Hollywood is always in search of new and dependable genres. It needs formulaic pictures to crank out and count on, like noirs in the ‘40s and romantic comedies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Even those, though, produced intricate, skillful films that injected formula with idiosyncratic achievement. Now, the obvious cash cow of Hollywood is the endlessly multiplying superhero universe. These franchises have been, and will continue to be, a reliable cash machine as fervent fans gleefully sop up explosions and Robert Downey, Jr. But it is easy to condescend toward superhero franchises. They are the transparent breadwinners of the film industry. As a manifestation of the popular taste, these films are readily understood as after-work escapism, bound by a child’s compulsion to recall comic-book facts. The thought endemic to Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films is not critical, but objective, an experience that allows viewers to debate empty nuggets of trivia with a heroism akin to their subjects.
There is, though, an emergent archetype, cleverer and more insidious than the superhero film, that drugs the mind in a similar way. This genre is that of the musical biopic. Obviously, this type of film, by itself, is not a novel concept, but the apparent hollowing out of the genre has become a bastardization that tricks viewers into thinking aural pleasure amounts to cinematic achievement. In the past, biopics, although occasionally yielding trite paeans or shallow lifestyle-brags, could be more than just a soundtrack. Films like Walk the Line, Love & Mercy, 24 Hour Party People and myriad others, although about their ostensible subject, beat out larger themes. Not only did these films incorporate great performances, they created prismatic experiences, projected through the eyes of the protagonist. History and aesthetics converged into a unique art object, making historical figures exemplars of the human condition. They were meditations on everything from the nature of art and genius to the antagonism of a domineering patriarch to the personal abdication sometimes required of celebrity.
Now, there seems to be a cascade of tawdry biopics, cloaked in the intrinsic musical appeal of their subject. Uninterested in non-commercial complexity, films like Bohemian Rhapsody, the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman, or flashy ephemera like The Dirt (a gloss of stock hedonism about Mötley Crue) rely almost solely on their ability to conjure popular nostalgia. Audiences come away from these films yodeling about their greatness without realizing they are simply under the spell of the soundtrack. A simple series of images overlaying a greatest hits album becomes a feted film. Realizing that they don’t need to make great films if they have great music, the studios have produced (and will likely capitalize on) trifling baubles, knowing audiences will be sated with boilerplate montages just as long as they are set to the tune of their favorite artist. The images are secondary, a flipbook of forgettable and flimsy exposition built to ornament a rollicking soundtrack. These films are yet another example of the pervasive reorientation of popular consciousness, away from art, this time towards briefly-embodied sound. Of course, there is no problem with listening to 1, the Beatles compilation of hits, but the upcoming film Yesterday seems like a cheap re-packaging made to suit audiences who need a new sound booth. The musical biopic has devolved into fodder for feverish, musical fandom, forgoing aesthetics to pleasure fidelitous fans.
The difference between this burgeoning field of vapid biopics and the established superhero genre is the distinct understanding that 125-minutes of CGI doesn’t convince anyone of much, or even warp most people’s idea of an artistic experience. The threat films like Bohemian Rhapsody (and others) pose is they convince audiences they just saw something great, when they only heard something great. These musical biopics not only taint precedent, but also create a new and dangerous one: that enjoyable music only needs a thin veneer of imagistic drivel to become viable. Perhaps the best “musical biopic” of late was Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, which was not a “biopic” at all, but a serious reckoning with the seesaw of celebrity twined with the personal progression of two intensely lived-in characters. What seems to be spilling out of studios manifests in theaters as a kaleidoscopic concert, filmic nonsense punctuated by notes of potent nostalgia. In other words, biopic blather.