Why is the music industry always the bad guy in the rock biopic boom?

Elton John

Every great movie needs a villain. But be warned: in the rock’n’roll biopic, it’s probably you.

The recent spate of music life stories such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman celebrate the music business the way it used to be: volatile, unpredictable, with plenty of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Yet the music executives who helped achieve that lifestyle for their clients, and dealt with the fallout, are often portrayed as the enemy.

In Rocketman, manager John Reid is played by Bodyguard’s Richard Madden with Disney baddie relish. No doubt Reid had his moments, but as the film does at least make clear, managing Elton John at the peak of his success and excess was hardly a cakewalk.

Reid fares better in Bohemian Rhapsody (at least compared to the Machiavellian take on Paul Prenter), but Queen felt the need to actually invent an exec to be their fall guy. There was no ‘Ray Foster, the guy who lost Queen’ in real life; the band stayed on EMI throughout their career, and the label could hardly have been said to be unsupportive.

Of course, the audience for sensitive artist development might be smaller than the one for dramatic conflict. And, with most biopics seen through the lens of the star, it’s perhaps inevitable that the often faceless execs get the rough end of the deal.

In Rocketman, when Reid takes over managing John, the manager rows with music publisher Dick James (whose friends have already complained about James' portrayal as a foul-mouthed Cockney gangster). Elton bemoans leaving producer Ray Williams behind, because “he’s such a nice guy”. “Well, nice guy isn’t a job,” snarls Reid/Madden.

But, of course, for many in the music industry, past and present, it is. It’s just that surprisingly few executives write down their stories, preferring to save them for smaller audiences in late night bars rather than big ones in primetime cinemas.

It may be too late for the execs of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s to change the narrative now, especially when Kill Your Friends saw the label archetype set in stone by one of its own. But labels are already betting big on documentaries and let’s hope today’s execs are making notes. Rock history is his story, after all, and they might want to make sure they’re the ones telling that story in future.

* To read Rocketman's lessons for the music biz, click here. For more on the movie, see this week's print edition of Music Week, out now. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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