Rocketmen and stardust: why music biopics dominate the film industry

Pop star glamour is an increasingly bankable asset for movie producers, with biopics of David Bowie, Keith Moon and others coming in the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody

One of the success stories of this year’s Sundance festival is Gurinder Chadha’s film Blinded By the Light. The adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, tells the story of his teenage awakening via Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the global rights have just been picked up for $15m. It is the film’s second coup – the first was securing Springsteen’s blessing and permission to use 16 of his songs on the soundtrack, without which the film would not have been made. “It was quite simple,” said Manzoor. “Bruce loved my book and trusted me and Gurinder.”

It used to be hard for film-makers to get major artists to give them permission to use their catalogues. But following the enormous success of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and the impending arrival of the Elton John film Rocketman, it seems like artists have realised that backing biopics and celebratory movies is a way of reaffirming their cultural relevance and opening new revenue streams as traditional incomes from record sales are on the wane. Although the forthcoming Bowie biopic Stardust – starring Johnny Flynn – has been made without the involvement of the late star’s estate, there’s a Mötley Crüe biopic out on Netflix in March, featuring the no-longer-touring band’s old music and four new songs written for the film. Also on the way is a Céline Dion movie, The Power of Love, while the Who’s Roger Daltrey recently suggested that his long-mooted biopic of drummer Keith Moon is finally in the offing.

‘Outrageous, salacious excess’ ... Mötley Crüe in 1984.
‘Outrageous, salacious excess’ ... Mötley Crüe in 1984. Photograph: Paul Natkin/WireImage

“The movies sell the music, and the music is a marketing tool for the movie,” says Observer film critic Wendy Ide. Thus, Bohemian Rhapsody – the biggest music biopic yet – was pitched beyond Queen’s fanbase as “a display cabinet to introduce the songs to a new audience”. In the streaming era – as artists have less control over the dissemination of their own music – Ide sees biopics, musicals and similar vehicles as a way of taking back the reins. So Queen’s Brian May and John Taylor, creative consultants on the film, are “astute businessmen with tight control over their product, which extends beyond the music and into [late singer] Freddie Mercury’s personal history”. Hence the “slightly sanitised, safe and schematic” approach to any rock’n’roll excess.

Bohemian Rhapsody has also been accused of “straightwashing” the flamboyant, bisexual Mercury, (who admittedly guarded his own sexuality, but in less permissive times). However, in the era of social media, gossip and fake news, a biopic or similar vehicle enables an artist – or their estate – to tell their own story, to present a marketable version of history or deliver their own truths. “It’s a standard line in PR,” says public relations author and lecturer, Keith Butterick. “If you’re selling a brand or product, you choose events which fit in with your own version of reality.”

This was commonplace at the dawn of pop, when Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard films gave fans another place to see the stars and presented an idealised public image: Richard’s squeaky clean Summer Holiday persona endured for decades. Pink Floyd’s 1979 project The Wall is an example of what film writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet calls “gesamtkunstwerk, where an album and a film achieve similar status”. But in the biopic era, artists with less or no involvement became reluctant to allow their music to feature in films that might misrepresent them. The 2014 Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side was refused the use of any of his music, making do with other artists’ songs from the era.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, which had to be recut when David Bowie refused the use of his original songs.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, which had to be recut when David Bowie refused the use of his original songs. Photograph: Allstar/Channel 4 Films

Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam eulogy Velvet Goldmine – named after a David Bowie song and based on his Ziggy Stardust character – had to be recut when the singer refused the use of his original songs, despite pleas from musical supervisor and close friend Michael Stipe. “The excuse was that Bowie wanted to use them in his own musical, which he did eventually [with 2015’s Lazarus],” says Micko Westmoreland, who played Jack Fairy in Velvet Goldmine. “But also, in the 90s he was reinventing himself as a drum-and-bass pioneer, so may not have wanted audiences reminded of Ziggy Stardust.”

Some acts are happier for their younger, wilder selves to be dramatised in celluloid. Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt – based on the notorious 2001 memoir – is described as containing “outrageous, salacious excess” and “hilarity”, although culture writer Fiona Sturges expects some sanitation: “If you reread The Dirt in the current climate it would be deeply shocking. The film has got to make them look fun, but harmlessly so.”

Similarly, we’ll have to wait and see whether Peter Jackson’s new edit of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s unobtainable 1970 Beatles film Let It Be – from hours of unseen footage – will further explore the tensions of the Fab Four’s final days or cheerily dismiss them. “Like any PR campaign,” said Butterick, “you can create your own myth”.

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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