How Music Stars Are Keeping Control Of Their Biopics

The biopic of Madonna is set to be directed by, well, Madonna - and control over the material is becoming the norm rather than the exception where such biopics are concerned.

Elvis review

Ever since the Freddie Mercury biopic movie Bohemian Rhapsody helped itself to some Oscars and nearly $1bn at the global box office, the music star film has been big business.

We’ve seen Elton John’s story brought to the screen in Rocketman, the life and times of the late Aretha Franklin in Respect, and ahead of us is the life story of Whitney Houston in this Christmas’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

In fact, that’s not the only film of its ilk that’s ahead of us. The estate of Michael Jackson has endorsed an upcoming film of the singer’s (controversial, we should note) life, Sing Street director John Carney is bringing the tale of the Bee Gees back to the screen, whilst films about the likes of Boy George, Bob Marley, Ozzy Osbourne, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse are also in various stages of development. This is just a handful of what’s on the way, but I’m not paid by the word.

Some of these music stars have already been the subject of one (if not more) documentary features. But the real gold, Hollywood has learned, is in the dramatic retelling of their story.

In the midst of this particular box office land rush, though, is a story of control.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Whatever your thoughts on Bohemian Rhapsody, it was a very sanitised, family friendly presentation of Freddie Mercury’s incredible story. The rough edges were shaved off long before it made it into production – with the surviving members of the band Queen having clear creative control – and the end result was a box office jackpot.

Conversely, Rocketman was less wary of playing broad, and is arguably a far better film, but did much less at the box office. Hollywood bean counters, as always, were watching.

And what we’re seeing is a move towards officially sanctioned biopics, where the subject of them – or their estate – has input. It’s to the point where this week we learn that Madonna won’t just be involved with, but will be directing the movie of her life, Blonde Ambition.

It’s, of course, a double-edged sword.

Bohemian Rhapsody

What we’ve learned so far is that the estates of deceased music stars tend to be more protective of a film than if the subject of it is still around. Go back to Rocketman: the reason it was able to explore the edges of Elton John’s life was because he gave the filmmakers express permission to do so. Had he passed before it was made, it would have been a far more difficult decision to do so. Nobody is realistically expecting the estates of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston to offer the same latitude, although I’m happy to be proven wrong there.

And that’s bound to impact the films.

The ideal would be to make the film in question as objectively as possible without an official endorsement. Yet look what happened to the film Stardust. The movie told the story of a small chapter in David Bowie’s life, yet denied any official permission to use Bowie’s music by his estate, and the film was lesser for it. It all but disappeared without trace when released in 2020, for a few reasons. But had it been an ‘official’ Bowie production, it at least would have been guaranteed longer legs.

Thus, filmmakers and studios realistically need some cooperation or endorsement, else it makes selling the resultant film at the end of it all the more difficult. It’s a better business decision to give an estate or a music star oversight of the script than it is to keep them out of the process, and potentially risk legalities anyway.

Is it making the films better? Not if early reviews for Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis are anything to go by. But there’s a degree of making a deal with the metaphorical devil here.

And when the goal for big Hollywood studios certainly is more Bohemian Rhapsody than Rocketman, the path of the former is very much the one they’re going to follow.

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