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Top 10 Music Biopic Performances

VO: Rebecca Brayton
The truth is often stranger than fiction – but it always has a killer soundtrack. The lives of successful musicians often take the same path, at least if the plots of biopics are to be believed: troubled beginnings in a small town, hard work to overcome obstacles and become a star, then substance abuse rears its ugly head. Despite this tried-and-true formula, music biopics always enchant fans with the life stories of their favorite musicians. Whether it’s Ray Charles, Johnny Cash or Buddy Holly, Edith Piaf, Loretta Lynn or Tina Turner, you can be sure it’ll have an audience. In this video, counts down our picks for the top 10 performances in music biopics.

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Top 10 Music Biopic Performances

The truth is often stranger than fiction – but it always has a killer soundtrack. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 performances in music biopics.

#10 – Lou Diamond Phillips: Ritchie Valens – “La Bamba” (1987)

Lou Diamond Phillips brings focus, dedication and compelling enthusiasm to his star-making portrayal of this doomed rock star. While the film does chronicle his meteoric, if short-lived, rise to fame, and his immobilizing and prophetic fear of flying, it mainly focuses on Valens’ relationships: Phillips shines both here and in his on-stage sequences, where he inhabits the part with critically acclaimed brilliance.

#9 – Val Kilmer: Jim Morrison – “The Doors” (1991)

Purists hate this movie, but not much can be said against Kilmer’s ownership of the lead role: his version of Jim Morrison’s descent is eerie in its accuracy, both on-stage and off. He spent time losing weight and training himself in Morrison’s mannerisms, intonations and beliefs: by the end, even members of The Doors themselves couldn’t tell the difference between Kilmer’s and Morrison’s singing voices.

#8 – Gary Oldman: Sid Vicious – “Sid & Nancy” (1986)

Shakespeare told this tale, only with less sex and drugs. This film traces the heroin-fuelled downward spiral of a punk rock icon in a compassionate, albeit unglamorous way. Oldman’s unhealthy weight loss and rockin’ performances help him morph into the well-known figure who died before he achieved greatness. While Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten hated the film, he did compliment Oldman’s portrayal, so that’s gotta be worth something.

#7 – Angela Bassett: Tina Turner – “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993)

Not just a story about the highs and lows of fame, this is the search for strength and the transformation of Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner. Both Bassett and costar Laurence Fishburne turn in Oscar-nominated performances that elevate this flick; but, it’s the fiery Bassett who is just as easily capable of playing the battered wife as she is of shaking her groove thing.

#6 – Gary Busey: Buddy Holly – “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)

If you’ve ever wondered why Gary Busey was ever taken seriously, this movie is proof: he dropped 30lbs, sang and played guitar live, and earned an Oscar nomination for his ambitious depiction. Rather than doing an impersonation of Buddy Holly, Busey helps set the blueprint for all biopics that followed by embodying the gangly rock star’s shyness, sincerity and cheerfulness in the years leading to the day the music died.

#5 – Sissy Spacek: Loretta Lynn – “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)

As she effortlessly ages from a teen to a grandmother in her mid-30s, Spacek perfects Lynn’s twang, hillbilly innocence and music in this rags-to-riches story of a girl who married young and eventually became a Grand Ole Opry star. The First Lady of Country Music handpicked Spacek for the role, which not only earned the actress an Oscar for her subtle performance, but also a Grammy nomination.

#4 – Marion Cotillard: Édith Piaf – “La Vie en Rose” (2007)

This film chronicles the troubled life of France’s greatest singer, with Cotillard as its guide. The actress is practically unrecognizable as she melts into the role: the way she moves on-stage is Piaf personified. But, it’s Cotillard’s restraint and intensity as she jumps between the energetic teenaged street performer and the dying woman far past her prime that helped her win the first ever Oscar for a French-speaking role.

#3 – F. Murray Abraham: Antonio Salieri – “Amadeus” (1984)

It may be called “Amadeus,” but this film is just as much about the obsessive Salieri. Beside Tom Hulce’s arrogant, juvenile Mozart, Abraham’s Salieri stands as a stern, conservative figure struggling with jealousy, mediocrity and revenge. These visceral feelings are clearly painted on Abraham’s face as he internalizes his character’s inadequacy. Both actors were nominated, but it was Abraham’s commanding performance in this period piece that won Oscar gold.

#2 – Reese Witherspoon: June Carter Cash – “Walk the Line” (2005)

Witherspoon balances out the brooding Man in Black as Johnny Cash’s bubbly and feisty muse. As she shifts seamlessly from her silly performance façade to her more thoughtful behind-the-scenes personality, Witherspoon proves herself both an adept actress and a respectable singer. While their tumultuous love story unfolds, her chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix is undeniable, and though both stars shine in this dark biopic, only Witherspoon walked away with an Oscar.

#1 – Jamie Foxx: Ray Charles – “Ray” (2004)

If you thought Jamie Foxx was a one-trick pony, we present you his Oscar-winning transformation into a legendary R&B singer. Traveling down a road of womanizing and drug abuse, Foxx masters Charles’ intricacies and distinctive mannerisms, while carefully portraying the inspirational story of a man never hampered by his blindness. To complete the metamorphosis, Foxx played his own piano scenes and wore prosthetics so he too could not see.

Do you agree with our list? Which of your favorite music biopic performances have we left off? For more top 10s about your favorite flicks, be sure to subscribe to

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