B-I-O  P-I-C: Find Out What It Means To See…

Music Biopics Are Usually The Worst - Where Are The Good Ones?

A friend sent me a message this morning, wanted my take on the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic. Had I seen the trailer? What did I think? So I answered, in order, that no I hadn’t seen the trailer, and that absolutely I felt qualified to say that it would be utterly shit.

I have since seen the trailer.

And I never hate saying I’m right. So today is a day to remain very happy. Because: Yahtzee! This film will be shit. And that’s a shame. But the bonus in all of this is my track-record remains unbroken.

The cast looks strong, the decision to run Jennifer Hudson as Aretha is something I have no issue with – fairplay. Forest Whitaker is a welcome addition to, well, anything. We got Audra McDonald up in there and Mary J. Blige making a cameo as Dinah Washington. All good things. Okay, I’m a little weary because Marc Maron is in it (as Jerry Wexler). And Marc Maron can only play himself. So it’ll be Marc Maron-as/is-Jerry Wexler. But that alone is not film-ruining. What will make this film unforgiveable is its CliffsNotes approach to the narrative. In the trailer, already, we see them hinting at the idea that Aretha wrote the song Respect. Granted, the film might not come out and actually say that. But that alone is a duplicitous and dubious move. If this was Dragon’s Den I’d declare myself out. I would not be investing.

But, also, who am I kidding? I will absolutely see this movie.

It is a music biopic. And they are guaranteed to let me down. But I will turn up to any and nearly every music biopic. It will always be in my feed. And I will refresh and rethink and then I’ll head along or find the link or follow the stream or whatever. I’ll take myself there.

I am almost always let down.

Even the films that weren’t great but could be celebrated – the ones that kinda caused this near-pandemic of music biopics, I’m talking Ray (Ray Charles) and Walk The Line(Johnny Cash)…I saw them. At the movies. As soon as they were released. People defend those films. I found myself slightly defending the Ray one for a while. But they are not great. They tell lies. They are designed as introductory texts and I shouldn’t take the bait. But I’m powerless. I have to see these movies.

A few years ago there was this extraordinary run of terrible music biopics. I’m not even referring to the Queen one and the Elton John one – both stupid and wrong and awful.

Before those got off the ground there was the one where Zoe Saldana tried to play Nina Simone. And the one where they forgot to mention anything bad about James Brown at all. And I thought the worst of all was when one of the guys from Outkast played Jimi Hendrix. He looked the part. But no one seemed to be able to locate the script. But the absolute worst – the stupidest – was the Miles Davis one. Look, this seemed so good on paper. Don Cheadle. Great actor. Good Miles lookalike – good enough. Massive jazz fan. Actually played the trumpet – and to a decent standard. Spent 10 years developing the film himself. Ultimate passion project. And then. He delivers a misguided action film – with Miles Davis caught up in some weird heist/spy thing. No. Really. I watched it on a plane. And nearly jumped out the window.

I’m pretty worried that the Aretha biopic – Respect – will in fact not respect its subject. And will end up in the toilet with the films I’ve just mentioned.

There are some stunning biopics – but they can be counted on half of one hand.

There’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. Maybe the gold-medal winner. Just about the best.

And that Tina Turner one was pretty great right? Especially because it happened at a time, pre-internet, when it alerted a lot of the world to this incredible story of struggle, abuse and survival. I have not gone back to fact-check it – but arriving at next month’s Documentary Edge Festival is the definitive Tina doco. So that should sort out any stray ends. A must see, no doubt.

And there’s this little film no one seemed to see called Born To Be Blue. It’s not perfect. It’s no Coal Miner’s Daughter. But it arrived in the middle of that bad bunch and it was far better than any of them – and so beautifully put together. Ethan Hawke is wonderful. The Chet Baker story is well told through Baker’s own memoir, various books and an incredible impressionistic documentary – but this still adds to all of that! And yet, it’s seemingly lost. Hard to find, not many saw it. I highly recommend it – and if your internet cannot provide it for you and you live in or near Wellington I know that Aro Video, still standing and always brilliant, has a copy. (They’ll even post to it you anywhere in NZ).

That’s slim pickings though, right? I know I’m leaving out one or two others. But I’m doing that on purpose in the hope you might write in to defend your favourite music biopic and mention something I’ve left off the tiny list. So what’s your favourite? And will you go see the Aretha Franklin one? Or are you planning to head for the hills? And yes, yes today is Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday and more on that another time no doubt, but I must confess to never seeing I’m Not There. I should really correct that.

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