Can We Admit Most Music Biopics Are Painfully Mediocre?
— 12 January 2024

Can We Admit Most Music Biopics Are Painfully Mediocre?

— 12 January 2024

In a lot of ways, music biopics are sort of like Marvel movies — the films court your attention by promising Hollywood A-listers dressed up as something familiar, adhere to a pretty rigid formula, and make a whole lot of money in the process.

And yet, strangely enough, music biopics seem to hold a great degree of prestige and appraisal among a considerable chunk of cinemagoers; while the Academy Awards lap up these schmaltzy and depressing interpretations of iconic musicians without fail, particularly when it comes to acting categories.

We’ve seen it a million times now. An actor or actress will undertake an entire media cycle talking about how they shut themselves off from the rest of the world, studied a bunch of footage of the individual, lived in character, and insinuate that they were even supernaturally visited by the “spirit” of their real-life counterpart.

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We all think this is getting a bit cringe, right?

Drawing from real-life inspiration might make it easier to assess someone’s acting on the surface, but is doing an imitation of someone’s voice caked in prosthetics really the best the craft has to offer every single year? Isn’t it infinitely more impressive to create an entirely new character with nuance than being pantomime Elvis for a few hours?

For the record, I’m not saying that all musician biopics are bad or that it’s an inherently bad concept. I’m not even accusing you of being foolish for liking any one of them. After all, taking a remarkable individual and recontextualising their greatest moments into a character arc can offer great pathos.

As Dennis Bingham writes in Whose Lives Are They Anyway: The Biopic As Contemporary Film Genre

“The appeal of a biopic lies in seeing an actual person who did something interesting in life, known mostly in public, transformed into a character.”

While Best Picture-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody might not do too much for me, I can understand why people I genuinely respect were able to connect with it. It took a great performance at Live Aid and turned it into a triumphant moment of victory over years of struggle; the last hurrah of a phenomenal talent whose life was tragically cut short.

It also got the timeline completely wrong when it came to the band’s hiatus and Mercury’s AIDs diagnosis (which actually happened years later) and seems to credit Queen with raising all of the money for Africa. But again, I can appreciate that it was a sincere attempt to celebrate a beloved icon.

The truth is, music biopics have the capacity to be great, which is why it’s so frustrating that they’re often so cookie-cutter and egregiously dull. And since Hollywood shows zero signs of slowing down with pumping these off the factory line, it’s worth discussing some of the problems specific to the genre and delving into how they could be so much better.

The Formula

In 2007, John C. Reilly starred in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a parody of James Mangold’s masterful Walk The Line, that extensively took the mickey out of every single trope associated with the oddly specific musician biopic subgenre.

It nailed the overall aesthetic and self-important nature of these films. It features everything from a domestic dispute in front of a crying child, to the moment the artist is struck by divine inspiration before instantly cutting to a fully formed song.

Unfortunately, it languished at the box office. Probably because it becomes pretty hard for anyone to watch biopics that take this sort of Mad Libs-style approach to an artist’s life afterwards. Although since Walk Hard, we’ve only gotten more films that follow its structure than ever before.

They generally follow these story beats:

  • Begins late in the subject’s career, typically before going on stage for an iconic performance
  • Jumps back to the subject’s childhood where a tragedy occurs (e.g. sibling dies, parent walks out on them, etc.)
  • The moment of discovery: slightly older artist performs in front of other people first time and everyone is instantly blown away by their talent
  • Montage: suddenly they’re performing in front of adoring fans, recording their first song, winning over a cynical executive during a recording session, experiencing their first radio hit, and going on tour.
  • The subject then begins innovating and pushing the boundaries of their music (this usually coincides with them starting to take substances)
  • The subject’s marriage and interpersonal relationships become strained due to infidelity and addiction
  • The dark times: artist alienates themself from others and spirals into dark lifestyle patterns, usually culminating in going to rehab
  • Redemption and return: artist bounces back, rediscovers their original love for the music, and performs at a giant concert — bonus points if it ends on a freeze frame (extra bonus points if there’s text that tells you what they did with the rest of their life)

The problem with this one-size-fits-all approach to telling these stories (and the birth-to-death recounting of events) is that the scope is too large for them to do anything meaningful or make any real point about the person or life in general. When you try and cram someone’s entire life into a clean, three-act structure, it ends up playing like an expensive Wikipedia entry that accomplishes nothing more than skim over their greatest hits.

A lot of music biopics can’t seem to resist the temptation to recreate every concert or feature every song from the artist’s catalogue. At the end of the day, however, you aren’t really saying much beyond the fact that they were talented people who enjoyed massive success and partied really hard along the way.

The better examples of music biopics (and biopics in general) tend to take a limited time period within the artist’s life and focus on examining that chapter. They also avoid playing into all of the conventions associated with similar films. In many respects, biopics shouldn’t even be a genre at all.

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is nothing like The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, or any other of the films he’s made involving real people. Different individuals should have their stories told in different ways specifically tailored to who they were specifically.

Editorial Control

As alluded to earlier, music biopics present difficult questions about their relationship with the truth. Not just in regards to oft-discussed surface-level stuff like the actor’s physical resemblance to an iconic musician, but massively reshaping events designed to paint someone in a certain light.

A lot of these films are notably made with the approval or involvement of the person themselves or their estate. This isn’t always a bad or apparent factor, sure, but we do occasionally enter revisionist history territory.

It’s unreasonable to expect these films to tell the story with 100% accuracy. Significant bias whenever the people involved have a personal stake in it, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Because you’re unlikely to approve any depiction of yourself that’s unflattering.

In Straight Outta Compton, Dr Dre and Ice Cube were producers on the film, and the latter’s own son was literally cast to play his dad. Brian May and Roger Taylor, two members of the band Queen, are executive producers of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, which explains some of the film’s baffling editing choices — where every band member is afforded an equal number of close-ups at the expense of the flow or coherence of the scene — or certain story choices with regard to the surviving members.

For those of you who don’t know what I mean, Brian May and Roger Taylor are consistently shown arriving at rehearsals on time and leaving the parties early to be home with their families; whereas the late Freddie Mercury is shown to be a constant burden with his extravagant lifestyle and debilitating vices. It really makes you wonder what we missed out on in the scrapped R-rated David Fincher/Sacha Baron Cohen biopic that the band killed.

Imitating Reality

A young boy using a laptop computer

Somewhat paradoxically, these films stray further from the truth the closer they aim to get.

A lot of the time, the portrayals of these artists will take a small characteristic of the subject and extrapolate it into an entire person. Whether it be a lisp, a way of walking, or a certain phrase they famously used, we tend to resemble SNL impressions — almost never feel authentic, nuanced people.

These were complex people with complex lives and difficult relationships. Music biopics, in contrast, turn them into one-dimensional martyrs who never experienced joy and were constantly exploited by everyone around them. While this is unfortunately often a part of these sorts of stories, it’s not the entire picture; and trivialising these elements of the story turn real painful moments from their life into clichés.

Films like David Fincher’s The Social Network and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs are good examples of biopis that adopt this approach towards the truth (and succeed). Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Fassbender don’t really attempt to look or sound like the real-life Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs at the detriment of their performances. Both instead opt to present their character as a fully-fledged person with authentic motivations.

Andy Herzfield, one of Jobs’ former employees, said it best when reflecting on the Steve Jobs:

“None of it happened, but it’s all true.”

He later elaborated on this point in an interview, where he explained that the film, “deviates from reality everywhere — almost nothing in it is like it really happened — but ultimately that doesn’t matter that much. The purpose of the film is to entertain, inspire, and move the audience, not to portray reality.”

“It is cavalier about the facts but aspires to explore and expose the deeper truths behind [Steve Job’s] unusual personality and behaviour, and it often but not always succeeds at that.”

At the end of the day, these films are works of fiction. Sort of like impressionist paintings, rather than historical documents about the subject matter. A good music biopic will reveal a single deeper truth about the artist’s life and personality, rather than cheaply recreating their most obvious attributes.

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In fact, I’d argue that if you’re not going to attempt to make an artistic statement about the person, there is a greater obligation to get things factually accurate. If what you’re selling is a two-hour summary of a person’s life with identical replicas of their appearance and voice, massive deviations from the truth are borderline defamatory.

The primary objective should always be to create great art first and that will always necessitate emotional honesty. Hollywood studios should look beyond the artist’s brand awareness and the potential for a killer soundtrack for one second.

Music biopics should aim to still be great movies. Even if the artist it’s based on never existed.

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