The buzz around Respect, a movie chronicling the life of Aretha Franklin, is proof that there is nothing like a biopic to get people talking. With a genre that’s full of cultural moments, undeniable icons, and great music, what’s not to love? And since the genre is also addictive, we’ve compiled a list of biopics on Black musicians that you can binge the stir your musical appetite until Respect is finally released in 2021.
Of course, we had to start here. Respect is set to be released in the summer of 2021 and stars Jennifer Hudson, whom Aretha Franklin handpicked for the role. The visually gorgeous film delves into Franklin’s childhood, her struggles in the industry, and her massive cultural impact. The teaser is tantalizing indeed. J. Hud’s soulful, powerful voice scores scenes of an insecure Aretha finding her voice, rising to the well-deserved title as the Queen of Soul, and becoming a civil rights icon. The release date has been moved three times because of Covid concerns, so we’re crossing our fingers that August 13th is the day we finally get to watch this masterpiece in motion.
2. Cadillac Records
The songstress Beyonce stars as the ornery Etta James, a woman known for her incredibly haunting, gritty vocals and even grittier story. The film centers around the founding of Chicago based Cadillac Records, a fictionalized version of Chess Records, the real-life label. The movie also follows the lives of some of the great voices of that time; Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry. While the story is heavily fictionalized and is more motion ‘pic’ than a biography, the stirring music and the major plot points ring true to history. Watch it on Hulu.
Ray was an independent film that did incredibly well at the box office, bringing in $125 million worldwide. It isn’t quite fair to say that Jamie Foxx stars as Ray Charles so much as he becomes Ray Charles, nailing his mannerisms and voice perfectly. The tumultuous life of Charles is one to watch, full of beauty and pain, drugs and rejection, sex and trauma. But watching this singer-pianist make a name for himself in a racist, ableist world is something to see. We highly recommend this film. Watch it on Hulu.
4. Miles Ahead
Don Cheadle made his directorial debut with Miles Ahead, a biopic about the life of Miles Davis, the famous jazz musician. The film freely skips around in time, following Davis’ attempts to get his career back on track after a stint with drugs and alcohol. Some of the plots are fictionalized, mainly the music journalist who breaks into Davis’ home and works with him to find a stolen tape that holds his more recent work. Its freeform way of storytelling draws the watcher into the narrative, a unique feature that won the film much critical acclaim. You can watch Miles Ahead on YouTube.
The great jazz and blues singer Bessie Smith is immortalized in this sultry picture. Queen Latifah’s portrayal is so good that she was nominated for the Best Actress of a limited movie. Smith’s story, as portrayed on screen, is gritty, gorgeous, and violent. It is a familiar story to anyone whom the world has tried to squash into a box half their size. Bessie Smith wantonly smashes the world’s expectations and desire for who it wants her to be, and though she is fearless, the pressure eventually sets in. It’s a riveting journey, a true story, and available to watch on HBO Max.
6. The Temptations
This mini-series was greatly discussed when it was first released, with certain moments even becoming Black culture trivia. The picture follows the journey of all five members as they meet, bond over their love of music, find love, fight with each other, and handle their massive fame. This miniseries, made up of two 2-hour episodes, is something you will watch over and over again. Watch them on Amazon Prime.
7. What’s Love Got To Do With It
This is also a cultural favorite, both because it starred the ultra-talented Angela Bassett and because she played the beloved Tina Turner. The story begins with Anna Mae Bullock, focuses on Tina’s origins and rise to fame. It also gives an inside look at the contentious relationship she had with Ike Turner, her husband and bandmate. The film even includes real concert footage from Tina Turner’s concert tour in the 80s. Watch and rewatch it on iTunes.
8. Get on Up
You can’t go wrong with a movie starring the late Chadwick Boseman, whom critics called “unforgettable” in the role. Like Miles Ahead, this Get On Up uses a stream of consciousness way of telling the story of how Brown grew up, finds music, battles his demons, and becomes a cultural phenomenon. Viola Davis co-stars as Brown’s mother, Susie Brown. On-screen, Boseman, and Davis make magic together. Watch the show on Hulu.
This hip hop film caused quite the stir when it was released in theaters. Notorious B.I.G. was a polarizing figure when he died. His untimely death continues to be wrapped in scandal and mystery. The film portrays Biggie’s childhood and rises to fame, the standard for a biopic. The tensions between him and his contemporary, Tupac Shakur, are explored in great detail, as well as Biggie’s somewhat combative romantic relationships. Though the reception of this film was extremely mixed, it’s still really interesting to watch. Catch in on Youtube.