There have been so many Biopics about Musicians. If you are a musical artist who has had any type of impact on the industry, there is a good chance you will get a biopic made about you. We just saw one, Bohemian Rhapsody, win a bunch of awards at the Oscars, and then we will be getting the Elton John Biopic “Rocketman,” this summer, and movies about David Bowie and Celine Dion are also on the horizon.
Beyond that, since 2000, we have seen biopics about N.W.A, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Johnny Cash, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Franki Vali, Joan Jett, and Cherrie Curie, Elvis Presley, James Brown, just to name a few. They have been met with varying receptions, but often, music biopics are fairly well received, with many receiving at least a best actor or actress nod at the Oscars. And with Bohemian Rhapsody winning so big at the Oscars, and making so much money, we will probably be seeing even more of these.
But do we need more of these? To me, they all feel the same. There is literally a formula for making these movies. Tell me if you have heard this story before. The movie starts with a famous musician about to go on stage. Then they start to reminisce about how their career goes to this place. Flashback to some traumatic moment from their childhood. Then eventually jump ahead to them a bit older, where they start playing music and people are instantly drawn to them. Then they have to win over a producer who doubts their abilities, they become a star, start taking drugs or drinking, things start to fall apart in their life, their relationships deteriorate. But then, they pull themselves together, and the movie ends on some huge performance, and then there is a text crawl explaining what happened in the rest of their life. All along the way there being tons of montages showing them performing some of their most famous songs in front of large crowds.
These are not stories, they are summaries. Remember in School, when you would have to do a book report, and the teacher would say to not just summarize the book. Well, the people who write these biopics never learned that. Trying to cram a person entire life into a 2-hour movie is impossible. So much will happen to them. Especially when we are talking about these legendary figures who have led extraordinary lives.
Take Straight Outta Compton for example. The first hour of it is great because it all focuses on their rise to fame. It is one moment of their life, that is an actual story, not just a summary. But in the final hour, and just rushes through the rest of the major moments for N.W.A. Eazy-E dies in the movie 5 minutes after they show his diagnosis. There is no time spent on the solo albums, they are either montaged or eluded to. It wants to cover so much, that it covers nothing.
So often these movies are just about showcasing the music. They want an excuse to put as much of their music into the movie as possible, so it becomes a montage just jumping to the moments when the iconic songs are written.
Everything feels rushed, nothing feels rushed, and character development is thrown right out the window. We don’t get to learn anything about these people that we couldn’t learn just by going to their Wikipedia page.
Another problem I have is that they never show the musical process. Johnny Cash can just hear someone say walk the line to him, and then in the next scene he is performing his new song “Walk the Line.” The music always comes so easily to them, and the process of creating the music is almost never shown, or if it is, it is done in a cartoonish way like in Bohemian Rhapsody. One of the only films I saw that bothered to portray its subjects musical process was the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy.”
There are ways to fix this though, so let’s look at a few examples that worked, to see what we can learn about making the genre work.
A movie about the life of Mozart. It is still one of the best musical biopics of all time in my opinion.
What makes it stand out, is that the main character is not Mozart. The movie mostly follows another composer, Salieri. It tells the story of Mozart through the eyes of the rival. It is not just a checklist marking off different events from Mozart’s life. The story has a purpose and a theme.
That theme is jealousy. Salieri resents Mozart. How Mozart is just such a natural talent when Salieri had to work twice as hard his whole life and can’t reach the same level of success. But he also deeply admires Mozart because of how beautiful his music is. Though he still plots to destroy him. Meanwhile, Mozart has his own story, where he basically sabotages himself.
The point is, the story has a point. it is about something, not just a person. The plot is not Mozart’s entire life, the plot is the rivalry between him and Salieri, the self-sabotage of Mozart, and deep jealousy of Salieri. It covers a long period of time, but never veers off its theme and story. It never resolves to just summarize who Mozart is, which works for such a more interesting story.
It also helps that it is not through Mozart’s eyes. Many of these figures are larger than life and hard to relate to. But telling the story through someone else’s eyes grounds it. Salieri is not a likable person, he is bitter as hell, but he is much more relatable than Mozart.
2. The Aviator
While not a musical biopic, it is still useful to look at other types of biopics to see what made them work.
There are so many stories that can be told about Howard Hughes. If a director tried to fit Howard Hughes into the typical biopic format, it would be a mess. I mean this is the guy Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark were loosely based on. Also of note, the character Andrew Ryan from Bioshock is also based on Hughes. I know I keep using the larger than life cliche, but this guy truly embodies that. He is one of the most prominent businessmen ever, and a fascinating character study.
But, while this movie does cover large swathes of his life, it always has the same through line. It is about his obsession. His obsession drives him to be as successful as he is, but it also takes a massive toll on his personal life. He has severe OCD, and it weighs heavy on his entire life.
It is not the story of Howard Hughes, but a story about him. Those two may seem like the same thing, but they are not. It does not try to explain who Hugh is, but treats him like any other character in a story. It does not reduce his life to a montage of events but cultivates certain specific events that best tell the story the movie wants to tell.
Okay, so what can we learn from these two examples? One, the movie can not just be about the person, it has to have a point, a theme. What makes this person tick? You do not have to fit it into some rigid formula to hit every single beat of their life. You do not need to show them make every single song.
Two, you, of course, need talent behind the camera, not just in front of it. Rami Malek was great as Freddie Mercury, but Brian Singer did not do a good job, and the writers did not do a good job, so the movie didnt work. However, with Amadeus, you not only had great actors but an amazing filmmaker in Milos Forman. And he was working off a great script that was adapted from a great play.
So how do we fix this, and make more compelling musical biopics? Because these are mostly fascinating people, and there are definitely great movies to tell with their lives. I have a couple of ideas. You could just focus on one moment of their career. Their rise to fame for instance. For Queen, the story could have been all about the buildup to Live Aid, bringing the band back together. There is no reason to tell the story of their entire life because you do not have time for that.
Or, you could do what the two movies I mentioned did, and have the movie cover decades, but remain focused on one story. You could tell a love story if there is one to be told with an artist, which Walk The Line did spend a lot of its time doing even though it did also try to fit into the traditional formula. If Walk The Line had focused even for time on June and Johnny Cash’s relationship it may have been better.
But just stop telling the same exact story. These movies do not need to fit into any formula. The best ones all break that mold. You could even go super abstract like the Bob Dylan one went, although if you want to appeal to a general audience you probably shouldn’t do that. Treat them like characters in a movie. Pick some aspect of the band or person, and tell that story. Say you were going to do a biopic about Michael Jackson. You could show his entire career, but I would suggest making the movie be about his abusive father, and the mental health decline it caused. Narrow the focus of the story. Ask yourself, what makes this person so interesting, and tell that story.
Also, give the movie a visual style. This isn’t just a problem with biopics, but with movies of all types. So many directors choose to go with boring as the visual style of their movie. The shots and camera angles do nothing to help the theme of the movie. Look at Wes Anderson. His movies have style. You can watch any Wes Anderson movie, and know it is a Wes Anderson movie. Musical Biopics, in particular, are a violator of this. Bohemian Rhapsody had nothing going on stylistically unless you consider rapid cuts as a stylistic choice.
Rocket Man, on the other hand, seems to have a style. The trailer suggests it will live in a fantasy world and will have crazy production design. That’s not to say it is going to be great, but it seems to at least be trying to be unique and separate itself from other movies in the genre.
These are movies that will keep being made. They make money and get acclaim at the Oscars, so studios have no reason to stop. But they can at least be less boring about it.