Authorisation override: why music films shouldn’t need the estate’s blessing

Dr John, Thelonious Monk and (kind of) Mac Miller films have come in for criticism from the artists' families, but does that make them inauthentic?

Although Brian May himself would balk at the figure (trust me, I asked him), news that Queen were reportedly trousering £100,000 a day from their official biopic Bohemian Rhapsody seems to have sparked an almighty authorisation war between estates and documentarians. Earlier this month, the family of the late American singer-songwriter Dr John released a statement insisting that the forthcoming film about him by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach – his directorial debut – didn’t have their blessing. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) announced last week that he was pulling out of playing Thelonious Monk in a biopic after learning that his estate don’t approve of it. And Vince Staples recently told NME that he wouldn’t be supporting a film previously called Good News that was inspired by the story of the late Mac Miller (amongst other rappers), calling it “a violation” of his memory amid complaints from Miller’s family.

Unusually for this column, accustomed to blundering into topics with all the care and delicacy of Fast & Furious 10: Fuck It, Let’s Do This One Pissed, it’s a subject which calls for a certain nuance. While it’s undoubtedly disrespectful and opportunistic to lure an audience to a film with a Mac Miller title just a few years after his death, the movie isn’t specifically about Miller. Once we start requiring official blessing from the inspirations of fictional films, shows and books we choke culture to the point where, morally, we’re able to appreciate barely anything outside of Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy. From The Devil Wears Prada to Basil Fawlty, Smashie and Nicey to Peaky Blinders, the vast majority of characters across the entire history of entertainment (including several Doctor Who monsters) contain some element of real-world relatability. If we’re to bar such portrayals under the guise of ‘personality appropriation’ then all we’ll ever get is autobiography. We force all films to be about a director growing up, doing numerous training courses, trying to make the film they want, not being allowed to and padding the movie out to 100 minutes by playing us their Spotify Wrapped.

Likewise, documentaries. If every TV doc had to gain permission from its subject prior to filming or broadcast, that’s Panorama fucked for a start. When it comes to music documentaries, being authorised is a double-edged sword. You’ll get access to the artist themselves, their archives of music and unseen footage, insights into their life and work unavailable to the unlicensed filmmaker and a gold star of respectability. But you might also find your film stripped of all salaciousness, whitewashed of scandal and sanitised to the point of hagiography, amid threats of permission being pulled if you go ahead and track down their dealer from 1968, dare to bring up their Boris Johnson-levels of ‘unofficial’ parenthood or make even passing reference to ‘the allegations’.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody

When it comes to biopics, however, authorisation really does pay. Now everyone involved wants to make a Bohemian Rhapsody cash cow, and they’re well aware that this requires embracing all of the drama, conflict, crisis and redemption that cinema thrives on. Stripping out all the drugs, sex and Fender-flinging rows makes for a dry, bloodless and ultimately unprofitable experience; if anything, the story is sexed-up rather than tamed down. Having permission for one of the three or four A-list actors who don’t sing like they’re caught in a bear-trap to recreate pivotal performances using the actual songs is obviously a major boost in bringing the act to life on-screen and appealing to fans, and it doesn’t help to create an aura of the-definitive-story to have Sex Pistols suing each other over the use of their music in a Danny Boyle-directed mini-series biopic, with the singer declaring it “slave labour” to sign over the rights without having any say in the contents of a “nonsense” show.

Yet I’ve written before about the advantages and freedoms of the unauthorised biopic. If they can successfully dodge the lack of authentic music – as Gus Van Sant did with 2005’s Kurt Cobain portrait Last Days or Iain Softley did with 1994’s Beatles-in-Hamburg flick Backbeat – directors are able to pinpoint and expand on illuminating moments in stars’ lives rather than churn out formulaic career overviews. Last year’s Stardust, for example, worked wonderfully as a deep dive into Bowie’s early ‘70s cocoon period as The Man Who Sold The World transformed into Ziggy Stardust, even though all the performance scenes without any Bowie music in them were as deflating as settling in for a Friends reunion and getting wall-to-wall Corden. There’s a lot more humanity, depth and message to be found in such details than in a wide-angled life story, but it doesn’t lend itself quite so readily to a career-spanning greatest hits soundtrack album.

So while they’re right and justified in wanting to protect legacies and revenue streams, let’s not be put off music films or documentaries by complaints from the estate. Authorised films, for all their merits, don’t always tell the whole story.

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