It’s been a big year for the classic rock canon. This month will see Danny Boyle’s Pistol series, about the acrid and public rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, land on Disney+. Grime and fury, as the Daily Mirror’s front page said in 1976, will sit next to Toy Story, Captain America and the 1986 counterfeit Fuzzbucket AND on Mickey Mouse’s house.
hey isn’t the only heritage act to have a brilliant retelling of its history in 2022. Later in May there’s Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, with Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as the manager of the singer, Colonel Tom Parker. Midas Man, a biopic of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, is also slated for release this year, and there are more in the works.
Timothée Chalamet spent some time during the first summer of the pandemic bouncing around Greenwich Village and Woodstock with a copy of Bob Dylan’s memoir in hand, with a view to playing him in the much-delayed biopic Going Electric. Kiss, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Grateful Dead and Joey Ramone would all have received the biopic treatment.
But what can the Sex Pistols mean to a generation that is as likely to know John Lydon as Johnny Rotten as they know him as the guy from the butter commercials? And why are they and their Mojo-approved brethren suddenly mistaken for massive, splashy, disturbing biopics?
It’s partly a question of money. Traditionally, the way labels introduced heritage acts to new generations was with new formats: the times when cassettes replaced vinyl, CDs replaced tapes, and streaming replaced CDs all gave an excuse for a gigantic marketing push. It was a win-win for the labels: they didn’t have to get new music or spend time building a band’s profile; they just put classic albums on new, usually more expensive technology and started putting the champagne on ice.
However, it’s only a small group of people who still buy music these days. So how does a label or manager transpire an asset like a legacy band when your band can’t tour anymore because they broke up or died? A biopic. It’s the best way to get young people playing while reminding fans who remember them the first time why they’re so great.
Making an aging (or dead) star look young, sexy and fresh again – look, Elton John isn’t seventy; It’s Taron Egerton! — is a reliable booster for streaming numbers. Freddie Mercury’s biopic Bohemian Rhapsody fueled a massive surge in Queen streams in the last quarter of 2018 – no artist had more songs in the top 200 charts, and 70% of all Queen streams came from fans under 35.
After Rocketman, John’s stock has rarely been higher. In 2021, his collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa earned him two number one singles, the first time he had two top 10s in a calendar year since 2002.
But there’s something else going on here too, and a quote Boyle gave about Pistol explains why we’re seeing so many biopics right now.
“It’s the tipping point of British street culture,” he said when announcing the series, “where ordinary young people took the stage and vented their fury and fashion… and everyone had to watch and listen.”
This gives the impression that Pistol will reframe the nihilism and aggressiveness of the band as part of the productive, creative and egalitarian revolution of punk. It’s not just the stupid mutiny of Sid Vicious cutting himself with a broken bottle; they are the embodiment of rebellion and individual expression, with a cynicism towards the plastic corporate culture and unthinking acceptance of class restrictions.
It’s less of a future for you, and more of England’s dream. Suddenly, the Sex Pistols feel much less stuck in time as a phenomenon.
This gun is on Disney+ rather than any other streaming service. After enjoying huge success with The Beatles: Get Back, the immersive wall-to-wall documentary that miraculously made the most familiar and ubiquitous of all classic rock acts, Disney has found a subgenre that fits the profile of its platform.
According to Nielsen, Disney+’s audience is younger — last summer, 23% of all streaming service users were over 55, but only 9% of Disney+ users were in that bracket. It is exactly this younger base that Pistol, Elvis and Midas Man will try to exploit.
Correcting longstanding omissions in the narratives of groups and movements is another avenue. Apart from Vivienne Westwood, women have rarely played a significant role in the history of punk. But in Pistol Maisie Williams will play model and actress Pamela Rooke, and Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux and Soo Catwoman will also appear.
Judging by its trailer, Luhrmann’s Elvis will attempt to do something similar. In America, rumors that Presley was a racist spread in the 1950s, although they were untrue.
Elvis will implicitly reprimand all of this. We’ll see a young Presley sneak into a black church service and experience the power of music, plus there’s the suggestion that Presley was upset that he wasn’t allowed to talk about Martin Luther King’s death.
Meanwhile, Rocketman showed John having fun, sensual, and happy sex with his then-manager John Reid, while Bohemian Rhapsody was oddly coy about Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. A scene where Mercury heads to the restroom with a man for, presumably, casual sex made the weird bits of Mercury’s life dirty and stealthy where Rocketman was partying.
All of this means that it’s no longer enough to tell the story of an artist’s life, get critical buzz with an insanely good central performance, and wait for the streams to come.
Now, a biopic must define the ideological lens through which an artist focuses: Presley becomes politically aware in a serious and empathetic way; Elton John found happiness by embracing his sexuality; the Sex Pistols showed the youngsters the power they had (it’s unclear how Kiss plans to go about this). in Las Vegas could be a tricky sell).
There is a profound change taking place here. Biopics that work renew themselves while commemorating. Restarting a heritage act is more likely to stick if you can convince newcomers not only that an artist is really good, but that the artist fits their worldview and means something beyond themselves .
It’s much easier to imagine yourself in a Britain where young people yearn to break up a system that doesn’t serve them, as in Pistol, than to hear another round of talking heads talk about a Britain with three TV channels and still pock-marked by WWII bomb sites.
Stop your cheap commentary, as Rotten once sang. We know how we feel.
Pistol is on Disney+ from May 31