We know you love them. Black music movies, that is. Who hasn’t watched the true stories of some of the greatest musicians of all time in one of several musically based Black films, many of which have become beloved parts of Black culture? We see you, Five Heartbeats fans and Purple Rain junkies who’ve seen the movie multiple times. (*raises hand*). We compiled a list of the best of Black music’s movies, whether the movie was great because of a stellar soundtrack, or was just a great movie musical, or both.
SUPERFLY (1972) Technically, Superfly is not a music movie. It’s the story of a Priest, an unlikely named drug dealer who runs Harlem. But Curtis Mayfield’s classic soundtrack for the movie has becomes as popular if not more than the film it was for. Superfly’s title track as well as the songs “Freddie’s Dead” were big hits, selling more than 2 million copies apiece. It remains one of the few movies where the soundtrack made more money than the film did. Superfly and other blaxplotiation films regained popularity in the hip-hop era. Superfly was released on DVD on January 14, 2004, the exact day its star, Ron O’Neal, died.
SPARKLE (1976) Although the 2012 remake would be Whitney Houston’s last film, it’s the 1976 version that most people hold dear. In that version, Sparkle (Irene Cara), Sister (Lonette McKee) and (Dolores) Dwan Smith are three 50’s era Harlem sisters who want to sing, but face all kinds of obstacles in the music business. One of them is Satin, who Sister, the oldest and wildest of the three siblings, falls in love with. Stix, an aspiring songwriter has eyes for Sparkle and becomes the group’s manager, but predictably, with success comes more problems. When it came out, Sparkle was a box office flop, but grew in stature later on due to VHS and DVD, as well as it’s amazing soundtrack, sang wholly by Aretha Franklin. It includes the song “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” which went #1 when remade by En Vogue in 1992.
THE WIZ (1978) An all-Black remake of The Wizard of Oz that was first a Broadway musical, the movie was deemed controversial at the time because an adult Diana Ross starred as Dorothy, a child in the original. With Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow, Richard Pryor as the Wiz, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch, how could you lose? Well, at first it did lose, losing over $10 million for Motown Productions and Universal Pictures as it was then the most expensive movie musical ever made. But through TV replays and DVD sales, it became profitable and its now among the most beloved Black movie musicals ever made. Though Michael Jackson said it as one of his greatest experiences, it was the last theatrical film Diana Ross ever made.
PURPLE RAIN (1984) The poor showing of The Wiz was at the time considered to be the death knell for Black movies after the blaxploitation era. Yet six years later, along came a short guy from Minneapolis, Minnesota who would use a musical loosely based on his life to become an international superstar. Surprisingly, although Warner Brothers considered the movie “outrageous” it got made, grossing $80 million dollars and giving Prince a #1 soundtrack, an Oscar and his signature hit. Vanity, Prince’s girlfriend at the time, was initially supposed to star, but they broke up. He replaced her with Apollonia Kotero after Flashdance star Jennifer Beals turned him down to focus on her studies at Yale University. (Good luck trying to find Purple Rain clips on YouTube, but here’s Prince’s Oscar acceptance speech for the movie.)
SCHOOL DAZE (1988) Spike Lee’s second film after his breakthrough She’s Gotta Have It touched on the controversial issue of intra-racial prejudice and colorism in the Black community. Starring Larry Fishburne and Tisha Campbell, both of whom would go on to huge careers, Lee took on the doings of a fraternity and sorority at Mission College, widely believed to be a stand-in for Morehouse, Lee’s alma mater. While it has become viewed as a groundbreaking film at the time of its release, Black colleges and their administrations weren’t too happy with Lee’s depiction of HBCUs. Vanessa Williams, the recently dethroned first Black Miss America, turned down the role of Jane, which was ultimately played by Tisha Campbell.
THE FIVE HEARTBEATS (1991) Director Robert Townsend probably had no idea that this movie, loosely based on the struggles of 60’s male groups, would become one of the most popular Black movies of all time. There are fans that know every line and can probably do the choreography, too. Starring Leon, Michael Wright, Tico Wells, Harry Lennix and Diahann Carroll, the movie was co-written by Keenan Ivory Wayans. The film received mixed reviews with powerhouse critic Roger Ebert becoming one its few critical supporters. The Dells and After 7 hit the Billboard charts with two songs from the film: “A Heart is a House for Love” and “Night Like This,” respectively.