There was a glut of music movies released in 2018, with A Star Is Born, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Bohemian Rhapsody each among the top 25 highest grossing movies of the year, taking in an impressive $354.8m, $393.7m and $474.8m respectively at the global box office.
The latter makes Bohemian Rhapsody the most successful music biopic of all time, comfortably overtaking previous champion Straight Outta Compton’s $202m takings. To put this influx of successful music movies into perspective, there was only one musical film – The Greatest Showman - in the top 25 highest grossing films of 2017, according to Box Office Mojo.
In many ways, 2018 felt like a real turning point for the music film, with audiences unable to get enough of them. We’ve had fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the lives of Whitney Houston (Whitney), Quincy Jones (Quincy) and M.I.A. (MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.), brilliant TV shows about hip hop’s golden years via BET’s Death Row Chronicles and HBO / Netflix’s The Defiant Ones, and big budget music extravaganzas; most notably Bohemian Rhapsody, a very traditional studio biopic about Queen, and A Star Is Born, an unexpected ode to the genius of Lady Gaga that was brimming with life and Bradley Cooper (spoiler) pissing himself at the Grammys. Even animated kids film Sherlock Gnomes felt like a musical, cramming in more Elton John songs than a playlist by your Uncle Dave.
So what’s driving all this? Well, in this era of streaming, the men in suits have wisely realised that a successful music film can make lots of money not only for a Hollywood studio, but for a record label as well, effectively killing two birds with one stone. This is best reflected by the box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody, which has fuelled a Queen revival on the pop charts. On Spotify, Queen’s pop opera “Bohemian Rhapsody” was positioned 87th globally one day before the film’s release — a week later and it was at 15th, the single also returning to the Billboard Hot 100 for a third time. The film’s soundtrack also hit number 3 in the US album charts, just as the group’s greatest hits compilation – which has been shamelessly re-packaged for what feels like the 100th time – re-entered the charts at number 9, giving Queen two top ten albums simultaneously for the first time in the group’s history.
There’s real evidence that the people who went to go see Bohemian Rhapsody, left the cinema and went straight onto Spotify to stream Queen’s back catalogue. And with streams now intrinsically linked to sales, this trend is a very lucrative one to tap into. However, with the success of these music films so closely linked to album sales and streams, there’s a sense we’re not being given the full story as Hollywood studios present revisionist timelines of an artist’s career, attempting to avoid controversy at all costs. After all, if these films are to get the tills ringing then they need to resonate with as many people as possible while not sullying the legacy of their subject matter – a difficult balance to strike.
This was evident throughout 2018. Take Bohemian Rhapsody, a film which largely presented Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality as a promiscuous habit that led him on the wrong path while the rest of his more sensible bandmates left parties early to return to their loving wives; this is a strange narrative choice that is at best inaccurate and at worst offensive. By the time Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis is presented on screen, it is almost framed like a punishment for his queerness.
There’s a sense the surviving members of Queen have presented a revisionist take on their legacy, cutting out all the bad bits from their Wikipedia page and completely ignoring the hedonistic bombast they were famous for in favour of a sanitised, wholesome portrayal of Mercury that will offend as few people as possible. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is undeniably entertaining, it is the mum-friendly version of Queen opposed to the band who hired dwarves to serve cocaine from trays glued to their heads at hedonistic parties or a Mercury who would sneak off stage between songs to have sex — this, you sense, is the edgier film Sasha Baron Cohen wanted to make before unceremoniously leaving the production.
There was a similar sense something was being held back when watching director Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney documentary. It frames Whitney Houston’s potential bi-sexuality as a by-product of being sexually abused as a child, but fails to explore her sexuality in any great detail, seemingly terrified of what it might discover, while quickly skipping over her failures as a parent. It feels like anything too incriminating was left on the cutting floor, with talking heads such as ex-husband Bobby Brown outright refusing to answer any questions about drugs.
Netflix’s Quincy, meanwhile, was a two-hour pat on the back, only interested in painting the legendary producer as a stand-up-guy. His heroin habit, failed marriages and various infidelities might as well never have happened, with Quincy, which is tellingly co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones, coming across like nepotistic propaganda. It reduces one of music’s most enigmatic characters to a boring museum exhibit, terrified of critiquing its subject’s questionable moral choices, exploring the racially-motivated breakdown of his relationship with Michael Jackson or analysing what his many wives may have had to sacrifice in order to aide his career.
That’s not to say all music biopics in 2018 have been playful with the truth. Independent film Nico, 1988, received a limited release, but was a brutally honest look at the German singer’s attempts to destroy her beauty, exploring Nico’s faded charisma during a forgotten period of her career living in Manchester, England. It’s a film that boldly refuses to be a moving Wikipedia page, instead focusing on one dark period of Nico’s life. Subsequently, it provides more insight into its subject on a human level than the three films above put together.
It’s reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s criminally underrated Last Days, an unauthorised 2005 film about the final moments of Kurt Cobain’s life, which unflinchingly depicts Cobain wandering around his Seattle mansion in a catatonic, depressed state, unable to form full sentences and only interested in shooting up heroin. Last Days was another film that avoided the clichés of the animated Wikipedia page, giving us a distinctly human insight into Cobain’s artistry rather than getting lost in the Nirvana frontman's mythology. Unfortunately, the existence of Nico, 1988 feels rare and not something a major Hollywood studio would ever allow to happen. After all, Nico isn’t a mainstream artist so isn’t burdened with the shackles of a Freddie Mercury or Whitney Houston, artists who continue to sell millions of records and whose lives are treated like marketable greatest hits packages.
Next year will see the release of a big budget Elton John biopic, Rocketman, which conveniently coincides with a 300-date farewell tour, an Ava DuVernay-directed Netflix documentary about Prince, and potentially a Steve McQueen-directed Tupac Shakur documentary, and there will be hopes within boardrooms that these releases will be able to make money on multiple fronts just like Bohemian Rhapsody has done. If Freddie Mercury can get bums on seats, albums on charts and maybe even a Best Actor Oscar for lead actor Rami Malek, then you can bet there’s a Hollywood producer rubbing his hands together gleefully right now at the prospect of releasing biopics about legacy artists such as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Madonna too. Just don’t expect any of these films to show us the human beings behind the headlines or scratch too deep under the surface. After all, there’s money to be made.
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