The Hollywood rock star biopic is outnumbered by niche-targeted documentaries. They now shoulder most of the cultural work of telling illustrious musicians' life stories. But the old-school music hagiography is far from dead.
Look no farther than Bohemian Rhapsody, the Rami Malek-starring Freddie Mercury saga that brings the music of British operatic rock band Queen to the multiplex next week to see that the wide-screen approach is still in action.
Come spring, Elton John will also get the glam-bam treatment in Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton in another celebration of '70s glittery, excessive rock stardom. And though Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga's A Star Is Born remake is a work of fiction, the Oscar-contending tearjerker's box office success is likely to beget more stadium-size rock romances.
There are plenty of reasons for still-operative acts to marshal their authorized bios for the largest possible audience, an apparently tortuous task in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, which originally cast Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead and whose director, Bryan Singer, was fired for absence from the set last year. (Dexter Fletcher, who is uncredited, finished the film.)
Band biopics buck up the brand. Queen are still a busy touring entity, with American Idol alum Adam Lambert standing in for Mercury. Elton John is in the midst of a three-year farewell tour that will bring him back to Philadelphia at least two more times when he plays the Wells Fargo Center Nov. 8 and 9, 2019.
It's good for business to keep representations of your younger outrageously outfitted 1970s self in the marketplace, reminding old fans — and potential new ones — what the fuss about was in the first place.
Though there's a mini-trend of music biopics — hip-hop had its own with the success of Straight Outta Compton and the release of Notorious and All Eyez on Me a few years ago — these relatively big-budget movies are outnumbered by the proliferation of cheaper, niche docs.
Just for a sampling of what's on offer: The Philadelphia Film Festival premiered Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me, Olivia Lichtenstein's feature about the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes Philly soul great paralyzed in a 1982 auto accident who died in 2010. It's coming to Showtime.
And that barely hints at the range of music docs on demand on cable channels and video streaming services, which have included films that focus on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Whitney Houston, XTC, and the Avett Brothers. It's a golden age not just in terms of new films being produced, but old ones unearthed.
Worthy new releases include:
Bad Reputation, available on demand, is a Joan Jett doc that makes a case for the influential impact of the Runaways founding rocker, who was born at Lankanau Hospital in Wynnewood. From her 1970 beginnings to her impact on the riot grrl movement, it also includes an adorable scene of Jett singing the Replacements' "Androgynous" with transgender punk rocker Laura Jane Grace and Miley Cyrus.
Quincy, on Netflix, takes in the staggering career of Quincy Jones as a trumpeter, arranger, bandleader, producer, and all-around renaissance man. He would have achieved one-of-a-kind giant status if he had worked only with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, just two of the scores of artists whose work he considerably enriched in a six-decade career. It's directed by the daughter of its subject, actress Rashida Jones.
Special mention to a wild-card entry: If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a F-, a 1977 short film — it's only 51 minutes — directed by Nick Abson that chronicles a tour of England featuring several artists signed to the Stiff Records label, including Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Wreckless Eric, and Ian Drury. Too much time is wasted on the bus, but it's a treat that's been hard to come by. It's streaming free on Amazon Prime.
What most of these projects aimed at the fan bases of individual cult artists have in common is a granular approach that avoids the cliche-embracing storytelling of mass-audience entertainments like Bohemian Rhapsody.
When you're making a movie about hugely popular rock stars, you're not expecting to learn a lot of unknown factoids. (Biopics about obscure legends like country singer Blaze Foley, the subject of Ethan Hawke's subtly moving Blaze, aim more to reveal an artist you don't know much about.)
Nostalgic pleasure is taken in seeing the watershed moments of big-time careers reenacted, with some juicy sex and drugs and rock-and-roll backstory thrown in. (In the case of the tamely told Mercury story, not too much, allowing it a PG-13 rating).
Docs of recent vintage take advantage of technology to grant access that's almost uncomfortably intimate (or that at least is presented as such). The innovator was Madonna, a visionary of tactical oversharing.
In 1991's Truth or Dare, her doctor asks if she wants to talk off camera, and she declines. Boyfriend Warren Beatty quips: "She doesn't want to live off camera, much less talk…. Why would you say something if it's off camera? What point is there existing?"
That question, of course, cuts to the heart of the performative nature of everyday life as it plays out in social media in 2018. And, naturally, the ability to use available technology to record every waking moment also shapes the modern music documentary. In the best of them, we feel we're getting a truly up-close and personal perspective.
That sense of an artist recording nearly every aspect of her life was put to heartbreaking use in Amy, Asif Kapadia's 2015 film about British singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011.
The way that movie — currently spotlighted on Netflix — made use of footage Winehouse shot herself in the early '00s is reflected in the new M.I.A. movie. Matangi benefits from a wealth of material that Arulpragasam, who planned to be a filmmaker before she shifted gears and became a rapper, shot over nearly 20 years, with particularly rich footage from her trips back to Sri Lanka, where she grew up.
So, do gritty documentaries like Amy and Matangi offer more accurate versions of the truth about our favorite artists? Probably so, but it's not as cut-and-dried as you might think or hope.
Just as Bohemian Rhapsody is designed to be a boon to Queen's career and takes pains not to show band members in too harsh a light, most of the music docs targeted at true fans are strategic at how they dole out their unvarnished truths.
If not actually sanctioned or produced by the artists, most still come across as career-boosting advertisements for themselves. You're not going to learn anything truly bad about Joan Jett from Bad Reputation, and Rashida Jones isn't out to embarrass her father in any way in Quincy. That's one thing that big-budget biopics and scrappy, ready-to-be-streamed music docs have in common: We're meant to come away from them loving our favorite artists all the more.