The financial success of Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody will undoubtedly ensure more foot-stomping and fist-pumping rock ‘n’ roll biopics in our future. The good news is that there is no end to worthy subjects (David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield movies are on the way). The bad news is that fans of the genre — as well as the performers portrayed — are being poorly served by these entertaining but ultimately vapid confections that seem pre-fabbed to sell song downloads rather than take a deep dive into the artists’ psyches. Why not do both?
The necessary essence of all biopics about rock stars can be summed up in an incisive line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s 1972 song “Rocket Man”: “I’m not the man they think I am at home.” These movies promise to explore the difference between the glitz and glam of the performer’s public persona and their vulnerable cry-real-tears-just-like-us “authentic” selves. Sadly, they rarely live up to that promise. Instead, we get a greatest hits album loosely structured around the most melodramatic Wikipedia-mined moments in their lives, which delivers nothing more than a discount Groupon version of attending a live concert of rock legends.
This might sound as if I don’t enjoy these films. Not true. I enjoy them the same way I enjoy a John Wick film, reality TV or fast food. They satisfy a craving for the uncomplicated guilty pleasures. The difference is that my expectations are adjusted in that list to not hope for more. But music biopics are full of potential, and proper respect for the artists demands these films show more than how the musicians are perceived by the public through the fractured kaleidoscope of Extra interviews, BuzzFeed articles and TMZ gossip. We are curious about their sex-and-drug lifestyles, but we love them because of the art they create that gives voice to our own emotions and struggles.
That’s why one of the most important aspects of understanding these artists is exploring their complex and delicate relationship to their art and the creative process, how the agony of their personal struggles is shaped into their art. With most contemporary music biopics, all we get are the same old melodramas with sensationalist scenes that exist only to distract us until the next popular song.
Neither Rocketman nor Bohemian Rhapsody pays much attention to the complexity of life, preferring to focus on the artist’s connection to performing as a means to address disapproving parents. You know the formula: the epiphany of artistic awakening, the rise to superstar status, the struggle to hide their true sexual identity from a judgmental world, the fall from grace into alcohol and drugs, and the inevitable redemption as they gloriously accept who they really are (Elton literally hugs his inner child). So much drama, so many hit tunes — without any real exploration of the artist’s relationship to why they pursue their art. They come off as shallow vessels and their art as a means to a shoddy end: fame.
Although Straight Outta Compton, Miles Ahead and Amadeus do a better job depicting their characters’ drive to create, it’s often fictional works that diligently and forcefully reveal the artist’s personal connection to art. The sublime Grace of My Heart (loosely based on Carole King’s experiences) and Five Easy Pieces delve deep into that intimate association. What we should see is the relentless struggle toward perfecting that work as well as the insights into the world and our place in it. Sports columnist Red Smith once said: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” The bleeding is the artist wrestling his work to match his thoughts. It’s an arduous process of multiple failures before achieving a version of success the artist can live with.
All Is True, a recent film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare, the greatest pop star of his time, takes place after the Globe Theatre burns down and he returns home, never to write again. The movie does include some of Shakespeare’s “hits” — sonnets, monologues — but the real power comes from its exploration of his relationship to his writing as a means of expressing his personal demons, of overcoming his class insecurities, of expressing hidden love, of constructing a life built on lies while writing about universal truths. There’s a particularly illuminating scene in which Shakespeare is measuring out a garden while explaining to a servant girl: “A play, a garden, a fresh baked loaf like the ones you bake each morning. All begin with an idea. A compulsion to create a thing of beauty, or need … Ingredients! Brambles, bushes. Yeast, flour. Verses, players. They’re nothing without a dream! Which will not be denied and which endures in spite of all adversity.”
This is a worthy description of what the music biopic should be: a celebration of an artist’s body of work, without losing sight of the dream that inspires it.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a THR contributor and NBA Hall of Famer.
This story also appears in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.