“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?” – Julian Barnes
Making a biopic is not an easy task. It can either be an image of absolute perfection or a scathing nightmare; it does not take too long for a well-directed, well-acted film to go south especially when it is a biopic, upholding the intimate details of someone’s life. Musical biopics are even trickier with actors and actresses often failing to hit the right note that does not resonate with the audience. While some biopics might turn out to be a bonafide commercial success like Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that saw the incredible talent of Rami Malek come to the forefront, it will always be partial and embedded in intricate fallacies.
Mark Zuckerberg loathed his biopic The Social Network as the Facebook founder felt his motives had been misrepresented. Jada Pinkett Smith defended her friend Tupac Shakur’s biopic for mischaracterisation. Celebrities – and often close friends of celebrities or families – often voice their displeasure and disgruntlement over pieces of art derived from the lives of the artists in question. From misrepresentation to favouritism, biased narratives to incorrect detailing, biopics can go horribly wrong, staining the reputation of the director, the actors as well as the person concerned.
Hollywood’s approach towards making musical biopics is horribly mundane and boring. Nuanced storytelling usually begins with the person in question’s struggle and rise to fame and subsequent downfall due to substance abuse or alcoholism. While we are not generalising here, these biopics often fail to reflect on the surroundings of the musicians, the various genres and cultures, ethnic, racial and gender influences that impact them. These biopics appear soulless and the audience members are almost expected to shed tears in the end and give a standing ovation to the bygone star.
Elton John was incredibly happy with Rocketman and was delighted to see his “surreal” life story come to fruition in form of a biopic. He praised Taron Egerton’s performance and said that the dark moments in the film made him shed tears yet “the music lifts it out of the darkness,” he said, adding: “Not only did he [Taron Egarton] have to perform my life, he had to sing my life.”
Addding: “When I look at him singing and I look at him acting, I’m not looking at Taron Egerton. I’m looking at me. And that’s what moves me — this is me.”
However, there are many musicians and their descendants or estates who have absolutely loathed their biopics. Here are 10 such biopics that have not been well-received by the musicians in question.
10 biopics that were hated by the musicians:
10. David Bowie – Stardust (Gabriel Range, 2020)
This British-Canadian biopic is based on the life of the iconic English-songwriter David Bowie and the birth of his legendary persona Ziggy Stardust after his first 1971 US tour. The film also focuses on Bowie’s origins but incurred criticism especially due to the bad casting of Johnny Flynn as David Bowie. Flynn did not do justice to the character and the film was an overall disaster.
David Bowie was known for famously turning down Danny Boyle’s proposal of making a “wonderful” biopic about the singer’s life. The film was not created with official permission from Bowie’s estate and family and thus they were not granted access to use Bowie’s songs. This is what made the film an epic disaster to watch a Bowie film without Bowie songs. The creative artwork desperately tries to portray the turbulent odyssey of Bowie’s life but fails due to the absence of his famous songs.
9. Biggie Smalls – Notorious (George Tillman Jr., 2009)
This biopic focuses on the mysterious and notorious life of the American rapper Christopher Wallace who operates under the stage alias of The Notorious B.I.G. The film portrays Biggie’s life, from his New York childhood as a hard-working, persevering student to being a drug dealer during the infamous crack epidemic. Those aware of the hip-hop star’s life might find themselves invested in the film. Characters such as Tupac Shakur, Lil’ Cease, Lil’ Kim and more pop up throughout the storyline.
The real Lil’ Kim was dissatisfied with Naturi Naughton’s portrayal in the film, calling her “dreadful”, “tasteless and talentless” with no “Lil’ Kim aura”. She felt the film was more of a “spoof” and “hated” it. The film’s portrayal of Lil’ Kim as an icon of nudity and sexuality deeply troubled her and the producers being invested more in the character than the person themselves made her feel small. However, being a good sport, she promised to “continue to carry his legacy through my hard work and music” despite being shocked by the “many lies in the movie and the false portrayal” of Lil’ Kim as a story prop to set it into motion.
8. Nina Simone – Nina (Cynthia Mort, 2016)
A biopic that focused on the life of a famous civil rights activist and musician Nina Simone earned a plethora of backlash for Zoe Saldana, who is popularly known for her recurring role as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Saldana, who is of Puerto Rican, Haitian and Dominican descent, is essentially light-skinned and was accused of wearing a bodysuit, prosthetic nose and teeth as well as donning blackface makeup to fit into her role which was condemned by everyone. Simone’s estate was furious and asked Saldana to “take Nina’s name out of [your] mouth for the rest of your life”, while Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly was deeply hurt. She defended Saldana by saying “it’s s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”
She criticised the nature of the biopic and said that that was not how someone would like their loved ones to be remembered. Saldana had apologised nearly eight years later and tried to defend herself by saying: “I should have never played Nina. I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago – which was different leverage but it was leverage nonetheless – I should have tried everything in my power to cast a black woman to play an exceptionally perfect black woman … She deserved better, and I am sorry.”
7. Tupac Shakur – All Eyez On Me (Benny Boom, 2017)
This highly controversial biopic about the rapper Tupac Shakur garnered immense notoriety, criticism and publicity, deriving its title from Shakur’s fourth studio album released in 1966. The biopic starred Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac Shakur and was a commentary on his rise to stardom, becoming one of the most impactful voices of reason in the world. It paints the picture of how Shakur cemented his cultural legacy and continues to be an iconic figure years after his death.
Jada Pinkett Smith had been a close friend of Tupac Shakur and was extremely distressed by the film and its various fallacies. In the movie, she was portrayed by Kat Graham. Smith took to Twitter to express her immense hurt and discomfort over the wrong and hurtful portrayal of her friendship with Shakur. While she praised the respective actors for having done a “beautiful job”, she expressed her displeasure at the sheer melodramatisation of her relationship with Shakur. She stated how he never read the poem to her character as shown in the film nor did she ever make her presence at tup Shakur’s backstage concerts known.
6. Hank Williams – I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham, 2015)
With Loki and Scarlet Witch coming together to play the legendary country singer Hank Williams and his wife Audrey in the somewhat overlooked 2015 biopic might make you wonder if it is secretly good. Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen are good in their respective roles in a film that revolves around the life of the country music singer who exponentially rises to fame before his premature demise at 29. The film also chronicles the dysfunctional marriage of the duo and eventual divorce which was rooted in Hank’s infidelity and addiction issues. While the film was weirdly unnoticed by the general public, it incurred the displeasure of Williams’ descendants and caused quite a stir.
While Hank’s grandaughter Holly praised the film and Hiddleston’s “passion”, his grandson Hank Williams III was not at all amused. He was very vocal in his dislike for the casting choice, especially Tom Hiddleston and thought that Matthew McConaughey would have been a much better choice. He did not like Hiddleston’s singing and critiqued him by saying, “To do a Hank Williams movie the way it should be done you need certain aspects in the mix to make right. It goes way beyond having an American to play the role of Hiram Hank Williams Sr,” he said, further adding: “For it to be somewhat natural, it needs to be an American from the South who has eaten, lived and breathed these kinds of roles before.”
5. Joni Mitchell – Girls Like Us
The biopic was supposed to be adapted from the eponymous biographical novel that focused on the lives of three of the most important artists in the American music industry, including Carole King, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell, upholding the glorious points in her career, showcasing their resilience and importance in the industry. However, the project was shelved before it took place and was vehemently opposed by Joni Mitchell when rumours were abuzz that Taylor Swift is set to portray Mitchell’s character.
Mitchell apparently “squelched” the project as she could not bear to come to terms with the “assumptions” made about her reflecting in a film that will be played by “a girl with high cheekbones”. Swift had said that the role “was not confirmed” and the veteran singer’s animosity was later defended by Mitchell herself when she said that she had “never heard Taylor’s music” and after seeing her with “similarly small hipped and high cheekbones”, she finally understood “why they cast her”. She even wished “good luck” to Taylor “if she’s going to sing and play” her.
4. Sex Pistols – Pistol (Danny Boyle, 2021)
This upcoming limited biographical miniseries revolves around the life of the famous English punk rock band Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones as well as traces the journey of the band’s meteoric rise to prominence and fame. starring Toby Wallace, Anson Boon, Louis Partridge, Maisie Williams and more, the Danny Boyle-directed miniseries ran into trouble with one of the Sex Pistols frontmen, John Lyndon, better known by his stage name Johnny Rotten, who expressed his disgruntlement about the series that would draw focus to the band’s heyday.
Since the show was made without his consent, he called it a “disgrace” that is also “the most disgraceful shit I’ve ever had to endure”. Anson Boon plays the character of Rotten and this has incurred great displeasure from the iconic singer-songwriter who does not know “what’s the actor working on”, coming to the conclusion that it is “certainly not [my] character”. He has also sought legal help as the show was curated without his foreknowledge and said that the show “can’t go anywhere else [but court]”.
3. Héctor Lavoe – El Cantante (Leon Ichaso, 2006)
When Puerto Rican singer Héctor Lavoe moves to the United States to pursue the American dream, he becomes a trailblazing salsa legend. He soon encounters the spirited ad fiery Puchi who becomes his wife. Lavoe signs with a record label and teams up with a trumpeter named Willie Colon, slowly rising to stardom with their unique style. However, Lavoe’s constant struggle with drugs and substance abuse poses a great threat to his blooming career. The film received heavy criticism for “exploiting Lavoe’s memory” by straining focus on too much Jennifer Lopez, drug abuse and AIDS complications rather than the artist’s genius.
Lavoe’s friend, Willie Colom, was a consultant on the film but was greatly displeased by the net result. “The creators of El Cantante missed an opportunity to do something of relevance for our community,” he said. “The real story was about Hector fighting the obstacles of a nonsupportive industry that took advantage of entertainers with his charisma and talent. Instead, they did another movie about two Puerto Rican junkies,” he added.
Not holding back from Lopez and Marc Anthony by saying that it is nearly impossible to visualise these individuals in the music biz who are “not aware of the damage and the consequences of promoting only the negative side of our Latin music culture”. Colon also was taken aback by how the plot was tampered with to accommodate Lopez.
2. The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)
This biopic chronicles the journey constituting the rise and fall of the 1970s rock band of the same name. Sigismondi was amazed by the fact that these fearless girls “were doing things that girls weren’t supposed to do, especially at 15” and thus directed a film on it. Cherie Currie, an avid fan of David Bowie, is passionate and ambitious as a rock musician. Sandy West and Joan Jett, who dreamt of starting a band together, stumble upon her and are won over by her talent. This leads to the formation of the band and the eventual rise to stardom. All this while, they are embroiled in internal conflicts pertaining to favouritism as well as Cherie’s addiction problems which pose a threat to the stability of the band, almost dismantling it in the process altogether.
While the film tried to uphold the emotional and psychological upheavals undergone by these girls as they desperately tried to recognise their identity within the traditionally masculine realm of rock ‘n’ roll, it has received intense criticism for its partial treatment towards Cherie and not letting an explosive character such as Joan tell her story and assert her voice.
Currie praised Dakota Fanning for her portrayal of the singer but hinted at how the film was not the “real story” and more like an interpretation by the director of what her life was like. Jett felt that the film, as a “biopic” was “mischaracterised”. Although Jett served as executive producer and her reaction would not necessarily be deemed as hatred, it is quite understandable that reality does not find the voice in the film as “it’s a movie, so it’s never exactly right. They have to set up a bad guy and a good guy, a winner and loser.”
1. The Doors (Oliver Stone, 1991)
Val Kilmer starred as the iconic rock vocalist Jim Morrisson who was also known as the ‘Electric Poet’. The film chronicles his journey from being a film student to the band’s lead vocalist and lyricist who gained unimaginable fame yet died early at the age of only 27.
The film, despite the polarising performance from Kilmer, failed to make a mark. Before Oliver Stone took up the project, directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, William Friedkin etc. had dallied upon the subject matter. The band’s guitarist Robby Krieger was in agreement with the biopic once Stone stepped into the directorial shoes whereas the keyboardist Ray Manzarek was completely opposed to the idea. “Being the keeper of the Doors myth for so long,” he said.
It was difficult for Manzarek to adjust to Stone because the former wanted to focus on all four members instead of just one. He even criticised the portrayal of Jim Morrison as a “violent, drunk fool” in the film which successfully painted the legend as a “jerk”. He accused Oliver Stone of making “Jim [into] an agent of destruction” and expressed his disgust at the film which was not “based on love” but “in madness and chaos”.