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Top 7 R&B biopics every fan should watch

Amanda Parris

In this week’s episode of Marvin’s Room, we dive deep into the rabbit hole of one of my favourite sub-genres: made-for-TV musical biopics. We’re going to explore what they have taught us about some of R&B’s most misunderstood characters. Listen below.

Listen to Marvin's Room, June 16th 2017

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


When it’s done well, few films are more satisfying than the musical biopic. But when it’s a failure, time does little to minimize our disappointment (yes, I’m thinking of Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B). The world of R&B is filled with the kind of drama and conflict that would make any filmmaker salivate, so this is a celebration of the films that got it right (dramatically if not always accurately). Whether they were made for the silver screen or the small screen, the seven musical biopics below provided fans with an insight into the musicians who have crafted the R&B soundtracks of our lives.

And hopefully some narrative films on our own Canadian R&B legends can soon be added to this list. The Jackie Shane Story is a script waiting to be written.

What’s Love Got to do With It? (1993)

Two of Hollywood’s greatest actors gave the performances of their careers for this film: Angela Bassett channelled the spirit (and strut) of Tina Turner, and Lawrence Fishburne embodied the terrifying arc of charismatic singer turned insecure sadist Ike Turner — and both actors were robbed of the Oscars they deserved. Beyond the music, it’s a story of domestic abuse, and the same strength that is required to leave becomes the driving force that powers the rest of one singer’s ascent to living-legend status.

Ray (2004)

This film centres on the singular Oscar-winning performance of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, who brilliantly humanizes a man who battled numerous demons while creating the genre of music we now know as soul. Also special salute has to go to the heartbreakingly beautiful performance of Regina King as Margie Hendricks (the most famous Raylette, who had an affair with Charles). Add that one to the long list of performances the Academy made the mistake of forgetting to nominate.

The Jacksons: An American Dream (1990)

The made-for-TV movie is an often derided genre, but this mini-series illustrated the depth and breadth of storytelling that four hours across several nights can provide to an almost Shakespearean tale. For those of us who watched this as children, it would forever shape our understanding of the King of Pop and coloured our perspectives of all that would follow. Based on the biography of Katherine Jackson, the film was an inside look into the less-than-glamorous lives of R&B’s most famous family.

The Temptations (1998)

Remember when you would record a TV movie onto VHS tape? I did that with this movie and re-watched it over and over, learning the dance moves and crying over the untimely deaths. The standout performance goes to the actor Leon, whose portrayal of the late David Ruffin captures a man seduced by his own potential chillingly well.

The New Edition Story (2017)

Earlier this year, the three-part TV movie The New Edition Story aired and I — along with everyone else on Black Twitter — tuned in each night eager to learn more about one of R&B’s most tumultuous groups. It was a television event! With all of the members signed on as executive producers this film was the rare all-access pass into the hard, ugly truth.

CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013)

For those of us who spent our '90s school recesses debating whether or not we connected more with T-Boz’s cool, Chili’s sexy or Left Eye’s crazy, this TV biopic was a monumental snapshot into the struggles of our childhood heroines. Casting contemporary musical artists who gave their all to the roles, its most important gem was its heartfelt tribute to the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, whose commitment to her own healing was tragically cut short.

Get on Up (2014)

I am still of the opinion that the definitive James Brown biopic, one that captures the multiple contradictions and nuances of this complicated man and the backdrop that shaped his rise, has yet to be made. But Chadwick Boseman’s determined performance almost convinced me that this could be the one. Boasting an all-star ensemble that includes Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd and Octavia Spencer, Get on Up captures the larger-than-life personality of a man who changed the music industry forever.

The Marvin's Room playlist for June 16, 2017

  1. Bobby Brown, "Every Little Step"
  2. TLC, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
  3. BJ the Chicago Kid and Chance the Rapper, "Church"
  4. Cougars, "I Wish it Would Rain"
  5. David Ruffin, "Walk Away From Love"
  6. Meagan de Lima, "Like You Do"
  7. Carl Thomas, "Summer Rain"
  8. Robin Thicke, "Lost Without You"
  9. Al Green, "Let’s Stay Together"
  10. Daniel Caesar, "Violet"
  11. Tika Simone, "All Day All Night"