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How hip-hop saved the biopic in Hollywood

The film biography has a chequered past, but a rash of dramas based on the lives of ‘90s rap stars such as Tupac and NWA has juiced the genre

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Image Credit: Supplied
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Music biopics have a long and, frankly, embarrassing history. Sure, some are well done (Control and I’m Not There come to mind), but this type of film has never been particularly successful. Until fairly recently only one — Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash — grossed more than $100 million (Dh367 million) at the box office.

Let’s be honest: it is weird seeing an actor playing your favourite musician — said actor undoubtedly lacks the charisma (and sex appeal) — but it’s also a script problem. Hollywood biopics tend to be incredibly formulaic: precocious talent achieves success against the odds, only to be subsumed by druggy excess, followed by downfall and then redemption.

The groupies, crying mothers and finding-Jesus vignettes practically write themselves. The formula long ago gave way to parody — look no further than Walk the Line spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, or, my personal favourite, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, in which Andy Samberg’s character one-ups Justin Bieber by doing a number two in Anne Frank’s toilet.

But music biopics are suddenly hot — that is, when they’re about hip hop. Straight Outta Compton, the 2015 film about gangsta rap group NWA, grossed more than $200 million worldwide and was nominated for an Academy award. The new Tupac biopic, All Eyez on Me, surpassed expectations on its opening weekend, and has earned $48 million to date. That already makes it one of the highest-grossing music biopics, surpassing Notorious, the 2009 movie about Tupac’s arch-rival, Biggie Smalls, which itself made twice its $20 million budget.

MORE TO COME

The success of these films has helped greenlight a spate of other hip hop-related projects, including one about 2 Live Crew and their randy, freedom-fighting hype man Luke Campbell, entitled The Book of Luke. Films about Death Row Records duo Tha Dogg Pound are also in the works.

Then there are the television movies about hip hop-adjacent acts such as singer Michel’le and Xscape — the latter of which has a pair of biopics slated. There’s also to be a spate of documentaries, including one about Bad Boy Records called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, an HBO profile of Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine called The Defiant Ones, and a yet-unnamed Tupac project directed by Steve McQueen.

Why this sudden windfall of hip-hop biopics and films? “Plain and simple, it’s the interest,” says S Leigh Savidge, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Straight Outta Compton. “This was important, game-changing music.”

Noting that many of these projects concern rappers who were in their prime decades ago, he adds that much of hip hop’s ageing audience still listens to the music they preferred in their teen and college years. Indeed, this is a lucrative audience. Baby-boomer rock acts make the most money touring, and artists who appeal to the middle-aged have been the basis for successful film and stage shows such as Jersey Boys (about the Four Seasons) and What’s Love Got to Do With It (about Tina Turner).

When it comes to hardcore hip hop, it’s funny to think about middle-aged dads blasting it from their minivans while driving their kids to school, but that has become a reality. And their kids are rapping along, too. “A woman in a doctor’s office told me that Straight Outta Compton was the very first time her husband and son could agree on something they liked,” says Savidge. “You’ve got the parent saying, ‘This is what I grew up with,’ and the kid saying, ‘That’s cool.’”

It is true that the bar was dreadfully low for music biopics to begin with. “Since Walk Hard spoofed them so well, it’s hard to take them seriously,” says Devindra Hardawar, co-host of a popular movies podcast called /Filmcast.

He adds, however, that the hip hop biopics are serving an audience that’s not always represented at the multiplex: people of colour. It’s not that they weren’t going to the cinema before, it’s just that they weren’t seeing themselves on the screen. That’s at least partly because Hollywood didn’t realise the strength of the market.

SECRET TO SUCCESS

Nobody in the industry foresaw the success of Straight Outta Compton, but even after it became the highest-grossing music biopic of all time — surpassing Walk the Line — industry insiders still had relatively low expectations for All Eyez on Me, which, like Compton, is set largely in the early ‘90s and features Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Suge Knight. Although initial projections for its first weekend were about $20 million, it ultimately took $27 million.

“What we say is, ‘You can’t track black,’” Jeff Clanagan, CEO of the film’s distributor, CodeBlack Entertainment, told Variety in 2015 about movies with strong appeal to African-Americans, blaming outdated industry tracking techniques. Apparently, because Hollywood couldn’t see the market for these films, it assumed it didn’t exist.

“It’s this untapped audience who have been underserved for so long,” says Hardawar. “I’m so glad that there’s room to tell these stories now.”

It is likely that another factor is at work. Rappers’ lives tend to be a lot more interesting than, say, those of your average bassist or drummer. Tupac in particular led an explosive, riveting life that was much stranger than most multiplex fare. Take his tangles with the law: in 1991, he successfully sued Oakland police for assault; then, two years later, he shot and wounded a pair of off-duty Atlanta cops who were bothering a black motorist — and got off. Both Tupac’s and Biggie Smalls’ lives ended in unsolved drive-by shootings six months apart, which are themselves the subject of a forthcoming US series, Unsolved.

Meanwhile, a six-part series Who Killed Tupac? is in the offing from TV channel A&E.

If anything, it’s surprising it took so long for these downright cinematic stories to come to fruition. And yet, Hollywood has seemed reluctant to bet heavily on hip hop until recently, despite the runaway success of 2002’s 8 Mile, which, although not technically a biopic, was loosely based on the life of Detroit rapper Eminem. Three years later, 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich or Die Tryin’ followed the same formula but wasn’t as successful.

But Straight Outta Compton seems to have juiced the system. Although the film had to overcome difficulties during production — including the arrest of Knight, Tupac’s former manager, who was charged with attempted murder — its success no doubt helped get the long-in-production All Eyez on Me on to the screen. (The Tupac film has faced controversy of its own, including a lawsuit over plagiarism from journalist Kevin Powell, and disgruntled reactions from others, such as Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, who had previously signed on to direct.)

Now, however, a plethora of hip hop projects are in the works. One industry source told me that “every hip hop act from the ‘90s” was coming forward, hoping to get their stories made. There is no telling which of these will be brought to life, of course, and, indeed, high hurdles remain for the average rap biopic. For one thing, this type of film can be difficult to get produced, since the artist’s estate often controls their music and can thus halt the project if they don’t like the script. (No one wants to see, say, a film about the Wu-Tang Clan if it doesn’t have Wu-Tang Clan songs in it.)

“It takes the will of Job to get these things done,” says Savidge, who is trying to sell a film about Tupac’s label, Death Row Records, which he is optimistic about but doesn’t expect will see the light of day soon. “The people who control the estates have a pocket veto.”

Hardawar, however, is bullish about music biopics because of the one factor that tends to trump everything — money. “They aren’t altruistic,” he says of industry brass. When it comes to Hollywood, where there’s a dollar to be made, there’s always a way.

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