The 30 Greatest Black Music-Related Movies of all time.
With all the recent not-so-positive hype surrounding the 2016 Oscar ceremonies, held Sunday February 28 – particularly as it concerns the lack of diversity in its major award categories – I thought, “hmmm, it’s still Black History Month (barely), so what if I…?”
And after completing that thought, I came up with another Djroblist – this one celebrating the 30 Greatest Musically Themed Black Movies of All Time!
You might ask, why just music-related movies? Well, this is a music blog site, and often music and movies go hand-in-hand. Besides, even by limiting it to just music-related films, there’s a lot of good cinema represented here. Everyone knows the importance of music to black culture, and that importance has been reflected in African-American cinema for nearly 100 years.
Even if the movies themselves were not always about music, music often plays a key role in either the plot or the feel of the motion picture.
To qualify for this list, the film had to be a theatrical release – not a made-for-TV one (although some may have been both). It also had to either prominently feature music or be about music. For instance, a movie like Spike Lee’s School Daze would qualify because of the musical performances contained throughout. Similarly, movies like Cooley High or Waiting to Exhale qualify because of the large role that music played in the stories’ development, not to mention the films’ successes.
Obviously, big-screen musicals also qualify, including The Wiz and Fame. However, The Color Purple does not because, although it was produced as a musical for the stage play, its movie version was a non-musical drama.
Biopics about musicians are obvious candidates (e.g., Ray, Get On Up, Straight Outta Compton and What’s Love Got To Do With It), as well as movies about fictional musical characters, like The Five Heartbeats or Whitney Houston’s “Rachel Marron” in The Bodyguard.
I created these rankings by using several criteria, including in no particular order: 1) box-office performance; 2) cultural impact; 3) musical content (and the significance of that music in the movie’s success); 4) cinematic influence; and last, but not least, 5) what y’all said – based on my recent informal Facebook poll results.
As with all Djroblists, I’ll be counting these up from the bottom to the top, starting with #30 and rolling right to #1.
So here it goes…
30. The Fighting Temptations (2003)
Several big names made up the cast of this musical comedy, including Cuba Gooding, Jr., Mike Epps, Beyoncé Knowles, Wendell Pierce, and singers Melba Moore, Ann Nesby and Shirley Caesar. BET actually nominated Beyoncé for two Best Actress awards for her performance. She didn’t win them though.
29. Beat Street (1984)
One of the earliest hip-hop films, this one is more known for its great soundtrack than the acting of people like Rae Dawn Chong and Guy Davis. Hence, it gets mixed reviews by fans and critics alike. You’d be forgiven if you don’t remember the story’s plot line, which focuses on an aspiring DJ and the budding love relationship between him and Chong’s character. However, the soundtrack featured classic performances by ’80s hip-hop icons like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh and Grand Master Melle Mel (“Beat Street Breakdown, ruaaahhhh!”).
28. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington star in this 1996 romantic feel-good movie centered around the church and gospel music. It won two Image Awards (Houston and Loretta Divine) for Lead and Supporting Actress, respectively. It also received an Oscar nomination (Best Music, Original Score or Comedy Score), but lost to the film Emma (remember that one?).
27. Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1998)
The troubled life of 1950s doo-wop singer, Frankie Lymon – as portrayed on the big screen by Larenz Tate. This film also featured some of the 1990s’ biggest acting heavyweights in black film, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox and Lela Rochon. The movie was produced with a budget of under $4 million, but grossed about $12 million in theaters. It’s one of four films on this list whose title bears the name of the principal characters’ signature songs.
26. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
This is the first of two movies directed by Spike Lee on this list. It chronicles the life and times of fictional character Bleek Gillliam, a jazz trumpeter played by Denzel Washington, who forms a quartet that includes Wesley Snipes’ character “Shadow.” Several jazz greats contribute to the film and/or its soundtrack, including Branford Marsalis, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. The film followed 1989’s Do The Right Thing, both of which came during Spike Lee’s hot period.
25. Sister Act (1992)/ Sister Act 2 (1993)
The convent may never be the same after semi-sacrilegious girl-group church hymns (like a cover of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him”) helped make this movie a smash. Whoopi Goldberg was the big star in this film that featured very few other black actors. Nonetheless, it’s included here because of Goldberg’s lead role. She was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. Any music-related film that grosses over $231 million worldwide deserves to be on this list. Other notable black actors included Jenifer Lewis and Bill Nunn. Although the critics panned it, I personally liked Sister Act 2 (featuring a young Lauryn Hill) better – especially musically.
24. Fame (1980)
Several friends and I debated whether this one belonged on the list, considering its cast was not predominantly black. But its principal characters were, including singer Irene Cara (who had a top-five pop hit with the film’s title track, which also won an Oscar for Best Original Song) and Gene Anthony Ray, who played “Leroy.” Debbie Allen also had a role as “Lydia.” The movie was nominated for several Golden Globes, including a Best Actress (Comedy or Musical) nod for Cara.
23. Get On Up (2014)
This biopic about one of the greatest musicians that ever lived, James Brown, was a tall task for any actor who dared to portray him. Actor Chadwick Boseman turned in a respectable performance doing just that. The film featured other black actors, including Viola Davis, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer and Craig Robinson. It was nominated for several Image Awards, but won none of them.
22. Notorious (2009)
One of several films on this list based on true characters. This one was The Notorious B.I.G (the late Christopher Wallace). I still consider Biggie the greatest rapper ever, and this film did a respectable job honoring his life and contribution to hip-hop. Notable stars included Jamal Woolard as Biggie, Derek Luke as Bad Boy Entertainment’s Sean Combs, and Angela Bassett (a recurring name on this list) as Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace.
21. Dreamgirls (2006)
Beyoncé Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover and Anika Rose starred in this adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the rising career of a trio of black female singers who crossover to the pop charts in the 1960s. The most noteworthy performance was that of singer Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for her performance. The film garnered eight Oscar nominations in all, including Best Supporting Actor for Eddie Murphy, who lost the Oscar but won a Golden Globe in that category.
20. Car Wash (1976)
By 1976, Blaxploitation films, which had been big in the early-’70s, were on their way out of vogue, but this day-in-the-life comedy/drama starring Richard Pryor as “Daddy Rich” and featuring Franklin Ajaye, Otis Day, Antonio Fargas and the Pointer Sisters (who were still a quartet at that point), kept the genre going for at least one more year. The film is included here because of the large role the soundtrack played in its success. The title track was a #1 pop and R&B single for Rose Royce (and launched the band’s career). The album won a Grammy for Best Score written for a film.
19. Stormy Weather (1943)
One of the pioneers of black movie musicals, this classic starred early 20th century greats like Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. It features Lena playing a character named “Selena” – a popular singer whose life and career intersects with an aspiring dancer played by Robinson (named “Bill Williamson”). Not much of a stretch in terms of character names or professions, but its a musical classic nonetheless.
18. Krush Groove (1985)
Another early hip-hop film, this one starred Run-DMC, Sheila E., Kurtis Blow, L.L. Cool J. and the Fat Boys – all as themselves. My Petersburg, Va. homeboy Blair Underwood also starred in this story based on hip-hop’s arguably most important label, Def Jam Recordings. The killer soundtrack featured hits like “A Love Bizarre” (Sheila E.), “King of Rock” (Run-DMC), “If I Ruled the World” (Kurtis Blow), “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” (L.L Cool J.) and “All You Can Eat” (Fat Boys).
17. Porgy and Bess (1959)
Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge star as the lead characters in this musical that also included Sammy Davis (as character “Sportin’ Life”), Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll. It doesn’t get much better than that list of mid-20th century A-listers. The most notable aspect of this hard-to-find classic film is its soundtrack, which won both Oscar and Grammy awards for Best Score for a musical. Poitier and Dandridge were also nominated for Golden Globe awards, but didn’t win. The film did, however, win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical.
16. The Bodyguard (1992)
Whitney Houston was the lead actress in this film about a superstar pop singer (“Rachel”) whose career is potentially derailed by an unknown threat and who needs the protection of bodyguard Kevin Costner to save her. Actress Michele Richards, who plays Rachel’s sister Nicki, gave an admirable performance. But the film was clearly a showcase for Houston, as it was her first feature film. The soundtrack ultimately became one of the biggest-sellers of all time, and generated Houston’s iconic remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
15. Hustle & Flow (2005)
Some might consider this film the predecessor to the successful Fox-TV series, Empire, which also stars this film’s two most notable actors, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Howard received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but lost in that category. He instead was recognized as Best Actor by several other awards committees, including BET, Black Reel and the African-American Film Critics Association. The song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (by Three 6 Mafia) became the first true hip-hop song to win an Oscar for Best Original Song.
14. Sparkle (original) (1976)
Sorry to all you Millennials out there, but the 2012 remake of this film just wasn’t good enough to be ranked on this list (in my opinion), but the original certainly was. “Sister” and her Sisters aim to make it big as singers out of Harlem, NY. But only one of them (namesake character “Sparkle” played by Irene Cara) really makes it. The stars in this film are Cara, Lonette McKee (“Sister”) and a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas. Singer/producer/entrepreneur Curtis Mayfield figured prominently in the soundtrack, which included his songs “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” and “Hooked On Your Love.”
13. House Party (1990)
The 1990s are well-represented on this list, with more films than any other decade. And nothing says 1990s in the black community like the House Party franchise of films. Rap duo Kid ‘N Play (Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin) star in this “black man’s Risky Business” that kicked the whole thing off. It turned the moderately successful comedic rappers into black household names, and made the upstart Hudlin brothers (Reginald and Warrington) famous as movie-producers/directors. It also starred Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell, and included a breakout performance by late comedian Robin Harris.
12. Waiting To Exhale (1995)
This film, starring Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Loretta Divine, Lela Rechon and Forest Whitaker, is not a musical per se, but the music that is in it went hand-in-hand with the film’s success. In fact, the title song, “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” was a #1 pop hit (Whitney’s last) and the soundtrack generated two other million-selling singles: Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry” and Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up In My Room” (both #2 pop hits). The story was about four black women and their struggles with relationships. If that plot and the casting of the lead roles for this movie foretold its success, then the soundtrack pretty much ensured it.
11. Cabin In The Sky (1943)
The year 1943 was a good one for black musical films – particularly during a time when black cinema (and black actors in general) did not fare well in the U.S. Two films from that year made this list, with this one being the highest. It featured actors Ethel Waters (“Petunia”) and Eddie Rochester (“Little Joe”) in a fantasy musical about a gambler who is mortally shot and whose wife tries to gain him a spiritual reprieve before his Heaven or Hell fate is sealed. Lena Horne and Louie Armstrong were the other big names in this pioneering 20th-century film that is largely considered a classic by many who’ve seen it.
10. The Five Heartbeats (1991)
Hard to believe it’s been a quarter-century since this great film had us weeping in theatres. The Five Heartbeats were actors Robert Townsend (“Duck”), Michael Wright (“Eddie”), Leon (“J.T.”), Harry Lennix (“Dresser”) and Tico Wells (“Choirboy”). The movie was loosely based on the R&B group The Dells, but it could have easily represented the rise and fall of many R&B groups of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Several other big names had roles in this classic, including Diahann Carroll, John Witherspoon, and Anne-Marie Johnson. After 7’s memorable “Nights Like This” was the big hit from the soundtrack.
09. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
The most recent film on this list is also the one that inspired it. This biopic about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees N.W.A. (yes, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) was expected to at least gain an acting nod for Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who played his famous actor/rapper father. Instead, it received one Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which it lost Sunday night to Spotlight, the film that also took Best Picture. Despite the Oscar snub, accomplished director F. Gary Gray pulled some great performances out of actors like Corey Hawkins (“Dr. Dre”) and Jason Mizell (“Eazy-E”).
08. The Wiz (1978)
This movie wasn’t nearly the box-office smash that some of the others on this list were, but it has grown in cult status since its release almost four decades ago. It featured a 34-year-too-old Diana Ross in the lead role as a teenage Dorothy, and a barely 20-year-old Michael Jackson in the role as Scarecrow. Both actors did admirable jobs, as did Nipsey Russell (“Tinman”), Ted Ross (“Lion”), Theresa Merritt (“Aunt Em”) and Mabel King (“Evillene”). Lena Horne and Richard Pryor turned in good performances as “Glinda the Good Witch” and “The Wiz,” respectively.
07. Carmen Jones (1954)
This musical adaptation of the opera “Carmen” added the name “Jones” to its title and turned the famous opera into a lurid tale about a parachute factory worker – named Carmen – played by Dorothy Dandridge, and her G.I. boyfriend, naturally named “Joe” and played by Harry Belafonte. The musical performances were dubbed in for the lead actors by other singers, so we never actually get to hear Dandridge’s and Belafonte’s singing voices in the film. Nonetheless, the movie is considered one of the greatest black musicals featuring two of the most important black actors of the mid-20th century. Guest turns by Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Diahann Carroll added to this star-studded piece of classic cinema.
06. School Daze (1988)
The other Spike Lee movie on this list is regularly considered one of the best black music-based films of all time. It featured Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito and Tisha Campbell in the lead roles. Other notable names included Ossie Davis, Bill Nunn, Jasmine Guy, Branford Marsalis and Kadeem Hardison (of “A Different World” fame). As a rising senior in college (and fraternity man), I couldn’t wait to see this depiction of black college fraternity life, which promised to expose fraternities’ darkest rituals to millions of viewers. If some of it was fictionalized, most of it was memorable. Even more memorable was the soundtrack’s biggest hit, E.U.’s “Da Butt” – a now-classic go-go jam that had butts a-shakin’ and reached #1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart in 1988.
05. What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)
Angela Bassett is in at least four of the films on this list, and this Oscar-nominated performance of hers is ranked the highest of them. Most women would probably have been intimidated trying to play the rock music legend Tina Turner in this film about her rise, fall and rise-again, as it played out before, during and after her turbulent marriage to the late Ike Turner (played in an Oscar-nominated performance by Laurence Fishburne). But Bassett turned in what was arguably the best acting performance of her long career. Bassett’s and Fishburne’s Best Acting nods were long-shots in 1994, as no black actors had yet won for a lead role. That wouldn’t happen until the following decade. But this film is a classic nonetheless.
04. Lady Sings The Blues (1972)
Take the most successful black music star of the previous eight years, give her the role of a lifetime, and you’ll get one of the best black music films of all time. Diana Ross, who starred opposite 1970s black sex symbol Billy Dee Williams, gave an Oscar-nominated performance as the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film garnered five Oscar nominations (including Ross’), but it won none of them. Instead, Ross won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. I’ve always thought the Globes were more progressive than the Oscars. Maybe if the Academy had a Newcomer category, Diana would have won that. The film and its principals did take home Image Awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor.
03. Purple Rain (1984)
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Prince starred in this semi-autobiographical story about a character named “Kid.” The artist who defied all genre boundaries became a superstar when this movie was released. The Oscar-winning soundtrack topped the album charts for 24 straight weeks and generated three million-selling singles (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and the title track). Purple Rain may not be among the most critically acclaimed in terms of the acting (Appolonia Kotero won a Razzie for her performance; and the song “Sex Shooter” (written by Prince) won the Razzie for Worst Original Song), but it is definitely among the most popular movies among blacks between the ages of 40 and 60 years of age (we saw it in its original release in theaters, and we loved it!).
02. Cooley High (1975)
This film is set in Chicago at the actual Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School on the near north side (close to where I live now). The school is now demolished, but the movie is set in 1964 (eleven years before it was filmed). That gap in years and the various filming locations led to some notable production goofs, such as a Superior Street address for one of the characters that would have actually placed his home in Lake Michigan, or a number of buildings captured during the filming that didn’t exist yet in 1964.
Those were forgivable errors, but including a lot of Motown songs in the soundtrack that, in 1964, didn’t yet exist was not. Nevertheless, this film is one of the best ever! The one new song in the soundtrack, “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” by G. C. Cameron (later remade by Boyz II Men), was featured during one of the most tear-jerking scenes in movie history. Glynn Turman (“Preach”), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (“Cochise”) and Garrett Morris (“Mr. Mason”) all gave memorable performances.
01. Ray (2004)
Jamie Foxx turned in one of the best acting performances of all time in this biopic about the late legendary R&B singer Ray Charles, who died four months before the movie’s release. To emphasize how great Foxx’s performance was, he is still one of only two actors to win an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts], Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards for Best Actor in the same role. In all, the film was nominated for six Oscars – winning two of them (including Foxx’s). Other actors in the film included Regina King (who won a BET award for Best Actress), Kerry Washington (who played Ray’s wife, Della), Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Wendell Pierce, and many others.
There’s very little question in my mind that Ray is the best black music-related film of all time. The film was loved by critics and fans alike, grossing over $111 million in worldwide box-office sales.
But don’t let me be the final word on this. You have an opinion, too, and I want to hear it.
Feel free to comment and let me know what you think should have made the list, what should have been omitted, or what the order should be.
And as always, thanks for the support of djrobblog.