Banner image for DIY Blog article on music biopics.

What can we learn from movies about famous musicians?

It’s no secret that music biopics are on the rise. Nostalgia, the potential for renewed fame, and box office earnings have all contributed to their popularity in recent years.

Though these big-budget films offer much in the way of glamour and fantasy, their growing presence has brought several questions center stage:

  1. Why are music biopics so popular?
  2. What messages can musicians take away from these movies?
  3. How much should we trust filmmakers and the musicians they’re portraying?

The popularity of music biopics, explained

The box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody, Straight Outta Compton and Rocketman is a trend worthy of attention. These movies have captured public attention just as much as they’ve won the praise of critics — no easy feat.

Though biopics have always been well-known for earning prestigious awards, they’ve picked up in frequency with the debut of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody. With movies about the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse and others on the way, it’s easy to understand their growing popularity. They offer a breath of fresh air among endless superhero movies and remakes.

Many moviegoers deem original scripts as the only salvation in such a saturated industry, but a large number of these scripts fail to gain traction due to a lack of support and name recognition. Music biopics toe the line by giving the public a story they’re already familiar with while adding rare details and unseen glimpses into the lives of musicians. These musical reveries give the audience an inside look at what happened behind closed doors. Nostalgia infuses itself with the contemporary, and viewers eat it up.

Music history lends itself well to several film formats — Yesterday and Blinded by the Light are great examples. Although critics don’t categorize these movies as biopics, they still stir up public interest through their creativity in depicting artists’ catalogs.

Securing the rights to an artist’s music

It’s no secret that directors jump at the chance to seize the reins of a music biopic. Who doesn’t want to associate themselves with an award-winning nostalgia fest? Prestige pictures depicting musicians, artists and politicians are known for raking in accolades and acclaim. However, film studios often face issues securing the rights to an artist’s music, whether the problems stem from the estate or the musician.

The Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side didn’t do as well as hoped after the studio failed to receive the rights to the subject’s tunes. Velvet Goldmine — inspired by David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust — featured none of Bowie’s music after he threatened to sue the director. Another upcoming Bowie movie that intends to be an actual depiction of the singer’s life likely won’t feature any of his songs, either.

The vehement refusal of some artists and estates makes you wonder: are music biopics really necessary? Are they grand, fantastical windows into an artist’s struggles and joys, or are they invasive money grabs? It doesn’t appear as if their momentum will slow any time soon, but it’s worth considering their intent. This is especially true for deceased artists with unsavory figures running their estates.

Truthful representation or over exaggeration?

Though studios once grappled with securing rights to the artists’ music, artists are beginning to offer their catalogs to the biopic renaissance. Many have even had input into the film’s tone. Celebrities portray a version of themselves to the public they know people will be receptive to.

They do this for every aspect of their lives — from music and film to autobiographical books and social media. An ill-conceived silver screen documentary threatens their image with lies and half-truths, as Madonna claimed in response to a screenplay of her life.

It’s no wonder why stars would rather join the movement than beat it. They get to take control of their narrative. Plus, it’s generally a lucrative avenue. The music landscape has transformed into a completely different animal from what it was 30 or even 10 years ago. Music streaming is the most popular form of listening now, with cassettes, records and MP3s left in the dust. CDs are on their last breath, and although touring still brings in plenty of cash, older artists often can’t supply the stamina it demands.

Biopics provide a unique way to appeal to modern fans in an age of fast-paced consumption. Most importantly, the stars decide what makes it to the screen. Bohemian Rhapsody drew the ire of fans for its straight washing and inaccurate portrayals, even though Roger Taylor and Brian May had a major hand in it. Elton John produced Rocketman himself, and though it touches on his depression and drug use, its chronology and finer details don’t fit with reality.

The 2004 biopic Ray pictured a dreamlike ending of Ray Charles quitting drugs and living a happy life with wife Della. In actuality, he used drugs until his death, and they divorced in 1977. Straight Outta Compton glosses over much of Dr. Dre’s domestic abuse history, and N.W.A founding member Arabian Prince is nowhere in sight.

This revisionist history is appealing to your standard audience of Saturday-night moviegoers, but what lesson does it impart to up-and-coming musicians? In the age of social media, it’s critical to remain mindful of every post, tweet and upload. Musicians need to balance the need to be forthright and factual while maintaining the mystique that makes an artist seem larger than life. 

In short, a certain amount of erasure in biopics is common, and musicians should curate their image in much the same way. With that in mind, what additional value can we extract from these movies? 

What can we learn from today’s biopics?

Upcoming musicians will realize their idols are not always as they seem. This fact may be common sense to many, but the lines between fact and fiction become increasingly blurred in an era of technology and social media.

Fans communicate with their favorite musicians on the internet and see aspects of their lives that older generations didn’t have the privilege of viewing. YouTube channels, Snapchat accounts, Twitter pages and Instagram feeds decrease the gap bridging idol and fan.

This increasing closeness makes artists relatable, but many fans don’t realize those artists are still upholding an image. What you see isn’t always what you get. Biopics and social media accounts feel personal, but they don’t provide the full reality of anyone’s life.

It’s admittedly easy to become enamored with alternate versions of reality. Studios excel at selling the appeal, and actors can make you genuinely believe they’ve become the musicians they’re portraying.

While the resurgence of biographies and musical dramas rages on, viewers should consume their media with a grain of salt. Entertainment is meant to be a fun escape from the outside world, and truthful elements can often take a backseat to fantastical plotlines.

This is not meant to detract from the stories these movies tell. While music biopics often do not show every dark detail of their subjects’ lives, they can be inspiring in their portrayal of their subject overcoming adversity on their way to success. No rise to fame is easy, and the majority of these films do not gloss over the early obstacles artists face, whether it’s an indifferent early audience, substance addiction or inter-band strife.

Some films might remove the most sordid details and some might exaggerate them. Either way, the message is clear: reaching the top requires perseverance and a thick skin. These biopics can be teaching stories to inspire new generations of musicians on what to do and — often more importantly — what not to do.

Looking toward the future

Take music biopics for what they are: a form of entertainment. They rarely depict celebrities’ lives with complete accuracy, and no one should hold their breath waiting for the full truth.

As long as musicians have the rights to their retellings, they can spin a motion picture to fit whatever they desire. What biopics do provide, despite all their controversy, is a source of inspiration for younger artists, and a hope that maybe — just maybe — they’ll one day see themselves on the silver screen.