The last twelve months have given two biopics about two music legends: Bohemian Rhapsody for Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and this month’s Rocketman for piano rock god Elton John. Aside from their depiction of two openly queer music superstars, both films have a similar approach to their subjects’ highest and lowest points. For all of the splendor of its soundtrack and Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning performance, Bohemian Rhapsody took a Clorox wipe to Freddie Mercury and Queen’s story, most controversially Mercury’s same-sex relationships. While Rocketman certainly didn’t shy away from Elton John’s love affairs or self-destructive drug abuse, the film did restrict how deeply it engaged in Elton’s life and explored the intersectional triggers of his rapid descent to rock bottom (the film wraps it all up in an absurdly tidy pseudo-fantasy therapy session that serves as its framing device). To varying degrees, neither biopic digs into who and why these supremely talented people were and what made them tick.
These films also share substantial involvement from their subjects or their loved ones. Bohemian Rhapsody had Queen bandmembers Brian May and Roger Taylor as consultants, while David Furnish, Elton John’s husband, produced Rocketman, with Elton claiming his own executive producer credit. Having the parties who were actually there isn’t necessarily a bad thing – who better to tell the story than a primary source – but it does strip away the potential for objectivity or at least perspective. Queen’s desire to expand upon and preserve their band’s vaunted legacy was so strong that Sascha Baron Cohen – originally slated to play Freddie Mercury – left the project over creative differences. Elton was clearly more willing to explore his darker side (he “hadn’t lived a PG-13 rated life”, as he explained in recent press interviews), but there’s still a level of deference paid that prevents the film from saying anything particularly revelatory that might’ve been uncomfortable for him.
Essentially, self-preservation and vanity affected these biopics, making them shallower than their subjects deserve to be depicted as. The commercial and critical success of both guarantees that other icons will be workshopped as potential subjects. However, there are some artists too important to the cultural fabric to be flattened into the kind of biopic that Freddie Mercury and Elton John have received. No, these subjects need rich, complex stories that explores their light and dark moments, and offers a unique perspective on their importance on popular culture beyond hero worship. For that to be done successfully, the subject needs to have as minimal involvement as possible, basically just signing off on the music rights and ensuring nothing is incorrect so to avoid lawsuits (a la Aretha Franklin and the Amazing Grace documentary). With that directive, here are some potential biopics that just can’t or won’t work:
There is no question that certified EGOT Barbra Streisand is the greatest all-around female entertainer alive. There is also no question that she has an ironclad grip on how she is seen by the world. There is a reason why the “Streisand effect” is a thing. Since the beginning of her storied career – remarkable considering that she began in the 60’s – Streisand has exhibited unprecedented control over the songs she sang, the films she acted in and eventually directed, and her image. She is the artist who, by her instruction or not, can force talk show hosts to change the set-up of their segments so that she can be seen on her best side. This is also the artist so assertive that Frank Pierson, the director of A Star is Born, famously recounted the challenges of working with her and partner Jon Peters in a New West Magazine article. That level of control is impressive and laudable for a woman in entertainment at any point in time, but also wrecks any chance of seeing those anecdotes on screen while Streisand has any input. That said, a film called The Streisand Effect sounds like an multiple Oscar winner.
Putting the child molestation allegations aside for a moment, a biopic examining the King of Pop and fully exploring his controversies like his childhood abuse at the hands of his father, his multiple plastic surgeries and vitiligo issues, or his sexual identity and the conception of his children would be virtually impossible with the Jackson family keeping a hawk-eye’s view of his legacy. Factoring in the allegations would render it untouchable by even the most daring studios in Hollywood. In the best of circumstances, Michael Jackson would be too complicated for a film. In a post-Leaving Neverland world, any film depiction is a non-starter, and should remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Prince once said in an interview with Tavis Smiley, “I can’t be played. A person playing me plays themselves.” He was discussing corporate manipulation, but it could easily apply to a potential film about the musician’s prolific career. In the years after his shock passing, his popularity has only grown with audiences of all ages. A film about this engrossing, enigmatic figure is a no-brainer, but I doubt Prince’s estate would want to risk his highly valuable catalog on a film that explores his androgyny, his complicated relationships, or even the highly publicized legal battle with his record label that prompted his name change to an unpronounceable symbol. The latter alone could inform a whole movie, as a matter of fact, but considering that Warner Bros. and the estate are in good standing, that conflict is likely one they will want to keep buried.
2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of the beloved Beatle’s shocking murder in New York, and it would seem like a good idea to mark the occasion with a film exploring his life and career. And there’s more than enough material: the highs of Beatlemania, his successful solo career, his relationship with Yoko Ono that people still blame the Beatles’ breakup on. That last point is what ultimately holds a meaty biopic back. Ono has worked tirelessly to look after her late husband’s legacy, and may not look kindly on a film that tackles their rocky courtship and the public’s outright hatred of her. The Beatles are instead being celebrated another way; the alt-comedy film Yesterday will be released this summer.
For some people, Diana Ross already has a biopic, called Dreamgirls. As for the actual story of her life, I cannot imagine a universe where Ms. Ross would ever allow a film that dug into her youthful struggles with Supremes groupmate Mary Wilson, or her love affair with Motown founder Berry Gordy and their child Rhonda. Ms. Ross shares a lot in common with Streisand, and while she loosened their reigns a bit, especially as her family has grown into the next generation, she is still a top-shelf diva who will demand more than enough input into her story to render it little more than a preening tribute to her (accurate) greatness.