Living Clichéd Lives: On Hollywood Biopics

May 24, 2016 | 6 books mentioned 15 7 min read


Don Cheadle
directs, co-writes, and stars in Miles Ahead, a new movie that strives admirably to slip the frayed straitjacket of the musician biopic genre. You know the drill. Person discovers he or she is blessed with an unusual musical gift, starts small, eventually rockets to stardom, learns it’s lonely at the top and turns to drink and/or drugs, suffers breakups and breakdowns, gets groove back, and then either (a) dies broke and alone, or (b) enjoys a career rebirth and lives happily ever after.

coverThe (a) sub-category is by far the less populous, probably because movie executives believe audiences have no stomach for dark endings. To understand how wrong they are, consider 1984’s Amadeus, which won eight Oscars and was a box-office smash even though it ended with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) getting tossed into an unmarked mass grave for paupers. The life and the music, not the death, turn out to be the things that matter.

Don Cheadle yearns to enter the (a) sub-category with Miles Ahead. He does this through an ingeniously counter-intuitive artistic choice: he frames the story in the late-1970s, when one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time was not making music. To sweeten the conceit, Cheadle’s Miles Davis is not suffering from a conventional creative block, an artist powerless to express the things boiling inside him. With a scowl, he offers this refreshing explanation for his silence: “I didn’t have nothin’ to say.”

That explanation is delivered to a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor, who bangs on Davis’s locked door one day hoping to get an exclusive story about the great man’s silence and self-imposed exile. This insertion of a brand-name white actor smells of a studio decision to tone down the movie’s blackness in the interest of selling tickets. At the Berlin Film Festival, Cheadle acknowledged that “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative.” When the remark caused an uproar, Cheadle added, “No one said specifically, ‘You must hire this one actor to make this happen.’ But there was a kind of list of actors that would make the money go.”

McGregor does his best to turn this into a lopsided buddy movie, and he nearly succeeds. An uneasy bond grows between the ambitious journalist and the cynical musician, given a boost when the former helps the latter score some high-grade cocaine in a Columbia University dorm room, the movie’s funniest scene. To Cheadle’s credit, his Miles is no god; he may be a genius, but he’s also a chauvinist, a womanizer, a coke head, and nasty to go with it. Among the revelations Brill pulls out of Miles is that his heart is with the “innovators,” who he pointedly identifies as Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky — not Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk.

Miles, we come to find out, has not been totally silent. He has recorded a tape that he refuses to turn over to his record label, and much of the movie is taken up with the maniacal protection, theft, and recovery of this MacGuffin. It would be a spoiler to reveal what’s on this coveted spool of tape, but it’s no spoiler to say that the movie’s incessant cutting between the 1950s and the ’70s gets disorienting. Or that the movie’s soundtrack — consisting of re-imaginings of Miles’s music — will make you appreciate just how great Miles’s early recordings will always be.

coverIn the end, Cheadle succumbs to the rebirth cliché. Without any valid explanation, Davis is back onstage with a new band, his creative block vanquished, playing the funk- and rock-fuelled fusion that sounds, a bit anachronistically, like Bitches Brew from 1970. It may have been the only way for Cheadle to go, but it feels like a capitulation, a tacked-on triumphal ending designed to please those studio executives who insisted the movie needed a white star if it was going to succeed at the box office. They’re the same kind of studio suits who decided to cast the fair-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina, then tricked her out with a prosthetic nose and blackface. Weren’t there any black actresses qualified to play an incendiary black artist?

As usual, the studio suits got it wrong. Miles Ahead, for all its lofty intentions, wound up in safe sub-category (b), where it so far has failed to connect with audiences.

The title I Saw the Light says everything you need to know about the new Hank Williams biopic. It says that this treatment of one of country music’s most gifted and tortured performers will favor the sunshine over the shadows, the uplift over the appalling undertow of a life that ended at the age of 29, booze-soaked and pill-addled, alone in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to yet another gig.

I would argue that Hank Williams was country music’s only existentialist, a genius who was able to mold the everyday worlds of rural poverty and honky-tonk revelry into a vision that life offers neither meaning nor any chance of escape, only a promise of fleeting, bawdy, delirious respites — always followed by more loneliness and pain and drudgery. He painted this vivid portrait with the simplest of tools: the whippoorwill, the distant freight train, the cotton field, the dancing spree, as in:

We’ll do all the law’s allowin’, tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’, settin’ the woods on fire…

The English actor Tom Hiddleston works hard to animate lanky, jaunty, haunted Hank Williams, even singing the signature songs, but his earnest renderings sound thin and watery compared to Williams’s soulful yearning. The movie looks terrific but it sounds like cover-song karaoke.

The tone of this two-hour slog is set during the very first frames — a long shot of Williams seated on a stool in a hot spotlight, singing “Cold, Cold Heart” as the camera circles pointlessly around him. It’s meant to be atmospheric, a portrait of a man alone in a crowded room, but it’s just dull. What follows has all the narrative momentum of a mail train, a series of stops and starts as we watch Williams tear through a string of wives while drinking, womanizing, doing uppers and coke and eventually morphine for a painful case of spina bifida. When he gets to the top, he pines predictably for the good old days as an up-and-comer: “Sometimes I wish I was back at WSFA making $12 a week and knowing who my friends were.” And here’s Hank in what passes for a retrospective moment about his love life: “I’m a pro at making a mess of things.”

coverThe screenplay, by director Marc Abraham, is based on Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen. But the movie gives us no sense of Williams’s origins or the sources of his inspiration, from country radio broadcasts to gospel music to Rufus Payne, the black bluesman who taught him to play the guitar. Given the facts of Williams’s early death, Abraham had little choice but to make this a sub-category (a) movie. Even Hollywood can’t dress up a 29-year-old corpse in the back seat of a Cadillac.

covercoverSome musician biopics are saved by the music. Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Doors come to mind, with Sissy Spacek and Val Kilmer doing their own singing while inhabiting the souls of Loretta Lynn and Jim Morrison. But I Saw the Light is not in that class.

Neither is Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of the gorgeous, doomed jazz trumpeter and junkie Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, with music by the jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and some pleasingly breathless singing by Hawke, this movie, like Miles Ahead, at least tries to break out of the genre’s straitjacket.

It does this primarily by refusing to condemn Baker’s heroin addiction. “It makes me happy,” he says unapologetically. “I love to get high.” When he’s high, he adds, “the notes get wider, not just longer, and I can get inside of every note.”

The movie jumps around in time, and back and forth between color and black-and-white. One moment we’re on the set of a 1960s black-and-white film biography of Baker — a biopic within a biopic! — then we’re at Birdland in the ’50s, then we’re in L.A. in the ’60s. Budreau manages to keep things flowing by turning the movie into a story of dual recoveries: after a vicious beating by drug dealers who knock out his front teeth, Baker must re-learn to play his instrument with painful dentures that keep slipping; and with his soul mate, an aspiring actress named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), he must try to overcome his inner demons and his craving for heroin.

He nearly succeeds — until the night of his comeback performance at Birdland. High as a Georgia pine, Baker knocks the house out cold, including a skeptical Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and a supportive Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). The movie ends with a written coda, informing us that Baker went off to Europe after the Birdland gig, where he continued to shoot heroin and made some of his best music. (We’re not told that Baker fell out of a window in an Amsterdam hotel in 1988 and died at the age of 59, his veins humming with heroin and cocaine.) In the world of the musician biopic, this passes for a brave, non-judgmental and unconventional ending.

As I watched these movies, it began to occur to me that maybe the problem is not that people keep making clichéd movies about musicians; maybe the problem is that musicians keep living clichéd lives that can’t be made into anything but clichéd movies. Prince just died of an apparent opioid painkiller overdose at the age of 57. Arguably, the only people who lead more clichéd lives than musicians are writers, who discover early on that it’s lonely at the bottom, it’s worse in the mid-list, and, for the precious few who make it there, it’s even worse at the top. But with musicians, at least there’s music to leaven the loneliness and add some sizzle to the clichés. Which is why these biopics will keep getting made as long as the sun continues to cross the sky.

The inevitability of this struck me when I got word that a Mötley Crüe biopic, in the works for years, is finally going to be released this summer. It’s called The Dirt, which was the title of the band’s salacious 2001 memoir. If the source material is any indication, the movie will be a non-stop mudbath of depravity. But the true depravity here is that men who are eligible for Social Security continue to wear Spandex while mounting a “retirement tour.”

Then I stumbled on some YouTube videos of Guns N’ Roses performing at the recent Coachella Festival. There on the stage, ensconced on a throne with his damaged left foot in a cast, sat a bloated Axl Rose, the original bad boy straight outta Central Nowhere, Indiana. This was not the priapic flame-haired dervish lionized by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” from his collection Pulphead. The Axl Rose at Coachella was a caricature of his younger self, immobilized and squalling, a fat Elvis for the new millennium.

Surely a biopic is in the works. Based on that Coachella show, there’s no way it will have a happy ending.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. AMADEUS really isn’t a biopic. Peter Shaffer set out to make a speculative work that incorporates actual people and events. As an aside, I think the 2002 recut that he and Milos Forman made is atrocious.

  2. “You know the drill. Person discovers he or she is blessed with an unusual musical gift, starts small, eventually rockets to stardom…”

    Ah, you forgot “…is misunderstood as an innovator and is met with skepticism by friends, family and society in general until nearly booed off stage at pivotal concert but wins, eventually, not only the audience’s grudging respect but a triumphant ovation…”

    Also, let’s not forget the inevitable sequence during which a signature song is written, intact, during a rehearsal or immediately after an emotional turning point (which happens to take place in a room containing a piano)…

    But as for musicians living cliché lives: surely not more cliché than the average. The average famous musician is just an average (slightly more creative than average) person who fell into a giant pit of cash too early in life. But the same old messy relationships, bad taste and druggy deaths are being played out… in an unamplified form, with unknown people… all across the heartland as I write this. What’s the difference between a “cliché”, after all, and “the building blocks of everyday life”…?

    The problem you’re addressing here, in reality, is the cliché-fest of the narrative arc of mainstream movies. If average people flocked, in droves, to smarter (not-clichéd) movies, we’d have more of those not-cliché movies (of every kind) to choose from.

    (Idea for a movie: a misunderstood genius writes a not-cliché movie script, is met with skepticism by friends, family and society in general until…)

  3. Just saw Lady Day starring Audra McDonald. While containing both sub-categories (a) & (b), heroin, racism, wasted musical virtuosity and graphic intoxication, the obvious cliche is fully obliterated by Audra’s incomparable performance. I was speechless with pie hole fully agape at rhe marvel of her artistry, both vocal and thespian. Could be the best musical bio pic I’ve yet seen.

  4. Anon, you are so right. Also, Judy Davis starred in a movie many years ago playing George Sand, in a fictionalised account of Sand’s relationship with Liszt and Chopin. I think generally movie directors and screen writers don’t have a grasp of the artist and should leave well enough alone. It dishonours the impact of the artist’s music. Such a shame.

  5. I think Todd Haynes does a brilliant job of capturing the ineffable in musicians like Dylan and (pseudo)-Bowie in I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine (especially the former, as the latter film is diminished by not being allowed to use Bowie’s actual music). There’s also the fantastic, hilarious Walk Hard with John C. Reilly which does an amazing job of spoofing biopic cliches.

  6. I know some people don’t care for him or his movies, but I think Van Sant’s Last Days is pretty spot on when it comes to avoiding music biopic cliches in that it is one of the only American films that uses slow cinema language to convey the torpor of a junkie musician in a way that is both refreshing and enervating.

  7. On reading the comments from @TH and @Anon, wonder if it is not so much that musicians live clichéd lives that can’t be made into anything but clichéd movies, but that the majority of middling films on musicians are made by directors that can’t see beyond cliché.

    Oh! Speaking of Todd Haynes! There is the MOST unclichéd early film of his, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which I saw in 1989 in the very strange and one-of-a-kind, late lamented Biograph movie theatre in DC, the perfect place to see this one-of-a-kind film. (The theatre is now yet another CVS pharmacy)

    I include below some snippets from the excellent Washington Post review by Desson Howe:

    “…a surreal reenactment of the singer’s ill-fated career that uses Barbie dolls instead of real-life actors….initially appears to make campy mockery of the ’70s singer, turns out to be a compassionate and deeply affecting treatment of America’s easy-listening siren.”

    “Approximately one-third the length of a regular movie, “Superstar” manages to cover more ground and leave a greater resonance than half a dozen rise-and-fall biographies (a genre that “Superstar” parodies).”

    With [Barbie] dolls “playing” the parts of Karen and Richard Carpenter, as well as their parents….subjective but stirring sense of her increasing neurosis and, by intercutting images of President Nixon, the Vietnam war, the sitcom faces of television and antiwar demonstrations, indicate the troubled times she sang to.

    Karen Carpenter-the-Barbie-doll literally deteriorates before your eyes, her plastic “flesh” scraped away (by Haynes)…. [the film] is a heartfelt, though eerie, eulogy to a tormented woman who died for fame.

    [Jan. 1989:] Watch “Superstar” while you can. Haynes, who has no rights to the Carpenters’ songs, claims to have recently received a letter of warning from Mattel and has yet to hear from the Carpenter family.”]

  8. A pointless point to make, but I don’t think “lionized” is an accurate word to describe Sullivan’s essay on Axel Rose. “Explained”, while dull, is accurate, as would be “made interesting”. That essay is a marvel. It tells us where he comes from, but never tries to speak for him. It tells us where he went, but doesn’t try to explain it. And in the middle, he breaks down and describes the specifics of his talent through an analysis of the variety of voices he uses on a single recording, Sweet Child of Mine.

    And maybe that is a point: musical bio pics try to “explain” things that are already obvious in the music, and they try to do so in ways that are going to fall far short of what we already have.

  9. To Heather Curran: You said it all with this lovely sentence: “I think generally movie directors and screen writers don’t have a grasp of the artist and should leave well enough alone.” Amen! I have a French friend who refused to go see “La Vie en Rose” because she knew it would diminish the greatness of her beloved Edith Piaf. I say, let the music do the talking. Thank you, Heather – and everyone else here – for reading The Millions and responding so thoughtfully.

  10. But Bill and Heather,

    Why should a topic (the lives of musicians, artists, etc.) be barricaded off from other topics that are possible sources of inspiration for a film? Is the life of a firefighter or shepherd really any more understandable to a layman? If a contemporary classical musician creates (as she did) a musical piece about the medieval mystic Hildegarde of Bingen, how could we expect her to grasp this person? Would she not diminish her spiritual greatness?

    Reminds me of a quote that always jarred with me, where Elvis Costello said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If dancing about architecture is so absurd, what about…. “dancing about political speeches and space exploration?”

    I was reminded of that quote recently, when a ballet was premiered by Dan Tai Soon Burgess and performed at the Kennedy Center about just that topic. See link below: [We choose to go to the moon]

  11. Bill thank you for the compliment, made my day after a rough week. Maureen I think Bill’s acknowledgement to what I said in no way disparages or invalidates other opinions. The beauty of The Millions Is the civility of the comments. As far as movie and t.v. representations very few get it right. I compare it to T.V. and cops shows. Having workef in policing for lmost 30 years very few t.v. shows get it right. The Wire is an exception. Also I saw Lady Day live, and although already a fan of Billie Holiday, it truly struck a chord (unintentional pun, ouch) with me. I think the best that we can hope for in these modern biopics is to bring the music back to young people if Queen Bey and the horrendous Drake (ugh, Canadian, sorry everybody) haven’t ruined music completely. Ah the days of Sam the Record Man and going through the stacks like a kid in a candy store. I saw Cowboy Junkies in 1984 at a small, small venue. Zowie. We weren’t spoon fed music, or books, and the joy of finding small indie record and indie book stores carrying these (at the time) hip records. Ah bliss. And ah I sound like an old broad.

  12. Sorry for mistakes in typing. I will definitely never be hired to be a proof reader!!

  13. Hi Heather and Bill, …. my comments in spirit of wonder and curiosity, and as blessed relief from writing project that has left me feeling as if my brain was filled with silly putty! Yes, the comments section, at its best, can inspire all types of ideas, shooting forth in many directions.

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