Three chords and a lie

The musical biopic genre is one of the most tried and true in Hollywood, and continually one of the most stale and cliche-riddled. Each of these films follows a formula, beginning with a complicated childhood, a moment where their early potential shines through, initial success, an internal conflict externalized (usually) by drug and alcohol abuse, ruined relationships, rock bottom, and finally either death or resurgence.

This formula applies to nearly every popular musical biopic of the past few decades, with spotty results: Walk the Line won a slew of awards for using it, Ray utilized it, this year’s Rocketman spun it just enough to get praise for being “different,” Walk Hard parodied it so precisely that if the film had been a bigger hit, the genre would’ve been dead, and Bohemian Rhapsody did a find-and-replace job on Walk Hard’s screenplay and rode people’s love of Queen all the way to the Oscars.

It’s a genre without steadfast fans, but with plenty of steadfast detractors. Usually people will be fans of their favorite band’s biopic, which was a sentiment shared by many people in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, but there aren’t many straight up “musical biopic” fans, like we see with other niche genres like horror and westerns. It is a populist genre, and films rarely dive deeper than a Wikipedia summary and a greatest hits compilation. In fact, when a film does the bare minimum to have an interesting take on the genre, they’re roundly praised by critics as “refreshing,” as we saw with this year’s largely *fine* Rocketman.

These films typically serve as love letters to popular cultural figures, providing just enough human drama to make the character’s rise from ash feel emphatic and earned. We don’t see much of the true ugliness of their lives. It rarely seeps beyond the second act of the film, and the relationships destroyed are usually forgiven and repaired. In short, they present a polished form of the truth, one that is rarely revelatory, and often rote.

This year’s Wild Rose is the latest argument that all of our musical biopics should be about fictional musicians. The story of an ex-con country singer in Glasgow, Scotland, Wild Rose uses pieces of the familiar formula, but raises them to a place of human truth. Rose, played by one of 2019’s everywhere girls, Jessie Buckley, is a casual alcoholic with a wild temper, but she’s also a single mother of two children, a fact she routinely hides. Her dreams match her talent, but not her reality.

Following a year-long stint in prison, Rose takes a job at the home of a wealthy family, and her boss, Susannah, takes notice of Rose’s talent and dreams of being a country singer in Nashville. Susannah, played with a delightful and true warmth by Sophie Okonedo, wants to help Rose raise the money to follow her dreams, but is unaware of Rose’s family situation and how this level of insistence is impacting Rose’s personal life.

What this film does that most music biopics refuse to do is show that, frankly, Rose is a shitty person. She’s single-minded and selfish. Her first stop after walking out of prison was to an old fling’s house, then to her mother’s, where her children had been living for the past year. Rose routinely chooses the path of music over being a passably decent mother to her kids. Broken promises pile up throughout the film, and while her children attempt to hide their disappointment, Rose’s mother, played by living legend Julie Walters, cannot do the same. Rose is presented with numerous moments to step up and act in the best interest of her family, and she continually ignores them, even leaving her injured son in the hospital to go to a gig.

Buckley plays both sides of Rose so well. It’s clear that Rose is immensely talented, but Buckley never lets you forget who these dreams come at the expense of. The film’s class commentary is never too far from the surface. Susannah, a woman of privilege, encourages Rose to follow her dreams because she never did, and she’s naive to the realities of Rose’s choices. Rose’s mother can’t fathom why her daughter would continue down the path of being an artist because in her world, you have to work and earn for your family. No one is wrong, but Rose’s gift and tenacity are out of place in the world she’s in.

What elevates Wild Rose, as well as other music movies like Whiplash, Velvet Goldmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and the first half of last year’s A Star is Born, is that they’re not tethered to a legacy. They don’t have to pander to fans, they don’t have to make editorial decisions about what to include and exclude. They can show the reality of stardom and who loses along the way without the fear of tarnishing the legend. You won’t find controversies about how much an artist’s homosexuality is featured with these movies. The absolute freedom of fiction allows the musical biopic formula to grow and flourish, allowing experimentation and the opportunity for creating a new kind of musical hero.

Oftentimes, we’ll hear about how much a musical artist’s persona is manufactured and, in fact, fictionalized. Their story is just that: a story. But when we tell these stories on film, we’re adhering to an already sanitized myth. Had Rose Harlan been a real country singer (which, based on Jessie Buckley’s vocals, isn’t outside the realm of possibility), the film wouldn’t have been able to present her as the fully formed, complicated, selfish, yet passionate woman that she became on screen.

Music biopics are not dead, and they will continue making money. Bohemian Rhapsody’s success paved the way for films about David Bowie, Elvis, and Madonna to be greenlit, with more to come. The built in audience may very well allow them to fall into the Wikipedia-biopic trap, but maybe, just maybe, they will take a few lessons from the striking work being done in other recent music films and reveal the person beneath the legend.