Film trends come and go. One year westerns could be all the rage and the next year the industry could be dominated by Wes Craven horror. However from October 2018 to may 2019, the new fad seemed to be rockstar biopics. I'd like to take a look back at this peculiar trend without the hindrence of recency bias to examine these films further and determine if the trend was even worth our time in the first place?
Despite the sudden wave we encountered from October 2018 to May 2019, biopics are not a new thing, in fact they're as old as film itself. The first biographical film was released in 1900 in the form of Georges Méliès' Jeanne d'Arc, which was a 19 minute feature that told the story of Joan of Arc. Since then, dozens upon dozens of biopics have come out such as Schindler's List, Amadeus, Raging Bull, Braveheart, etc. Even before the recent increase in popularity, there were still various music biopics like Walk The Line, Control, La Bamba, etc. But what caused that specific, sudden, public obsession with rock star biopics?
Up until the release of Bryan Singer's Queen film. Bohemian Rhapsody, the most popular music biopic was probably Oliver Stone's The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. However despite being one of the most notorious adaptations, the film bombed at the box office and only holds a score of 57% on Rotten Tomatoes. To this day, most biopics garner similar scores, the only thing changing being the number of ticket sales, which seems to have increased tenfold.
For this essay specifically I will be focusing on four of the most prominent music biopics to come out in recent years, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, Rocketman, and Lords of Chaos. All of which were released within 7 months.
The first glimpse we had of this soon-to-be ubiquotous trend was in October of 2018 when the world was introduced to the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite the film's score of only 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, it grossed an insane $904.4 million dollars at the box office and garnered 5 Academy Award nominations, winning 4, including Best Actor for Rami Malek. There is a dedicated Wikipedia article simply for listing the accolades the film has recieved since its release. However despite the clear financial success the movie garnered...was it ever good to begin with? Of course all art is subjective but in hindsight, Bohemian Rhapsody was a hot mess. The editing was overdone and sloppy and the movie seemed confused as to whether it wanted to tell the story of Queen or just Freddie Mercury. Speaking of Freddie Mercury, he's written as the most sanitized, boring, and borderline homophobic way. All of that along with multiple historical inaccuracies make Bohemian Rhapsody a great Queen movie...if you've never heard of Queen before. So no, the film wasn't good, but I believe it set a standard for music biopics and played a huge role in the genre's sudden popularity.
The next movie reminiscent of Bohemian Rhapsody would come five months later in the form of The Dirt. This time it was Mötley Crüe's turn for the Hollywood treatment. It had a budget of $23 million dollars but didn't gross any money since it premiered exclusively on Netflix. The film dealt with a lot of the same problems Bohemian Rhapsody did, lousy editing, questionable acting choices, not picking whether to focus on the band or just Nikki Sixx, but most importantly...who cares about Mötley Crüe? Out of all the iconic music groups you could've brought to life on screen you choose a washed up hair metal band who were never that good to begin with? Strange. But I'm not the only one who thinks this because The Dirt went on to be one of Netflix's lowest rated films of 2019, sitting at a score of 38% positive. Despite just how bad The Dirt was, it still wasn't the worst biopic to come out that year...
in January of 2019, director Jonas Åkerlund, most known for his concert films of Taylor Swift and Madonna released the feature film, Lords of Chaos starring Rory Culkin in the lead role. The film centers around the notorious Norwegian black metal band, Mayhem. For those who don't know, Mayhem is infamous for many reasons, like the time they used pictures of their vocalist's suicide as an album cover, a series of church burnings they committed in the early 90's, and of course, the time their Neo-Nazi singer murdered the guitarist. Now, that sounds like it would make a pretty interesting movie right? Maybe a great psychological horror... but no. Lords of Chaos has been despised by the metal community ever since its release and it's easy to see why.
The film is pretty much set up like a pseudo coming of age comedy with terrible acting, awful editing, and barely any metal music to begin with. Lords of Chaos was just an overall mess of a film that insulted Mayhem fans as well as the living band members themselves. For anyone who's seen in for themselves, there's no doubting why Lords of Chaos is the worst biopic to come out of the 2018-2019 trend, but what about the best one? Well that would end up being released four months later in the form of Elton John's Rocketman.
Out of all the sub-par music biopics to come out in those busy seven months, Rocketman was by far the most enjoyable. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody or Lords of Chaos, the film's main character is still alive and was able to give valuable insight as to what the project should look like. The music, acting, cinematography, and overall look of the film was just leagues better than anything we've seen yet from the world of musician biopics. That being said I distinctly remember watching this movie once and never again so I wouldn't exactly call it a masterpiece, however that doesn't mean it wasn't a step in the right direction for the genre.
So what's the takeaway from the music biopic craze? What's to be done about these repetitive, rarely good movies? Well the good news is that in the past two years the genre has taken a turn and there aren't nearly as many biopics being made as there once was, it's up to you to decide whether you think that's for the best or not. I suppose I'll always look upon this era of the film industry with a raised eyebrow but if the next music biopic is made with heart, genuine effort, and input from the artist, I'll be sure to welcome it with open arms.