Rocketmen, raves and rhapsodies: how the music movie became a Hollywood hit

Elton John is the latest rock star to get the movie treatment in Rocketman. When did singers become as bankable as superheroes at the box office?

The doors swing open and through the smoke swaggers a figure in bejewelled orange horns, gold popped collar and fiery plumage. The Avengers have fought their last battle, and this summer’s superhero has arrived: his name is Elton John (or Taron Egerton) and his superpower is – Hollywood hopes – getting bums on seats in a projected $25m opening weekend.

In the opening scene of the biopic Rocketman, Taron-as-Elton strides straight off pop’s most decadent imperial period and into rehab, where he recounts his life from chubby-cheeked Reg Dwight, stuck in a Reg Perrin suburb, to Dodgers Stadium-playing, cocaine-hoovering Elton John. The details of Elton’s gilded life may be particular to him, but Rocketman’s arc (spoiler alert, fame corrupts!) will be familiar to anyone who has recently visited a cinema, where stories about musicians are outnumbering even the comic book characters.

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.

Watch the trailer for Rocketman

And still to come after Rocketman are Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, a romcom that asks what life would be like if the Beatles had never existed; Elle Fanning playing a reality show hopeful in Teen Spirit; Elisabeth Moss as a self-destructive rock wraith in Her Smell; Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s biopic Judy; and Blinded By the Light, based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoirs of falling for Bruce Springsteen as a British-Pakistani teenager in the 1980s.

It is the summer of the (juke)box office smash. Why? Martha Shearer, a teaching fellow in film studies at King’s College London, says that “some of these films have an emphasis on being plucked out of the crowd” that perhaps speaks to our age of reality talent shows and the “social media generalisation of fame”. But more than that, she says, “these films use the transcendent moments of pleasure that musical performances produce to express a feeling of being part of the crowd, of the authenticity and immediacy of that collective experience much more so than individual success narratives. There’s a way of reading those moments as a longing for a collective experience in a fairly bleak cultural moment of neoliberal social fragmentation.” In this respect, Beats, which gorgeously recreates a rave and the joyful gurning that goes with it, is this wave’s most successful film. “I wanted the audience to feel like they’d experienced what it was like to be on a dancefloor in 1994 with this music and these boys for whom the music is new and the experience is new,” says the film’s director, Brian Welsh.

Alex Ross Perry, who directed Her Smell, pegs the popularity of these films to a feeling of nostalgia for a communal experience unmediated by technology, and the demise of the traditional rock star figure as contemporary pop stars strive to appear ordinary. “The constant accessibility of people in the modern age has rendered temporary lapses of their behaviour less appealing – when someone can have a breakdown on their own social media page, it’s a lot less exciting to buy a ticket to their concert and think, ‘Maybe they’ll have a breakdown on stage.’” For Danny Eccleston, senior editor at Mojo, it reflects fans’ desire for music as a complete audiovisual experience. “There’s that ocular fixation that’s come with the triumph of YouTube,” he says.

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Photograph: Nick Delany/Twentieth Century Fox

The impetus for studios and musicians to make these films is clear: cash. Despite lacklustre reviews, Bohemian Rhapsody became the biggest music biopic ever and won four Oscars. And since its release last October, Spotify streams of Queen’s catalogue rose 333%, with 70% of listeners under the age of 30. With biopics, says the entertainment lawyer Gregor Pryor, “there’s money to be had from exploiting sound recordings and publishing rights. And because catalogues are often changing hands, there’s a renewed onus on new catalogue owners to sweat the asset. You’ve had tribute bands, tribute musicals, and this is arguably an extension of that.” It’s an attractive business: Pryor mentions that he is representing a new firm developed to buy up rights for such projects, but says they want to remain nameless.

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.”

Eccleston adds that, for all the criticism of Bohemian Rhapsody’s chronological inaccuracies, biopics are sometimes better when they scramble the facts. “When Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote 24 Hour Party People [about Factory Records], his take was that rock’n’roll is at least partly constructed out of myth and madness, and you can’t reflect that if you’re going: ‘This happened, then this, then this.’ If you want to know the truth about any artist, you might read the authorised biography and derive a lot of value from that, including how the artists see themselves, which is a truth of sorts that’s interesting. But you’re advised, if you want to go into it a bit deeper, to find independent voices investigating these artists.” There has to be a “cartoon element” for a biopic to work, he says. “My money’s on a Fleetwood Mac Rumours movie next.”

On the dancefloor in Beats
Beats: ‘I wanted the audience to feel what it was like on the dancefloor,’ says its director, Brian Welsh. Photograph: Altitude Film

Which would, at least, mean focusing on a real band with female members – a rarity in the world of rock biopics. “There is something strange about the lack of biopics about female musicians and this cinematic reassertion of a mode of masculine authenticity that women can never truly achieve,” says Shearer. “One of the things that really bothered me about A Star Is Born is how it conceives true creativity purely as a kind of masculine authenticity, and hates Lady Gaga’s character the more she becomes like Lady Gaga. It’s weirdly retrograde and conservative and seems to be calling into question the viability of the female musician in a way that wouldn’t really be tenable in reality.”

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.

“In Her Smell, she is handed her toddler – have you ever seen that in a biopic of a male band? I’d love to watch something where the woman isn’t judged for being a mum – and for being a shit mum. What are all these men – and it is largely male directors – trying to say about female artists? Will we end up pitying Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland? Because that is what I feel I’m being manipulated to do. Thirty years of interviewing people and I don’t recognise anything I’m seeing on screen. It matters who tells these stories.”

Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose.
A rare case of a female central character: Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose. Photograph: Entone Group

What these films do share is a critique of the music industry and the faustian pact entered into by musicians and their fans. “There’s a long history of films about the price of fame. That allows studios to express the power of the whole star-making system, since [it can] destroy as well as create,” says Shearer. “There’s also an ongoing tension for the audience between the desirability of wealth, fame and feeling valued, and a reassurance of punishment, so that the social hierarchy and alienation that produces that audience desire doesn’t start to become uncomfortable.”

In A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine tells Ally that pop music is “the same story told over and over again”. So it seems from the current crop of films about music, in which few stars get out alive or intact, and the audience is reminded about its complicity, each member a voyeur of troubled lives. After all, nothing screams summer blockbuster quite like a light hectoring from Hollywood, an industry that is entirely free from these issues – oh, wait!


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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