Musicals are known to be box office safe zones. Along with movies starring a bespectacled wizard or a motor-fuel slathered Megan Fox, films that involve familiar red carpet faces stretching their vocal muscles are predictable, bankable hits.
The logic is clear: if a West End show is causing a sensation, then a version starring some glossy Hollywood stars, where popcorn is readily available, is sure to draw the crowds. And, despite many a film snob avowing differently, on a Friday evening after a working week, an all-singing, all-dancing number is probably going to be more of a good time than a black and white piece of German expressionism.
But what about the films that still have music at their core, but don’t start life on the stage boards or in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s notebook? Musicals are bankable; music biopics, perhaps like the stars they focus on, can be unpredictable. While some of the logic seems the same – fans of platinum selling artists can surely be transformed into cinema ticket buyers – the feel-good aspect is not nearly so guaranteed. Many of the musicians and bands that attract filmmakers are not those with a jazz-hands happy ending – it is usually the cult figures, the ones who have earned the popular title of ‘tortured artist’ that capture the imagination.
It isn’t surprising that Joy Division’s Ian Curtis became the subject for Anton Corbijn’s Control, or that studios fought over the rights to potential ownership of Kurt Cobain’s life story. It is often the tragic tales and the dark myths that linger in the mind – cinema offers the chance to continue stories that seemed to end all too soon. The gossip surrounding a possible Amy Winehouse biopic is enough to suggest many pictures grow from a subsection of morbid fascination.
It is the behind-the-scenes grit, the rock and roll hedonism and the hidden stories behind the iconic albums that filmmakers, and film viewers, want to capture. Unless the aim is a Justin Bieber, Never Say Never, or One Direction Where We Are style affair, what makes directors hot under the collar are troubled tales (even Justin and Harry are known to have darker sides to their tween-bop image).
It’s only natural. Fiction needs its drama and its hooks – almost every film needs its moment of crisis. Wildness, addiction and instability are common fare. However, when it’s not fiction, when real lives and real issues are the focus, filmmakers can easily get themselves into muddy waters. A lot rides on their depictions. Unlike musicals, the soundtrack can’t support the entire movie. Control succeeded because it was sensitive and personal and because Corbijn’s genius thrived. Biopics that latch onto a big name and rely on only that to carry them through can all too easily go the way of a half-hearted B-side.