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How Do You Like Your Music Biopics?

We’re experiencing something of a renaissance for music biopics. The tropes have been firmly in place since Walk the Line and Ray, but popularity hit its peak only 3 years ago when the Queen (by way of Freddie Mercury) biopic made nearly a billion dollars. We now have about 18 music biopics in the pipeline, and I hope that means we can expect 18 distinct films, but I'm not too sure. The parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played out all of banalities of the genre, extenuating how terribly on the nose these films can get, and in the 14 years since, few have taken the hint.

Even worse than overly familiar stories, at their worst, these films let the music and creativity of the artists down. The saving grace of almost all of them are the stars, who typically knock it out of the park, in likeness, style and persona. Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I Am Woman, Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, and the spectacular Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up come to mind. But the two most notable modern examples of the genre are undoubtedly Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. So whose lead would I prefer the upcoming films take?

Bohemian Rhapsody is a very solid production and it does a good job of getting people swept up in Queen's success story, going through the motions when it comes to painting band frontman Freddie Mercury's personal growth. I would say it trades the lively fantasy of traditional musicals for a realistic take on Freddie's life, but that's not really true. The film plays fast and loose with the facts, mostly to reframe the Live Aid performance as the climactic victory of the band over their squabbles, and Freddie over his problems with the band, drugs and having to come to terms with his AIDS diagnosis.

In reality, at the time of the concert, the band had not broken up, they enjoyed and encouraged each other to do solo work, Freddie continued taking drugs well into his illness; and wouldn't find out about his HIV-status until April 1987. It's all to invest the audience in the, admittedly rapturous, concert finale. It's an engrossing sequence, not the least because it communicates the titanic importance of witnessing that moment in history (either as someone after Queen's time, longing for their missing untouchable Rock God status, or to relive it). The music, the moves, the sense of community is all so palpable that it leaves a sweet taste in your mouth, and disguises an otherwise serviceable movie. Rather watch the real thing.

Other than the concert, the best moment of the film comes when Freddie has to come out to his wife, while his performance of Love of my Life, written earnestly to her, plays on the television. Also undeniable is the draw of Rami Malek's performance, which accomplished the impossible by largely satiating the masses who felt that there is only one Freddie, and no substitute. That remains true, but Malek takes a phenomenal crack at it, imitating Freddie's mannerisms without falling into parody, and capturing his slinking, bouncing, charming theatricality.

Rocketman, Elton John's biopic, is thoroughly entertaining the whole way through, wonderfully original and so propulsive that you never notice the film crescendo-ing to its conclusion (it's just too involving). Freddie is corrupted by fame into hedonism at the cost of his true family; the band. Elton also climbs the dangerous ladder of pop stardom, but his problem is feeling that no-one in his life truly loves him, as he wants to be loved. Having to be whatever everybody else wants you to be, because you think you won't have anyone if you try to be yourself. It's a far more relatable feeling being communicated, and more difficult to solve. Freddie just has to get over himself and value the people who matter in his life. Elton has built so many ways to give the people what they want, so that he won't feel unloved. Stopping, understanding that he needs to work on himself, not being everything to everyone, means abandoning his coping mechanisms for no certain substitute. It makes the significance of self-love clear, and it doesn't make it soppy.

The film marries this improved drive with inventive sequences that beautifully speak to Elton's state of mind, paired seamlessly with his music, and gets to be almost as camp as Elton himself at points. It seems a little by the books in the first 20 minutes, but it hits its stride and only gets better as it goes on.

As for its best scene? I don't think I will ever forget the image of Elton, having downed a cocktail of pills, floating weightlessly above his vulnerable young self, in a space suit, sat at his piano at the bottom of the vast emptiness of what, a moment ago, was his pool, as the echoes of Rocketman begin to play. It's a perfect microcosm of the film; a flash of divine inspiration and beauty, striking at the darkest moment in Elton's life.

I wholeheartedly prefer the Rocketman slant. It distils the life of its subjects into an expression not unlike their music, and I think that makes for a more fulfilling experience for fans of the musician. The next big music biopic slated for release (not that anything keeps its release date these days) is Respect, chronicling Aretha Franklin’s life. I’ve got a feeling that South African born director Liesl Tommy won’t be taking a fantastical approach.

The Beatles on Screen

With Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary delayed again, I realized that we've yet to see a real blockbuster tell-all bio-pic about the most influential band of all time, and got to thinking about what we've gotten instead. That is, films about the Beatles, fictionalized or otherwise, not just featuring them as performers, or their music (SPL!NG already covered the romcom Yesterday).

The best Beatles films happen to be the ones they were directly involved in, whether it be the inventively casual comedy of A Hard Day's Night, the broader slapstick of HELP!, or the psychedelic and imaginative animation of Yellow Submarine (where the Beatles are voiced by performers, only to show up for the final scene, because they liked the film too). Of their original run, only Magical Mystery Tour was poorly received, too loose and strange even for their flower power followers. Still, each of these is driven by the strength of the fab four's music, in its original form, and their distinctive sense of humour.

Once John Lennon started dating Yoko Ono, the two began creating experimental films, always under the credit of “by John and Yoko” (which translates roughly to “by Yoko”). John only features in a handful of them; Apotheosis, shot from a hot air balloon ascending into the clouds, Smile, in which he goes from stone faced to a cheeky grin repeatedly in super slow motion (taking about 51 minutes) and most curiously, Self-Portrait. This one is 42 minutes of John's nude waist, as his unassisted member… well, you can guess. Hilariously, Yoko already had a film called Erection, about a building being constructed. I figure these aren't exactly the sorts of films Beatles fans are clambering for.

Unfortunately, the height of the band's fame and creative output tends to be the realm of documentaries; most movies opt to explore the nebulous early period, spanning from before the Cavern Club to performing on the Ed Sullivan show. There's the fairly dated Birth of the Beatles, which at least manages not to play favourites with members, and the much better Backbeat, about the band's early connection to Stu Sutcliffe. Backbeat can rub fans the wrong way, since the mop tops are depicted performing modernised, punk covers of the songs they were performing at the time. Both films opt to only suggest the vast heights to come, and this might be for the better. Some biopics try to condense so much that they fall a little flat (this could be especially true of the Beatles, none of whom had a particularly clear life story, and who experienced more intermittently amazing and horrible things in individual weeks then some musicians do in their lifetimes).

Most biopics covering the members as individuals focus on John Lennon, who's untimely death mythologized him and inspired something of a consensus that he was the world's most beloved Beatle, which is only being challenged more recently. The best Lennon centric biopic is Nowhere Boy, which explores John's early life and his relationship with Paul as they first became writing partners, but of particular note is how the film investigates John's feelings towards his absent mother, who re-enters his life. Listening to the music he wrote about her, sometimes sounding romantic and weaving in verses about Yoko, it isn't difficult to feel that John had a strange view of his mother, and the film occasionally pushes this to appear downright oedipal. Plenty of these movies don't shy away from criticizing Lennon, but Nowhere Boy is the only one to bring this forward, and perhaps not coincidentally, the only film co-written by a family member. My favourite exclusively Lennon film, or rather short film, remains I Met the Walrus, animated musings from John, recorded by a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan, who snuck into a hotel room to interview him in 1969.

The next most popular Beatle over is Paul, whose wife got a movie before he did (The Linda McCartney Story). For my money though, George Harrison needs more attention on this front. Specifically, January 1969, the start of the Let It Be sessions, during which George's wife left him, and he quit the group. It seems to me that this time in his life is a good confluence of George's personal problems with infidelity, the band's falling out, and his emerging artistry during an infamous moment in the Beatle's history, and would make for an interesting movie.

P.S. Ringo has no biopic, despite ironically having been in the most films of any of the four, being a decent actor. The closest we have is a bizarre TV special featuring Ringo Starr in a dual role as himself, and his fictional brother Ognir Rrats, who trade places in a Prince and the Pauper scenario. It's on YouTube for free (creatively titled: Ringo), and it is just as goofy as it sounds.

Ster-Kinekor Enters into Business Rescue

Ster-Kinekor holds the largest market share of any exhibitor in South Africa and has been in operation for over 50 years. Having survived the introduction of television to our country in 1976, they've been able to stave off changes in media consumption made possible through the Internet. Using their big screens and advances in cinema technology to stay a step ahead of the convenience of home entertainment theatres, they've managed to stay relevant to audiences. While streaming services have undercut them by way of cost and convenience, they've converted their offering to include VIP and technology-driven experiences at a higher ticket price.

Part of their success has been the cinema chain's clinical business approach to screening movies for the public. Slick, exciting and checking all the boxes for a typical movie night, their audiences have simply been numbers. While this may be good for business, it doesn't demonstrate an on-the-ground approach to customer service. The concept of movie-going is now seen as occasional rather than regular, downplaying its focus across media outlets. While escapist blockbuster franchises have spurred box office takings, attendance has been steadily dropping due to high prices and in-theatre niggles.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated many industries, including movie theatres, and it's amazing they've managed to survive almost a year given the drastic limitations of the new health and safety protocols. Major new releases have been delayed to the point that they're even at risk of a tepid response when they eventually land after months of ongoing coverage. The climate is uncertain and studios are holding back, making it incredibly challenging to anticipate what lies over the horizon.

For Ster-Kinekor going into business rescue is sensible if not a last resort. It's a chance to weather the next few months while still operating, giving them some breathing room to take stock and tackle the next few months ahead. Their strategy has basically been wait-and-see, which probably made sense in the first few weeks of the global response, considering previous viral fall out. Possibly taking cues from the roll out of forthcoming attractions, the capacity restrictions and hesitation from audiences has made them financially distressed and in need of business rescue mediation.

The cinema chain has tried some diversification by backing a drive-in format and introducing a subscription club but inaction, global trends and government regulation have left them in a stalemate. Not having a strong emotional connection with audiences, rolling with entertainment trends, attending to in-theatre disturbances or acknowledging the threat of disruptors could cost them dearly. It's not just Ster-Kinekor, one of the more successful commercial enterprises, it's the story of old school cinemas across the planet. Let's hope that enough loyal patrons can step up to help save the iconic Ster-Kinekor brand and other movie theatres, who are also struggling to keep their doors open. Perhaps this much-needed shake up will enable them to deconstruct their business and re-engineer it to last for the next 50 years.

The Rise, Fall and Sorta Rise of MacCaulay Culkin...

Acting by age 4, child star MacCaulay Culkin did light supporting work in several un-acclaimed movies, basically as a prop, getting his first real burst of attention for Uncle Buck. Another go at a heart-warming film of the sort where lost adults learn from the kids in their lives. There happen to be other kids in the movie too, but don't let that stop you. Still, Culkin was a born star, and any movie that didn't rely heavily on his draw was misusing him.

Best remembered for the cartoony violence of its final sequence, a lot more of Home Alone is just Culkin plotlessly going about his business as a kid left home alone. Eating junk food, snooping, and now that the nags are away: Trying out hygiene and chores that responsibility-phobic kids his age hate to be told to do, but feel satisfied to have done on their own.

It's not just the best film he's ever been in, but easily his best performance. Kevin has to be scared, ecstatic, devious, funny, and all mostly without anyone around to help carry the scenes. That Home Alone is a holiday classic, in the traditional canon (Miracle on 34th Street, not Die Hard), is because the film's spirit relies on his talent and beaming innocence. But everybody grows up eventually.

He was reliable in the carbon copy that is Home Alone 2, but Culkin's next few films would misuse him terribly. The Good Son tried to make him into a psychopath, and in Richie Rich, playing a billionaire's son making friends with ‘normal kids’, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much at all. As it turned out, MacCaulay felt a lot like Richie, having been shot into stratospheric fame, hosting Saturday Night Live, working with Michael Jackson and the like. After the film's release, he retired to finish his childhood in normalcy.

Returning to acting in 2000, in something of a Miley Cyrus move, Culkin leaned towards disturbed and unpleasant characters; drug addict murderers (Party Monster), pessimists (Saved) and jealous mopes (Sex and Breakfast), to mark his quality as a full-bodied actor. It was a respectable second debut, but he hadn't exactly made waves. This extended absence from the public consciousness might be why, once he began having his own trouble with the law, publicity so readily contrasted the almost emaciated adult with the evergreen youngster their readers had remembered. Culkin received probation for drug offences, and the story is often paired with details surrounding his divorce, affiliation with Michael Jackson, and the death of his family members into a never-ending stream of “The Tragic Story of MacCaulay Culkin” articles.

But, in the years since, the powerful force of Millennial nostalgia has afforded him the chance to redefine his image online by doing just about whatever interests him. A fascination with Andy Warhol lead him to painting, eating a slice of pizza on camera for about 5 minutes, and starting a now defunct Velvet Underground parody band called The Pizza Underground. Most successfully, he's entrenched himself into internet culture that still regards him with a sort of reverence for his status as a child star, often making appearances on YouTube shows (AVGN, Red Letter Media) drawing attention to the absurdity of it all. He hosts a podcast called Bunny Ears, but still sees his best engagement when playing up the fact that he's the kid from Home Alone (in commercials, but mostly on Twitter, reminding followers how old he, and therefore they, are). He's turned his image into that of a goofball, willing to legally change his name at his followers' request (He is now officially MacCaulay MacCaulay Culkin Culkin).

I don't foresee that sort of passive endorsement fading anytime soon, especially when tons of households remind themselves he exists every year by watching Home Alone for Christmas. As for if he'll ever wow general audiences again, he's slated to be in the next season of American Horror Story. Fingers crossed.

Cinemas: Adapt or Die

The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst to technology, forcing businesses to adopt more flexible working arrangements with their employees and transforming retail with a greater demand for home deliveries. The film industry, more specifically exhibitors, have been much slower to adapt to the changes brought on by lockdown conditions.

To be fair, the moviegoing experience hasn't really changed that much over the last 30 years. In South Africa, exhibitors are still primarily based in shopping malls, have between 6 and 20 screens, rely on ticket sales at the box office, preview and foyer advertising as well as confectionery stand sales. While some of the technology around booking and even screening has been adopted in order to facilitate a more immersive experience, sharper image or high fidelity, these have been mostly superficial changes.

Cinema: Adapt or Die

While this traditional model has certainly worked for some time, it's quite surprising there haven't been more continuous improvements in order to compete with the rise of streaming services. While there have been more campaigns or events in order to stimulate more active participation at cineplexes, it's generally been more of the same. If you're in your 30s or older, you'll know that the general movie experience you had in the '80s has remained the same. People see what's showing, buy tickets, get popcorn, watch the movie after a number of forthcoming attractions and adverts before being ushered out of the cinema only to repeat the cycle.

The big screen experience certainly has its charms and it's important as Inception director Christopher Nolan suggests that we find a way to save the traditional theatre experience. Films are designed to be seen in this format, making it a shame if they had to be relegated to small screens exclusively. More recently Ang Lee, director of Life of Pi, has said that theatres need to work towards a more active participation with moviegoers. While speculation is that he's probably talking more about more immersive technology in order to offer an unrivalled experience in contrast to what you can achieve with your home theatre system, there needs to be more out-of-the-box thinking. Projectors are getting cheaper, 3D technology is available to home theatres... why keep the competition based on technology?

More recently, cinemas have adopted a VIP model when it comes to the movie-going experience. Being able to have snacks served on a platter, get a comfortable reclining chair and enough room to kick your feet up is great. But these more expensive "first-class" tickets are a way of upselling more than capturing the mainstream audience and demographic, which is what is needed in order to secure a healthy future. It seems that cinemas rely on the latest Fast and Furious or Marvel blockbuster to sustain a few months of good business once per ticket percentages improve.

While some cinemas have adjusted their offering to include drive-in experiences to weather the pandemic or test out other options when it comes to exhibiting films, it's something that should have been done months ago - possibly even in empty mall parking garages. As the continual delay of new releases indicates, most would have probably expected things to return to a new normal by now, enabling cinemas to operate as they have for decades. Unfortunately this is not the case, delayed by vaccine rollouts, second wave spikes and much uncertainty about the future of many hard hit industries, especially cinema.

During this down time, exhibitors have obviously had to align with protocols when it comes to safety, reducing the capacity, distancing patrons and ensuring everyone complies. Visiting the movie house has become a chore and as safe as they would have you believe, there's always a risk. Not to mention, who wants to sit in a room that gets disinfected several times a day and watch a movie with a mask on... does Ghostface's mask count? One would hope that beyond the strategic thinking around salvaging what business it can, some fresh thinking would have been applied in order to adapt to trends and meet the ever-evolving nuances of modern audiences. While there have been some surveys and general return to the movies campaigns, it's a great time for a shake up.

If Spling were to rescue the theatre experience, he'd be turning cineplexes into entertainment hubs. Creating exclusive content that can only be seen in a cinema is a great way of hooking audiences. Ster-Kinekor had a brilliant advert where the careful teaser build-up wasn't resolved anywhere but in the theatre. Having several large vehicles carrying all manner of paraphernalia including fireworks were converging towards a busy intersection. Using suspense, this was further heightened by leaving TV and YouTube audiences in anticipation... what happens next? Using a similar approach to current advertising efforts could lure audiences back to cinemas. Yet, there's so much more. Having a special Q&A with the director or cast following the movie, would also be a great bonus.

Activating community is another must in this post-pandemic economy. Cineplexes have the theatres and seating, so why reserve them exclusively for screening content. Another way of drawing audiences in would be to partner with musicians, comedians, magicians or other live performance artists. Most of these artists have been hit by the pandemic and could help get people to live shows at cineplexes, which are designed to facilitate audiences. Whether having a full show or limiting their performances as guest appearances with thematic tie-ins to open certain movies, mystery guests or special performances could create some much-neeeded excitement. This kind of edge is what modern cinemas should be adopting. Look after the community and they'll look after you.

Spling did this for Movie Buffs screenings through Ster-Kinekor and they were well-received. Breaking the fourth wall makes it so much more than just a movie. Turning a passive experience into an engaging one makes it that much richer and more rewarding. Watching Neill Blomkamp's Elysium possibly sitting next to Vanessa Haywood from District 9, seeing sleight-of-hand illusionist Stuart Lightbody open Now You See Me, watching instrumental guitarist Jonny Dose perform Aerosmith's 'Living on the Edge' to open Edge of Tomorrow, getting to see Gravity with an astrophysicist to answer questions afterwards... these are just some of the ways you can turn movie night into something much more special and memorable.

Audiences are looking to be engaged and participate, which is why it's important that cinemas remain relevant. Simply reflecting dreams offers some magic but more advanced viewers are expecting something more. Creating exclusive and special performance content can help reinvent the movie experience, turning it from a 2-hour escape to a big night out. For many, watching a movie on a cellphone is becoming acceptable so there really has to be something incredible to form a new movie-going habit. Let's hope that cinemas are taking up the challenge and not facing collapse like so many other industries that didn't adapt in the face of disruptors or global trends.

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