By Kyran Leahy, Film & TV Editor
Music biopics have always been around. Some of the most acclaimed movies of recent times have been about the careers of musicians, from Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of Fanny Brice in 1968’s Funny Girl to Jamie Foxx’s Academy Award winning performance as Ray Charles in 2003. They were released sporadically with different reactions from the critics, with much love for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and absolute confusion with Clint Eastwood’s directorial perception of the Jersey Boys. It was not until 2015 when the mass releases of musical biographies really started to gain momentum when Straight Outta Compton, a movie depicting the rise and fall of gangsta rap group N.W.A opened to critical acclaim and commercial success, allowing a new generation to learn about the career beginnings of Ice Cube, Dr Dre and the life of Eazy-E.
From that moment on, film production companies made it their mission to release a successful music biopic and introduce a musical giant of the past to a brand-new generation. Not only was there potential for rave reviews, but most importantly, there was potential to make money. Music biopics were never sure-fire high grossing successes, with Walk the Line being the most successful biopic before Straight Outta Compton with just over $185 million worldwide. There was now a great opportunity to capitalise on music biopics with older music being appreciated by the younger generation, and if there is anything we know about Hollywood, it is that they will flog a dead horse like no tomorrow. Biopics for Tupac and Nina Simone amongst others followed shortly after Straight Outta Compton, with little success. The formula for music biopic success had not been discovered yet, and it would take another year for the formula to be cracked. Let me introduce Bohemian Rhapsody.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic for the British rock band Queen, specifically focusing on the charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury, was released in late-2018 and broke boundaries that seemingly looked impossible, grossing over $900 million worldwide at the box office – over four times the amount Straight Outta Compton broke a year prior. Mr Robot’s Rami Malek won several accolades for his performance as Freddie Mercury, and it quickly became the most successful biopic in terms of both profit and awards, but how did they do it? They did it by stretching the truth and turning Freddie’s life into one that would appeal to moviegoers who were not as knowledgeable about Queen when they saw it. The timeline was altered and simplified; emphasis was placed on Freddie during certain moments when he was more of a peripheral figure. Writer of the screenplay Anthony McCarten simply put it “We’re making a movie here, not a documentary.” That has become the catalyst for successful biopics, to appeal not only to the fans, but to the average movie-goers.
Since Bohemian Rhapsody, music biopics have increased in demand, with many artists receiving the biopic treatment. Elton John’s Rocketman was a rousing success that broke even more boundaries by being the first film by a major studio that included a sex scene between two gay men. Multiple biopics were announced to be in production, with upcoming films about Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan amongst many others lined up for release in the next few years. It is an exciting time for fans of these artists and movie lovers, with people like me getting the best of both worlds. If movies like Straight Outta Compton or Bohemian Rhapsody showed other companies how a music biopic should be done, they should also take notes from the creators of Stardust on how to not do a biopic.
Stardust, released last year in November, centres on David Bowie and his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, as he tours around the United States for the first time. Sounds like an enjoyable movie for Bowie lovers, right? Well, the movie has one major flaw, David Bowie’s estate did not allow the use of any of David Bowie’s songs for the film. Instead, they are forced to use songs that
Bowie covered in his early years. A similar issue happened years prior with Andre 3000’s portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in a Hendrix movie, achieving a similar negative reception to Stardust. The artists’ music is such an important part of the artist themselves, and a movie about that artist without their music seems, to put it bluntly, pointless. It would be like making a Mario game without Mario being mentioned, it just makes no sense.
There is room for optimism with the upcoming music biopics in the future. The genre has been a mixed bag since its surge in popularity, and it will be interesting to see the path the movies take. Will they sacrifice reality for box office success? Will they stay true to the artist’s career despite the risk of driving away the common moviegoer? Will they even have the rights to the artists’ songs and not be a complete waste of time? Whatever happens, we will be expecting more music biopic films in the future, so I will patiently wait in hope of a Fleetwood Mac movie.