Why does every musical biopic have to be a bummer?

click to enlarge Austin Bulter gets all shook up in Elvis.
Austin Bulter gets all shook up in Elvis.

You know what's super fun? Music!

Music can be thrilling, emotional, challenging, and invigorating. It can open up new worlds of experience and reflection. It can build community even among disparate people. Music is so fun!

You know what's not fun? Musical biopics!

Somehow telling the life story of the musicians we all adore has become a cinematic haven for the most excruciating modern filmmaking. Instead of feeling like celebrations of the power of music that these great creators gave to the world, music biopics have become endurance tests asking viewers to dwell in the sorrows of these artists.

There may be no cinematic genre as predictable and formulaic these days as musical biographies. Granted, that's in part because the factual details of so many musicians fall into the same beats: meteoric rise to fame, struggles with drugs and/or romantic partners, fall from grace, etc. But there seem to be few filmmakers/screenwriters trying to approach these issues with any creativity. Heck, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story ruthlessly lampooned all these played-out tropes in 2007, and if anything music biopics have only gotten worse since then.

Having a bummer time with Joy Division's Ian Curtis (Control) makes sense, but it shouldn't feel like a total drag living the rock 'n roll life with Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), Jimi Hendrix (Jimi: All Is by My Side), and Hank Williams (I Saw the Light). It's even worse for the ladies. The recent biopics of Aretha Franklin (Respect) and Billie Holiday (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) rank among the worst movies I've seen in recent years, seeming to revel in dwelling on their abusive relationships more than any aspect of their music; an extension of Hollywood's problematic love of awards-bait films built around Black suffering and trauma.

This hasn't always been the case for musical biopics. Going way back, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) told the life of composer Jerome Kern with lavish musical majesty, foregrounding the music that people adored. Even in movies where we know the titular stars meet tragic ends like The Buddy Holly Story and Selena, the films celebrated the electric nature of their short lives and their passion for the music they crafted. Heck, even a classical composer like Mozart was made to seem like a comedic riot in Amadeus.

As moviegoers, we should feel charged up watching musical biopics in a way that's at least tangential to seeing the artists live in concert. The closest we've come in recent times is probably the dangerous feel of NWA concerts in Straight Outta Compton (some may make a case for Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody or Elton John in Rocketman, but mileage varies wildly on the former and the latter relies very heavily on fantasy-esque elements).

And now, the King has entered the building. Baz Luhrmann's Elvis will shake its hips into theaters on June 24. This is hardly the first film about Elvis Presley, with past efforts ranging from a half dozen documentaries, multiple comedies about Elvis meeting President Nixon, and the cult film about Elvis fighting a mummy in a retirement home (Bubba Ho-Tep). The best straight music biopic about the King of Rock and Roll to date is the hard-to-find 1979 made-for-tv movie Elvis, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell.

This new blockbuster stars Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks (in heavy prosthetics) as his famed manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It's reported that the movie will focus primarily on the pair's dynamics, which doesn't exactly sound ideal. We all know Elvis didn't have a glorious end, but hopefully the journey there pulsates with a rocking spirit.

Having Luhrmann in the director's chair is reason for optimism. As the director of Moulin Rouge (in addition to Romeo + Juliet and 2013's The Great Gatsby), he's always been an auteur who's scorned subtlety for garish style and emotional grandiosity. That cinematic flair could be exactly what's needed to capture the earthshaking rock and roll revolution that Elvis's swiveling pelvis brought to the mainstream.

After all, music makes us feel alive. It makes us feel good. Is it really too much to ask for an enlivening feel-good musical biopic? ♦

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About The Author

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...