The Music Biopic in 2020

April 15

Record-breaking returns, critical acclaim, packed screenings and loads of awards.

Yep, it’s fair to say that the music biopic has performed pretty impressively recently.

However, it wasn’t always the case.

Because, besides an occasional hit, the genre has historically brought in low to middling box office numbers; certainly nothing compared to traditional blockbuster bankers like action, comedy and drama.

So, what’s changed? What are the reasons for this shift to the mainstream, and why now?

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why.

Bohemian Rhapsody’s Breakthrough

Sometimes a one-off success is needed to bring a style in from the margins, and this is precisely what Bohemian Rhapsody did for the music biopic.

Chronicling Queen’s career from their formation up to that Live Aid performance, it was the ideal introduction for those who knew little about the subgenre.

“Bohemian Rhapsody was the ideal introduction for those who knew little about the subgenre.”

The numbers were remarkable. The 6th highest-grossing movie of 2018, its $900 million-plus return is especially noteworthy when you consider that Straight Outta Compton was, until then, the top-performing music movie with $201 million (almost $700 mill less!).

But the good news wasn’t just financial. The film won four Oscars as well as Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the Golden Globes, and, with a very respectable IMDb rating of 8.0, is well-liked from an audience perspective.

Such a total, on-all-fronts success was completely unexpected (it even took Brian May by surprise), and proved that the humble music biopic could compete at the box office, and beyond.

Music Streaming

It’s no coincidence that, as streaming has become the dominant model of music distribution and consumption, more music biopics have hit screens than ever before – but how are the two connected?

Well, on the one hand, now that listeners have vast libraries of music at their fingertips, musicians are, generally speaking, being heard by audiences that are more evenly spread across nationalities and generations.

An offshoot from this wider listenership is a heightened interest in the lives of the artists themselves, and the eras from which they came – elements that the music biopic is uniquely well-suited in depicting.

It’s inevitable, so, with the rise of music streaming, so too would there be an increased demand for them.

A downside of streaming though, from the perspectives of the artist and their labels at least, has been the decreased revenue from traditional models (album sales, for instance) – a factor that, as we’ll see in the next point, has also had an impact on the subgenre’s popularity.

Changing Attitudes to Rights

A sticking-point for biopic creators in the past has been the acquisition of an artist’s music and life rights.

The much-delayed Janis Joplin movie is the classic example, so infamous that it was the subject of a particularly excellent 30 Rock parody:

However, things are changing. With the losses felt by the industry due to streaming, artists and labels are becoming increasingly flexible and open, something which Dan Simpson sums up in this article:

But, as Simpson also points to in the same piece, the potential benefits of the biopic aren’t just financial:

It used to be hard for filmmakers to get major artists to give them permission to use their catalogues. But following the enormous success of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody […] it seems like artists have realised that backing biopics and celebratory movies is a way of reaffirming their cultural relevance and opening new revenue streams as traditional incomes from record sales are on the wane.

Taking these shifts in music and media into account, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing the industry become more flexible when it comes to rights – which means, ultimately, more music movies.

We’ll get that Janis Joplin one yet.

Heightened Audience Appeal

Stories about the rise-and-fall (and rise again) of a character never seem to go out of fashion.

Whether it’s Rocky, It’s a Wonderful Life or The Shawshank Redemption, these type of movies have a universal quality that resonates with us all.

With the up-and-down nature of a life in the spotlight, famous musicians are a natural fit for this type of narrative arc, and Hollywood has recognised this – hence several recent biopics have been based around cosily familiar three-act structures that often conclude with the protagonist’s rebirth.

“Famous musicians are a natural fit for the rise-and-fall narrative arc.”

By shaping the movies like this, filmmakers have been able to tap into an established audience, and this has, in turn, helped push the subgenre to prominence.

Another recent trend has been to soften the biopics’ subjects, and present PG-13 versions of what are often R-rated lives – one example being Queen, whose rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was toned down for any impressionable kids watching.

Since adult-only music films have historically had a rough time at the box office, the milder ratings of recent ones mean that they can reach a broader, and younger, audience.

In Conclusion!

The music biopic has been one of the major breakout genres of the last few years, and a combination of four factors go some way to explaining why: the enormous success of Bohemian Rhapsody; significant changes in music distribution; shifting attitudes to rights and licensing; and the creation of a more accessible batch of biopics.

“The music biopic has been one of the major breakout genres of the last few years.”

Whether it has the staying power of other recent industry trends (superhero movies and remakes, for example) is anyone’s guess. Still, you can be sure that the music movie will be hitting inflight screens for another while at least.

Very welcome news, I’m sure you’ll agree, for music obsessives everywhere. 😉

Written by Conor Regan.

Inflight Dublin prides itself on providing the most current and on-trend film, TV, and audio content to our clients – and this includes music biopics! If you’d like to learn more about our company, and perhaps how we can do the same for your organisation, contact us at

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