Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How Have Music Biopics Performed At The Oscars?

By Will Mavity 

​In a post “Bohemian Rhapsody” world, audiences suddenly find themselves on the edge of a deluge of musical biopics. We already had a Motley Crue biopic this year, and in the next few years, we have feature films coming for Journey, Judy Garland, Lynard Skynard, David Bowie, Celine Dion, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Bee Gees, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Keith Moon, and more. And of course, this weekend, we have the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.” As “Bohemian Rhapsody” demonstrated, musical biopics have the capacity to clean up at the Oscars (even without stellar reviews). As we look towards another era of musician biopics, the question is, “how much does AMPAS really like music biopics?” and the answer is…”quite a bit.” Over the years, more than 50 music biopics have been nominated for Oscars. 10 of them have been nominated for Best Picture (with two winning Best Picture) and 36 performers have been nominated for Oscars for starring in them (with 11 of them winning). They have snagged nominations in nearly every category across the board.

As to why Oscar apparently reacts so well to music biopics? Well, music carries amazing sentimental value. What quicker way to someone’s heart than through a song they associate happy memories with? In addition, the films often get to couch their narratives in the ghost of social relevance –the leads typically struggle against drug or alcohol addiction, illness, or race/sexual discrimination. Those elements are typically ‘enough’ to lend an aura of importance to the voter, but not so heavily as to distract from the music and/or make the voter feel guilty. They’re flashily edited and boast high-quality production values. With so many music biopics on the horizon, will at least some of them show up at the Oscars? Statistically, the answer is: almost certainly.

he question is, which categories cater to music biopics most frequently? Historically, the most common category was Best Original Score, where 24 different films were nominated. Another 5 were nominated in the now obsolete “Adaptation Score” category. Given that the eligibility requirements for “Original Score” have become significantly more stringent in recent decades, it is unlikely many of these biopics will factor in there anymore. Pre-existing songs cannot constitute as a ‘score.’ For example: we recently saw Best Picture winner “Green Book” disqualified from score consideration because it utilized recordings of Don Shirley’s piano music.

So instead, we look to which category came in second. Unsurprisingly, that category is Sound Mixing. We know The Academy loves to acknowledge music-based films in this category. Music films nearly always fare well here, biopic or non-biopic. 6 winners in the category this century were music films, including most recently “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Voters tend to think sound=music. As such, 20 music biopics have been nominated for Sound Mixing, and 7 have actually won the Oscar. So if we should look for these upcoming biopics anywhere, Best Sound Mixing makes the most sense.

Just behind Best Sound Mixing is Best Costume Design. Again, it makes sense when you think about it. Many biopics are period pieces with period-appropriate costumes and flashy outfits for the musician at the center. In the past, 16 music biopics have been nominated here, with two winning.

Surprisingly (since it has been a minute since a music biopic was nominated here), Best Cinematography is next, with 15 films having been nominated here (and 2 having won). Still, only one music biopic has been nominated here in the last 30 years, so take that particular trend with a grain of salt.

Tied next are Best Actor and Best Editing, with 14 each. Best Actor is obvious enough. Many of the biopics have featured male musicians as the lead, saddled with Oscar-friendly tropes such as drug addiction, a deadly disease, crying scenes, lengthy monologues, mental illness, and of course, showy performance scenes. Accordingly, 6 of them have gone as far as to win the Oscar. As for Best Editing, many music biopics attempt to imitate music and create flashy, toe-tapping rhythms to recreate the enjoyment of listening to music.

Just behind those two, is Lead Actress, with 12 Nominees and 4 winners.

As for the remaining categories…music biopics at least made an appearance in most of them, with even 2 in Best Foreign Language Film. It is worth noting that Best Sound Editing had never had a music biopic nominee until “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the category this past year.


For a full breakdown of which music biopics have shown up in which categories, see the full list below.

​* indicates that the film won the Oscar

BEST PICTURE
Green Book*
Bohemian Rhapsody
Ray
The Pianist
Shine
Amadeus*
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Bound for Glory
Funny Girl
Yankee Doodle Dandy

BEST DIRECTOR
Taylor Hackford – Ray
Roman Polanski – The Pianist*
Scott Hicks – Shine
Milos Forman – Amadeus*
Michael Curtiz – Yankee Doodle Dandy

BEST ACTOR
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody*
Joaquin Phoenix – Walk the Line
Jamie Foxx – Ray*
Adrien Brody – The Pianist*
Geoffrey Rush – Shine*
Laurence Fishburne – What’s Love Got to Do With It
F. Murray Abraham – Amadeus*
Tom Hulce – Amadeus
Gary Busey – The Buddy Holly Story
James Cagney – Love Me or Leave Me
Larry Parks – The Jolson Story
Cornel Wilde – A Song to Remember
James Cagney – Yankee Doodle Dandy*

BEST ACTRESS
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins
Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose*
Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line *
Emily Watson – Hilary and Jackie
Angela Basset – What’s Love Got To Do With It
Jessica Lange – Sweet Dreams
Sissy Spacek – Coal Miner’s Daughter*
Diana Ross – Lady Sings the Blues
Barbara Streisand – Funny Girl*
Eleanor Parker – Interrupted Melody
Susan Hayward – I’ll Cry Tomorrow
Susan Hayward – With a Song in My Heart

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book*
Armin Muehler Stahl – Shine
Daniel Massey – Star!
William Demarest – The Jolson Story
Walter Huston – Yankee Doodle Dandy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett – I’m Not There
Rachel Griffiths – Hilary and Jackie
Kay Medford – Funny Girl
Thelma Ritter – With a Song in My Heart
Miliza Korjus – The Great Waltz

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Green Book*
Straight Outta Compton
Topsy Turvy
Lady Sings the Blues
The Eddy Duchin Story
Love Me or Leave Me*
Interrupted Melody*
The Glen Miller Story
A Song to Remember
Yankee Doodle Dandy

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Pianist*
Shine
Amadeus*
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Bound For Glory
Jolson Sings Again

​BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Pianist
Amadeus
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Bound For Glory*
Funny Lady
Funny Girl
Star!
The Five Pennies
I’ll Cry Tomorrow
The Eddy Duchin Story
Jolson Sings Again
The Jolson Story
A Song to Remember
The Great Victor Herbert
The Great Waltz*

BEST EDITING
Green Book
Bohemian Rhapsody*
Walk the Line
Ray
The Pianist
Shine
Amadeus
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Bound for Glory
Funny Girl
The Jolson Story
A Song to Remember
Yankee Doodle Dandy
The Great Waltz

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Topsy Turvy
Amadeus*
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Lady Sings the Blues
Star!
I’ll Cry Tomorrow
My Gal Sal*
Lillian Russell

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Florence Foster Jenkins
La Vie En Rose
Walk the Line
Ray
The Pianist
Topsy Turvy*
Amadeus*
Bound for Glory
Funny Lady
Lady Sings the Blues
Star!
The Five Pennies
Interrupted Melody
I’ll Cry Tomorrow*
With a Song in my Heart
The Great Caruso

BEST SOUND MIXING
Bohemian Rhapsody*
Walk the Line
Ray*
Bird*
Amadeus*
Coal Miner’s Daughter
The Buddy Holly Story
Funny Lady
Funny Girl
Star!
The Eddy Duchin Story
Love Me or Leave Me
The Glen Miller Story*
With a Song in My Heart
The Great Caruso*
The Jolson Story*
A Song to Remember
Rhapsody in Blue
Yankee Doodle Dandy*
The Great Victor Herbert

BEST SOUND EDITING
Bohemian Rhapsody*

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Shine
Funny Lady
Funny Girl
Star!
Song Without End*
The Five Pennies
The Eddy Duchin Story
The Best Things in Life are Free
Love Me or Leave Me
The Glen Miller Story
With a Song in My Heart*
The Great Caruso
Three Little Words
Look for the Silver Lining
Jolson Sings Again
My Wild Irish Rose
The Jolson Story*
Night and Day
A Song to Remember
Rhapsody in Blue
My Gal Sal
Yankee Doodle Dandy*
The Great Victor Herbert
Swanee River

BEST ADAPTATION SCORE
The Buddy Holly Story*
Bound for Glory*
Funny Lady
Lady Sings the Blues
Tchaikovsky

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Funny Lady
Funny Girl
Star!
Love Me or Leave Me
The Five Pennies
The Dolly Sisters

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
La Vie En Rose*
Topsy Turvy*
Amadeus*

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Farinelli
Tchaikovsky

Have you seen “Rocketman” yet? What do you think its Oscar prospects are? Which other upcoming music biopics do you see garnering Oscar nominations and in which categories? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies

Will Mavity
Will Mavityhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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