IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in her 1982 ‘lollipop’ photoshoot/PHOTO CREDIT: Deborah Feingold
Vague: Why Previous Attempts at a Full Madonna Biopic Have Been Flawed...and Why an Authoritative, Career-Spanning Project, with Madonna’s Backing, Would Triumph
THERE is a lot of division when it comes to the music biopic…
and whether we should see them on the screen. I have written about the biopic and the great and bad, it seems there is that clear division between those artists whose lives have been brilliantly brought to life through the viewpoint of an actor and those, sadly, whose career has been given a bit of a blow. A couple that have been making the news revolve around Freddie Mercury and Amy Winehouse. The former left us twenty-seven years ago and the biopic that has just been released, Bohemian Rhapsody, did receive some bashing and negative remarks - but many have thrown praise its way. Those who were indifferent to the film felt a lot of Mercury’s personal life was omitted and (the film) skirts around some of the singer’s more arresting moments. You can never please everyone and it is very hard making a film about someone very known and loved and getting it right. The Queen lead was an enigmatic and contrasting figures whose personal life was very different to what he projected on the stage. It is hard to find that perfect balance between the iconic showman and who Mercury was in private. Maybe there are some flaws but there has been a lot of love put the way of Bohemian Rhapsody. Whether Mercury would have approved of the film and loved everything is something we will never know. It has been good to see this legend projected through film and, let’s hope, reach new audiences.
IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse in 2009/PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake
The reason people make biopics is because, well, they want to see that artist’s life on the screen but ensure their life and magic is introduced to fresh generations. A lot of biopics, to be fair, concern dead artists. It makes senses to cinematically revive a musician but there is that issue of consent and appropriateness. Another artist who is getting the big screen treatment is Amy Winehouse. I can see the lure and desire to see Winehouse’s life projected on screen. The details, at the moment, remain brief:
“Just days after Amy Winehouse‘s estate revealed plans to tour a hologram of the singer, her family also announced that a big-screen biopic about Winehouse is in the works. The Winehouse family will serve as executive producers on the upcoming biopic, which will begin filming in 2019, the Guardian reports. Proceeds from the film will reportedly benefit the Amy Winehouse Foundation.
“We now feel able to celebrate Amy’s extraordinary life and talent,” the singer’s father Mitch Winehouse 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.”
Monumental Pictures’ Debra Hayward and Alison Owen, the mother of fellow British singer Lily Allen, will also produce the film, with Kinky Boots writer Geoff Deane on board to script Winehouse’s life story”.
You have to consider a number of factors when approaching the film. Do you focus on the tragedy and alcoholism or, in a way, omit the darker details. Did the story of Freddie Mercury look at his sexuality and AIDS? A great biopic tackles the personal lows and highs and I do not think you can cherry-pick. Winehouse is regarded, rightly, as a modern icon so there will be a lot of her incredible music and loveable personality. She was, away from the tabloid gaze, a humble and honest woman that was, in a way, tortured by the pressure of fame. Who do you get to play her and will they sing her songs – something that is quite sacred and hard to equal! Will we get her early life and life before music and will we end with her sad death in 2011? If you miss any of these questions out, before it has even hit the screen, you have a critical failure. Fans will want to see Winehouse fairly portrayed but focus more on the music. It is a hard balancing act and, for that reason, I am a bit reluctant about this one. The fact Winehouse’s music has been exploited to an extent – posthumous releases and the fact a hologram version of her will tour – and it takes away from the purity of her work. The fact she was only twenty-seven when she died limits the scope of the film and will there be enough to keep people gripped and invested?! It is easy to see why music biopics have a hard time succeeding.
It can be hard telling an artist’s story legitimately and fairly if they do not get a say. The problem is one that was put at Madonna’s feet. My notion regarding a biopic is not a fresh one: there has been long-talk of a biopic, Blond Ambition, doing the rounds. I do not know whether it is being produced and when we might see it – if at all. When the biopic was suggested and its details revealed, the Queen of Pop was not best pleased:
“Madonna’s claws are out. To be fair, they’re probably always out, given Madge’s proclivity for quick comebacks and cutthroat takedowns. But this time, her claws are sharper, shinier, and adamantium-strong, and sinking into a surprising new victim: a biopic called Blond Ambition. Universal recently snapped up the rights to the script, which is a retelling of Madonna’s early life and career. However, the singer greatly disapproves of the story, even more so now that she’s read the screenplay.
“Why would Universal Studios want to make a movie about me based on a script that is all lies???” she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post, per The Hollywood Reporter. “The writer Elyse Hollander should write for the tabloids.”
Hollander’s screenplay, which follows a young Madonna struggling “to get her first album released while navigating fame, romance, and a music industry that views women as disposable,” shot to the top of the Black List last year. Michael DeLuca (Fifty Shades of Grey) of Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment is set to produce the film, alongside John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions...
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in Greenwich Village, 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Cunningham
The pop superstar continued trashing the project, singling out specific script details like a scene in which a young Madonna tells Dick Clark on American Bandstand that she was born in Detroit and dropped out of high school.
When news of the biopic originally broke on Tuesday, Madonna immediately took to Instagram to voice her disapproval. She posted a photo of herself in all her 80s splendor, with the caption: “Nobody knows what I know and what I have seen. Only I can tell my story. 📚Anyone else who tries is a charlatan and a fool. Looking for instant gratification without doing the work. This is a disease in our society. ✍️🙃”.
I can see why there was some rankling and anger from Madonna. If you are not purporting the facts and doing something very lazy regarding the truth; how is that going to reflect the artist? The fact Madonna is alive and can have creative input, if approached, is a bonus. I am not sure whether that film has been made or what is happening but I do wonder whether an opportunity was squandered. Why focus on the early career rather than focusing on her entire career? Why not consult Madonna and negotiate? Surely a less hurried and more personal biopic is better than none or one that does not present things as they really transpired?!
It seems, in terms of documentary, it is easier to get things right and strike that balance – as the facts and woman herself is telling her own story to a degree:
“...But a documentary? On Monday, the first trailer for Madonna and the Breakfast Club, a documentary about the same early period of the Queen of Pop’s life as Blond Ambition, was released. Despite apparently treading some of the same territory, this is not the same film that so inflamed Madonna last year. Described as a “docudrama feature film about Madonna’s pre-fame days in New York with her first band”—the titular Breakfast Club—the documentary features interviews with Madonna’s collaborators from the era as well as what look to be pretty substantial reenactments of key scenes with actor Jamie Auld, perfectly cast in her first role, playing the musician. (A quick browse of Auld’s Instagram only confirms what’s in the trailer: The actor is a definite doppelgänger for the now-60-year-old soccer mom.)”.
As a big fan of her work; I am keen to do something revolving around her work – maybe a documentary would be the best first step. I feel Madonna’s beginnings and story has Hollywood and the cinema written all over it. The fact she left Bay City and worked her way to become the Queen Pop is a remarkable achievement and one that would inspire generations. It need not be a single film: a multi-part drama/comedy-drama would passionately and faithful chart her entire career and would allow people to see how she managed to transform music.
One could start in her early life and that desire to head to New York and create its first big chapter with her debut album in 1983. There is this ongoing career where she has evolved and managed to create such huge artistic works; a private life that has been put through the tabloid mill but, when you listen to the woman speak without misguidance, she is not like she’s portrayed. To me, seeing the young Madonna fight for artistic control and independence is the biggest key. Many overlook the way she was determined to guide her own work and how Madonna’s singular vision is what has led us to now. She worked with other producers and writers but it was the determination and strength from Madonna that ruled. I can understand why Madonna would feel slighted if someone made a biopic and it was not to her satisfaction. There is no other artist, I feel, that would be able to tell such a compelling story. You have all the different albums and how she transitioned from her 1980s heyday and reinvented herself in the 1990s; the big tours and iconic fashion changes; the way she is still making music and has inspired countless other artists. I do not feel she’s object unreservedly to any project regarding her life. As the trailer for Madonna and the Breakfast Club shows; it is possible to tell her story right and get her backing – it is the story/documentary of Madonna’s struggling days in New York with her first band, The Breakfast Club, and the period leading to her first solo record.
The best way to go about an authentic and proper Madonna biopic is to, first, approach her and her label, Interscope, and her management, Maverick, and not make a single move until everyone has sat down. A T.V. serial/multi-part would avoid Hollywood hands and duplicitous studio hands and, if funded by someone like Netflix or Amazon, it would have the budget but have a sense of independence – or not as controlled as you’d get from a bigger Hollywood studio. You would not need to glamorise details or overly-sexualise her life. She is an honest artist and her sexuality is part of her progression. The personal facts are the most important aspect. Regarding her high-school life and when she left Bay City; whether she wants to mention her marriages and any sexual past – going ahead without her consent risks alienating the one person you are trying to please the most. You would need to establish the tone of the series and whether it is going to have elements of her relationships and controversies – especially around her Erotica-Sex period in the 1990s – or whether you want to focus purely on her musical rise. Having an approved and malleable production company on board is the biggest step. Finding a director, female preferably, who could bring her story to life and ensure Madonna loved it would be easier than you’d think. You’d need the writers to work with Madonna and, if she had an executive producer role, it would mean details would go through her without her necessarily controlling every aspect of production.
A biopic/series that offends the subject is a failure and that is why there is an ethical quandary when telling the stories of artists who have already passed – would they want their story to be told at all?! Madonna is going to be without us an awful lot longer and there is no huge rush to throw something out without her understanding and backing. If you put something to her and she says ‘no’ then ask if there is something that can be done to get her involvement. If she shuts down every approach then it is best to leave things but that is not what has happened before. There is so much to unpack and concentrate on so I do not think you can sufficiently get to grips with the real Madonna with a two/three-hour film. It would look great on a big screen but I think something more detailed and thorough is only right. I spat out the title, Vogue, because that song (from 1990’s I’m Breathless) seems to be a particular peak. The word evokes fashion and cool and would be a good title. I do not know but, in any case, most production companies would want the involvement of Madonna herself. The script and story would be good to tell and something someone like me would love to see. You need to get inside the woman herself – in a non-smutty way! – and what drives her.
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Madonna’s eponymous debut in 1983/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Image
If Madonna was on board and was invested in the project, I think it could genuinely be a huge hit. Biopics involved deceased artists can be risky and if you try and guess what they would want told and how they actually lived then you are taking a gamble. By having the Queen of Pop with us and producing music still, there is this huge interest and lure. We all want to know what Madonna will bring next and, at sixty, I feel she has a lot more to say. My favourite periods from her career are her debut in 1983; the period between 1992 and 1994 when she released Erotica and Bedtime Stories (respectively) and rode a wave of flack; her 1998 album, Ray of Light, and where she is now. Madonna’s eponymous debut is a landmark album and one of the best introductions. By 1994, she had undergone changes and creative shifts and, with tongue in cheek, was apologising for her raunchy and indiscreet album/book beforehand. By 1998, nobody expected her to produce something like Ray of Light. It is her musical evolutions and reinventions that make her the Queen of Pop. The personal side of Madonna is important and cannot be overlooked. There are marriages and tabloid tackling; we know about her huge live shows and it would be good to see what happened behind closed doors and get a glimpse of the Madonna that few of us have ever got to see.
There is a lot of Madonna documentary and interview material to cull from and getting the right actress is essential. You’d be looking at Madonna from the age of around sixteen and following her career up until now, aged sixty. Whether you’d keep one actress and age her or employ several is a problem but I feel having several actresses playing her is best. They would need to learn her speaking voice and mannerisms but the studio recordings do not need to be replaced. I feel getting someone to re-record her songs would be a mistake and you need to keep them as they are. There are so many different areas to investigate and how she got involved with every part of the process – from writing and producing to music videos and hiring dancers for her tours. Some might say Madonna having too much say would make it subjective and gloss over some aspects but I feel her aim would be to have her life told as she actually lived it. There is a demand to see her life on screen and you cannot look at the epic career of Madonna and not feel it would be perfect and brilliant on T.V./film. As we have seen; going ahead and producing something that is half-truth risks the subject herself create distance and feel offended so the only realistic Madonna biopic would need her complete involvement and direction.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in her 1982 ‘lollipop’ photoshoot/PHOTO CREDIT: Deborah Feingold
I think her music videos, songs and interviews are a great legacy but having this single/multi-party story would bring everything together and provide a chance for rare details and revelations to come into play. Many people idolise Madonna and a drama/film would show how she took a risk and got into music; how she rose to where she is and could bring in messages around sex, feminism and creative control. It is a modern-day story that is needed in music and, given the lack of icons, talk of #MeToo and sexism in music; having one of our finest-living artists tackling this retrospectively and currently would make a big impression. You cannot argue with the fact there is nobody like her but, if her life and career was put on film and was told truthfully; who is to say somebody out there who aspires to be like her could not take a similar path and create history?! It is exciting to see but I wonder whether previous attempts – whether they get past the green light and emerge into the light of day is unsure – will stump another pitch. I cannot believe Madonna would be opposed to ANY biopic or dramatic interpretation. As we saw in the article near the top of this piece; she wants things to be accurate and as experienced and telling lies is not a good strategy.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna at the Met Gala 2017/PHOTO CREDIT: George Pimentel via Getty Images
A documentary would be less risky and would not necessarily need Madonna’s input because you are collating what is already out there and the portraying the facts. Films, biopic or otherwise, always tend to bend the truth to a degree and there is the temptation to exaggerate and scandalise Madonna. You do not need to do that as her life and career is fascinating and screen-worthy without distorting the facts. It would be brilliant to have the Queen of Pop giving the go-ahead for a new/proper biopic because I, for one, would be able to bring a lot to it. Maybe we will see an upcoming biopic – not approved by Madonna – but I hope any projected or half-finished idea will not see the light. A gorgeous, touching and powerful telling of Madonna, from the teenager to the established icon she is today would bring in huge viewer figures and would provide people to see the Pop icon’s story as told by the woman herself. Not many artists have that opportunity so I hope, if the right idea came her way (I have a great one that would be perfect), she would get behind it and see something personal and honest...