In March this year, Hollywood entertainment news publication Deadline declared the music biopic was on its way out. That beside the “modest” Christian-themed film I Can Only Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that hit Aussie screens on 1 November, the genre was ready for a rest.
Poor box office returns on previous offerings such as Miles Ahead (about Miles David), Born To Be Blue (Chet Baker), I Saw The Light (Hank Williams) and Florence Foster Jenkins (about the great opera singer) made it unlikely major studios would pour more revenue into the ailing format.
But here’s why they’re wrong. We won’t be seeing the tail end of music biopics for a very long time. Because even if they’re not exactly raking in the big bucks at the box office, they are working as successful sales and marketing vehicles for the music industry.
Back in the 90s, record label execs forecasted a steady upward trend in profits and healthy bottom lines for decades to come. By sticking to the tried and true method of churning out *NSYNC and Spice Girl clones they were assured hungry young audiences would pony up and buy the latest releases. The money was so good in those days there’d even be a little extra left over to take risks on alternative artists. But like so many industry titans, they failed to see just how much of an impact the internet would have on commerce, and how consumption habits would transform as a result of disrupters like the then-nascent music sharing platform Napster.
The music industry just ain’t what it used to be, and all those upward pointing lines on sales charts aren’t looking as healthy as they were in the early 2000s.
The biopic now has two functions, a potential money-maker for film studios and a vehicle for continued sales of music properties that, one; everybody already loves, and two; major record labels already own the rights to.
Only the safest megastars are worth risking investment in today’s music market, and rather than explore the potential of new up-and-comers, it’s better for labels just to repackage old hits. We've just passed Christmas, and surely you’ve seen record stores spruiking anniversary editions, remastered records, best of compilations and “never before released B-sides” of everybody’s favourite oldies, from Neil Young to the Monkees. In fact, I literally just looked at some of my most recent PR emails from Warner Music Group, and those two were right at the top, along with releases from the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Cliff Richards, Boyzone and David Bowie. Out of 34 releases WMG is planning in the October/November period, around 15 of them, or almost half, are from dead people, or bands that no longer make music.
The music biopic is a two-hour long ad for studio back catalogues, and if you’re like Sony, why not make the film you own the music to, a la Bohemian Rhapsody.
Or like Universal Music Group, which paves the way for production by providing the rights to the music of artists like Prince, who is barely cold and already has a biopic in the pipeline (rumoured to star Bruno Mars whose music also belongs to UMG). Or Elton John, who isn’t even dead yet, and whose biopic Rocketman is set to hit the big screen in May next year.
Back in 2015, Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing, Mike Knobloch, said, “I don’t know that the industry got together and said, ‘Let’s make this the year of music movies,’ but let’s make it the new normal and keep it going.”
And they have kept it going. In the future we can expect to see biopics about Amy Winehouse (again), Old Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Crew and even prolific rapper and cough syrup aficionado Gucci Mane will see his moment on the big screen.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and music biopics are Good Business. With a little cooperation between major studios and record labels (who are often one and the same), there is plenty of money to be made from the genre yet, making it very unlikely we’ll see a curtain call any time soon.