Musical biopics: When box office and critics go ka-chung!

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With Baz Luhrman’s ‘Elvis’ opening on June 24, a look at the bubbling cauldron of charismatic performances and high drama that goes into the making of a successful musical biopic

With Baz Luhrman’s ‘Elvis’ opening on June 24, a look at the bubbling cauldron of charismatic performances and high drama that goes into the making of a successful musical biopic

With Elvis, based on the life of The King played by Austin Butler, and his thorny relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Baz Luhrman is on familiar ground. The Moulin Rouge! director is known for his extravagantly-produced musical numbers.

Elvis is the latest in a long line of musical biopics from 1968’s Funny Girl which Barbra Streisand nailed with her portrayal of Fanny Brice to Andrew Garfield’s delightful personification of Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) .

Award darlings

Musical biopics, if done right, apart from being first-rate entertainers are award magnets. Andrew Garfield’s Golden Globe win and the Oscar nomination continues the tradition of recognition. George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), which tells the story of blues singer, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and a fraught recording session in 1927 Chicago, received five Oscar nominations and won two for Makeup and Hairstyling, and Costume Design.

Chadwick Boseman’s incendiary performance as the hot-headed trumpeter, Levee, won him a best actor nomination.

Taron Egerton’s performance as British singer and pianist, Elton John in Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman (2019) won him a slew of nominations and a Golden Globe. As Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s Judy (2019), Renée Zellweger won the Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), BAFTA and Critics’ Choice.

Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (2018) set in 1962 detailing a tour by African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver and bodyguard Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), took the Best Picture Oscar as well as Original Screenplay. Ali, apart from his Supporting Actor win at the Oscars also won at the Golden Globes, BAFTA and SAG.

They will rock you

Also in 2018 was Brian Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the life of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), lead singer of the British rock band, Queen. While there were murmurs against skirting the issue of Mercury’s sexuality and the toning down of some of the greater excesses, Bohemian Rhapsody was a box office and critics’ favourite.

Like Ali, apart from taking the Oscar for Best Actor, Malek also snagged wins at the Golden Globes, BAFTA and SAG. Bohemian Rhapsody with its towering, anthemic numbers, won Oscars for film and sound editing, and sound mixing.

Hugh Jackman got a best actor nomination at the Golden Globes for his performance as entertainer P.T. Barnum, in Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman (2017). The film won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song for ‘This Is Me’.

In the noughties, there was Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004) on the life of R&B musician Ray Charles. For his performance as Charles, Jamie Foxx won all the five major acting awards — Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG and Critic’s Choice, becoming only the second actor to do so.

James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005) on the life of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) focuses on the country music singer and songwriter’s relationship with singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) and his struggles with addiction. The film got five Oscar nominations, including best actress for Witherspoon that she won.

Six actors in search of an icon

While there are biopics that are straight narratives, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) should get a medal for its unconventionality. Six actors — Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw portray different aspects of counterculture icon Bob Dylan.

For her interpretation as Jude Quinn, an androgynous version of the mid-sixties Dylan complete with Wayfarers, polka-dot shirt and vampiric, long pointed nails, Blanchett won the Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination. 

Stream on

The smaller screens have woken up to the possibilities of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Peter Jackson’s 468-minute love letter to The Beatles, Get Back, is a documentary of the Fab Four putting songs together for the album, Let it Be, in the studio in January 1969.

Robert Siegel’s Pam & Tommy — a mini-series on the relationship between Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer, Tommy Lee, and the sex tape they made on their honeymoon makes for riveting viewing.

Lily James and Sebastian Stan as Anderson and Lee have created living, breathing characters far removed from caricature. There is also Danny Boyle’s six-part series, Pistol, on the seventies punk rock band Sex Pistols.

The music industry is an irresistible mix of talent, inspiration and unruliness. It is no small wonder then that the lives of the bad boys and the bad girls of the industry translate so well on screen.  

THE GIST

Elvis is the latest in a long line of musical biopics from 1968’s Funny Girl to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) .

Taron Egerton’s performance as British singer and pianist, Elton John, in Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman (2019) won him a slew of nominations and a Golden Globe.

Hugh Jackman got a best actor nomination at the Golden Globes for his performance as entertainer P.T. Barnum, in Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman (2017).

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