A week from tomorrow, on March 16, Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate are set to release I Can Only Imagine, a modest, Christian-themed film about the group MercyMe and a hit song that shares its title with the movie. If you’re a fan of the musical biopic, a genre that only a few years ago was filling theaters and powering actors like Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk The Line) toward Oscar wins, you’d better buy a ticket. Because Hollywood doesn’t have much more to offer in the way of musical biography until, say, Christmas, when Bohemian Rhapsody, Fox’s much-delayed Freddie Mercury movie, may finally limp across the finish line after years of production turmoil and delay.
In the movie world, certain genres seem made for death and dramatic rebirth. Declare the Western dead, and an Unforgiven or a True Grit comes along. Musicals like La La Land get much of their marketing energy from the (obviously overstated) notion that screen musicals don’t get made any more. But it is rare to see a seemingly robust genre evaporate at a moment of peak success.
For the musical biography, that peak occurred on August 14, 2015, with the release of Universal’s Straight Outta Compton, about the gangsta rap group NWA. Having been turned out of Warner, its prior home, as too risky, the film opened to $60 million in ticket sales, blew past $160 million to become the all-time best selling musical biopic at the domestic box-office, and picked up another $40 million-plus in foreign markets, where African-American stories often fare poorly.
Typically, success of that sort would unleash a cascade of imitators. But All Eyez On Me, the best-performing musical biography last year, took in less than $45 million at the domestic box office. And that film, about Tupac Shakur, was preceded by a handful of biopics—Miles Ahead, Born To Be Blue, I Saw The Light, even Florence Foster Jenkins (which earned an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep)—that made almost no impression on the audience.
Putting aside Django, a tiny French film about guitarist Django Reinhardt, the schedule has been virtually free of musical biography this year.
In part, this may simply reflect a temporary mood swing. Hollywood—along with its voters and viewers—has been drawn toward angrier, more political stories. The rage of a Three Billboards or the alienation of a Shape Of Water resonate more deeply, for now, than the soulful stirrings of a Compton, or of fictional quasi-biographies like Crazy Heart or Dream Girls.
Too, an ever-more corporate film business may be losing patience with the inherent messiness of films built around real music stars. It’s lost on no one that Straight Outta Compton is still caught up in court cases that involve an alleged murder, threats to the director, supposed bribery of witnesses, and a host of other claims. We’d be watching the Gregg Allman biopic, Midnight Rider, by now, if a careless production hadn’t claimed a life. Indeed, Sacha Baron Cohen might still be playing Freddie Mercury, and Bryan Singer might still be directing Bohemian Rhapsody (maybe star Rami Malek and director Dexter Fletcher will get the job done), but for the Sturm und Drang that makes musical biography the beautiful, volatile, hopelessly human film genre that some of us love and miss.