Music biopics are having a long moment thanks to Rocketman, the rise and rise of Elton John. Having grossed almost $254 million in worldwide box office, there’s a long haul down the yellow brick road before it overtakes Bohemian Rhapsody’s $1.27 billion but it’ll soon be the third-highest grossing music biopic ever and has a shot at second.
The competition is fierce. There’s a Boy George biopic in the works and a Mötley Crüe feature, The Dirt, on Netflix. Could we soon see Damon Herriman star in I Like It Both Ways, the story of Perth glam trailblazers Supernaut?
If so, we might be approaching market saturation. To judge where Rocketman stands on the ladder of success it’s timely to review a pair of heavy hitters the Elton hit has already overtaken on its way up, and another pair it still has to catch.
24 Hour Party People (2002, $1.2 million box office)
Low in the top 50 for box office gross but one of the best, this darkly comic story of Manchester’s Factory Records and impresario Tony Wilson makes for a brilliant journey through the UK music scene of the 1980s/early ‘90s.
New Order bassist Peter Hook responded to the film by saying it featured “The biggest c–t in Manchester being played by the second biggest.” There’s no doubt it took a near self-parody performance from Steve Coogan to capture Wilson’s mix of awfulness and charm. Concentrating on Wilson’s management, if that’s the word, of Joy Division and The Happy Mondays, 24 Hour Party People appeals to the inner Kinky Afro of those who can recall trancing into 1990 at a grungy club.
The Doors (1991, $48.6m)
No biopic of the Lizard King and his trippy band was ever going to be an exercise in subtlety and restraint. The chances of a nuanced treatment evaporated once The Doors became Oliver Stone’s pet project. Nevertheless, Hollywood’s most bombastic writer/director was exactly what a study of The Doors needed.
The band was unashamedly over-the-top and that’s just what we’re served up, from the mannered performances of Val Kilmer and Kyle McLachlan as Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, Sunset Strip hippies gasping melodramatically at the Oedipal lyrics of The End, to Jim’s desert epiphany with a Native-American spirit guide. It’s ridiculous, but perversely enjoyable and was parodied affectionately in Wayne’s World 2, adopting an absurdist tone not unlike its source.
Walk the Line (2005, $263 million)
Walk the Line is a love story about June Carter, whose showbiz family was country-and-western royalty, and Johnny Cash, a man wrestling a tragic past and inner demons fuelling his explosive musical output. Joachim Phoenix is remarkable as The Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon superb in her Oscar-winning role.
Cash’s self-destructive, redemptive journey through the Ring of Fire is the stuff Hollywood thrives on. The absurdist in me was disappointed that amidst the alcohol, cocaine and prison stints, Cash’s part-time career as an actor was ignored – a career which included highlights such as a gospel singing murderer on Columbo and an ongoing role in Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
We had to wait for Walk the Line to be parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story for that chapter of Cash’s life to receive due recognition.
Straight Outta Compton (2015, $285 million)
Few in Australia can boast of following closely the spectacular trajectory of NWA, but even those with a cursory knowledge of the history of gangsta rap would be aware of the incendiary influence of Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy-E. This wildly successful semi-gang flick is second only to Bohemian Rhapsody in box office for music biopics and it’s a wild ride.
Its raw, hedonistic depiction of the violent, sex-drugs-and F–k tha Police milieu of NWA touched a nerve with fans. In a social atmosphere familiar with sustained police violence against young African-American men, the film took on even greater immediacy through the casting of O’Shea Jackson Jr as his father, Ice Cube. Life also imitated art when Death Row Records’ founder, Suge Knight, after an argument on the film’s set ran over two men in a burger joint parking lot, eventually receiving 28 years in prison.