Craig Mathieson laments the fact that most music biopics are variations on the same theme.
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11 Mar 2009 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

He had an unhappy childhood. He lost someone he loved. He had a disapproving parent. Music was his relief, glimmering with the beginning of obsession. He was special, but he didn't know how to leave the expected life mapped out for him. The early years of his career were a struggle. Success arrived, but so did temptation. He gave in, but pulled himself back, creating a new depth to his work. He had everything but he wasn't satisfied.

He's Ray Charles in Ray. He's Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. And now he's rapper The Notorious B.I.G. in Notorious. He's the cliché that is a biopic of a successful musician.

Too many music biopics in recent years have been cast from the same thematic mould. Do we really need to see another marriage crumble under the weight of success or an insert of the Billboard charts with the subject's record approaching number one with a bullet? At this rate even the likes of Eric Clapton will soon be fielding enquiries from producers (“Heroin addict – check! Stole wife from Beatles member – check! Wrote hit song about it – check!”)

Genre is plainly no barrier to cliché. The Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G. (played by Jamal Woodard) struggles to please his mother (Angela Bassett) in Notorious just as Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) did with his father (Robert Patrick) in Walk the Line. The hip-hop artist's life may have been ended early at the age of 24 by an unknown gunman in 1997, but in George Tillman Jr's movie he's already found the wisdom that comes with a platinum album and a spurned wife.

The downfall of most music biopics is that they never capture the milieu that harboured and stimulated the artist. There's no understanding of how a 'scene', be it a group of bands torn between camaraderie and competition, or a venue or rehearsal space they share, can be crucial to an artist's development. Screenplays look for decisive moments, turning points, but there's never been a film, for example, that's captured the utter boredom of a pre-gig soundcheck. It's amidst the fear and chill of an empty room, hours before a show, that insignificant moments can reveal a musician's abiding rites and beliefs.

Oliver Stone's 1991 take on Jim Morrison, The Doors, is a classic example of a music biopic that's disconnected from any sense of the subject's history. A queasy mix of celebrity excess and shamanistic intimations, it cycles through the band's greatest hits – both musical and legal – but there's barely a moment to pause, let alone capture the peculiarly solemn mood that writer Joan Didion saw at a 1968 recording session and later described in print. “Unspecific tensions seemed to be rendering everyone in the room catatonic,” she wrote. “The producer played back the rhythm track.” No-one speaks to Morrison for an hour; he sits in silence, putting out lit matches on his leather pants. It would have pained Stone just to read that page, let alone consider adapting it for the screen.

Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People remains one of the sharpest rock & roll recreations on celluloid because it's so attuned to milieu that it takes as its subject the city of Manchester itself, from the dawn of punk in 1976 and on through the eighties. The 2002 film uses journalist and mini-mogul Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) as a compass, but it manages to capture the shadow strewn hum of the city's creativity, suggesting that the cold rhythms of a group like Joy Division emanate from the abandoned factories of the Victorian industrial era. Musicians come and go, both tragically and comically, in 24 Hour Party People, but Manchester remains a constant.

Winterbottom didn't adhere to one life, or one story, and that's a freedom that “official” biopics lack. When American independent maverick Todd Haynes couldn't secure the rights to David Bowie's glam catalog – the Thin White Duke wanted to hold onto it, for an indeterminate project of his own – he had REM's Michael Stipe commission contemporary acts to recast the era's sound and used Bowie, or Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) as Haynes wrote him, and glam as a starting point for an artful meditation on culture and creativity. Released in 1998, Velvet Goldmine re-imagines a 1984 where lack of inspiration is the chief form of oppression. Hollow stadium rock is a type of control and like Citizen Kane the movie delves back to find the cause, complete with Christian Bale as the journalistic inquisitor peeling back the layers.

Haynes was equally transformative with his take on Bob Dylan in 2007's I'm Not There, using Dylan's life to inspire a series of fictional versions. But that remains the exception to the rule. It's doubtful that the next wave of proposed music biopics – be it Pink as Janis Joplin or Don Cheadle as Miles Davis – will be able to breach the respect and conventional wisdom that surround so many fine musicians. Their songs can only say so much.