Music Biopics Endure – Though Many are Weak

This weekend, “Back to Black,” a biopic of the late, great R&B singer Amy Winehouse, opens in theaters to commercial intrigue and much critical chagrin. The music biopic has been a staple of the cinematic landscape over the last two decades.

Published May 23, 2024 11:22 PM
3 min read



This weekend, “Back to Black,” a biopic of the late, great R&B singer Amy Winehouse, opens in theaters to commercial intrigue and much critical chagrin. The music biopic has been a staple of the cinematic landscape over the last two decades. While some push the boundaries of the form (“Elvis”), most represent cheap, unimaginative attempts to cash in on a built-in audience. The early word on “Back to Black” is that it falls squarely into the latter category, which means anyone but Winehouse’s most hardcore fans need not apply.

The music biopic as we know it was birthed in the 1970s, when films about Billie Holliday (“Lady Sings the Blues”), Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory”), and Loretta Lynn (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) captured box-office receipts and attention from the Oscars. The genre lay dormant for a couple decades until Ray Charles and Johnny Cash revived it with “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” They were so successful that they inspired a spoof of musical biopics, the hilarious “Walk Hard: Dewey Cox,” that essentially parodied just two films.

Typically, a parody signals the end of a genre, as 1980’s “Airplane!” did with ‘70s disaster movies. But the music biopic shows no signs of slowing down. Earlier this year, the Bob Marley biopic “One Love” was met with a shrug from critics but became a surprise hit, grossing $95 million in theaters. Even the gosh-awful Whitney Houston film “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” which appeared to come and go without notice, grossed $60 million with its late 2022 release.

Go back just a little further and you find the massive success of “Elvis,” both at the box office and the Oscars; the global sensation “Rocketman,” an Elton John biopic; and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which grossed close to a billion dollars with its tame narrative and award-winning Freddie Mercury imitation by Rami Malek. That film had but one memorable moment: the recreation of Queen’s iconic performance at 1985’s Live Aid, but you’re still better off watching the original clip, which is available on YouTube at the click of a button.

There have been others, and there will be more. Right now, Timothee Chalamet is shooting a Bob Dylan biopic, while director Sam Mendes is working on a four-film Beatles movie project, with each installment focusing on a different member of the Fab Four. Finally, there is “Michael,” a movie about Michael Jackson starring the singer’s actual son that will be released later this year.

Odds are, these films will be bad because most music biopics are. The filmmakers often seek out collaboration with the families of the films’ subjects, or in the case of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” the subjects themselves. This approach gives off an appearance of authenticity, but provides the exact opposite. Collaborating with the real-life subjects installs a purpose of protecting the artists’ legacies. It whitewashes the truth. Most pop stars are complicated people, but their films sand down their behavior to assuage the feelings of their friends, relatives, or bandmates.

The only times a music biopic really justifies its existence as a creative work is when it takes chances. “Love and Mercy” told a fascinating, true story about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys by focusing on his mental illness, as well as hiring two actors to play him — Paul Dano and John Cusack — who bore no resemblance to either him or each other, throwing verisimilitude out the window and instead prioritizing storytelling. “Elvis,” for all its flaws, used the brash filmmaking techniques of director Baz Luhrmann to capture the mania Presley inspired in his fans and the public. “I’m Not There,” the first Dylan biopic, captured the spirit of its subject by hiring six actors of various races and genders to embody different sides of the elusive singer.

These are the exceptions. Most music biopics won’t take chances because they can still reap the reward of a devoted fan base by sticking to familiar notes. They’ll use the same, tired rise-and-fall arc and put most of their production budget into a few key musical performances that will inspire, at best, a nod of recognition from the audience and a burning desire to go look up the real clip on YouTube.

Still, they will continue to be made, and continue to make money. Other genres may come and go, but the music biopic will never be irrelevant as long as pop stars are still being made. They’re like superhero movies except we never run out of source material, and their most special effect is the magnetic appeal of a great pop star, which these films don’t have but receive credit for approximating. In horseshoes, hand grenades, and apparently music biopics, close is good enough.

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