Dead famous: The ethics of art after death

Where should we draw the line with holograms, posthumous releases and biopics of beloved late artists?

Music movies are big business in 2019. The Oscar-winning success of Bohemian Rhapsody and the excitement around Elton’s Rocketman prove there’s a huge appetite to see the lives of artists played out on screen.

But the best music film at the moment doesn’t come courtesy of a fledgling talent in a wig; instead, it’s the raw power of Amazing Grace, an astonishing concert film which captures the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performing with a gospel choir at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972.

The movie stands as testament to Franklin’s talent, but a somewhat uneasy fact remains – it’s said that Aretha herself never wanted it to be seen. She died in 2018, and it’s only after her passing that the film is being released.

The dispute dates back to 2008,  when producer Alan Elliott purchased Sydney Pollock’s original rushes and began the mammoth task of making them fit for release. The project was completed in 2011, but met immediate challenge from Franklin herself – who sued Elliott for appropriating her likeness without permission.

A second attempt proved equally fruitless in 2015, when Franklin launched a second challenge under decidedly unclear circumstances.

While Elliott’s footage is the ultimate testament to her gift, the question still remains – is it right to release it once she’s dead?

Tours by holograms of deceased artists are now a reality. You can, this autumn, see rock ‘n’ roll giants Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly perform together – despite both having long since strummed their last chord.

Similarly, beyond-the-grave tracks from long departed artists are pretty much expected, since Tupac set the bar with a total of six posthumous albums.

It brings into question issues of guardianship of image and respect for legacy and – ultimately – it’s an ethical minefield.

On the phone from Los Angeles, Amazing Grace producer Alan Elliott explains that the Aretha question is a particularly complicated one. “I don’t think she’s ever been quoted as saying that she didn’t want the film to come out,” he says. “The only quote she ever had was four words. The only quote I’ve ever seen was her saying ‘I love the film.'”

Instead, he believes that the film’s emotional clout may have proved overwhelming – it reached completion while Franklin was battling the pancreatic cancer that claimed her life.

“A lot of the truth was revealed, sadly, in time. When I started making the movie, I was just making the movie. But by the time she sues me after she’s seen the film, she’s got pancreatic cancer and that takes the movie into another direction,” he explains.

“I didn’t create this movie to poke a finger into the eye of the Queen of Soul and when her niece told me she had pancreatic cancer, I knew the movie would take on another element – which is her mortality.

“Then you’re not dealing with something who loved the film or might want more money, you’re just dealing with a human being and that’s why we waited three years. She didn’t want it out and I can understand why. The first song she ever recorded is the last song in the movie and her father’s there, her sister is there.”

Noting the “cognitive dissonance” between the film’s joyous look at Aretha, Elliott adds: “To have her to say that she loved the movie and then didn’t want it to come out, it can only be bridged by the fact that she was as ill as she was.”

As far as the ethical side of this documentary is concerned, it should also be noted that Franklin’s opposition isn’t supported by her family. Instead, her niece and estate representative, Sabrina Garett, is quoted as saying that the film “needed to go out in to the world.”

“It’s a giant love letter to Aretha Franklin – there’s nothing incendiary or controversial so I wasn’t worried about the content,” Elliott concludes. “I knew I was playing to a family that loved Aretha and only wanted the best for me.”

So perhaps this is the answer. Watching Amazing Grace feels like being privy to history in the making, and it’s arguable that the project says far more about her than some mawkish biopic ever could.

While Aretha knew she was headed towards the end, others are cut down in their prime. US rapper Lil Peep passed away after consuming a lethal cocktail of drugs in 2017, at the age of 21. At the time of his death, he was gaining plaudits for his form of ‘Soundcloud rap’, which fused elements of hip-hop and emo and saw him hailed as a Kurt Cobain figure for a new generation.

And after his death, new music emerged – the album ‘Come Over When You’re Sober Pt.2′ – which debuted to acclaim in November 2018. While the record’s producer Smokeasac didn’t respond to comment for this piece, he previously offered a well-reasoned argument when speaking to NME. Peep’s family, he argued, are the barometer of what gets released and when –his collaborations with Canadian rapper Makonnen are yet to see the light of day.

“‘Come Over When You’re Sober Pt.2’ – ‘Come Over When You’re Sober’ in general, really – and the Makonnen record is some of [Peep’s] best work. He really put his all into those projects,” Smokeasac argued.

Lil Peep's best songs

Lil Peep

“When the time is right we’ll release the stuff with Makonnen. I speak to Peep’s mom all the time and I want to make sure that she approves of everything. It’s a similar thing, in demo form. It’s a finished album vocals-wise but me and Makonnen will go back into the studio and finish everything off.”

Although Peep’s music couldn’t be more different from Aretha’s era-defining soul, the arguments behind both are largely from the same school of thought: to put the material out to the fans.

If posthumous projects are crafted by close friends and collaborators and released with consideration, there is an argument that they’re a celebration of the artist’s legacy. But of course, money is a factor too. Michael Jackson’s estate scored some $287 million for selling their stake in EMI Music Publishing – and thus his musical assets – to Sony in 2018. Since Jackson’s death in 2009, two full albums of unreleased material have emerged – along with a series of samples on tracks from artists who are still very much alive, and with whom Jackson had no choice of whether to collaborate.

Despite his name being tainted by the allegations raised in Leaving Neverland, it’s expected that Jackson will end 2019 as the world’s highest earning dead celebrity – even if it risks putting his representatives on a direct collision course with his family and fans. An unfinished Jackson sample on Drake’s ‘Don’t Matter To Me’ from 2018 was directly criticised by Jackson’s family, with nephew Austin Brown hitting out at the rap giant for using Jackson’s vocals without his direct permission. 

It also rocked the boat with fans too: some found the sample so jarring they became wrongly convinced that it must be the work of an imposter. It wasn’t a fake, but it again raises the question of whether quality is being compromised when the artist in question doesn’t have a say in the output.

Michael Jackson

But posthumous albums and song samples all seem pretty tame when compared to the strangest of beyond-the-grave prospects – a dead performer delivering their greatest hits ‘live’.

Fans were left stunned in 2012 when Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg performed on stage at Coachella with a hologram of deceased hip hop star Tupac Shakur. The resemblance to – and representation of – the West Coast rap icon was so uncanny you’d be forgiven for thinking the conspiracy theorists were right and he was alive and well and living on a remote island.

The technology behind it was pioneered by several Californian tech firms and hailed by some fans for finally giving them to chance to see their hero in a live environment. Others found it a bit creepy.

One prominent critic wrote: “So what’s next? Sending the virtual 25-year-old Beatles on tour in their Sgt. Pepper outfits or putting Buddy Holly in Metropolis? Let’s hope not. This is a really dumb, ghoulish, tasteless and generally wrongheaded idea. Do they really think this will feel like anything but a creepy experience?”

Their prediction for what came next seems oddly prescient. While the team behind the Tupac hologram have since gone bankrupt, US firm BASE Hologram opened the cultural floodgates in 2018 when they sent Roy Orbison back out on the road. This, of course, comes despite the fact that he’s been dead for some 30 years.

While perhaps initially unsettling, watching the videos of Orbison’s “comeback” seems oddly nostalgic –there’s something comforting about seeing dead rock legends back where they belong. And as Orbison’s son Alex previously argued to NME, it’s perhaps the most effective way in ensuring that his dad’s legacy lives on for a new generation.

“It’s about the art of music and bringing people together,” he said, adding that if more “kids” get to see his dad perform then he can deal with “a couple curmudgeons”.

“Some kid’s gonna come and watch a hologram of my dad and go home and go, ‘That’s what I’m going to do with life,’” he reasons. “My dad went to a show when he was five years old and he left and said the same thing. That’s the circle that we look for.”

The tour was clearly hit a hit with audiences too – it was recently announced that Roy is hitting the road again, bringing a long-deceased Buddy Holly along for the road.

It’s not always so well-received, though. A less successful venture came in the form Amy Winehouse, after BASE teamed up with her family to revive the tragic star’s memory.

Mitch and Amy Winehouse

Mitch and Amy Winehouse

The project was met with immediate scepticism on announcement – perhaps not helped, as Junkee notes, by the degree of public hostility held towards the late singer’s father Mitch Winehouse.

Despite Mitch insisting that the tour would present his daughter “at her best”, GQ tell the story of how an LA actress scored an audition for the role of Amy Winehouse believing it to be for a biopic of the star’s life. She would later learn that she had been mistaken – the role was the chance to be Amy Winehouse’s body double for the creation of her hologram.

This, say BASE, is standard practise. “We start with a body double who works closely with our director to choreograph the performances and that’s really key in the process,” a representative tells NME. “It comes down the feedback and suggestions of the family – Roy Orbison didn’t move a lot on stage when he performed and it was important to the family he didn’t move a lot on stage in hologram form. However Roy interacted with his band and the audience, little things like a nod, a wave, a thank you, things like that which are represented.”

The Amy Winehouse tour, specifically, has since been put on hold. BASE say that’s due to unique sensitivities around the tragic singer. “We are committed to remembering Amy Winehouse and her legacy in the most celebratory and respectful way possible,” says the representative. “In developing the type of highly ambitious, state of the art hologram/augmented reality theatrical event that would truly capture her genius and incredible artistic and social contributions, we have encountered some unique challenges and sensitivities. Therefore, we put the tour on hold until we can determine the best path to a creatively spectacular production that would properly honour Amy’s legacy at its highest calibre.”

Time will tell if the Amy tour ever gets off the ground, or if the public feeling of, well, ickiness towards it sticks. There is, perhaps, a distance between reviving a long-dead artist and a much-missed, recently-lost artist whose family, friends and fans live with the grief on a daily basis. Either way, BASE reckon we’re only seeing the beginning of the hologram trend.

“The possibilities are endless, and it doesn’t just apply to musicians as we can do similar types of amazing experiences with scientists, politicians, chefs, athletes, dinosaurs, natural interest topics, and fantastical themes.” The ethical line they draw, they say, comes from having the involvement of the artists’ family or estate. “We wouldn’t want to do this without having the families/estates on board as collaborative partners,” says the spokesperson. “As you can imagine, these projects are deeply personal to them and that close relationship is invaluable to the show’s authenticity.”

It’s not as good as having the artist’s approval, sure, but the history of music is littered with managers, fathers and labels exploiting artists for monetary gain. A hologram can’t be exploited, but a legacy can be tainted. It’s a thorny issue, for sure, but, for the most part, perhaps it’s best we let sleeping icons lie.