imagine" — penned by lead singer Bartt Millard about his relationship with his father.
The cinematic telling of the song's origin story was mostly panned by mainstream critics, yet the film was a hit, grossing enough to place it among movies about the likes of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash.
Gross: $124.7 million
Though he didn't perform his own vocals, Jamie Foxx deservedly won an Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of soul titan Ray Charles, who passed just a few months before the film's October 2004 release. Not only did "Ray" rake it in at the box office, the movie's soundtrack album won a Grammy and sold well over a million copies.
3. “Walk the Line”
Gross: $186.4 million
Johnny Cash's early career struggles and triumphs got the silver-screen treatment in this audience-pleasing hit starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary "Man in Black," and Reese Witherspoon in an Academy Award-winning turn as his wife June Carter.
2. “Straight Outta Compton”
Gross: $201.6 million
In a 1989 piece for the LA Weekly, the late writer Jonathan Gold perfectly described the title track of N.W.A.'s first album, "Straight Outta Compton," as sounding "violent even before anyone says a word...The beat is scary all by itself." So if hardcore gangsta rap isn't your cup of Olde English malt liquor, the number-two grossing music bio pic may not be for you.
The arc follows N.W.A (Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, etc.) on the group's meteoric rise from the streets of Compton, California to rap stardom, and inevitable break-up. The in-studio and live concert musical scenes pack a wallop. And all the acting leads do a convincing job, particularly Ice Cube's own real-life son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father.
1. Bohemian Rhapsody
Gross: $636.6 million (and counting)
The story of Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates suffered production woes and critics slammed the film for its inaccuracies, as well as its inept handling of Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. Yet nothing stopped this juggernaut.
Rami Malek drew in audiences worldwide with his charismatic portrayal of the singer. Or did people just want to have a little fun and sing “Scaramouche, Scaramouche” in the theater and do the Fandango? Either way, consider the box office rocked to the tune of $630 million and counting.