Even if you haven’t seen it, you can probably guess a few good reasons why so many critics have panned the recent Morrissey biopic England Is Mine. Following the former Smiths frontman’s ongoing slide into increasingly right-leaning politics, maybe a film about the singer’s martyred adolescence was a rather bitter pill to swallow. Or maybe the film came a few years too late, as Morrissey’s 2013 autobiography already spent a whole lot of vocabulary canonising his pietistic formative years.
In fact, the reception to England Is Mine is simply characteristic of what we’ve come to expect from music biopics in general. The genre is often criticised for being mediocre or predictable at best, or for actively sanitising elements of a musician’s life to make it palatable to mainstream audiences at worst. Take Nina for instance, an insensitively saccharine biography of Nina Simone that shied away from telling the story of how the singer overcame a racially prejudiced society to “tear down the expectations of what a black female musician should sound like”. The recent Tupac biopic, All Eyez On Me, also turned out to be more of a “fast-paced scroll through Tupac’s Wikipedia page” than a profound consideration of the rapper’s cultural impact.
Biopics of boxers, politicians and forgotten enigmas of the past have all been Oscar-winners and landmarks of cinema, but because our connection to the stars of pop, rap, and rock’n’roll is so personal and deeply internalised, it’s often difficult for a film to approach its subject in a way that doesn’t offend or alienate their fans. But there are some rare films that get their protagonists right. Here’s how to make a music biopic that won’t leave its audience disappointed.
FORGO THE FACTS IF YOU CAN INDULGE THE MYTH
Against the grizzled skyline of New York, Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious dances with three street kids in a desolate scrap heap. Then he gets into a driverless yellow taxi and snogs his resurrected girlfriend as the cab pulls away and the screen fades to black. While most of the media coverage following Nancy Spungen’s death was overrun with headlines accusing Vicious of murder, Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy gives punk’s star-crossed lovers an elegy wrought with romantic sentiment and symbolism.
Without glorifying the couple’s drug addictions, the spittle and smut-marked lens of Cox’s film gets close to its protagonists by striving to evoke the artistic spirit of the music that inspired it rather than get caught up in all the arid sound and fury of biographical accuracy. Many directors struggle to portray the ineffable power of music in a visual medium, which is perhaps why films like Straight Outta Compton found it easier to wring drama out of the artist’s interpersonal relationships and industry conflicts, rather than their creative process. But even with relatively minimal musical performances, the spirit of punk exhumes from each and every frame of Sid and Nancy through it’s masterful cinematography and mise-en-scene.
DON’T THINK THAT GOOD PERFORMANCES DISGUISE BAD FILMMAKING
The brilliant central performances in Sid and Nancy are just one of its many strengths, but it’s too often the case in music biopics that the leading actor or actress will upstage what is an otherwise unengaging film. It’s one thing to cast a dead ringer for the leading role, but it’s another to capture the star’s aura. On the other hand, none of the six main players in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There were cast for their physical resemblance to Bob Dylan (although in mirroring the singer’s mannerisms and vocal inflections, a few of them come uncannily close). Like Sid and Nancy this film is a vindication of the creative spirit of the music rather than a fastidious bildungsroman, and its conflicting performances are a testimony to Dylan as a restless and versatile artist.
DO IT FROM A FAN’S POINT OF VIEW
We like to think that we already know a lot about our own personal pop idols, and when a movie is only interested in cold-hard facts and fails to engage on a serious level with the music, it can be patronising – or even offensive. The masterstroke of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People is that it follows the career of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson rather than the bands he signed to his label. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Wilson is full of earnest pretensions and studentish aphorisms, the character deifying the musicians as much as the audience. The film recognises that it’s the self-advocated right of every serious music fan to proudly pontificate that “Shaun Ryder is the greatest poet since WB Yeats,” for instance, or that Joy Division are advocates of the postmodern “free-play of signs and signifiers.”
IF YOU’RE A ROCK STAR, MAKE YOUR OWN BIOPIC
The most successful music biopics have taken artistic liberties when it comes to historical accuracy. Sadly, this also has a tendency to rub their real life subjects up the wrong way. For instance, Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten once called Sid and Nancy “the lowest form of life”, and Peter Hook, bass player for Joy Division, has expressed a partiality for the biopic Control because he considers it “a hell of a lot more factual than 24 Hour Party People.” Even though 24 Hour Party People in particular makes its discrepancies with the truth explicitly clear, ethical questions have still been raised concerning who is really entitled to dramatise a musician’s life.
So perhaps this explains the motivation behind the film adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The highly autobiographical brainchild of primary songwriter Roger Waters, it depicts a rock star losing control of his life to the industry before fantasising about fronting his own dictatorial regime. It's a project Waters made even more meta when, dressed in full Schutzstaffel uniform, he performed the album to fans on a worldwide tour. Musicians often challenge the authenticity of their portrayal in movies, and yet it’s clear that when they are involved in the narration of their own story, the results often blur the boundary between truth and performance to even greater extremes. Certainly The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Julien Temple’s 1980 ‘documentary’ starring all of the Sex Pistols, was a decidedly more fictionalised account of the band’s story than Sid and Nancy.
And today, the recent rise of big budget music videos and visual albums has marked a new trend of musicians mythologising their ego in their own self-directed hagiographies. Kanye West, for instance, has specifically referenced The Wall as inspiration for his film Runaway (directed, starring, and with music by Kanye West). As multi-millionaire musicians become auteurs of their own stories, we should be more suspicious than ever of these narrators and how they present themselves. At the same time, as these visual albums have often been recieved by fans with far greater enthusiasm than more traditional biographical movies, perhaps they also add an interesting new dimension to the future of the music biopic.