Are music biopics Hollywood’s new hitmakers?

bob marley one love music biopics
Share this Article:

Four Beatles biopics, Sam Mendes? That’s insane – or is the cavalcade of music movies a stroke of genius?

Last week, the world collectively learned that Sam Mendes is making four Beatles biopics.

That’s loads! That’s more films than there are current members of the Sugababes. That’s one more movie than there are episodes of Peter Jackson’s Beatles doc, Get Back – and that played a chunk of the band’s story in real time.

It’s also, crucially, a lot of screen real estate for Sony to guarantee in advance. It’s not so long ago that Warner Bros was shy about greenlighting the second half of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune until its rare pandemic-era success made a follow-up a no brainer.

Even now, as Dune: Part Two tracks towards an $80m US opening, confirmation of Villeneuve’s rumoured Dune: Messiah movie is far from forthcoming. Outside of caped crusaders and Kevin Costner’s own piggy bank, no-one wants to announce a series of films before the first has proven itself in the box office arena.

Except, when it comes to The Beatles, milking four films out of a single story is – on paper – a no-brainer. For years, authorised music biopics have proved themselves one of Hollywood’s few reliable hitmakers. Rocketman made $195.3m from a $40m budget in 2019, a year after Bohemian Rhapsody made $910m and won Rami Malek an Oscar. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis was one of the few genuine theatrical successes of 2022, and just this year Bob Marley: One Love debuted to $80m globally despite so-so reviews from critics, beating out Sony’s superhero romp Madame Web by quite a margin.

It’s no surprise, then, that the next few years are quickly filling up with this sort of thing. Amy Winehouse is up first with Back To Black in April, just as James Mangold’s A Complete Unknown – zooming in on the life of Bob Dylan – enters production in March. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott is the latest in a long line of directors eyeing up a Bee Gees movie, while Michael Jackson’s nephew is playing the one-time “King of Pop” in a project which has “are you sure you want to do that?” stamped across it in rhinestones. All these are due out before Mendes’ Beatles projects are slated for a cinema release in 2027.

The Beatles, of course, are arguably bigger than any of the above, and hence each member gets their own movie. While it’s hard to imagine how the biopic formula has enough gas in the can to spread the same story over a comparable runtime to The Lord Of The Rings, the attachment of an acclaimed director like Mendes does suggest Sony might be trying something a little different. Even if it isn’t, the chance of a Beatles biopic flopping badly enough to quash at least a couple of sequels seems slim.

Podcast: in conversation with director Dexter Fletcher: The Offer, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Wild Bill, Sherlock Holmes 3, The Saint and more

Accounting for the current state of the cinema industry, the logic behind the bio-boom is pretty sound. With the superhero market on its shakiest bionic legs since the release of Iron Man in 2008, studios are grappling for reliable money-makers to fill the void. Musicians, with their existing fanbases, recognisable names and the promise of a boost in song residuals even if the film flops, might be just the template a rudderless industry needs.

In the long term, too, the genre has the potential to provide the star-fuel Hollywood’s been missing for years.

Just look at how Austin Butler’s star has risen following his leading man breakout in Elvis, or how Rami Malek went from “the guy from Mr Robot” to Freddie Mercury during a single rendition of We Will Rock You. Providing plentiful opportunities for an unknown actor to demonstrate their chops on the world’s biggest stages, an acclaimed role as one of the music icons of the 20th century can make you a megastar overnight and add a celebrity sheen to whatever previously unmarketable projects you’ve got coming up next.

But, like all trends, the music biopic won’t be making the industry millions forever, and the prospect of four Beatles movies in rapid succession (the Hollywood Reporter claims Sony are planning to release the entire quartet in 2027) is unlikely to stave off the inevitable accusations of genre fatigue. Add to that the dual headaches of retaining the rights to an artist’s back catalogue (which, as 2020’s Stardust found, is all but essential) while keeping them and their estates at arm’s length to avoid making an expensive puff piece and Hollywood’s move into the bio-space doesn’t look quite as simple as it first appears.

The proof, then, will be in the pudding. As Marvel Studios has found, if the quality of a product remains consistently high, it’s impressive how long an audience will support broadly the same sort of thing. When that quality wanes, though, the resulting drop can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Share this Article:

More like this