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They’re Playing Our Song

Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe examine cinema’s enduring relationship with the music biopic.

The film industry has always been more than happy to jog after an ambulance or two if it believes that the corpse on board can be brought back to life in a musical biopic; The Doors (1991), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Bird (1998), etc. And the industry has a proud tradition of making value out of adapting hit stage shows such as Evita (1996), Chicago (2002) and Mamma Mia! (2008). The studios in particular do love a bit of double-dipping when it comes to reworking old ingredients into a new, financial broth.

Following the untimely demise of singer Whitney Houston it wasn’t long before a musical biopic was mooted. Thus has it ever been. The musical biopic has long been a staple of the mainstream cinema diet, most following the formulaic conventions of the meteoric rise and then subsequent fall from grace of the named performer, often poorly executed. The enduring popularity of this subgenre shows little signs of abating, however, with a slew of potential new projects on the cards. Alongside the inevitable Whitney project, we could soon be seeing Justin Timberlake as Elton John in Rocketman, Antoine Fuqua directing a Tupac Shakur biopic and the recently announced life stories of punk progenitors The Ramones and 60s soul legend Dusty Springfield. Healthy box-office returns on a number of recent efforts is certainly one continuing driver behind this output, but one shouldn’t disregard the fact that these roles prove catnip to an actor as, more often than not, they lead to Oscar nomination. In the recent past these have translated into wins for the assorted thespians essaying the leads in such movies as Shine (1996), Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005).

Biopics, however, have been around since the early days of the talkies and serve as an informal chronicle of the American—and to a lesser extent English—popular culture. Early examples of the form include biographies of band leaders and musicians including Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Jolson Story (1946), The Fabulous Dorseys (1947) and The Glenn Miller Story (1954). The 50s gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and with it a slew of musical performance films which largely eschewed straight biography but featured this first generation of rock stars in loosely fictionalised dramas such as Jailhouse Rock (1957), Rock Around the Clock (1956) and, closer to home, Rock Around the World: The Tommy Steele Story (1957). The 60s gave us films featuring more of the most popular hit-makers of the day, as the industry awoke fully to the potential synergies to be made between music and film. So we had the ebullience and subversion of The Beatles and their US counterpart The Monkees, and the more prosaic charms of Cliff Richard, Herman’s Hermits and even the Spencer Davis Group (1966’s The Ghost Goes Gear, anyone?)

Each subsequent decade has managed to reflect its own pop-culture preoccupations, and have refracted through music industry based dramas from the outré Head (1968) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) through to the melodramatic Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975) and the thinly-veiled Joplin hagiography, The Rose (1979), starring Bette Midler. Such filmmaking was underpinned by the consistency of both significant box-office returns and accompanying record album sales. And Gary Busey’s Oscar nomination for The Buddy Holly Story (1978) inadvertently provided the template for both the modern music biopic and its now commonplace critically-lauded central performance.

Yet, surprisingly, despite this enduring audience appeal for music-based drama, the record industry has been slow to take advantage of evident consumer interest and maximise the potential for original music performances in the alternative content—or non-film programming—space now becoming a regular feature in many global cinemas.

The availability of a digital screen infrastructure is allowing for a wider range of content on the big screen, greater interactivity between the screen and the audience and improved the use of auditorium capacity during typical down times. More importantly, as alternative content events usually have fewer screenings they tend to generate higher occupancy rates than feature films.

This potentially represents both a new and exciting connection between the music and entertainment medias and movie theatres. The digitising of the nation’s cinemas has brought with it a metamorphosis in theatrical exhibition, giving rise to a new kind of customer after a new kind of entertainment. It’s the revolution dubbed ‘event cinema’; rock concerts, ballet, opera, boxing, soccer and just about anything else you can think of are starting to be seen on the big screen.

Though the major cinema chains are fairly guarded about the importance of this new revenue stream going forward, they are clearly engaged in actively developing this side of their business. One only has to look at the plethora of these short-run ‘premieres’ to see just how primary they could become. For the investment side, it’s clearly an easier product to put a price value against. Then there is the huge branded entertainment and sponsorship opportunity. Live music events, dance and sport have indeed found a new home and we suspect that they will start to play an ever increasing role in the day-to-day life of cinema.

The music industry, however, is in danger of missing a trick. Despite the infrastructure and the potential audience appetite, where is the consistency in the delivery of the product? According to the latest figures from the BFI,  revenues from these events have continued to rise but, aside from sport, opera accounted for the largest number of onscreen events in 2010–11. Concert events rate much further down the list; this is one musical genre that has so far failed to make much impact amongst the traditional cinema biopic output.

So why the apparent disparity? To date, despite the appetites from exhibitors for a regular provision of concert product, the music industry has so far failed to provide a regular schedule of content and, in doing so, have cut themselves off from a potentially lucrative and exponentially growing revenue line. Whether it be for fear of cannibalising the existing live events market or even DVD and TV sales, this paucity of regular material shows little sign of abating. Recent theatrical ‘live event’ misfires such as JLS: Live in 3D only serve to highlight this missed opportunity. Clearly, as the value of the theatrical alternative content market will undoubtedly continue to grow as digital screen counts increase and costs of installation continue to diminish, the music industry needs to take steps to ensure it is not left behind. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 27 (March/April 2012)

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