Five New Rules For Biopics Of Musicians

Last week I watched Elvis. No, let me rephrase that. Last week I tried to watch Elvis but had to bail after the first fifteen minutes, which is a long fifteen minutes. It’s an exhausting stretch that ping pongs around a handful of key moments in Presley’s life with wild, reckless abandon, complete with swirling visual flourishes and jolting musical ques. I was on a plane. I was tired. It was frankly, too much to handle.

And I felt compelled to leave it at that. I had tried and that felt like enough. But alas, I’m at a point in my life where decisions aren’t made in a vacuum and a few days later, now comfortably back home, The Wife and I decided to give the movie another crack.

Yeah, it’s still a lot but overall, it’s fine. It’s a fine movie. It’s not a great movie but I also wouldn’t call it a bad movie. Tom Hanks is bad as Col. Tom Parker but beyond that, it’s okay. The fella who plays Elvis does a hell of a job but ultimately it’s a biopic that like most biopics tries to do too much. How are we still at the point where we think we can cram someone’s entire life into two or three hours and then think we’re doing that person justice? It’s madness, man. If you’re going to do a movie about someone, odds are that that person did a crazy amount of living, usually in a short amount of time and if you think you’re going to faithfully capture it all, you’re nuts. You probably also think Hanks was good as Parker, which to be clear, he was not.

More often than not, biopics stumble and bumble their way into existence. They almost always sound good in theory but then junk in practice. The bad clearly outnumber the good, yet they keep getting made. As I sit here today, a Bob Marley biopic is currently being filmed, there was supposed to be one about Madonna, but thankfully it was scrapped and Bradley Cooper is doing one about Leonard Bernstein. Oh, and who could forget Jonah Hill playing Jerry Garcia in a Grateful Dead biopic directed by Martin Scorcese. But you know there are others out there, ones presumably about any number of classic rockers and musicians taken from us too soon.

A biopic about a musician is always an intriguing prospect because the musician in question is naturally fascinating and even though we might already know plenty about them, there’s always a desire to learn more. Would a documentary work? Yeah, probably, but we can’t resist the mysterious appeal of a well-known actor attempting to lose themselves while portraying a famous musician.

If no one minds, I’d like to propose a few new rules for biopics about musicians. I don’t know if they’ll help but they certainly can’t hurt.

1. Keep The Lying Or Exaggerating To A Minimum & Overall, No Big Time Lies

So if you’re going to squeeze an entire life into two or three hours, then there’s going to be some skirting of facts and smudging of the truth. I guess that should be expected as you’re trying to move the story along and also cram as many details as possible into the movie. It’s fine. We kind of all get it and know what we’re in for. It’s not surprising when it happens.

That is unless you go completely off-script and go rogue with the timeline and facts. Then it’s not cool. I don’t want to casually look up say, what Queen was doing heading into Live Aid and realize that they weren’t all but broken up and the show was a comeback show for them, which is what Bohemian Rhapsody would have you believe. That movie straight up sleeps on a bed of lies and once you know that, it kind of ruins it. You’re watching it under the impression that it’s a true story but the only truth involved is that the people behind the movie got cute with the facts, electing to side with the story they wanted to tell as opposed to the story that actually happened.

You want to yadda yadda some things or play a little loose with timelines, that’s fine. But don’t do it to such an extent that we feel like we’ve been lied to. That’s not cool.

2. No Gratitous Songwriting Scenes

Ugh, you know the ones. The guitarist starts playing a riff and the rest of the band stops and the engineer hustles over to the board to press record and that riff becomes THE SONG, a classic that the group is known for.

That’s bullshit and just knock it off. I’m not saying you need to cut it out completely, but let’s tone it down a notch, ok?

3. The Actors Should Sing At Least 70% of the Time & The Actors Playing Instruments Should Really Look Like They’re Playing

Austin Butler actually sang a lot of the songs in Elvis and in Walk The Line, Joaquin Phoenix sang everything and even learned to play the guitar in Johnny Cash’s unique style, which a pedicab driver in Nashville once told me is incredibly hard and who am I not to believe a pedicab driver in Nashville. In both movies, you can tell that the actors are singing (or mostly singing in Butler’s case) and I think it makes the movies better because it feels more real, which is saying something because very little in Elvis feels real. Contrast that with Bohemian Rhapsody where Rami Malek is lip-synching the whole time or even Ray, where Jamie Foxx is also lip-synching. It’s just not the same, fellas. It doesn’t matter how good you may be at lip-synching. It’s not a legitimate substitute for the real thing.

Although in Malek’s defense, he was playing Freddie Mercury, someone who had one of the greatest voices ever. It’s not exactly something a vocal coach can teach you. He might get a pass there.

As for the musicians behind the singer, do the work. If you’re playing guitar, make it look like you’re playing the chords. And God help me, if I see another “drummer” playing the wrong thing, like a ride cymbal when it should be a hi-hat, I might do something rash. I don’t even know what that rash thing might be but just the fact that I’m threatening a rash reaction should mean something. Don’t skimp on the small stuff here, people. There are rash reactions involved if you do.

Also, it looks lame.

4. Let’s Keep Things to a Specific Period of Time As Opposed To A Whole Life Story

This rule should help future biopics follow the other rules mainly because of the fact that these biopics are trying to cover so much ground, there’s collateral damage. You know, facts, accuracy, general believability.

So hey, instead of telling a whole life story, why not focus the movie around one or two main events? For instance, instead of telling the entire story of Queen leading up the Live Aid performance, why not focus the movie on the Live Aid performance? You can add some backstory in via flashbacks if you want but the Live Aid recreation was easily the best part of Bohemian Rhapsody. Run with that!

In Elvis, that movie could have been about his 1968 comeback special. And what if Walk the Linewas just about the concert at Folsom Prison? I think narrowing the movie’s scope would help immensely and also make sure things don’t get sloppy and weird.

5. Movies Should Be Done Independently

Just like with documentaries, I think the families and estates of the subjects should be kept at arms distance. Directors and writers and actors can talk to them in the name of research but that’s where the relationship should end. If the family is involved, things can get muddy and biases get introduced. If I wanted a bias, I’d listen to someone talk to me about their kid.

If anything, it makes Bohemian Rhapsody even more ridiculous because the dudes from Queen were involved and somehow were cool with such blatant disregard of the facts. The story of Queen is cool as is my dudes, you don’t need to embellish anything or sacrifice the truth for the sake of the narrative.

Families can help fill in gaps but don’t get a seat at the table. Nothing good can come from it.

You know, like Tom Hanks playing Col. Tom Parker.

Ryan harbors a constant fear of losing his keys, prefers flip flops, and will always choose cereal if it’s an option. He maintains his own blog, Giddy Up America, and has previously contributed work to UPROXX & Heavy. Ryan is on Twitter: @ryanoconnell79

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