The sweetened story of musical biopics: From Amy Winehouse to Michael Jackson through Bohemian Rhapsody

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They say morbidity sells. But the formula does not apply when an idol of millions of viewers around the world can appear portrayed with feet of clay. The rise of biographical cinema in the music industry has given us clear examples of this. The musical biopics that have been sweeping the box office in recent years (Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, I wanna dance with someone by Whitney HousetonElton John’s Rocketman, Elvis from the King of Rock…) and those that are yet to arrive in the next (Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. Michael from the King of Pop…) present a sweetened version of some of the greatest musical legends.

The main reason or cause for this situation could be cited as the fact that production companies seek the millions in revenue from movie theaters. But that’s only a short-term truth. The reality is that most of these biopics come to light under the umbrella of the artist’s own environment, something that makes it very difficult for the script to touch on aspects of his life that could generate controversy. and, in the long term, a loss of popularity of the myth that would translate into a decrease in listeners, a drop in merchandising sales, an impact on the value of the performer’s name, etc.

There is yet another even more determining factor that explains the reason for these caramelized or sugary versions of our idols: music. The authenticity and realism of the recreation of the life of a deceased or retired artist is greater when the film features the original songs of the group, duo or soloist. Therein lies a good part of its success (although it is not a guarantee of anything either).

Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen

We are all clear that in addition to having a wonderful script, an incredible staging and a memorable performance by its actors, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody would not be the same without the songs that elevated the rock group (and without the participation of Brian May in the production).

Seeing Freddie Mercury play the first chords of the song that gives the film its title on the piano becomes the leitmotif of the film. This is how it begins and this is how it ends. All musical brilliance and very little mud. Although in honor of the truth we have to say that it is not one of the most extreme sweetenings that we have seen. They offer glimpses of his problems with drugs, his sexual relationships and the illness that ended his life. But all in such a light tone that there was no possible way his age rating could be jeopardized.

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And it’s not just about the vision they give of the sadly deceased artist but about the image of saints who take the rest of the components that literally seem like they never broke a plate when the story of Queen has more than one embarrassing chapter. Maybe for the sequel.

I wanna dance with somebody – Whitney Houston

If there is an artist whose life was an accumulation of constant controversies throughout much of her professional career, it was Whitney Houston. One of the most prodigious voices that the United States had was involved in headlines, rumors, gossip and gossip that frequently brought to light her sexual identity, the racial prejudices she had to overcome in the industry, her flirtations with drugs and bad treatment that he experienced throughout his marriage and that he denounced in court.

Almost all of this is overlooked in the most recent biopic about him, I wanna dance with somebody, one of the few exceptions to the success of biographical films. The Sony Pictures film cost close to $50 million and barely grossed $60 million worldwide.

A hell that ended abruptly that February night in that hotel in Beverly Hills (California, United States), a tragic incident that would mark even his daughter years after she died in the same way. There is no trace of all this in a film without personality, sweetened to the extreme and which becomes a compilation of musical moments that anyone can now find on the internet with the voice and image of the real Whitney.

Rocketman – Elton John

Perhaps the least saccharine film of all the sweetened biopics that have seen the light of day in recent years is Sir Elton John’s Rocketman. The British performer was not afraid to admit that his life had been surrounded by shit on many occasions and that this had to happen on the big screen.: “I didn’t want a movie full of drugs and sex, but at the same time, everyone knows that I had a lot of those two things during the ’70s and ’80s, so it didn’t seem to make much sense to make a movie that implied that after each concert, I calmly returned to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Bible. Brilliant, right?

Even so, and despite showing some brushstrokes, the portrait of his life is far from his addiction to sex, alcohol and drugs that marked his life. Nor is the excessive personality and character that made the musician one of the most controversial figures in the British industry shown. Friends, journalists, producers… suffered his verbal attacks and his bad manners on more than one occasion.

Ray – Ray Charles

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If anyone thinks that offering an excessively brilliant side of musicians is something contemporary, they are completely wrong. Ray, the biopic that portrays the life of Ray Charles, celebrates twenty years in 2024 since its premiere and already at the beginning of the 21st century, the producers were clear that it would be controversial, but with restraint.

The film that led Jamie Foxx to win the Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG and Critics’ Choice for his portrayal of the blues musician offered a fairly close portrait of what the figure of the artist had meant for music on American soil. . A womanizer, addicted to sex and drugs, he suffered several police incidents, racial prejudice…

A movie life that, however, overlooked clear facets of his personality, such as the fact that he was a fairly stingy boss with his subordinates as well as a ruthless person when it came to negotiating. His decision to go to perform in South Africa when the industry had blocked the country due to the apartheid they practiced against the black population deserves a separate chapter. The least curious…

Amy, Michael and those to come…

Box office hits or flops, veracity and realism raffled off for the sake of the result on the big screen… biographical musical films have been oscillating for years between the true story and the brilli-brilli version of musical legends who were actually human beings with many virtues and quite a few defects (like everyone): Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash,

And it doesn’t look like the future is going to change that. Not even the immediate one with the upcoming premiere of Amy Winehouse, a figure surrounded by controversies from the first minute of her rise to stardom (drugs, alcohol, family problems…) until her death and his legacy, or that of Michael Jackson, whose filming has just begun with the entire environment involved in the production and his nephew Jafaar reviving the King of Pop and all the personal baggage of a legend that was dotted with dozens of scandals.

But not everything in this life is lost and we can always use what is becoming scarcer in the industry more frequently, which are unauthorized biopics. In the Latin universe we have a long record of films that have had a gigantic impact on the stars portrayed and in which controversy has prevailed at the box office. Because the artists themselves have censored that vision of themselves created without their consent. A mixed bag in which we can find Britney Spears, Isabel Pantaoja, Luis Miguel…

Of course there is always an exception that proves the rule. Right, Madonna?


Written by

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is a dedicated writer and key contributor to the WECB website, Emerson College's student-run radio station. Passionate about music, radio communication, and journalism, Christopher pursues his craft with a blend of meticulous research and creative flair. His writings on the site cover an array of subjects, from music reviews and artist interviews to event updates and industry news. As an active member of the Emerson College community, Christopher is not only a writer but also an advocate for student involvement, using his work to foster increased engagement and enthusiasm within the school's radio and broadcasting culture. Through his consistent and high-quality outputs, Christopher Johnson helps shape the voice and identity of WECB, truly embodying its motto of being an inclusive, diverse, and enthusiastic music community.