10 Reasons Most Musician Biopics Are Soulless (And Thus Pointless)
Movie stars make lousy rock stars. Whether it’s Tom Hiddleston crooning like a mortally wounded Hank Williams or Dennis Quaid pretending to fall in love with his underage cousin as Jerry Lee Lewis, musician biopics always sing the same tune: a unique life reduced to a cheesy three-act plot arc. Cartoonish depictions of substance abuse compete in cringyness with the off-key singing of actors in wigs.
When rock legend David Bowie died in 2016, millions if not billions of fans around the world mourned. Barely had the stardust settled on his coffin when preproduction on a biopic started. Like a committee of vultures, studios and labels were quick to capitalize on our real grief with a movie providing commercialized nostalgia. Despite ample reels of footage depicting actual rock gods slaying on stage, viewers are continually subjected to actors doing greenscreen karaoke. Here are 10 reasons why some biopics, especially ones where movie stars play musicians, don’t have as much soul as they could…except for Almost Famous.
Photo: Orion Pictures
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Unfortunately for filmgoing audiences, too many musician biopics leave the most intriguing aspects of these often-troubled geniuses on the cutting room floor. This is because either the artist or their estate forces edits and restrictions which make for too-safe snoozefests.
Movie Stars Are Lousy Rock Stars
Musicians are famous because they can make beautiful sounds with their voices or instruments. While an actor can fake many things, a silvery voice, ability to compose, and sense of rhythm are all talents that require a true virtuoso.
It seems like every mediocre musician biopic features the requisite montage sequence of partying, touring and screaming fans. Rather than avant-garde filmography, most of these are pointless filler.
When the film awards season rolls around, biopics are easy trophy bait for toothsome Tinseltowners. While these star vehicles may be good for an actor’s career, they can lead to ego-driven disasters such as Kevin Spacey crooning in Beyond the Sea.
Whether it’s tired stereotypes or acting performances that feel like bad SNL political skits, musician biopics are too often ruined by overuse of clichés. If the ultimate music biopic parody — Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story — resembles a straight-faced one, then the director is doing something wrong.
Summary Versus Story
Needing simple answers to why someone’s plagued by internal demons leads to stories so scrubbed of the human element that they feel like after-school specials more than Hollywood blockbusters. A story and a summary are not the same.
Playing Loose With the Facts
While all stories need to be adapted to their medium, some biopics play with the facts a little too much. Characters shouldn’t be plot puppets, especially when they're based on real people and events.
Process, Not Product
The hero’s journey for artists is the struggle of the creative process, which is beautifully depicted in 2014’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Unfortunately, most biopics make the act of creation instant and easy, doing a disservice to audiences and creators.
Movie scripts shouldn’t read like Mad Libs, but many biopics are as cookie-cutter as a box of Oreos. The stories start before a big show, flashback to a traumatic childhood experience, the artist gets discovered, goes platinum, spirals to rock bottom, and is ultimately redeemed through mainstream recognition.
The End Text Blast
It seems like every rock star biopic ends with a freeze-frame of the musician on stage before a text blast wraps up all the loose ends. The first rule of good writing is show, don’t tell, and if a film did its job, such text boxes would be unnecessary.