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The best music biopics (and the 12 rules for making a good one)

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“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the new biopic of the British rock band Queen and its frontman Freddie Mercury, comes to theaters Thursday night, and it’s getting some decidedly mixed reviews. 

Critics are praising Rami Malek’s livewire performance (as Mercury) and the film’s recreations of Queen concert performances. But the storytelling is reportedly a bit of a mess.

This makes a lot of sense considering the messiness of the production itself. The film’s first director, Bryan Singer, left the project unannounced with a reported one-third of the film yet to be shot. The studio then brought in director Dexter Fletcher to finish the movie. But even before Singer’s departure, there were reports of a troubled set.

It remains to be seen how good or bad the film really is, but it seems safe to say that it won’t the best music biopic of all time and it won’t be the worst.

But what makes a biopic good or bad?

Fortunately, we have plenty of examples of each to help us answer that question.

By combing through dozens of movies, we determined the 12 rules for making a good music biopic.

1. Name your movie after the musician, the band or one of their songs or albums.

It’s just what music biopics do. You’re trying to evoke a brand, after all. Name recognition is key.

For example: “Ray,” “The Doors,” “The Runaways,” “Notorious,” “Elvis,” “Bird,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Amadeus,” “Selena,” “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.”

Or: “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “All Eyez on Me,” “La Vie en rose,” “Love & Mercy,” “La Bamba,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Saw the Light,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Bound for Glory” (the name of a Woody Guthrie album and his autobiography) and “Control” (which references the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control").

Outlier: The experimental Bob Dylan movie “I’m Not There” took its title from a Basement Tape recording from 1967 that was not officially released until the 2007 film.

Exceptions: “Shine,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “Jersey Boys.”

2. Don’t try to tell too much story.

With some exceptions, the birth-to-old-age biopic feels less like a story driven by drama and incident than it does a listless reading of its subject's Wikipedia page.

It’s such a common pitfall of music biopics (and biopics in general) that it’s already been effectively parodied in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

“Ray” is a good example of a film that should have pared down how much it chose to show of Ray Charles’ story.

The first hour of “Straight Outta Compton” is exhilarating, showing the formation of N.W.A. and the creation of the titular album, its iconic tracks, and the controversy and fame that followed. But the rest of the movie takes too scattered an approach, hitting too many checkpoints.

Yet “Walk the Line” is excellent despite taking a long view of things, as it stays so closely focused on the relationship between Cash and Carter.

3. Focusing on one or two particular elements can be really effective.

“Amadeus” doesn’t tell the story of the whole life of Mozart but focuses on the compelling (if almost entirely fictional) rivalry between him and Salieri.

The Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” (my favorite music biopic in some time) takes a unique approach, toggling between two timelines: young Wilson (Paul Dano) making “Pet Sounds” in the studio and older Wilson (John Cusack) trying to get his life together. The threads are tied together by Wilson’s struggles with mental illness at each point in his life.

Another example of a movie not biting off more than it can chew is 2010’s “The Runaways,” about the 1970s all-female teen rock band. The film focuses primarily on Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and since the latter only lasted for part of the band’s already short life, the movie doesn’t try to cover too much. It’s simply a fun rise-and-fall story.

4. The music scenes better kick ass.

Shoot them in a unique way. Make the songs and performances you’ve heard and seen a hundred time feel fresh.

A few examples:

» The “Good Vibrations” recording session scenes in “Love & Mercy” are gorgeous.

» Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) performing “La Bamba” in “La Bamba.”

» Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) giving an electrifying performance of “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom Prison in “Walk the Line.”

These scenes are opportunities not just for the movie to do an accurate recreation of an event or for an actor to do a spot-on impression; they’re the moments that capture some of that magic that makes this music so special and reminds you why you care about this person’s story in the first place.

5. Show the creative process.

Show the eureka! moment. The artist becoming the artist, the band becoming the band, a masterpiece getting made piece by piece.

N.W.A’s recording of “Straight Outta Compton” in “Straight Outta Compton” is incredibly fun to watch.

And I’ll mention “Love & Mercy” again. The recording session scene shows both the joys of making music and the eccentric perfectionism of Brian Wilson’s process, which infuriates his cousin, Mike Love. (This scene was actually pre-parodied by “Walk Hard,” which is just a brilliant film. You know, you should just quit reading this and go watch “Walk Hard.”)

Note: This clip contains a bit of foul language. Actually, a few of these clips do. 

But inspiration doesn’t always have to strike in the studio. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” shows the gradual process of a young woman named Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) finding her voice in everyday life.

Though the best types of these scenes I’ve seen are in fictional stories.

» Like the “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” scene in “Hustle and Flow.”

» Or in “Once,” when two lost people come together to make heartbreaking music in a music shop.

» Or the moment in “That Thing You Do” when the Oneders’ drummer, without telling the band, speeds up the tempo of the titular song at a live performance. At first, the rest of the band resists the faster song. But then Steve Zahn gets that big goofy grin on his face. He realizes the song is perfect. It offers a great lesson on creative collaboration: Sometimes you've got to skip asking for permission and show them that your idea works best. 

6. Get the right actor.

Probably the first and most essential component to any good music biopic. Even a bad biopic can benefit immensely from a great performance.

There are a lot of good examples here, and nearly as many bad ones.

In the best cases, actors and actresses don’t just do a technically accurate impersonation but capture some ineffable aspect of the famous person’s essence, in the process creating a new character. When we have no basis for what a person sounds like, as in the case of Mozart and Salieri, Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham actually become the main representations of the famous composers in the popular imagination.

A few of my favorite depictions have been in TV movies: Michael Douglas as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra” and Kurt Russell as Elvis in John Carpenter’s 1979 movie “Elvis.” Russell is so great at playing the King that, 15 years later, he provided the voice for him in “Forrest Gump.”

A terrific example of what NOT to do is Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea,” a vanity project in which the actor played Bobby Darin in his 20s and 30s, and looked far, far too old doing so. Plus, the movie is just terrible.

But when music biopics cast correctly, they often lead to Oscar wins.

Oscar winners: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” Geoffrey Rush in “Shine,” F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn.

Nominees: Tom Hulce as Mozart, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly.

7. Tragedy can give your movie weight, but don’t lean on it too much.

Many of these stories end in death. But don't make these movies all about an ending the viewer knows is coming.

“Selena” and “Control” (a biopic of Ian Curtis) avoid this trap. As do “La Bamba” and “The Buddy Holly Story,” both of which end on the Day the Music Died.

8. Add a skeezy manager-type character.

Paul Giamatti (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Love & Mercy”) is great at these roles.

9. It’s OK to put the music in the background.

“Shine” was about the childhood trauma and mental illness of a musical genius. “The Pianist” is about the Holocaust and a man who, in the end, saves himself by playing music beautifully. The Woody Guthrie biopic “Bound for Glory” is about a folk hero who uses music to speak to the masses about political injustice.

10. It’s OK to get weird.

Screw a normal Bob Dylan biopic. Let’s just do an experimental film that depicts Dylan’s multiple personas: “I’m Not There.”

Forget a straight-up Beatles movie. Let’s do a wild, hilarious romp in which the lads, playing themselves, get into various adventures: “A Hard Day’s Night.”

“24 Hour Party People” is a fourth-wall-breaking comedy about Factory Records that actively attempts to separate truth from rumor and legend, and fails wonderfully.

And in “Bubba Ho-Tep,” Bruce Campbell plays an elderly Elvis. The King faked his own death many years ago, you see. And now he must defeat the mummy who's killing old folks at his nursing home. Say what you will, that’s not an Elvis movie we’ve seen before.

11. Sometimes fiction works better.

A fact-driven remake of Eminem’s life would have been fine probably. But in “8 Mile,” we got the film inspired by his life, which has the freedom and flexibility to tell the most interesting, dramatic story, instead of rotely checking off the boxes of a play-by-play narrative.

12. Music biopics still have to be movies.

Movies about real people and real events still need to be movies. In most cases, yes, they are beholden to the truth; but their first priority should always be to entertain or engage and to give the viewer a reason to keep watching.

When a movie gets too episodic (“Ray”) or too unfocused (the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light”) or too up-its-own butt (“The Doors”), it becomes too easy for a viewer to tune out.

These movies aren’t documentaries. It’s OK if they elide some chapters and even bend the truth here or there, so long as it’s in the service of narrative momentum and compelling drama. 

After all, these movies are about legends. As they said in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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