We love musical biopics, right? We love to see the rise and (sometimes) fall of the legendary artists that provided the soundtrack of our lives. From Ray Charles to The Runaways, from Ike and Tina to the Doors; so many of our greatest artists have had their stories told on-screen. The results have been decidedly mixed, however; and with the current glut of musical biopics slated to air, either on television or in theaters throughout the coming months; one has to ask — are we experiencing overkill here?
The James Brown biopic Get On Up will hit theaters in early August, and it has a respectable pedigree. It’s being helmed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and Oscar nominee Viola Davis, with actor Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul. Boseman won raves for his portrayal of another American icon, Jackie Robinson, in the 2012 hit 42. There’s also the N.W.A. flick Straight Outta Compton, which tells the story of the legendary Compton rap group. It’s already in pre-production and the cast may be unremarkable, but director F. Gary Gray has proven himself to be a solid, if not quite acclaimed, filmmaker over the last two decades.
But there are numerous other biopics coming in 2014 and 2015 that seem to be victims of poor planning or small budgets. Many of these projects will air on television, and TV biopics — especially ones not on HBO — have a very mixed history. The forthcoming Aaliyah film was set to star Zendaya Coleman, but the actress dropped out of the project unexpectedly in June. Her father indicated that production concerns were her reason for leaving, which led many to believe the film is being made on a shoestring budget.
The other major TV biopic tells the story of the late pop diva Whitney Houston. This film is directed by Angela Bassett, a highly-touted Oscar-nominated actress who starred alongside Houston in 1995’s Waiting To Exhale; but an unproven director. It is being reported that Houston’s songs will be featured, but not in their original incarnation — they will be re-recordings. Early cast shots of star Yaya DaCosta as Whitney and Arlen Escarpeta as her notorious ex-husband Bobby Brown have surfaced online and the reaction from fans and media has been mixed.
These projects, as well as Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film Miles Ahead and the Jimi Hendrix film All Is By My Side (which was released to festivals in 2013 but has yet to find a major distributor in the U.S.), have added to a possible cultural oversaturation. The announcement of these biopics inevitably lead to bloggers and fans droning endlessly about speculative castings and we’re privy to every bit of legal wrangling that occurs over music licensing and family approval. We’re treated to ugly spats between the principals involved and the family of the deceased star — like the disrespectful remarks Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina made in regards to Bassett. And for all of the drama and backstories, it often leads up to a mediocre final product.
Biopics are being rushed out for the same reason that Hollywood keeps churning out superhero movies: they’re an established franchise with a built-in audience. A popular singer already has a fan base, so it’s an attractive proposition to a studio. But with ever-diminishing returns and with so many of these movies seemingly unnecessary or just flat-out bad, maybe it’s worth waiting to tell the story of a Whitney Houston or an Aaliyah until you can make a film that’s truly worth making.
If anything, it’s what they deserve.