Director: Gabriel Range
Stars: Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, Marc Maron
Here’s a list of things you probably need in order to pull-off a successful music biopic.
1) Since the critic-proof success of Bohemian Rhapsody, one thing you don’t need, apparently, is to try. But you should try. Those box office numbers have meant that an often creatively-bankrupt movie subgenre has had it’s bar lowered to, basically, the floor. Paint-by-numbers cliff-noting and crude caricature is somehow acceptable. Still, you want to make a successful music biopic, right? Not just in terms of box office return, but something of artistic merit in its own right. Something that stands beside the work of your subject. In compliment to it. Especially if your efforts are going to be unceremoniously dumped in the wastelands of a global pandemic because, lets face it, box office is off the table now anyway. So, for your own sake, some personal artistic integrity and ambition is a must.
2) However, know your limits. You’re probably not Kubrick. Don’t start off invoking the quality of his work if you’re soundly incapable of anything approaching it afterward. Best not remind people of what they’re not getting, especially if they’re also not getting any songs.
3) Oh, lots of songs by the artist in question. Ideally the originals but, if you’re careful enough, adequate facsimiles performed by the main cast will have merit.
4) Okay, some songs by the artist in question.
5) Fine. One.
6) Don’t have access to the catalogue? Ouch. Probably call it a day, then. Unless… Unless you can say something about the artist without their work. Have personal insights. And, above all, credibility. Note; you’ll lose any sense of integrity with a jolly title card advising that most of your movie isn’t true.
7) And if you don’t have the songs, don’t make a movie about a famous artist doing covers. You’ll be exposing yourself. It’s gonna be fuckin’ awkward.
8) Try to avoid cliché. If you’re zeroing-in on the early years, bratty fights with industry men over whether or not a record has the hits ought probably be avoided. See also the hen-pecking spouse. It’s okay to comment on your star’s iconoclast style, but don’t overplay it or ridicule it. If every scene is about how they dress, you’re going to look like an empty shirt…
9) If an Early Days piece is your pick, its going to be tempting to make a crisis of confidence your theme. The rocky road to stardom. But if you’ve picked one of the biggies, like, say, David Bowie, consider how this might minimise your subject. Everyone knows Bowie made it so there’s no drama there. Focus is good. Career-spanning music biopics almost all fail for their sense of cliff-noting. Of trying to tackle too much. If you’re covering just a week of your subject’s life, make sure it’s to say something that’s unique to your chosen artist. Something cataclysmic. Something legendary.
Not just the bit you can do without the songs.
10) Don’t make them out to be a stupid jerk, especially if there’s ample evidence that they weren’t. If they were a genuine pioneer, maybe don’t imply they were a clueless, fumbling sham either, waiting to ride on the coattails of others. Someone like Bowie didn’t arrive fully-formed, granted, but don’t veer too far in the other direction either.
11) Casting will be important. You don’t need an impressionist. Johnny Flynn is a good actor. Jena Malone is a good actor. Marc Maron is a good actor. These are all fine choices for your cast. Now don’t saddle them with mawkish, trite material. Casting is key but so is the writing, which is what these last few points have really all been getting at. Bad writing will always expose itself.
12) And if mental health is going to become your focus, tread very carefully.
13) Honestly, this is getting exhausting. If you’re struggling with even the basics, consider your own motives. Why are you making this? Who is it for? Your intentions might be admirable but find some clarity. Are you honouring a legacy, or blotting one? And consider how a failure of this magnitude might reflect on your own career prospects.
Maybe it’s better if you just… don’t?