It has long been said that the greatest mark of success for any singer is to see themselves immortalised on the silver-screen. Who could forget Eminem’s iconic performance in 8 mile, or indeed Jamie Foxx’s moving portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray? Enter the 21st centuries new favourite genre: the music biopic.
The biopic genre first struck gold in the 1930s and has continued to flourish ever since. Music films have grown to constitute a bona fide genre of their own- with recent hits like Bohemian Rhapsody joining Walk the Line and Carpenter’s Elvis in the biopic hall of fame. It is not difficult to see why they have seen such a surge in popularity in recent years. In the midst of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, and before it referendum after referendum, a feel-good sing-along can shine like a beacon of hope. A well-executed music biopic is the ultimate form of escapism. It is easy to be pleasantly distracted from the world when a star-studded cast pour their talents into dramatized renditions of old classics.
In recent years we have been spoilt for choice. Elton John had the honour of seeing his story musically recounted in 2019’s hit Rocket Man, while members of Queen aided in the production of the wildly successful Bohemian Rhapsody. We have also seen the genre flourish in diverse new ways, departing from the traditional biographical format. Yesterday is a prime example of this new wave of films encroaching on the genre. One could question whether it even qualifies as such, since the plot is entirely fictional and thematises the cultural impact of the Beatles by envisioning a world in which they had never existed. The reactions to these more creative attempts are split, and understandably so. Any Beatles fan may see Yesterday as all exploitation and no credit. Yet I adopt a more favourable view. As the saying goes, ‘there is no band as big as the Beatles’ and so it would be near impossible to shine an entirely new light on a band that stood under more spotlights than any other in history. Boyle’s attempt to marry his directorial flair with his inner fangirl works remarkably well in producing a film that highlights the incredible impact the Beatle’s music continues to have on the world.
Yet for every good film there are a hundred bad ones, and in the run-up to Oscar season we have been bombarded with several. The worst biopic, and perhaps even the worst film, to come out of 2020 is the so-called Bowie biopic Stardust. As a hardcore Bowie fan, I was personally insulted by this crude caricature of one of the 20th century’s most iconic artists. Among its many faults, the greatest is undoubtedly its failure to include any of Bowie’s discography, as the producers did not receive permission to do so. The fact that the entire concept was not immediately dropped at this point has concerning implications, namely that the overwhelming success of music biopics in recent years has inspired every producer in the film industry to try their hand at it. Stardust is at best a bad tribute, at worst, an attempt to capitalise on Bowie’s profound legacy in spite of his label and family’s wishes to the contrary.
There are a couple of lessons to be learnt from the varyingly successful biopics of the last five years. Firstly: feel-good films do best in times of hardship. Secondly: commercially successful tributes take time, money, and insider input. That is not to say that smaller production companies should be excluded from the genre, merely that they should try a more creative approach or even invest their energies in creating a good music documentary- rather than making crude attempts at copying a tried and tested formula.
Image: AVRO via Wikimedia Commons