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The Power of the Rock Biopic

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Anyone who has been paying attention to the media lately has surely noticed the rise (and success) of the rock biopic. Bohemian Rhapsody fueled the fire first, making it clear that Queen could once again capture the world’s attention. Its soundtrack gained a spot on Billboard’s chart, and the band briefly became Spotify’s #1 artist. The Dirt, released on Netflix this past March, threw Mötley Crüe back into the spotlight, and became the highest audience-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes. This summer brings two films projected to continue the trend: Rocketman, a glance into Elton John’s fantastical life, and Yesterday, a movie musical about a world without the Beatles. A David Bowie flick is also in the making, and pieces about Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and more are set to follow.

Despite the success of these movies, critics and film buffs continue to find dramatic flaws. Even with band members serving as overseers and executive producers on the film sets, the biopics aren’t always accurate. As brought up on the Rolling Stone “Music Now” podcast, the ability for artists to cater their story how they see fit leads to altered plotlines and information. These films are viewed solely as money-grabbers. The soundtracks are supposedly the appeal that brings people to the theaters, and then onto record stores and online music platforms. The backlash against Bohemian Rhapsody’s numerus Oscar nominations (and wins) showcased that nostalgia has more cinematic value than anything else.

As a music lover, my view is a bit biased. However, there is something more to these biopics that we may be overlooking. A new wave of kids are discovering rock n’ roll for the first time, and that striking moment is multi-generational. To the oldtimers who grew up with these bands, it’s a trip back to the golden days of their own youth. To the newcomers who are just now discovering it for themselves, it’s a welcome into that world as well. My parents are responsible for my own romance with rock. Watching these movies with them became a bonding experience. It led to hearing about my mom’s days of following Neil Young and trying to decipher Elton John’s obscure album covers back in the 70’s. The biopic allows everybody to have their moment with music. They are about sharing a story with people who are willing to indulge. They are about making all ages feel like they have somewhere to come home to.

These films also channel the passion that brought these artists to their craft in the first place. The heart lies within the soundtracks that critics so quickly pin as the only positive aspect, and in the repetitive band-breakup-reunion scenes they were so quick to judge. After watching The Dirt, all I wanted to do was drop out of school and start playing bass full time. While sitting in a movie theater, surrounded by my parents and other moviegoers getting emotional over the CGI recreation of Live Aid in Bohemian Rhapsody, it felt as if I was transported to that very concert forty years ago. Those kinds of visceral reactions do not just come from anywhere. It’s what rock is supposed to make you feel. It’s what rock has made me feel. A real life concert can never compare to something on screen, yet these films come eerily close. The emotion and pure joy one gets at when they see a band or artist they love live is still there; the biopics make sure of that.

While the facts and figures of these films may not always be up to par, the emotional appeal pulls through in a way that preserves what it’s all about. Underneath all the makeup and fake mullets is the raw passion of rock n’ roll in the first place. These biopics are about the musicians who gave their whole lives to music. They are about the rush of being at a show, and of being one with a crowd. They are about the undying love for a song, album, and artist that hurts; no matter how old you are. The nostalgia and monetary gain of biopics are sure to be continually criticized. However, it is keeping this music—and the spirit of rock n’ roll— alive for countless generations of fans to come.

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Illustration by Sarah Howland

written by
Carly Tagen-Dye
June 20, 2019