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LET THEM REST!!!: The pandemic of musician biopics

It seems like every time I open X (formerly Twitter) I see a new announcement for a biopic about a famous musician: Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Linda Ronstadt. It’s the genre that we can’t catch a break from. While the filmmakers behind these biopics may want to celebrate the legacies of beloved musicians, the lack of care and respect in many of these films makes it seem like their goal is to dominate the upcoming awards season and box office. While biopics are not a new genre, musician biopics have exploded in popularity with the release of Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018. When this depiction of Freddie Mercury’s life racked in an astounding 903 million worldwide, studios rushed to replicate its success. With releases such as Rocketman (2019) and Elvis (2022) each grossing over $100 million at the box office, the success of musician biopics has made the genre feel exhausting. Beyond being overdone, many of these films can be at the very least distasteful and at most downright offensive and horrifying. While these films have the potential to entertain and inspire, they often distort reality, perpetuate stereotypes, and exploit the legacies of the artists they claim to honor.

The root of many issues with biopics is that studios don’t need to legally obtain permission from celebrities or their estate to make a biopic; they only need to get life rights. This means that as long as the facts used about a public figure are public, the studios can create a biopic without breaking copyright laws because of this, directors and screenwriters can take creative liberties in crafting a compelling narrative. Forced to condense the complex lives of complicated individuals into a two-hour storyline that can keep the attention of the audience, these films can only cover the highlights and frequently depict a somewhat dramatized version of someone’s life. This freedom to add new details and requirements to compress their life stories often leads to inaccuracies and omissions, distorting the truth for entertainment and shock value. In the case of musicians, whose lives are often marked by controversy and trauma within an unforgiving industry, these inaccuracies can perpetuate myths and misconceptions about their legacy. 

This freedom also means that biopics have a nasty habit of sensationalizing the darker aspects of a musician's life for dramatic effect. Drug abuse, romantic scandals, and personal conflicts become the focal points, overshadowing the artist's musical contributions and cultural impact. While these plotlines may add dramatic tension, they inevitably reduce individuals to their controversies and form inaccurate characters that steer away from the artist. This debate surrounding the ethics of biopics has been reignited by the recently released trailer for the upcoming film Back to Black, which follows the late Amy Winehouse. The documentary of the singer’s life, Amy (2015), was praised as a chilling work that realistically depicted Winehouse’s career, addiction, and death. So the recent announcement of the biopic rubbed many fans the wrong way. They felt no gap in her life existed that needed to be depicted, only an opportunity to cash in on Winehouse’s tragic story. There’s something inherently uncomfortable about seeing pictures of Marisa Abela, who plays Winehouse, acting out the singer's mental breakdown surrounded by a film crew. During her life, Amy Winehouse was treated inhumanely by the media which contributed to her addiction and public breakdowns. For the media to now sensationalize these traumatic moments for money has left many online sharing their discomfort and disgust over just the trailer that has been released. Is this film attempting to honor Amy Winehouse’s legacy, or simply taking advantage of her story?  

Photo Credit: 20th Century Studios

In addition to exploiting singers, musician biopics like Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film Elvis, have passed over controversial aspects of an artist’s career. While immensely popular, many people accused Elvis of romanticizing certain parts of Elvis Presley’s past, such as his relationship with a 14-year-old Priscilla Presley, while ignoring others, like his appropriation of Black music. With the release of Pricilla in 2023, which solely focused on Elvis’ abuse and manipulation of Pricilla, much criticism has befallen the 2022 film for its inaccurate portrayal of their relationship. In addition, although Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) took home four Academy Awards, the film simplified many facets of Mercury’s life, including his sexuality and romantic relationships. The combination of the living members of Queen demanding equal screen time to Freddie Mercury and including all of Queen’s greatest hits, left very little time to unpack Mercury’s life story. Another challenge of biopics is casting actors who can portray these familiar faces. While some actors manage to embody the essence of their real-life counterparts, most struggle to do so authentically. Regardless of the result, there's a degree of artificiality in these performances that undermines the portrayal’s accuracy. Studios are often so focused on casting a big-name actor that they sacrifice a good performance. One baffling example is Kevin Spacey's role as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (2004), where a 45-year-old Spacey was portraying a 20-year-old Bobby Darin. Another one is Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning’s roles as Joan Jett and Cherrie Currie in The Runaways (2010). While both brought their own fanbase to the film, their performances of two iconic rockstars were incredibly flat. While bringing on well-known actors is a common tactic to ensure a profit at the box office, as biopics are people’s, and often incredibly well-known people’s, real-life stories, the actor should act and look similar to the musician to produce a quality film. When studios prioritize the viewers they hope are guaranteed by bringing in A-list celebrities, they limit themselves from finding the actor who can best portray the artist. 

There is no possible way to capture a real person's entire journey in the music industry through a biopic. And if a studio attempts it, they should treat the film with care and respect. We have seen biopics that have truly honored a musician's life and career, but they seem rare these days. Instead of relying on biopics, audiences should explore musicians' lives through interviews and their actual (non-re-recorded) music, allowing for a more nuanced and respectful understanding of their legacy. The issue is that as long as people keep buying tickets for the films, studios will keep making them. While many go to the theaters and enjoy the sensationalized versions of these musicians' lives, we must ask if it's worth exploiting these artists for money. The commodification of these stories leaves the results stale and fictional. It’s a two-way street and the public has to collectively stop supporting the exploitative films to force studios to produce thoughtful and attentive biopics. Leave them alone, let them rest, and STOP WITH THE INACCURATE BIOPICS!


Kelsey Perriello is a freshman in the College planning on majoring in Government.


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