Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Deconstructing the music biopic

By Sophie Kernachan

Taking a look at the music biopic and our obsession with seeing the on-screen backstory of our favourite stars.

Films about musicians have been around for almost as long as films with sound have existed. Granted many of the earlier contenders like Dreams of Love and Casta Diva in 1935 were largely historical dramas centred around operas and composers like Franz Liszt and Vincenzo Bellini, but they still go to show the public’s interest in musical figures. Since that point, music biopics have been a notable presence in popular film for a long time, with several big-name biopics being released every year to varying success. The likes of The Doors and What’s Love Got To Do With It have maintained decent cultural reputations since their releases 30-odd years ago, and you’d think the trend of putting out a handful of decent, semi-notable music biopics a decade would continue on, but surprisingly not.

The 2000s through to the 2020s have seen a significant surge in the sheer quantity of music biopics, from the ultra-successful, like Bohemian Rhapsody, to the unconventional, but multi-faceted, such as I’m Not There¸ to the “who was really asking for this?’” of Lords of Chaos. Even after the mediocre reception of 2020’s Stardust, music biopics just keep on coming, with Creation Stories and Respect coming to the screen in 2021, alongside a number of other as-of-yet unnamed projects, focusing on the likes of the Bee Gees, Madonna, and Heart. Biopics like these have had a good run, in terms of commercial success, with Walk The Line (2007) and Rocketman (2019) grossing around $200m each, and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) grossing $905.2m. But with Stardust, despite following the same formulaic approach as Bohemian Rhapsody as it follows a camp rockstar with all the rough edges artificially sanded away, a swarm of lukewarm reviews and pitiful performance in the box office begs the question – is the public growing sick of biopics, despite media corporations pumping them out every year?

Looking at the sheer numbers, it’s easy to deduce that Bohemian Rhapsody was the big blowout film for the biopic genre, with no biopic since then having been so successful. But not all biopics are the same, and with so many coming out over the years, it would be unfair to base their value on profit alone. With a fresh slew of biopics set to come out over the next five or so years, what keeps people coming back to stories about the music they know and love?  

Well, to begin with, it’s probably that they’re great character stories. A shared formula of most popular music biopics is that they tend to focus on one person. Films recounting the lives of solo artists continue to make up the majority of biopics, with the likes of Johnny Cash, Elton John, and David Bowie being some notable names. Sure, some of them are about bands generally, Bohemian Rhapsody about Queen, The Doors about, well, The Doors, but the overwhelming focus is placed on their frontmen. And in such cases, it makes sense. Many of these characters fall into the stereotype of the mentally ill creative: balancing incredible talent with self-destructive behaviours and personalities that rub the stuck-up snobs around them the wrong way. Some biopics work with this idea brilliantly, such as Love & Mercy (2014), focusing on the life of Brian Wilson and his notable struggles with seasonal affective disorder and bipolar disorder. Others, like I’m Not There (2007), take a more unconventional approach, pairing Bob Dylan’s music with six different characters representing facets of Dylan’s public persona, leading to a film that is both a poignant tribute and a strangely psychological deep-dive into Dylan (who is also due for an upcoming Chalamet-portrayed biopic).

However, this approach can prove problematic to the more shameless nostalgia-fest style of biopic. Take the Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt (2019), which, claiming that the film was an unfiltered depiction of the band in the early 80s, warts and all, instead offered a “mistakes aside: it was worth it in the end”-styled plot that ignores and sometimes justifies the rampant drug abuse, misogyny, domestic violence, and legal troubles that plagued the band. There’s nothing wrong with shameless nostalgia, films like Bohemian Rhapsody thrive on it, but the reluctance to admit that these people had real, tangible flaws and struggles spoils these film’s potentials. Even the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody are guilty of it to a certain extent, with a lot of the rougher elements of Freddie Mercury’s hard-partying lifestyle softened up, with a wholesome, family-friendly climax. Stardust suffers from this issue in droves, taking Bowie, a fascinating man with unbridled creativity and all the drugs you would expect, and turning him into an awkward, whiney blank slate of a character.    

But when films don’t dive deep into the psyche of these public figures and provide fascinating characters for us to get invested in, what keeps audiences intrigued? Most likely the music; and this is where the likes of Stardust, featuring none of the artist’s songs, fall flat. Biopics like these often feel hollow without the music, not just because the music is familiar to the audience, but also because, due to their occupations, music would undoubtedly be a huge part of these people’s lives. Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody revelled in their jukebox musical-y glory, whereas the likes of Walk The Line and Love & Mercy utilise the music as both a comforting backdrop to and a vehicle of the plot. Until the inevitable day where we have AI-produced hit songs, music is considered an emotional creation. In popular music, lyrics tend to have meaning, and songs carry emotional undertones. The natural curiosity about the events that influenced and inspired that music makes for great stories, and in turn, great biopics.

Music biopics are not likely to go away anytime soon. And why should they, when each artist has a different story behind them and a possible new way to tell it? With the likes of Creation Stories, focusing on Glaswegian industry executive Alan McGee, being released soon, it will be refreshing to see a backdrop to music biopics outside of the 70s and 80s and Hollywood. We can just hope that biopics will step over the flop of Stardust and reinterpret the tales of the artists and music we’ve come to culturally treasure.


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