Screens /// Sounds x
in article about documentaries and biopics about musicians, a scene of Prince from Purple Rain
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When sound becomes pictures.

Looking to combine your interest in music with movies? Here are eight of the greatest documentaries and biopics about or based on music’s brightest stars.

1. “Gaga: Five Foot Two

This 2017 documentary gives viewers an intimate view of Lady Gaga’s career, her recording process, her personal life and her struggle with chronic pain. The film provides a raw and unfiltered look into the unique life of Gaga. “Gaga: Five Foot Two” chronicles the star’s life from early 2016 up to her performance at the 2017 Super Bowl.

The documentary doesn’t aim to tell the singer’s full life story, but instead offers a refreshing take on her creative process, dealing with the loss of friends and loved ones, recording an album, and producing the second most watched Super Bowl halftime performance. The film is a time capsule of sorts, providing fans and Lady Gaga herself an opportunity to revisit this period of her life and career for an hour and 40 minutes. “Gaga: Five Foot Two” is available to watch on Netflix.

2. “Truth or Dare

Madonna’s first true confessional project, the 1991 documentary concert movie “Truth or Dare” pulls the curtain back on the world’s most famous pop star. With performances from her blockbuster 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour sprinkled throughout, “Truth or Dare” shows both sides of Madonna — the performer and the person. Madonna’s cheeky side appears throughout most of the film, but she proves that she’s unafraid to reveal the tender parts of herself as she reminisces on her mother’s passing and losing loved ones to AIDS.

In true Madonna fashion, “Truth or Dare” sparked controversy for her unapologetic support of LGBTQ+ rights and passion for queer visibility amid the AIDS crisis; in fact, the film is just as much a political statement in support of the LGBTQ+ community as it is a glamorous look at stardom. Madonna stars alongside her backup dancers, who appear to be like a second family, as they argue, work together, then make up. The film remains a blueprint for many of the documentary-style concert films released after its debut. It is available to watch on Pluto TV.

3. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?

In this deeply riveting biopic, Angela Bassett offers an incredible portrayal of Tina Turner’s rise and redemption. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” follows Turner as she becomes a star and faces the abuse of her volatile husband, Ike Turner, played by Laurence Fishburne. Raw and gritty, Bassett’s Tina and Fishburne’s Ike showcase the never-ending cycle of conflict and manipulation in the couple’s marriage.

Although the film presents a graphic look at domestic abuse, Tina Turner isn’t presented as a victim, as she eventually takes a stand against Ike and embarks on an incredible solo career “comeback” at age 44. In an industry that so often casts out female performers as they grow older, Turner reclaims her power and achieves success after immense personal struggle. Anything Angela Bassett stars in is bound to be great, so it’s no surprise this film accomplishes all that it sets out to do. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” is available to watch on Hulu.

4. “Miss Americana: Taylor Swift

Miss Americana” follows country-turned-pop superstar Taylor Swift’s evolution from a small-town singer to a worldwide pop icon. The documentary tracks Swift’s life from 2018 to late 2019, chronicling the writing and recording process behind her seventh studio album, “Lover.” The documentary doesn’t just provide a surface-level behind-the-scenes look at Swift’s creative process though. Swift also gets candid about her self-image, eating disorder, the infamous 2009 VMA controversy and the public backlash she faced in 2016.

Taylor Swift has long shared personal stories through her work, but until “Miss Americana,” she’s never addressed so many parts of her life head-on. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the film is Swift’s political “awakening,” seen when she becomes vocal about becoming involved in politics for the first time in her career. Similar to “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” “Miss Americana” blends success with struggle, resulting in an insightful confessional-style documentary. “Miss Americana: Taylor Swift” is available to watch on Netflix.

5. “Purple Rain

Partly autobiographical and accompanied by the famous soundtrack of the same name, Prince’s “Purple Rain” remains an iconic piece of 1980s cinema. The film was shot in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis and features the famous First Avenue, the venue that frequently hosted Prince’s performances throughout his career.

Prince plays “The Kid,” a young singer trying to get his start in the music scene while navigating his angst, romantic relationships, and rocky home life. Famous songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track, “Purple Rain,” make up the film’s soundtrack and include some of Prince’s most recognizable hits. “Purple Rain” does not mean to exactly retell Prince’s rise to fame, but rather, it is an artful dramatization of the events that led him to superstardom in Minneapolis. “Purple Rain” is available to watch on HBO Max.

6. “Bohemian Rhapsody

Telling the powerful story of rock legend Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows the development and success of his band, Queen. The biopic shows Mercury’s growth as a performer, musician and person as he experiments with his sexuality and pursues his own solo career. The film culminates in Mercury’s reunion with the rest of his Queen bandmates, performing at the “Live Aid” fundraiser concert in 1985.

“Live Aid” would go down in history as the most successful fundraiser concert ever, bringing together the greatest performers of the time and raising over $150 million for famine relief in Africa. “Bohemian Rhapsody” accomplishes great storytelling without overdramatizing the real events of Mercury’s life. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is available to watch on Hulu.

7. “Katy Perry: Part of Me

Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” documentary combines concert footage from her 2011 “California Dreams Tour” with a close look at life as a pop star. The film tracks Perry’s incredible commercial success as her marriage to Russell Brand simultaneously comes to an end. The format is comparable to Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” but doesn’t come off as an exact copy whatsoever. The film offers up commentary from many of Katy’s family members and celebrity friends as she falls in love, finds massive success and picks up the pieces after heartbreak. Colorful, campy and bubbly, Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” has something for everyone. “Katy Perry: Part of Me” is available to rent on YouTube.

8. “JANET JACKSON.

Released as a four-part documentary series, Lifetime TV’s “JANET JACKSON.” unveils the story and personal evolution of the youngest Jackson sister. Rarely candid about her personal life, Janet Jackson narrates her journey from poverty-stricken Gary, Indiana, to global pop superstardom.

Each episode spans 40 minutes and covers four separate eras of Ms. Jackson’s career and personal life. A balanced blend of success and struggle, the film reveals the musician’s reluctance to enter show business at all and her family’s reaction to each step in her career. “JANET JACKSON.” offers up commentary from not only Janet herself, but from longtime collaborators, friends and family, creating an insightful view into the life of one of the greatest living performers of all time. “JANET JACKSON.” is available to watch on Lifetime or Hulu.

Writer Profile

Avery Heeringa

Columbia College Chicago
Communication major, Journalism minor

Journalism student passionate about all things popular culture, music, and celebrity.

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