By Nick Maylor
I am a big fan of the musician biopic when it’s done right. When I’m not writing about film, I pretend to be a musician sometimes. I’d like to offer some perspective, the best that I can, on the big wave of music biopics that is here and doesn’t show signs of stopping.
Along with the cinema, I love music, performing and concert-going. Here’s a photo of me with Blink-182.
Last year’s release of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) didn’t create something new or reinvent the wheel. Music biopics are as old as cinema itself and have always been awards fodder. Bohemian Rhapsody is a good film containing a reasonably brilliant performance from Rami Malek. Although not the year’s most deserving performance, Malek’s portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. In this year’s Rocketman (2019) we see an even better performance in a far superior film. Taron Egerton’s portrayal of Elton John could very well earn him the next Best Actor Oscar and so far this year, he doesn’t have much competition. Egerton soars as he delivers a magnificent performance that includes all his own singing; something Malek did not do in Rhapsody.
Both films had the portrayed artists’ hands on them as the surviving members of Queen were heavily involved in the making of Bohemian Rhapsody, and Elton John serves as an executive producer on Rocketman. Both films feature dramatic license but in Rhapsody, it is much more obvious. Many names, dates, and facts were altered in (the now outcast and shamed) director Bryan Singer’s Queen biopic. Some things are definitely changed to Elton John’s story in Rocketman (like the origin of his adopted surname) but the film shows the pianist and rocker in some very unflattering light. Elton John has been one to freely admit what a monstrously insufferable prick he was during the depths of his despair and addictions, and Rocketman seems to embrace that truth wholeheartedly. IMDb has a section dedicated to factual errors and other “goofs” where one can view the dramatic license used for Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, respectively should one wish to compare their accuracy.
It should be noted that when Bryan Singer was fired from the set of Rhapsody, Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher was hired to finish the shoot. Both films also contain the character of John Reid.
Rocketman is not the same type of movie that Rhapsody is. The Queen movie is a fairly straightforward biopic, akin to many we’ve seen before like Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Whereas Rocketman is part-biopic, part-jukebox musical. It’s the sort of film that you could envision being adapted for (or from) the stage. People burst into highly choreographed song and dance numbers right in the streets in Rocketman. It’s more akin to Jersey Boys (2014) or Across the Universe (2007). The film’s poster says it perfectly with the film’s tagline: Based on a true fantasy.
Many of Elton John’s songs are rearranged with lyrics rewritten to fit the musical narrative of the film. Egerton performs all of his own singing, something Elton John insisted upon. Elton also encouraged Egerton to find his own voice in the process. The resulting soundtrack album is a marvel in its own right, with Edgerton and Elton John performing a duet called “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again that plays over the closing credits. The song was written by John and his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. Elton John will also be recording a new song for The Lion King (2019) that he will perform with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter over that film’s closing credits. It seems that while Egerton is likely to get an Oscar nomination for his performance as Elton, John himself (already an Oscar-winner) could be nominated along with the actor portraying him, twice.
There was a time when actors could get away without doing their own singing in films but it feels like we should be past that. Any actor of the stage will know the importance of having to sing and we shouldn’t expect less from someone tasked with playing a famous singer, even Freddie Mercury. This all comes down to the choice of the director but the results speak for themselves. Although Jamie Foxx did not do all of his own singing as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), I do believe he deserved his Oscar. I cannot say the same for Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. While both actors provided some vocals (Foxx a great deal more) to their performances, they mouthed the singing to original recordings of the artists they were portraying. Jamie Foxx also played all of his own piano and literally glued his eyes shut while filming as Charles. That’s why he deserved it. That’s a level of commitment that goes a cut above. It also happens to be a fact that Jamie Foxx simply gave the best performance of that particular year. Malek did not. Christian Bale’s performance in Vice (2018) should have handily won the actor his second Oscar. John will happily deliver a (fairly convincing) argument that the award should have gone to Viggo Mortensen for Green Book (2018).
Films like The Buddy Holly Story (1978), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and The Doors (1991) have shown us brilliant performances in the genre. Even biopics about fictional musicians have been widely successful. Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Crazy Heart (2009) and A Star is Born (2018) was last year’s best film.
Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, along with less traditional films like Yesterday (2019) and the upcoming Blinded by the Light (2019) show that there is a massive trend geared towards films about pop music; whether it be the people who created such music, or those who are subsequently inspired and affected by it. There are going to be many more of these biopics to come. We should expect to see subjects like David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty and Prince in the near future. The casting possibilities are exciting to think about. Is there anyone talented enough to play Prince? Who could star in such films is a subject for another article. The main thing to remember here is that these movies, for better or worse, are going to keep coming.
Hopefully, they can take a cue from Rocketman (2019) and find a unique way to tell their respective stories. As long as those stories are worth telling, we will keep watching.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor