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Based on a True Story: Artist Biopics and Their Success Across Music and Film

4 minute read | May 2014

The world has lost many artists too early—some at the height of their careers. However, posthumous releases of musicians’ work can serve as tributes, building on long-time fans’ appreciation and introducing new followers to talented artists. But while music is a wonderful way to tell a story, film can connect the dots in a completely new way.

On Oct. 21, 2013, TLC, the popular ‘90’s girl group who lost member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in 2002, released a biographical film on VH1 that coincided with their release of TLC 20: 20th Anniversary Hits, a compilation of hit songs and one new recording titled “Meant to Be.” The well-loved group had an incredible story to tell—one that was displayed through both music and visuals. Several other recent (and popular) biopics prove that the beat carries on via the silver screen when films extend the lives of artists who are gone too soon.


Michael Jackson has been immortalized through various forms of media—from a hologram at this year’s Billboard Music Awards to Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and ONE shows. However, his documentary concert film (the last one he starred in) for his residency at the O2 arena in London titled This Is It was especially moving and popular with fans, as it documented the rehearsals and preparation for his concert before his death. The film was released in theaters on Oct. 28, 2009, and on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on Jan. 26, 2010. It has sold nearly 2.7 million discs* in the U.S. and over 1.7 million soundtrack albums. Furthermore, his recently released posthumous album Xscape (released May 9, 2014) has sold 157,000 albums to date. In addition, the first single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” a duet with Justin Timberlake, has sold over 290,000 songs so far and has been streamed over 7.7 million** times to date.


Johnny Cash’s struggle to the top is captured in the 2005 film Walk the Line, which focuses on his early career start, as well as his relationship with his wife June Carter. It was produced two years after his death and incorporates various key dramatic events in his early life, including the moment where he and June Carter Cash developed “Ring of Fire,” his best-selling digital track to date with 1.9 million in sales. Over 25.8 million albums by Cash have sold in the last 20 years, and Walk the Line has sold over 1.9 million discs* in the last few years in the U.S. alone.


Without Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., the music scene in the 1990s would have been drastically different. His death in 1997 was a shock to many, and his Life After Death double-disc, released 16 days later, was an instant success with fans mourning his early passing, ultimately selling over 5.2 million albums to date. It featured collaborations with artists such as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, R. Kelly, Puff Daddy, Lil’ Kim, Mase and Jay Z, just to name a few. Fast forward a little over a decade later to 2009, when Notorious, a movie about the artist’s life and death, was produced and released to theaters. The film resonated with fans, selling hundreds of thousands of copies—over 173,000 discs*—to date since its release on disc, as well as over 183,000 copies of the soundtrack to date.


Tupac Shakur, also known as 2Pac, is one of the best-selling artists in the past 20 years, with over 29 million albums sold, not including The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, his fifth album and final album that was released posthumously. Released using his stage name Makaveli, the album has sold nearly 3.5 million albums to date. Before his passing in 1996, he also acted in various films, first in the movie Nothing but Trouble, where he made a cameo, and then later in starring roles in Juice, Poetic Justice and Above the Rim. Posthumously, three other films that he acted in were released: Bullet, Gridlock’d and Gang Related. To tell the story of the artist’s life, however, Tupac: Resurrection, a documentary told through home movies, photographs and poetry was released in 2003. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2005, Resurrection’s soundtrack sold 1.7 million albums.

Film has been a great way for these artists’ stories to be shared visually after their death for new and old audiences alike. Paired with music, the two make a combination that allows fans’ appreciation of the artists to live on.

*Disc (DVD and Blu-ray) sales from 2010 through week ending May 4, 2014.**Does not include Pandora. Streaming reporters include: AOL, Cricket, Medianet, rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, Zune and YouTube/VEVO data (2013-present).

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