Why Music Biopics Never Get Mastered

Lucas Jensen / November 20, 2008

Remember that Iggy Pop biopic starring Elijah Wood? That Marvin Gaye biopic starring the guy from Law & Order? Kirsten Dunst playing Debbie Harry? Zooey Deschanel (or was it Melissa Etheridge) as Janis Joplin? Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix? Lenny Kravitz as Hendrix? What about Laurence Fishburne as Hendrix? You probably remember none of those movies, because after tons of buzz, they all faded away into the veritable Bermuda Triangle that is music-biopic development. Why do so few music biopics actually make it through development, when they usually go onto success and acclaim, whether they’re put out by Hollywood (Ray, Walk The Line) or indies (24 Hour Party People)? Variety lays it out.

Surprisingly, licensing doesn’t really gum up the works for a big Hollywood production: $100,000 a song might seem like a lot to us normal folks, but in the bloated world of Hollywood budgets, it’s chump change. Doug Mark of Mark Music and Media Law thinks it all boils down to clashes of visions and creative differences. He has something of a vested interest in the topic, as been trying to get a movie made of Motley Crue’s book The Dirt, which would make a pretty rad biopic if it’s done right.

“It’s been torture!” [Mark] says. “Motley Crue is a band that has a really gritty book that was a hit, and yet people want a smoothed-over script. … Rock ‘n’ roll that makes a good movie is hardcore stuff!”

A proposed Keith Moon biopic has similarly suffered. Its development has been overseen by Roger Daltrey and Bill Gerber; the script has gone through two drafts, and the filmmakers are planning on taking it “more independent” and “more organic,” presumably because the scripts have lacked verisimilitude.

With deceased figures, the issue of branding comes up. Take Jimi Hendrix: The Hendrix estate wants any biopic to be about his music as much as his life, and worries that a drug movie would tarnish the image of their No. 1 brand. New flicks about Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis both heavily involved the estate of the artists in the process, but getting that permission, while crucial, is often difficult.

First off, I think it’s a little ridiculous for someone like the Hendrix estate to worry about the depiction of drugs in a Hendrix movie; that information is already way out there in the public sphere, and if anything, the movie could set straight the facts surrounding his accidental overdose. (I remember watching a laughable John Denver TV movie where Chad Lowe portrayed Denver’s alcohol issues by swaying at a party for 10 seconds. You could almost feel the writers saying, “That’s that! That huge aspect of Denver’s life is now swept under the rug.”) If anything, realistic portrayals of artists only enhance the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of an artist’s music by placing it into the context of their often messy lives. Think about it: Is a Motley Crue movie without the raunch really a Motley Crue movie?

Also only hinted at here is fatigue with the format. We’ve seen the biopics. Countless Behind the Music episodes follow the same narrative arc: rise, drugs, fall, breakup, reconciliation/tragedy/both. It feels like even disparate stories are being told in similar ways. There are so many interesting musical stories out there, and so few see it through with any uniqueness. What about a movie where everybody enjoyed playing music the whole time and got a lot out of it?

And where is my Fleetwood Mac movie already? That thing would be downright sleazy: cult members, drugs, love triangles, drugs, pop music, drugs.

Filmmakers fight to make music biopics [Variety]