When director Dome Karukoski was interviewed about Tolkien and what, if any, involvement the family and estate of the late author might have had in crafting the story, he responded by saying he avoided such entanglements, fearful that in doing so things might become watered down. He was concerned they would want certain aspects of the story removed, hidden or downplayed because they cast Tolkien in a less than favorable light and instead wanted to remain as true as possible to the facts, with certain creative license taken, of course.
Karukoski’s point of view runs in stark contrast to the approach taken by the filmmakers behind a spat of recent “authorized” biopics, particularly those focusing on bands and musicians. On a number of different occasions those movies, which purport to offer behind-the-scenes “real” stories of how artists rose to fame or bands went through the years of paying their dues before becoming worldwide phenomena, not only have the blessing of the people being portrayed but their active involvement as well.
Consider the three following examples:
- Bohemian Rhapsody has been in the works for a number of years, with the surviving members of the band Queen shepherding the project along. Their involvement and the desire for it to be a glossy history of the band and not one the delved too deeply into the troubles it had or lead singer Freddie Mercury’s sexuality kept it from moving forward for a long while, at one point leading to Sacha Baron Cohen dropping out due to “creative differences.”
- The Dirt covers the early years of Motley Crue and adapts the book of the same name that was written with the band’s involvement. As the movie was nearing release, band members gave it their endorsement by appearing at numerous publicity events and promoting it on their social media channels.
- Rocketman, which tells the story of the rise of Elton John from obscure club musician to international superstar, has received his approval at every step. He’s been interviewed about it and is quoted in stories often, emphasizing how true to reality the story is. John’s husband serves as a producer on the movie as well.
The verdict on Rocketman is still out, but if it follows the pattern established by the first two it’s easy to understand why John would want to not only get his story out there but do so in a way that he had some measure of control over.
Bohemian Rhapsody was criticized for glossing over Mercury’s personal life and playing up the involvement of the rest of the band, but sales and streaming of their music increased dramatically and Queen launched a new tour to take advantage of the attention being turned their way. So too Motley Crue’s music became more popular than it had been in a long while despite pushback on the movie, which many pointed out conveniently overlooks allegations of serious sexual misconduct and other problems.
These movies have become marketing platforms for classic rocks acts who need a shot in the arm that’s less damaging to their livers and kidneys than the shots in the arm they enjoyed in their heydays. While “classic rock” is still prevalent on the radio in many markets, it’s not as popular as it once was as it fades further into history. Stations find more success playing soft rock hits from the last few decades or Top 40 hits. There are still fans, of course, but as Boomers age and Gen X (which invented the category, thank you very much) get older and are less attractive to advertisers, stations that once specialized in classic rock are going under much like Chicago’s 97.9 WLUP, which folded last year when it was sold to Christian rock syndicator KLOVE.
Getting a movie out there brings these acts and artists back into the conversation. As mentioned, Queen launched a new tour with Adam Lambert taking on vocal duties. Rocketman arrives between legs of John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, touted as the singer’s final big outing before he joins the ranks of singers like Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and others that have hung up their touring equipment because life on the road in their 60s and 70s is very different than it was in their 20s and 30s.
The difference between how the subjects are producing and developing these authorized biopics and how Tolkien, like many recent movies about famous authors, is unauthorized is that the former have something to sell while those late authors don’t. That’s even the case with an upcoming movie like Judy, a case where the family of the late Judy Garland has disavowed the project entirely. Garland doesn’t have any new music to promote or an active touring career to support, nor does Tolkien have any new books hitting shelves. So their estates and families have moved into “protection” mode to safeguard the reputations of their famous ancestors instead of actively developing new projects that draw attention to new offerings.
The movies are, in essence, a form of owned content marketing.
These certainly aren’t the first movies being used in this manner – all those films based on comic/video game/other properties do the same thing – but it’s still somewhat surprising to see it happening this blatantly. The reputations and stories of those in the movies are being burnished by the subjects themselves or those with an active monetary interest in doing so. It’s not so different from what authorized biographies and autobiographies have always done, but having it happen on film is still a bit disconcerting, especially with a cluster of examples like this.
It’s not hard to imagine more projects along these lines coming soon. The success of Bohemian Rhapsody and even the two Mamma Mia! films shows there are plenty of people who want to see their favorite sing-along rock hits on screen, so more artists and bands could jump aboard before this particular train runs out of steam.