What's it take to make a great music biopic?

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·10 min read
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Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

Audiences couldn’t help falling in love with Elvis in its opening weekend, with the film earning $31.1 million to take the top spot at the box office. But if critics were to apply an Elvis Presley song title to the film, which stars Austin Butler as the King, it might be “Return To Sender.” Critical consensus is that while director Baz Luhrmann clearly loves the music icon, his ambitious, frenetic, glitzy, overlong, and over-the-top movie covers a lot of familiar territory—for music biopics in general—while barely scratching the surface of Elvis the man and the artist.

Which raises the question: What’s the right approach when it comes to tackling a music biopic? A warts-and-all, cradle-to-grave document? A highlight reel of iconic moments? A snapshot of a moment in time? Clearly, each of these can be right—or wrong—depending on the subject, the circumstances, or even the climate in which the film about them is made.

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Given the similarities in artists’ trajectories—their rise to success, their failures, shortcomings and compromises, a body of work that burnishes or breaks their legacy—how do filmmakers properly tell their story without simply repeating the movies that came before? Read on to find out.

Inhabit the role

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

Audiences seem to care more about performers capturing the spirit of the person depicted than they do about the lead closely resembling the main character. Rami Malek, even with his fake teeth, didn’t look much like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. And he lip-synced to Mercury’s vocals because, well, no one else on the planet could sing like Mercury. But Malek nailed the speaking voice, the swagger, and every movement and inflection from Queen’s Live Aid set. It was a brilliant impersonation.

Young, raw, ambitious, and striking, Jennifer Lopez shared an uncanny resemblance to young, raw, ambitious, and striking Selena Quintanilla in Selena. It’s hard to tell at the end of the movie, when we get the requisite footage of the real Selena, that it’s not J.Lo. On the other hand, neither Reese Witherspoon nor Joaquin Phoenix looked all that much like June Carter Cash or Johnny Cash, though they brought the couple to life and even did their own singing and playing.

In Elvis, Austin Butler has star-power to spare and he evokes the spirit of the King, from his voice to his mannerisms. That doesn’t mean he looks all that much like Elvis. His face is longer and thinner than Presley’s, and he’s leaner, too. But given the authenticity he brought to the role it feels like only a matter of time before Butler lands his first Oscar nomination, because he inhabits the part and captures the spirit of the legend, and that’s more important than a spot-on physical resemblance.


Figure out the framework

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.

Elvis goes for the whole enchilada, exploring his life almost from cradle to grave. And, hey, hey, hey, squeezing 42 years into any biopic is a tall order, even for a 159-minute extravaganza like this, and even with Luhrmann utilizing split screens to stuff even more onto the screen. Some directors of music biopics have taken alternate approaches. Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (who took over after Singer’s dismissal) bookended Bohemian Rhapsody with Queen’s legendary Live Aid concert, while Fletcher, directing Rocketman solo, transformed Elton John’s story into a combination of cautionary tale and fantasy. It’s a winner, but would it have been better or worse without the involvement of John (who consulted) and David Furnish (John’s husband, who co-produced)?

Miles Ahead star, producer, director, and co-writer Don Cheadle devised his Miles Davis biopic as something like cinematic jazz. The drama riffs through time and events, but it’s anchored around the efforts of a reporter (Ewan McGregor)—while chronicling why Davis dropped out of the music scene—risking his life to help Davis recover stolen recordings. Its cinematic cousin is Clint Eastwood’s Bird, about Charlie Parker, which also didn’t adhere to typical storytelling practices. Bill Pohlad’s ambitious Love & Mercy basically split Brian Wilson’s saga in two, with Paul Dano playing the young version of the Beach Boys’ brilliant but troubled key figure, and John Cusack portraying the older iteration, with Wilson’s joys, fears, mental health issues, etc., serving as the connective tissue between the near-seamless performances.

The list goes on and on. Clint Eastwood mounted the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys as a film, but he barely opened up the story. As a result, audiences experienced a static, disappointing jukebox musical of a movie, despite much of the Broadway show’s talented original cast reprising their roles. Rupert Gould’s Judy dropped in on Judy Garland near the end of her tragic life, as—struggling with physical, emotional, and vocal challenges, and questioning decisions she’s made about her love life and her children—she readied for a mostly ill-fated comeback attempt in England. Renee Zellweger, front and center for every frame of the film, won an Oscar.

The underappreciated Backbeat focuses on the Beatles’ time in Hamburg, Germany, while La Bamba hones in on the last few months of Richie Valens’ life. Coal Miner’s Daughter, Selena, and Ray spin traditional rising-star tales about Loretta Lynn, Selena Quintanilla, and Ray Charles, respectively. James Mangold’s Walk The Line, while also pretty traditional, set itself apart by exploring the unlikely romantic and musical relationship between the volatile Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and the sunny June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon). And it’s the same with 8 Mile. Structure-wise, it’s pretty basic, though Curtis Hanson gambled—and won—by casting the fiery Eminem as a thinly veiled version of himself. Eminem rapped and acted the hell out of the role, while Hanson crafted something special around him, from the film’s working-class milieu to its gritty cinematography to a tremendous supporting cast that included Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger, Anthony Mackie, and Michael Shannon.

Decide between man (or woman) and myth

Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

No biopic or documentary can present a fully true version of its subject. Stories are told for a reason: to perpetuate a myth, to take someone down a peg or three, to inspire the moviegoer to, at best, aspire to similar greatness, and, at worst and most cynically, to run out and buy a soundtrack. Dramatic license is often taken to lend weight to a story and truth can be left blowin’ in the wind.

You don’t have to be a rock and roll encyclopedia or Queen expert to identify that it’s nonsense when, in Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury reveals to his fellow bandmates during a rehearsal for Live Aid that he’s got AIDS. That. Did. Not. Happen. Elvis was made with the cooperation of the Presley estate and, understandably, there were only so many warts in the warts-and-all saga that the family was willing to expose for the world to see. The best strategy in any biopic is to capture the essence of the star, even though historians will cry foul and nitpickers will pick nits.

Harbor awards-season aspirations

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar playing Ray Charles in Ray.
Jamie Foxx won an Oscar playing Ray Charles in Ray.

The Academy Awards love inspirational, aspirational movies with protagonists chasing the impossible dream. Musicians historically brim with raw talent and are relentless in their pursuit of fame, the perfect song, or both. They’re often fueled by drugs or booze, and tend to break the hearts of friends, lovers, family, bandmates, fans, and more. It’s why music biopics and their lead actors are occasionally nominated for Oscars, and sometimes even win. And it’s why standout performances in less-than-great music biopics earn a nod.

A look at the past 20 years of Oscar nominations doesn’t reveal any discernible patterns. It mostly has to do with a combination of timing, zeitgeist, Oscar campaigns, actor popularity, box office success, and competition. Bohemian Rhapsody snagged a Best Picture nomination in 2019, while Rami Malek hoisted the Best Actor statuette for his performance as Freddie Mercury. In 2017, Meryl Streep landed her almost automatic nomination for her turn as Florence Foster Jenkins in the otherwise forgettable movie of the same name.

Cate Blanchett, in 2008, earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her contribution to Todd Haynes’ inventive Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. At the 2006 Oscars ceremony, Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, while Joaquin Phoenix had to settle for a nomination for his work as Johnny Cash. In 2005 Ray earned four Oscar nominations, winning Best Actor for Jamie Foxx and Best Sound Mixing.

What music biopic actually has won Best Picture? You’d have to go back to 1985, when Amadeus scored wins for Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, beating co-star Tom Hulce, who played Mozart), Best Adapted Screenplay, and four other Oscars.

Few years go by without a music biopic receiving some kind of awards season recognition, be it from the Oscars, the Golden Globes, or some other organization. It gives these performers a sort of megaphone, standing on the shoulders of the giant they’re portraying, to showcase their own talent. As long as people continue to mine the music industry to celebrate and examine their musical heroes, these movies will undoubtedly continue to happen. As audiences, let’s just hope that filmmakers can tell the difference between a fresh performance, a good cover version, and a repurposed sample, because it may make the difference between rehashing an artist’s accomplishments and chronicling ones really worth celebrating.

Carefully navigate the artist’s legacy

Yola Quartey as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Elvis.
Yola Quartey as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Elvis.

There’s a little less conversation about this than some other aspects of Elvis, but one contingent of people believe he was the greatest solo artist in music history, a talent who could take any song and make it his own, while another contingent considers him a shameless thief of black art and artists, hijacking their music and their stage moves. All great artists had their influences, and there’s a fine line between paying tribute and ripping off. Luhrmann carefully walks that line in Elvis. He devotes screen time to B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and others. Elvis did, in fact, grow up in Tupelo, Mississippi, a predominantly African American town. He happened to be the right artist at the right moment in the music world, with the right looks, talent, and perhaps most of all, luck. At a certain point, songwriters crafted songs specifically for Elvis, and those songs certainly reflected their creators’ own influences and what they thought (or were told) constituted an Elvis song. And let’s not forget that countless artists have been influenced by, stolen from or sample Elvis. Is it a non-issue? Is it under-explored? Navigating the answer in an era where cultural observers are keenly aware of an artist’s origins complicates the challenge of telling their story from the right—and righteous—point of view.

Do something that Walk Hard didn’t satirize

(from left) Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
(from left) Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is pretty much the greatest music biopic parody ever made. Director-writer Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow check all the boxes and skewer every cliche, including childhood tragedies (Dewey accidentally chops his brother in half), underage marriage, drug use and imprisonment. There’s a trip to India (where Dewey and his band and get stoned with the Beatles), a Heart Of Darkness-style effort to create the perfect record, a segment on the star’s life as a has-been, and one final life-affirming, career-capping performance just before (spoiler?) he dies ... followed by a postscript featuring the “real” artist.

Add to that cameos by famous actors and musicians as other famous stars and musicians (think Jack Black as Paul McCartney, Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly, Eddie Vedder and Jewel as themselves, and Jack White ... as a sweaty, mumbling, karate-chopping Elvis; how’s that for relevant?). The key takeaway from Walk Hard, which laid bare all music biopic expectations? It’s almost impossible to make a cradle-to-grave story that isn’t self-parody. Certainly it should be a point of reference for aspiring filmmakers—whether to avoid what it skewered so expertly, or to compile the cliches that are so effective that they’ve become genre boilerplate.