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Can music biopics successfully “walk the line” of traditional tropes?

By Ruby Voge

Graphic By Florence Wang

Long before its release, Bradley Cooper’s second directorial effort, Maestro, has been a subject of constant media attention. Despite critics’ arguments to the contrary, Cooper’s approach to the music biopic was far from traditional. 

Maestro depicts the story of Leonard Bernstein, who is often lauded as the “first great American conductor.” Bernstein composed the scores for the Broadway musical West Side Story and the 1954 film On the Waterfront, among many others. Throughout his career, Bernstein received multiple Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys, as well as a Kennedy Center Honor. 

Rather than focusing on the musical accomplishments of the titular maestro, Cooper chose to subvert audience expectations by depicting Bernstein’s personal life and relationship with his wife, Felicia Monteleagre. 

Over the past few years, audiences have been bombarded with a wave of biopics detailing the lives of our favorite musicians. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019), Rocketman (2019), Judy (2020), Respect (2021), and Elvis (2022) all garnered big box office profits or lots of awards nominations, if not both. 

The success of these biopics primarily rested on the beloved music and preexisting reputations of Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley rather than the directors’ ability to create compelling and well-made movies. 

Much of the consistent criticism of music biopics – and biopics in general – is that they rely too much on tired tropes and plot beats, which can quickly begin to feel cheesy and unoriginal. 

However, one biopic nailed it on the head: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Released in 2007 after an earlier biopic frenzy, the movie skillfully parodied Johnny Cash’s film, Walk the Line. 

Walk Hard took the criticism to heart and, instead, shifted its focus to a fictional rock and roll star. 

Starring John C. Reilly, alongside comedy legends like Kristen Wiig and Tim Meadows, Walk Hard expertly satirizes common biopic clichés: the “falling in love” montage, the “Eureka!” songwriting moment, and the “drugs are bad” encounter.

It pokes fun at popular musicians and genres from recent American history. No one makes it out unscathed, as the film parodies The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Bob Dylan, and, of course, Johnny Cash.

Walk Hard features clever original songs in the style of these music legends, which expertly spoof their distinct style, but also remain well-written and well-performed. 

Although it’s been over 15 years since Walk Hard tore the genre to shreds, it doesn’t seem like the biopic will be going away anytime soon. Most recently, Bob Marley: One Love was released on Valentine’s Day and has made almost $150 million worldwide. 

While Maestro may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it managed to overturn the well-worn characteristics of its predecessors. If music biopics continue to be self-serious and uninspired, they will become the Hollywood musical or the Western. However, if they are able to incorporate just a sprinkle of the self-awareness or humor exemplified in Walk Hard, there may be hope for a more imaginative music experience at the movies. 


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