Stephen Arnell

The tricky business of music biopics

  • From Spectator Life
Elvis (Image: Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros)

Along with films about real life authors, poets, comedians and artists, biographies of musicians are notoriously difficult to translate successfully to the cinema screen. Why?

Writing and painting aren’t inherently cinematic; live music has more visual potential (hence the greater number of motion pictures). But the challenges of lip-synching and the existence in most cases of plenty of original concert footage raise the stakes for any actor prepared to take on such a role. There’s a real danger of performances falling into pastiche and mimicry.

Directors face an even greater predicament when music rights are refused, as was the case with the recent Stardust (2021) where actor/musician Johnny Flynn had to come up with songs in the style of David Bowie. A challenge for any actor, one which unfortunately laid heavy on Flynn’s narrow shoulders.

Likewise, Anthony Hopkins’s Surviving Picasso (1996) boasted none of Pablo’s paintings and the same year’s Basquiat also featured no actual (as opposed to ersatz) works by the artist.

When movies are given the official sanction of the subject (Rocketman) or surviving band members (Bohemian Rhapsody), the viewer can expect a certain amount of whitewashing. In Rhapsody’s case, by the bucketful.

In contrast, 2019’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt (Netflix) was approved by the band but went out of its way to catalogue their debaucheries.

Early reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s (Moulin Rouge) upcoming Elvis have been mostly positive, with critics tending to prefer Craig Butler’s depiction of The King’s return in his 68 Comeback Special to that of his earlier years. Tom Hanks, equipped with a prosthetic nose, fat suit and Dutch-inflected accent has come in for a fair amount of criticism for his take on Presley’s grifting manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, which bears a certain physical resemblance to Orson Welles’ corpulent Police Captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil (1958).

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