FEATURE: Pitch Perfect: Striking the Right Balance in Music Biopics – and the Artists We Need to See on the Big Screen




Pitch Perfect


IN THIS PHOTO: Jimi Hendrix/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Striking the Right Balance in Music Biopics – and the Artists We Need to See on the Big Screen


I am not sure why there is a rise in the number of…

music biopics coming to our screens but, over the past couple of years, we are seeing more and more come through. I suppose the Oscar success of the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, has spurred others on. Everyone will have their opinions regarding the best music biopics ever and there are artists I want to see portrayed on the big screen. Why, then, are so many music-based films being made at the moment? This article from The Houston Chronicle explained:

The reasons these films keep getting made are pretty obvious. They don’t require much in the way of modern special effects, so they have a budgetary safety valve. Music biopics also have built-in iconography, so marketing efforts don’t start cold. They have historically courted awards-season votes, if not for the films then for the pantomimed performances of their lead actors.

Yet the biopics continue to sing and dance, plugging in marginally different content into old templates. Take the narrative frame. “Bohemian Rhapsody” uses Queen’s performance at the ’80s mega-concert Live Aid as its set of bookends. These narrative devices have become almost cynical in their trickery: cinematic implements to make a viewer think they’re seeing art rather than artifice.

Familiar begets familiar, and financial successes such as “Ray” ($75 million), “Walk the Line” ($119 million) and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” ($67 million, and 1980 dollars at that) often hold greater sway over Hollywood pocketbooks than the failures — even though only one of those three biopics was a particularly good film.

But they’re not all bad. Some of the better music biopics have found their voice by avoiding a cradle-to-grave narrative and instead emphasizing a tight focus on aspects of their subjects’ lives.

“Greetings From Tim Buckley” was saddled with a title that dared viewers not to watch. (Note: Viewers took the dare; the film, admittedly a niche production, made $11,000 at the box office.) But the emphasis on a purely musical connection between a son and the father he never knew was an actual story rather than a Cliff’s Notes version of a musician’s biography.

In his Miles Davis film, “Miles Ahead,” Don Cheadle focused on the late 1970s, which was right about the time Davis’ music ceased to be revelatory in its repeated regeneration. His indulgences were consuming him, and music finally raced ahead of him. A man out of time: That is a story”.

It is great artists are being portrayed on cinema screens because, at a time when most of us stream music, I wonder how many of these legends are being kept alive by young listeners; how many of them are looking back and seeing where these artists came from. So many of us stream music and then do not really take the time to consider the artist who made it and where they started life. Biopics allow these stories to be told and, for many, we learn something about big musicians we did not know before.

When you bring a story to the screen, there are some inherent problems. The same accusation was levied at the Elton John biopic/musical, Rocketman, the Queen biopic and some others: is the reality of the star in question being watered-down and ignored? I understand you want to attract families to see these films but, in order to boost profits, are filmmakers editing truth and not telling the whole story? Definitely, there were omissions in Bohemian Rhapsody – no real look into the more hedonistic side of Freddie Mercury – and Elton John’s private life was not as interesting and open on the screen as it is in real life. Not only are issues like sex and drugs being removed from films but, when it comes to portraying women on film, they are being reduced and put to the side. When you think about the biopics that have arrived over the past few years, most have concerned men – apart from the Nina Simone flick, Nina (although, as this review explains, there were very obvious flaws). In terms of casting, are studios picking the right actor and are writers/directors too afraid of revealing the truth of an artist ion case it risks box office reductions and some criticism? I think there are issues that need to be address but, when it comes to heroines and muses, are their voices being heard? Earlier this month, The Guardian ran an article that reacted to the new film about The Beatles, Yesterday – it posits a world where the band never existed and only the one musician knows they existed; so, when he played their songs, people think they are his. It was an interesting concept – not an original one, by the way – but there were problems there:

Last year, A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody questioned the price of fame for Lady Gaga’s fictional singer Ally and Rami Malek’s toothy Freddie Mercury. More recently, Wild Rose followed a Glaswegian mother-of-two fresh from prison and hoping to make it as a country star; Vox Lux lambasted America’s appetite for destruction with its story of fictional star Celeste, whose career begins after she survives a high school shooting and writes a tribute song to her murdered classmates; and Beats, set in 1994, eschews a central star to centre on two Scottish lads raving against the onset of the Criminal Justice Act.

IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga in a promotional shot for A Star Is Born/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

What does commercial demand mean for the stories that are being told? Bohemian Rhapsody was slammed for suggesting that Mercury was a tragic figure because of his sexuality (and for excising all reference to his gayness for the Chinese edit) – although Paul Flynn, author of Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain, found the criticism misplaced. “Freddie’s entire life was straight-washed – he didn’t want to be a public gay man. He was a figure that you would associate with what in retrospect you would call gay shame. It’s a complex story of him arriving at his gayness, and how some people used to have to do so through self-denial and trying to be straight.” Flynn finds it hugely significant that the two biggest biopics are about gay pop icons. “It’s the story of gay acceptance”.

 “An alternative concept for Yesterday might also be: “What if music by women never existed?” Unsurprisingly for a film that features Ed Sheeran playing himself in a supporting role, its two female characters (as in his songs) are a simpering drip who loves Jack, the lead, and a monstrous figure from his label. Amy Raphael, author of Never Mind the Bollocks and the forthcoming A Seat at the Table, which feature interviews with leading female musicians, balks at these portrayals, and particularly how the leads in Vox Lux, Her Smell and Wild Rose are humbled by motherhood”.

Filmmakers do need to be more honest regarding artists and ensure there is not too much stretching of the facts – there were factual errors in Bohemian Rhapsody and, for pacing reasons perhaps, events were jumbled and moved around. There are plans for a David Bowie biopic although, Bowie’s family are not allowing the makers to user any original music; Amy Winehouse’s life is coming to cinemas in the future…and there are more speculated.

 IN THIS PHOTO: There are plans to bring the late Amy Winehouse’s story to the big screen/PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake

Every journalist and site has their dream list and, as this new article shows, music films/biopics mean a lot to some very big names. Looking at that aforementioned list of upcoming projects and there is one in there that caught my eye: Blond Ambition and the story of Madonna. I will end by talking about a trio of music biopics I would like to see but, when it comes to stars you’d love to see on the screen, Madonna must be near the top! I know Madonna wants her story told honestly and, to be fair, maybe she is the only one who can do it justice. There have been projects stalled and scrapped but, as I have written before, it would be good to see a Madonna biopic or documentary. There has been a recent biopic/documentary, Madonna and the Breakfast Club, where we learn about her arrival in New York and the moments leading up to her debut album in 1983. In terms of a career-spanning biopic, nothing has come out. I also think a new documentary would be in order but, unlike some of the biggest biopics around, will filmmakers treat Madonna with respect but also not hold back when it comes to her personal life – will she want everything to be laid off bare?! I would love to see a Madonna biopic that goes from 1983-now but one feels Madonna would not allow this.

It is a shame, but I understand artists’ fears when it comes to the truth and getting fats right. If Freddie Mercury were alive and consulted on Bohemian Rhapsody, I am sure he would not have held back! I wonder whether studios have a line they will not cross and, when it comes to the truth, sometimes that is blurred and distorted. In terms of those I would like to see played on the big screen, there are three artists that spring to mind: Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. These are all massive names so there is not a lot of new information coming to life but, in terms of demand and popularity, I think they would be hits. In terms of Fleetwood Mac, I would love to see their Rumours album being put on screen. Not to revel in the disharmony and excess of the time but I am fascinated by the album and how it got made; the fact the band were disconnected and there was a definite strain in the camp. Yet, against all of this, they managed to produce one of the best albums of all-time. Fleetwood Mac are still touring together (minus Lindsey Buckingham) and I think they would approve of a film that looked at that period in 1976 when they were recording their most-famous record. Again, in terms of tone and honesty, because Buckingham is no longer with the band, will the real truth be told? Also, the band might not want to be too raw regarding the drug use and tension that was around then.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Fleetwood Mac in 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Artists want their stories told but, if there is too much excess and explicitness, can that damage their legacy? It is hard to get the right blend, but I do feel biopics owe it to fans and filmgoers to ensure there is clarity and transparency. Similarly, I would be interested seeing a biopic of The Beatles that covered their formation and earliest days. That must have been a heady time and it would be wonderful seeing the Fab Four given a big screen outing. There have been films made about The Beatles but nothing really that goes into detail about their early days. As Yesterday has been made, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have given their blessing so I would see no reason why they would refuse a biopic. I guess it is different when someone else is playing you in a film but I would love to see behind The Beatles’ homes when they were teenagers; those first gigs and the moment they sort of exploded. The film would not necessarily have to feature songs from The Beatles all the time: songs from the late-1950s and early-1960s could help soundtrack the film and provide a nice contrast. So long as the facts were all laid out – there was not too much sex and scandal that early in their career; The Beatles were not as excessive as groups like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones – then I think that film would prove very popular. The final music icon I would like to see brought back to life is Jimi Hendrix.

One might point out there has already been a film made about Jimi Hendrix and, absolutely, they would be right: All Is By My Side was released in 2013 but received some backlash. In order not to offend the family of Hendrix, were facts held back? Also, was there more of an ambition to create something entertain rather than personal? This review highlights some problems with All Is By My Side:

The tens of thousands of parakeets that squat and squawk in the trees of south London could be Jimi Hendrix’s fault. Some say he released a pair of them into the sky above Carnaby Street in the 1960s. They were birds of their time. They advocated free love. They bred and bred, and their descendants are here to stay.

It could be true, it could be false. Either way, it’s a harmless urban myth about Hendrix. Another – more ugly – story will be raked over this week with the release of Jimi: All Is By My Side, a biopic about the rock legend written and directed by the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. The film includes a scene in which Hendrix, played by Outkast rapper André Benjamin, clubs his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham around the head with a telephone handset. Soon after, Etchingham, played by Hayley Atwell, is shown overdosing on sleeping pills, before waking up in a hospital bed.


IN THIS PHOTO: André Benjamin/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

That may be the problem with the form: everyone has an angle, but biopics give the film-maker a platform to say their piece louder than anyone else, even the people closest to the subject. They have a megaphone. It’s up to them to point it in the right direction, says Cottrell Boyce. “The moral position is to say everything, which nobody ever does or ever could,” he says. “The moral position really is to behave well”.

Mark Kermode, when he reviewed the film, found things to be rather lifeless and flat: not what one would hope for when watching a film about one of the most colourful, electric and passionate musicians ever:

A strong performance by André Benjamin, who captures the speech, stance and guitar-wielding mannerisms of Jimi Hendrix to a tee, can’t redeem 12 Years a Slave-screenwriter John Ridley’s oddly dour biopic, which struggles to capture the excitement of its subject’s breakthrough years. There’s more than a touch of Factory Girls staginess as Imogen Poots’s posh Linda Keith discovers Hendrix in New York and brings him to London, where he promptly shacks up with Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). The woozy soundtrack and jump-cut visuals add a touch of period hallucinogenics, but the intimate detail never rings true. Indeed the depiction of domestic violence has been decried as false by Etchingham, about whom Hendrix wrote songs such as The Wind Cries Mary, which (along with all his other compositions) we never hear, permission having been hobblingly withheld”.

It is vital that facts are in biopics because, otherwise it is fantasy – at the very least, it is a dishonest portrayal of an artist. I can understand how estates and artists do not want every scar uncovered and worry some might listen to their music less if they knew everything but so many biopics have been called up because of this. Why make a film that reveals so little when you want to see a portrayal that is intimate and open? Despite hesitations and the inherent issues regarding biopics, they are popular and, as mentioned early, some new ones are in the works. Each of us has a list of those artists we’d like to see and, when it comes to someone like Jimi Hendrix, a definite biopic is yet to be made. Maybe it is difficult to balance full exposure and being quite delicate when it comes to a legend – director and producers want to ensure their film does not besmirch or taint someone. I do think filmmakers need to ask themselves why they are only telling half of the story and whether they are thinking too much about box office receipts and not enough about storytelling and being faithful to the subject matter. Regardless of some poor attempts and critical attack, the fact there are new biopics being made and planned shows the demand is hot and growing; there are so many artists we want to see brought to the cinema – I think a new Hendrix biopic would be a good move. If the recipe is right and you create a film that does not distort the truth; something that has heart, grit and plenty of wonder then it can truly…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @imnoom/Unsplash

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