Can you make a good rock biopic without the music? It might actually be for the best

Bowie flick Stardust has been slammed for not including any of his songs, but our columnist reckons it's time cinema ditched the facsimile of hits altogether

Imagine the stories Blunty could tell. The military insurgencies, the upper-class intrigue, the time he sang a song about triangles on Sesame Street. James Blunt’s biopic would resemble a cross between 1917, The Crown and Twitter’s Funniest Bastards. But no-one would watch it, because it would mean enduring Eddie Redmayne doing an orchestral cover of ‘You’re Beautiful’ while ballroom dancing inside a gigantic acoustic guitar in cinema’s most sickening sequence since The Human Centipede 3.

Read more: Stardust review: David Bowie biopic delves deep into the genesis of an icon

The Blunt biopic is a cinematic rollercoaster we’ll never get to enjoy for one simple, frustrating reason – people seem to think there has to be music in music biopics.

The right music, too. Stardust, less a Bowie biopic and more a Ziggy origin story starring Johnny Flynn as an introspective, unconfident young Dave, has come in for copious flack around its release last week for failing to secure permission to use any of Bowie’s original songs in the film. Here, a downcast Bowie tours America playing Velvet Underground pastiches to half-empty bars (yet still manages to bag a Rolling Stone interview) and Ziggy Stardust descends from the stars singing little-known rock’n’roll standards and Jacques Brel’s most vibe-slaughtering ballads.

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As great as the film is as an illuminating pre-fame road movie, its performance scenes are anti-climactic; the effect is like watching a Bill Hicks biopic legally restricted to using only armpit farts for material.

In the case of Bowie flicks, the music might seem at least as vital to any film’s appeal as the scandalous leggings. But having seen the music of Queen and Elton John get so Disney-fied in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman that Hugh Jackman could’ve been singing it on a trapeze, would we really want Bowie’s music to suffer the same indignity? Is anyone really crying out to watch Tilda Swinton jazz-hand and high-kick her way through ‘Ashes To Ashes’ in a chorus line of prancing Pierrot the Clowns? Gary Oldman emoting his guts out to ‘Heroes’ atop the Brandenburg Gate? Keanu Reeves jack-booting around a Brechtian Victoria Station to ‘Fame’?

These big-budget biopics are often just a cursory skim through a tediously familiar rise-and-fall story, interspersed with five or six over-the-top, flat-actor performances of the big benchmark hits to accompany montages of the star falling headfirst into heaps of cocaine and cheating on their spouse. By trying to tell the entire life story of a rock legend in less time than they would’ve spent onstage most nights, they inevitably come across like facile ‘Greatest Hits’ tributes padded out with the sort of biographical insight you’d expect from The League of Gentlemen‘s Legz Akimbo Theatre Company.

There are notable exceptions – Walk The Line, Bird, The Doors and Ray managed to slot some meat between the music – and you could imagine Prince‘s story and music making for similarly fantastic celluloid fodder. But surely a legend of Bowie’s stature and complexity is better suited to being dissected in films like Stardust, honing in on specific eras and pivot-points rather than rushing through a head-spinning career in one maxi-bag of Maltesers. The guy wasn’t a flick; he was a franchise. And, as with the Beatles in 1994 biopic Backbeat – which similarly focused on one era, namely the Fab Four’s Hamburg days – he’s historically significant and eternally mysterious enough to carry a movie without the filmmakers relying on his music at all.

In fact, I’m all for more musical biopics without any music. After all, why limit cinema to the biopics of listenable bands? Besides Blunt!, imagine all the fascinating cinematic stories languishing in obscure documentaries and behind awful records right now that could get the full Felicity Jones-as-love-interest treatment if we didn’t have to listen to any of the songs.

The Stereophonics Story would be a tearjerker rather than an ear-plugger. We could finally see the perfect musical metaphor that is The Dave Matthews Band emptying their tourbus toilet onto a boat full of tourists. Following his journey from the Limp Bizkit frontman’s Wiccan farm-boy upbringing to the heights of music mogul success, Durst would be a must-watch.

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Cinema rarely turns out convincing biopic performances, so why not cut the cringe, ditch the hits and concentrate on the stories instead? Who knows, maybe Christian Bale’s next Oscar could come from having half his brain removed to play Kid Rock.

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