Graham: Music biopics hit flat notes

"Bohemian Rhapsody," "The Dirt" and other stories of rock stars don't do justice to their subjects

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Rami Malek stars as the rock icon Freddie Mercury of the band Queen in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and film. What can possibly go wrong? 

Yet so often, the life of rock stars don't translate well to the big screen. Why do so many music biopics drop the ball? 

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was a big hit in theaters last year, earning more than $216 million at the North American box office. Audiences were given a great concert — with the songbook of Queen as its musical backbone, it's hard to go wrong — but the movie wholesale made up entire sections of Queen's story to fit its desired narrative. Say it with me: Queen's Live Aid set was not a reunion gig. (The band had just wrapped a tour at the time of the performance, which is why its set was so tight.) 

Last week, the Mötley Crüe biopic "The Dirt" hit Netflix, telling the wild backstage tales of the band's 1980s glory years. But it largely leaves out the fact that between all the parties, groupies and shenanigans, the Crüe was a band that spent at least some time making music. To watch "The Dirt" is to believe the band hit the studio once (to record "Same Ol' Situation (S.O.S.)," and everything else just sort of fell into place. 

Yes, it's difficult condensing a life into a two-hour timeframe, and it's even more difficult to condense the life of a band — the highs, the lows, the fame, the excess — into a short window. 

But even though music films have been hitting a lot of bad notes lately, they show no signs of slowing: the Elton John biopic "Rocketman" arrives in May, and the Aretha Franklin biopic "Respect" is currently in pre-production.  

The recent boom in music biopics can be traced back to the success of the N.W.A. story "Straight Outta Compton" in 2015. That film shocked film industry observers, earning $60 million its opening weekend on its way to a gross of more than $160 million, making it the biggest music biopic of all-time at that point. (It was recently passed by "Bohemian Rhapsody.") 

But "Straight Outta Compton" played fast and loose with large parts of N.W.A.'s story, sanding down some of its rougher edges (Dr. Dre's altercation with TV host Dee Barnes was played down, for example) and rarely getting to the heart of what made the group so explosive. In a lot of ways, it played like a VH1-style made-for-TV movie (albeit with more curse words), which was how many music biopics played out before their recent surge in popularity.

MORE: Review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ plays it too straight

MORE: Review: 'The Dirt' gets dirty but not deep

One of the problems is the movies have too many people to please: there are the artist's fans, rock historians and often the subjects themselves; "Bohemian Rhapsody," "The Dirt" and "Straight Outta Compton" all boasted the artists as producers. Without cooperation from the artists, music rights might be withheld from the production, which is a major problem for a movie about music. (Just ask the producers of 2013's Jimi Hendrix biopic "Jimi: All is By My Side," which you probably haven't seen or heard of, most likely because Hendrix's songs aren't in it.) 

The artists often want themselves portrayed in as flattering a light as possible, which is difficult when the band is, say, Mötley Crüe, although to the Crüe's credit, there's plenty of unflattering material in "The Dirt."  

And there's often so much material to cram in that the resulting project ends up being a series of recreations of noteworthy events in the artist's life, and without some sort of fresh perspective on those events, it simply becomes a tick-tock of greatest hits. Sure, the Live Aid scene in "Bohemian Rhapsody" was thrilling — they even got the Pepsi cup right! — but it's certainly not as triumphant as the original, which is available to all on YouTube

Often, the best way to approach a rock star's story is to not try to tell the whole story, but to focus on pieces of it. The 2014 Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy" told Wilson's story at two distinct points in his life, using two different actors to portray him, and viewers came away with a better understanding of the madness inside Wilson's head than they would have in a standard biopic. Todd Haynes' 2007 Bob Dylan tale, "I'm Not There," cast six different actors as Dylan, telling the story of his impact in a wholly unique way that bucked the usual biopic structure.

MORE: Movie review: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' won't rock you

MORE: Review: Jazz greats in films in ‘Miles,’ ‘Nina,’ ‘Blue’

Sometimes it's easier to tell stories of lesser-known artists, since there's more to learn and less to nitpick; in recent years, Ethan Hawke gave a soulful performance as jazz musician Chet Baker in "Born to Be Blue," and last year Hawke directed "Blaze," the engrossing story of little-known country music outlaw Blaze Foley.

Music biopics are big business, and can often yield major awards season windfalls; Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," just as Rami Malek picked up a Best Actor Academy Award for playing Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody." But too often, music biopics fall short, and rarely do they hold a candle to the real thing.