The Beat Goes On: The Art of the Music Biopic

Paul Abbott reflects on the much-derided genre of the music biopic.

In January of this year, tickets for Def Leppard’s UK tour went on sale. The band are playing their album Hysteria in full, but I suspect the love people have for the band is in part due to the stories everyone knows about them. And once you’ve got a story, well, you’ve got the key ingredient for a music biopic. Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story contains just about everything people know or hold to be true about music biopics within its 90 minute running time. It’s a dramatic retelling of the band’s origins and journey to fame – there’s addiction, fallings-out, accidents, Canada-doubling-for-London-and-Sheffield, mimed-performances, Anthony Michael Hall playing producer “Mutt” Lange and an obviously fake ‘missing’ arm. It’s fantastic, it’s awful and it’s a prime example of the much-maligned art of the Music biopic.

Why are biopics so derided? They’ve been around since at least 1909, when The Origin Of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata purported to tell the story of how the composer came to write that famous tune. Early biopics mainly concentrated on the big name composers and performers from Classical and Romantic history, but a notable exception was made for Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”, the operatic singer whose P. T. Barnum managed tours of the States made her into a popular music superstar and inspired at least three films. Of course if you want to know what people are really interested in, keep in mind that there’s been at least 13 films made about Franz Schubert and only one about Madonna, so there you go.

If we’re going to knock biopics, then the least we should do is try and define what they are. The simplest explanation comes from George Custen, one of few academics to look at the subject, who simply says that a biopic is a film that, “depicts the life of a historical person, past or present”. If we add to this the caveat that the film is a fictionalised account of a life story, not a documentary, then it should be clear. Regardless of how you define them, the big problem is that biopics languish in a world of terrible quality control. For every much-lauded Control, there’s a Shania: A Life In Eight Albums. And we haven’t even mentioned Ken Russell’s approach to the lives of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Delius…

But you can’t just blame directors for the big problems biopics face. If you’re not making the ‘official story’ then you’re straight into a brick-wall of legal matters. 30 Rock made brilliant light of this as Jenna Maroney prepares to star in a biopic about Janis Joplin but is told that they can’t use Joplin’s name (a ripped-from-true-life story: a proposed biopic was eventually shelved in 2017 after seven years in development). “Your character’s going to be called Jackie Jormp-Jomp,” Jack Donaghy tells her, “It turns out not having the life rights or any Janis Joplin songs was a negative for audiences”.

In reality life-rights and music-rights rarely prevent the production of biopics. Hendrix’s extremely litigious estate stopped both Hendrix (2000) and Jimi: All Is By My Side (2013) using any original songs or recordings by Hendrix in the films but at least they could use some of the songs Jimi covered. In VH1’s Man In The Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story, there’s barely a hint of any music at all, but you do get to find out that someone now has “Martin Bashir” on their acting CV. Legally speaking, there isn’t a clear necessity to get the life-rights before producing a biopic, but the risks if you don’t are pretty high. When CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story was released in 2013, band members Chilli and T-Boz were on board as executive producers, but former manager “Pebbles” Reid was not, subsequently suing production company for forty million dollars.

Even the legal might of Apple Corps hasn’t prevented the making of biopics. There’s been about 10 made about The Beatles, ranging from no-budget fan projects to full cinematic releases. Only one was made within Lennon’s lifetime, 1979’s The Birth Of The Beatles, which tells the story of their early days, up to their first trip to America. John “Nasty Nick” Altman plays George Harrison, Nigel Havers is cast as George Martin and, making his screen-debut, the much-missed Gary Olsen plays a stuttering Rory Storm.

The Beatles’ story has, of course, been raked over more than any other group and with Mark Lewisohn’s definitive biographies now pinning them down to the when/where and with-whom more accurately than ever before, the creative liberties taken in the cases of the biopics stand out like sore thumbs to the fab-nerds amongst us. The story of Stu Sutcliffe receiving a beating that may have contributed to his early death from a brain-clot has been presented as happening in 1960 at their triumphant ‘Direct from Hamburg’ show in Litherland (Birth of The Beatles), at the hands of sailors at the fictional scouse pub The Anchor (Backbeat) or after another show in late 1960 (In His Life: The John Lennon Story). In most of these cases, the band’s bassist would have been Chas Newby, who history has generally chosen not to remember (Newby now plays with the Quarrymen). The likeliest ‘real’ incident took place in 1961, when Sutcliffe had briefly popped back to England from Hamburg and re-joined the band for a couple of weeks.

But does it matter? The case of The Beatles in Biopics suggests that actually these productions are more concerned with building up a mythology of their subject rather than presenting their reality. Does it matter that the house in Nowhere Boy isn’t actually the one Lennon lived in, but that the one in In His Life: The John Lennon Story is? Oh, and of course, there’s never been a biopic made about the ‘actual’ working years of The Beatles. We’ve had pre-1964 stories, post break-up and relationship based-stories, but when is someone going to produce a narrative film about Lennon popping off to Spain to film “How I Won The War”, or Ringo going shopping for tins of baked beans before setting off to India?

In recent years there has been something of a revival in the fortunes of biopics as they move from made-for-TV features into cinematic productions, with titles like Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton proving hits at the box office. With big name stars taking part now, there’s definitely more to come. Just remember, if you’re settling down to watch And The Beat Goes On: The Sonny & Cher Story, don’t forget to put a pinch of salt on your popcorn.

13 Must-See Biopics

  1. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
  2. Bird (1988)
  3. Twenty Four Hour Party People (2002)
  4. Ray (2004)
  5. Control (2007)
  6. Walk The Line (2005)
  7. Beyond The Sea (2004)
  8. Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)
  9. Nowhere Boy (2009)
  10. Get On Up (2014)
  11. Love And Mercy (2014)
  12. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
  13. Miles Ahead (2015)

❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

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1 Comment

  1. A really interesting read. I know it isn’t strictly about the working life of the Beatles, and is quite open about fictionalising the events, but The Hours and Times tells the story of the real life trip Lennon and Epstein took to Spain (not to shoot How I Won The War of course, this trip was 63). Ian Hart played Lennon for the first time (it’s from 1991 and Backbeat was 1994). Worth a watch for the die-hard fan (or the fan of speculative biopics?) but probably not worth it for anyone else, not much happens as I recall.

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