FEATURE: A Star Is Reborn: The Glory and Gamble of the Music Biopic




A Star Is Reborn


IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse (the late star will have her life/career turned into a forthcoming biopic)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The Glory and Gamble of the Music Biopic


I was going to pencil this one in for tomorrow…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Moriarty

but I have been compelled by a news report that states Amy Winehouse will be brought back to life - or have her life brought to the cinema - in the form of a biopic. It comes hot off the heels (of the news) Winehouse will be resurrected and going on tour in the form of a hologram. It is clear Winehouse’s family want her music to live on and reach new audiences but the idea of her going around the country as this sort of ghost-like project…it sort of creeps me out a bit. It is not the first time this has been done. Roy Orbison, recently, was turned into a hologram and performed, I think, with an orchestra. You wonder how far it will go and it is strange to think an artist can make money from touring – or their estate can – after they have died! In any case; it seems like new Winehouse projects are springing up. The Guardian has reported the news of the as-yet-unnamed biopic:

The family of Amy Winehouse has signed a deal to make a biopic about the late singer. Monumental Pictures’ Alison Owen – mother to Lily and Alfie Allen – and Debra Hayward will produce the film. Winehouse’s life story will be adapted by Kinky Boots writer Geoff Deane, and shooting is due to start in 2019.

The Winehouse family will act as executive producers. Proceeds from the film will benefit the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Winehouse’s father Mitch said the family had been repeatedly approached regarding a biopic but previously felt “the time was not right”.

“We now feel able to celebrate Amy’s extraordinary life and talent,” he said in a statement. “And we know through the Amy Winehouse Foundation that the true story of her illness can help so many others who might be experiencing similar issues.”

Owen and Hayward affirmed their commitment to telling the stories of “amazing women, both real and fictional”, such as Queen Elizabeth I, Bridget Jones, Jane Eyre and Mary Poppins author PL Travers. “We’re proud that Mitch Winehouse has entrusted us with the story of amazing Amy, an icon whose songs have provided the soundtrack to a generation,” they said in a statement.

Mitch Winehouse denied suggestions that Lady Gagaacclaimed for her performance in the new remake of A Star Is Born, would play his daughter. “I wouldn’t mind betting it would be an unknown, young, English – London, cockney – actress who looks a bit like Amy,” he said.

He told the Sun: “What we want is somebody to portray Amy in the way that she was … the funny, brilliant, charming and horrible person that she was. There’s no point really me making the film because I’m her dad. But to get the right people to do it, that’s very important, and we will.”

The news comes days after the Winehouse family unveiled plans for a hologram of the singer to tour the world in 2019. Her father said the tour will raise money and awareness for the foundation in the late singer’s name”.

There is that moral and ethically debate when it comes to a biopic. I am sure, if Winehouse were alive, she would be reluctant to have anyone play her. Following the acclaimed and revered Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, back in 2015; it is understandable, given the bittersweet nature of the film, we would want to see more of Amy. New photos and songs are still being uncovered but this would be a way of presenting Winehouse’s rise to stardom in a very honest and filmic way. I am a bit torn regarding the news. Although Winehouse would probably object to the project; the fact she is no longer with us means it can go ahead and her family’s involvements means, at least, there can be honesty and some personal control. My problem lies when it comes to emotional revelation and how much is given away. I read a recent article that bemoaned biopics because, more often than not, we get a lot of the music but nothing personal or scandalous. Consider the upcoming Elton John biopic which has been described as a fantastical look at John’s career – his low moments and darker side, I guess, will not be explored:

It is “based on a true fantasy”, which is already a hint that it’s not going to be an unflinching study of the troubadour’s darkest extremes (“Freddie Mercury could out-party me, which is saying something,” Elton once said). Another hint is that it is co-produced by Elton and his husband David Furnish. The trailer alludes to moments of crisis – 70s Elton daytime-drinking in his dressing gown, winding up in hospital – but, as its star Taron Egerton has explained, Rocketman is more fanciful musical than conventional biopic, with “his songs used to express important beats in his life”.

That is not to say we demand to see our music icons at their most debauched, merely that the involvement of band or close family can mean skeletons remain in the closet. It happened with NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which counted Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, among its producers. The movie was great, but you would never guess that NWA often had less-than-progressive views about gay people, or a history of assaulting women”.

Biopics can be great because they tell more than interviews and, in the case of the best ones – which  I shall end with – they can be eye-opening and bring new life to artists. The fact biopics skip stuff like assault, criminality and drug abuse might be to preserve the artist’s name and reputation – even if we know about it; do you want to see that on the screen?! It is all very well hankering after some Elton John drug-taking and one of his legendary strops being brought to life but the biopic is a chance to celebrate the music and the person who made it. Would ‘honesty’, in that sense, sour the name and leave a bitter taste by the end?! Maybe there is the feeling that (that artist) will be subject to backlash if all was known or we might be less inclined to listen to their music. It will be interesting to see what they do with the Elton John biopic – when it arrives – because he is an icon and there is a lot of story to tell!


 IN THIS PHOTO: Sir Elton John/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There are subjects I feel will follow – David Bowie, surely, must be primed for a biopic soon?! – and Elton John is a fantastic artist whose music has endured for decades. One of the reasons why I am itchy about the Amy Winehouse documentary is the way some things will be held back. The fact her family are having a hand in means Winehouse’s drug and alcohol abuse, her torrent relationships and tabloid scrutiny will probably be omitted. How much are we going to see of the Winehouse who would often come to gigs inebriated or would be hounded by the press?! It is hard to see that on the screen but a biopic should be a true, warts-and-all study of an artist. One of the reasons why Sacha Baron Cohen withdrew from the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, is because Mercury’s life is not being explored in that much depth. Rami Malek has taken the role of the icon but it seems like Mercury’s hedonism and somewhat ‘free-spirited’ side is not being given an outing. How much will the film going into Mercury’s death and his sexual life?! It seems like the film highlights Mercury’s genius and peerless voice but there is not a lot of attention paid to his personal life and how he spent time away from the stage. This article – sorry to keep quoting The Guardian but they seem to be across it all! – talked to the new star of the project and revealed why Baron Cohen departed:

A couple of years ago, after he’d left this production, Sacha Baron Cohen gave an interview in which he explained that it was the chance to explore Mercury’s darker side that made the idea of a biopic appealing. “There are amazing stories,” Baron Cohen told Howard Stern in 2016, “the guy was wild… There are stories of little people with plates of cocaine on their heads walking around a party.” Baron Cohen’s suggestion was that he left the film because of his unease at the pricklier stuff being left out. He went on to tell a cruel story about how the surviving members of the band did not believe that any movie about Queen should culminate at the point of Mercury’s death, in 1991; instead they thought a better movie would carry on to show how the surviving members went on to grow the band without him”.

Malek chooses his words carefully here, but he does not shy at all from addressing the subject. “It’s an arduous thing to tell someone’s life in just two hours,” he says. “What’s the nature of celebrating a life? Definitely not avoiding his death in any way, or what caused his death, which is the Aids virus. But I think if you don’t celebrate his life, and his struggles, and how complicated he was, and how transformative he was – and wallow instead in the sadness of what he endured and his ultimate death – then that could be a disservice to the profound, vibrant, radiant nature of such an indelible human being”.

It is interesting there are three biopic coming out – Freddie Mercury now; Amy Winehouse and Elton John fairly soon – where the stars had vivid personal lives!


IN THIS PHOTO: Rami Malek (who stars as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody)/PHOTO CREDIT: Mario Sorrenti (styled by Edward Enninful) for W Magazine

Drugs and drink, to an extent, is a common link but one can see a certain controversy and darker side with all three artists. I want to end on a positive note and celebrate music biopics that have worked and revered but, if you do not set the right tone or pick the right lead actor; it can go down in history as a  turkey – that artist, then, loses some of their credibility and people become less interested. Some of the less successful and acclaimed biopics – 1991’s The Doors and 2004’s Beyond the Sea (where Kevin Spacey plays Bobby Darin) – have been written off and showed that the music biopic can be a risky and flawed concept. Whilst it would be good to see the likes of David Bowie, Prince and others brought to the big screen; it is tricky to avoid pitfalls and obstacles along the way.

This Washington Post article is packed with information and really opened my eyes when it came to biopics that ‘miss’ and those more successful:

The musical biopic has become such a cliche-riddled genre that it’s already been suitably parodied, in the 2007 comedy “Walk Hard,” in which John C. Reilly plays Dewey Cox, a singer who falls prey to the usual rock-star depredations of drugs, fame and petulant self-indulgence. “Walk Hard” goes broad in its comedy, but it aptly calls out what has become the audience’s morbid fascination with watching talent and promise being summarily extinguished: In “I Saw the Light,” Tom Hiddleston’s able portrayal of country singer Hank Williams is all but swamped in a drab, “Behind the Music”-like rehash of Williams’s history of alcoholism, drug abuse and marriage troubles. Viewers may leave the film impressed with Hiddleston’s physical resemblance to Williams, but with no deeper perception of what made his writing and singing so achingly powerful.

But when an actor plays a familiar cultural figure, some degree of impersonation isn’t just necessary — it’s welcome. For viewers to become immersed in the reality being portrayed on screen, the actor must deliver a carefully calibrated collection of externals — how the person they’re playing looks, walks and talks — and psychological internals, a subtle mix of playacting and psychic merging. The result, at its best, is not only an uncanny depiction of someone audience members instantly recognize and accept as the person in question, but also represents a new creation, a third character born of the actor’s own emotional truth and transparency. When a performance is constructed merely of externals, however accomplished, it becomes an exercise in camp: Rather than new or meaningful insight into the person being portrayed, the audience gets the relatively cheap pleasure of novelty and technical achievement — the “trick” of the portrayal itself”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light/PHOTO CREDIT: Sam Emerson/Sony Pictures Classics

When it comes to our most cherished icons, oblique is better than straight on. Characterization surpasses caricature. Interpretation transcends impersonation. The more abstract the aesthetic choices — the more the audience is encouraged to acknowledge rather than ignore the gap between performer and subject — the better the chances that a movie will avoid Wiki-ready narratives and “Walk Hard”-worthy cliches and become a thoughtful, densely layered, vividly specific portrait. After all, the artists these biopics celebrate were never content with on-the-nose homages to their influences”.

Whether a music biopic is an interpretation of any artist or a straight-on study of a musician; there is so much to take in and remember. Rolling Stone put together their essential guide to the very best music biopics and, among the top-ten, was 8 Mile (2002):

Loosely inspired by Marshall Mathers' life as a struggling rapper in Detroit, 8 Mile is a 21st-century Rocky, with the man who dubbed himself Eminem bobbing and weaving through his first starring role. But there's no point worrying over the biographical details: What matters is that Em's naturalistic performance as the scrappy, blue-collar Rabbit embodied the same raw vulnerability and edgy candor that powered his music”.

Straight Outta Compton (2015) was highlighted and praised for its storytelling and how it mixed truth and hard-hitting with something less controversial:

Produced by the surviving members of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton is the authorized biography of the hip-hop trailblazers, and the worst thing that could be said about it is that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube have made a glossy monument to their own importance. But that's the best thing about it too: For inner-city black men forced to work with powerful white gatekeepers in the music industry — and getting ripped off most of the time — it's a triumph that they'd be the ones to print the legend nearly three decades later”.


Sid and Nancy (1986) is a lauded biopic that deals with a lot of excess, recklessness and tragedy but, rather than dedicate the film to something deeply unpleasant or skip the details altogether; it is a beloved film because it strikes the balance and does not obfuscate and disguise:

Alex Cox's account of ex–Sex Pistol Sid Vicious' descent into drug addiction, culminating with the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, and his fatal heroin overdose, now looks less like punk than prog: It's a movie of grand, orchestrated gestures rather than guttural immediacy. (See the slow-motion shot of Vicious and Spungen kissing against a dumpster while trash rains from the sky above them.) But Gary Oldman's incarnation of Vicious' self-abnegating charisma is so magnetic than even the Pistols' John Lydon, who told Cox after seeing the film that he ought to be shot, was moved to praise the performance. And Chloe Webb's glass-shattering Nancy is the perfect soul-sucking Bonnie to his malignant Clyde”.

Perhaps the best of recent times – I’m Not There from 2007 – is a study of one of music’s most complex, fascinating and influential figures: the genius that is Bob Dylan:

How do you possibly try to encapsulate the life of Bob Dylan — one of the rock era's greatest shape-shifters — in a single film? If you're Carol director Todd Haynes, by splitting that life into different eras and influences, casting everyone from Cate Blanchett to Richard Gere to Heath Ledger to Christian Bale to portray separate shards in Dylan's rich, confounding mosaic. I'm Not There is both thrilling and inquisitive, staying away from chronology and straight biography to grasp, in a larger sense, how Dylan remade the world while constantly reinventing himself over the years”.

Write a fantasy list of those artists you’d like to see on the big screen and I am sure their lives involved some upheaval or excess. From Oasis and Janet Joplin through to Chris Cornell and Michael Jackson – you cannot truly represent these artists without delving into their private lives and getting a complete picture. I am not sure how Bohemian Rhapsody will be perceived but I have my fingers crossed. I have yet to come round to the idea of Amy Winehouse’s live being brought to the screen but I hope it does not glaze over the hard times or paint people in a false light! The same can be said of Elton John: Will he be painted as this pure and God-like figure or will it be a semi-factual fantasy?! It is tempting to make a film about an artist/band because we love the music and their lives are fascinating but there are so many gambles and problems to navigate. If everyone can consult and ensure Amy Winehouse is treated with respect then it could work. I think the best music biopics have not shied away from those darker moments but they have not focused too heavily on them. Getting the tone right is important you need to ensure your lead actor/actors are right and fit the bill – there is a rumour someone like Lady Gaga could be lined up to play Winehouse.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga (who is one name being suggested to play Amy Winehouse in a forthcoming biopic)/PHOTO CREDIT: Inez and Vinoodh for Vogue

I, personally, love a biopic and think it is a worthy endeavour but there have been some mishaps through the years. Given the fact there is a clear demand and appetite to see loved artists on the screen is great and it is a fantastic way of preserving the music and making it reach new audiences. I think Amy Winehouse and Queen will get renewed interest and fresh fans following their biopics and both, in their own way, will be successful. If you get the biopic wrong then it can take something away from the music and we have seen enough examples of subpar and derivative attempts. If they are perfected and you can strike the right emotional, visual and intellectual tones then the results can be spellbinding. I do not think any artist is too precious to have their stories told but it is that key consideration – how MUCH do we go into their personal lives and revealing demons?! – that needs to be handled, managed and explored.


PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Moriarty

Whilst I am sceptical, at this early juncture, about an Amy Winehouse biopic (Frank for the title, do you think?!); I look back at the very best music biopics – artists like Sid Vicious and Bob Dylan given a very good film – and feel there is that potential to create something wondrous. The Freddie Mercury biopic has had its problems and delays and I hope those issues do not blight the Winehouse biopic. If they are both successes then that could open the doors for other artists, gone or still with us, to have their lives explored on screen. If it brings their music to new audiences and is done in the right way then who can complain?! It is always risky when embarking on a music biopic but, if you nail everything and that perfect balance is struck, then it can lead to something…

TRULY epic.