The rise of the music biopic

Image: agathe kipienne via Flickr

The lives of iconic music legends have always been turned into biopics. From Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Beethoven to Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning performance of Freddie Mercury, we are fascinated to see depictions of these renowned lives. So when I found out that Robbie Williams’ life was having the biopic treatment, I was surprised. Not because his Stoke-on-Trent origins, record-breaking music career and mental health struggles aren’t a story worth telling, but because it’s Robbie Williams. Growing up near Stoke, I’ve been aware of him my whole life, often forgetting he’s a celebrity outside of this area. Streets have been named after his songs, at one point he was the largest shareholder of local Port Vale FC, and my hairdresser will happily tell you the story of her encounter with him in a bar. Most amusing to me though, my dad went to school with Robbie. When I told him about the new film, Better Man, his first question was “Who’s going to be playing me?”. No – they didn’t know each other, but if you see a skinny boy playing football at the back of a shot, we’ll proudly assume that’s my dad.

Current news about the film is minimal, but one thing circling the internet is that Robbie will be portrayed by a CGI monkey. Why? – I don’t know, but I’m up for it. Having an animated lead in a biopic at least means it won’t be another chance for an actor to drastically change weight, stick on a prosthetic and win an Oscar. The reputability of biopics, and their sweeping victories at awards shows, is questionable, but an Andy Serkis-style monkey walking through the streets of Stoke belting out Angels is sure to shake things up a bit.

In recent years, the success of biopics, both commercially and relating to awards, has been hard to ignore. In the last ten years, seven of the best actor Oscars have been awarded for portraying a real-life person, but in the words of Quentin Tarantino, biopics are just “Oscar bait”. The stats clearly back him up, however, credit must be due to the actors that manage to nail their portrayal convincingly. Capturing the mannerisms of someone who may be extremely well-known to the audience requires huge amounts of research and practice.

Biopics are a huge draw for filmmakers and actors. Creating a film about somebody that already has a following almost guarantees an audience, if they manage to pull it off successfully. In recent years, two of the highest-grossing biopics at the box office have been Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, both depicting the lives of two of the most illustrious musicians in history. But the little-known 2020 film Stardust, chronicling the creation of David Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, has flopped in comparison. Yes, it had a much smaller budget and was released during a pandemic, but ultimately the film was never going to be a good tribute. Johnny Flynn, despite donning a red mullet, just doesn’t look like him, and Bowie’s estate refused to give the film permission to use any of his music. Pre-established songs are one of the most integral parts of music biopics, and a massive draw for a general audience. The huge successes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman were more down to the extremely successful careers of Queen and Elton John than the prowess of the filmmakers and cast.

Whilst these films use the pull of celebrity to garner an audience, not all music biopics are based on the unconventional lives of famous singers. One of the standouts to me in recent years is 2019’s Blinded by the Light, depicting the influence of Bruce Springsteen’s music on a teenager in 1980s Luton. The importance of music and the joy it brings is shown in this film remarkably well. Born to Run blasting out of the headphones of an otherwise unknown guy walking through the streets of his hometown is something special, and something we can all relate to.

Music is truly powerful, and is why many music biopics have done so well. We can’t go back in time to see Freddie Mercury perform live, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t convince myself that a £300 ticket to sit at the very back of an arena to see Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour was a good deal. But a few pounds for a cinema ticket (when they re-open!) lets us experience some of the atmosphere of a legendary singer’s concert, even if they are portrayed by a different person completely. Watching Better Man in a Stoke cinema will be an experience, and its one I’m very much looking forward to.

Featured image: agathe kipienne via Flickr

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