Music Biopics Are In Tune With Viewers

When it comes to musical icons, there are few names and personalities bigger than Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Notorious B.I.G, New Edition or Tupac Shakur.

On cable, those artists are among many music legends featured in original movie biopics, scripted series and limited series that are aimed at longtime fans, but also bring young, diverse audiences to their respective networks.

Original movies such as Lifetime’s Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, limited scripted series like CMT’s Sun Records — about when Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were starting out at the famed Nashville studios — and miniseries like BET’s The New Edition Story are giving viewers shows to tap their feet to while illuminating the lives of favorite musical performers.

“Biopics on their own have always been a way to do a true story, and with music added, it just elevates the entertainment value,” Tanya Lopez, Lifetime’s senior vice president of original movies, said. “I think people come to these shows to learn something different about these artists — it’s not just Behind the Music,” referring to VH1’s venerable music-documentary series.

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Though music biopics are not new to the television landscape, networks have recently turned up the volume on the genre, especially with more recent artists (than, say, The Beatles) intriguing both younger and older viewers. The more contemporary music stars have a built-in audience from millions of social-media followers — and the older stars are being rediscovered by young millennials.

Lopez said the network’s musical biopics — which includes this past February’s Britney Ever After, on the life and career of Britney Spears, and previous films showcasing R&B legends Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston — have appealed to younger, more diverse viewers that extend beyond Lifetime’s target demo of women 25-54.

Connecting With Music Fans
“It’s an audience that was really connected to music and, more specifically, to the period when they listened to that artist’s music,” she said.

BET’s January three-part miniseries The New Edition Story, about the 1980s R&B group, drew more than 29 million viewers across its three-night run, many of them young viewers discovering the group for the first time.

BET CEO Debra Lee said the series combined the group’s triumphs and tribulations over the years with familiar songs that appealed to a broad cross-section of viewers in a scripted format that tends to underscore the drama of the storytelling better than a traditional documentary feature.

The series’ success has led BET to develop a spinoff miniseries about New Edition member Bobby Brown.

“Scripted really gives us a chance to be authentic and create drama from a storyline, as opposed to a reality setting,” Lee said.

Of course, viewers who watch biographical flicks about music stars expect artists’ top hits to be part of the soundtrack. But music isn’t always needed to convey the movie’s message. Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, for example, focused more on Jackson’s relationship with his three children than on the King of Pop’s musical portfolio. It pulled in 2 million viewers for the May 29 premiere, Lifetime’s second biggest original movie of the year behind the January remake of Beaches, according to Lopez.

“When you’re talking about biopics on these musical artists, the challenge is to tell a part of the story that no one has heard,” Lopez said. “This was more about his personal life than his entertainment life where he was actually creating and performing music, but you can still use the musical star that is Jackson to grab the audience’s attention.”

USA Network will dance to a different beat with the upcoming limited series about the life and death of hip hop icons Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls and Tupac Shakur. The true-crime anthology series, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., delves into the police investigations of the 1996 fatal shooting of Shakur and the 1997 murder of Smalls.

Alex Sepiol, USA’s senior vice president of development, said the series, slated to debut in 2018, hopes to draw fans of mysteries, period dramas and the music industry, as well as fans of the two artists.

“Ideally there are a lot of entry points for people … it’s a fascinating investigation and case that intersects with these distinctly American icons of Biggie and Tupac,” Sepiol said. “It’s finding that overlap of a really good mystery and compelling narrative that also touches on the world of hip hop.”

Docuseries as Film Fodder
The success of these productions has cable executives looking in-house for inspiration and material for new music biopics.

TV One, for example, is looking to convert episodes of its long-running Unsung documentary series into scripted biopics after finding ratings success with the 2016 movie Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story, which became the network’s most widely viewed original movie, according to officials.

TV One is planning two 2018 Unsung-influenced movies based on R&B groups DeBarge and Xscape, as well as a biopic this year about Bobbi Kristina, the daughter of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown.

“Our Unsung movies are setting the standard for biopics of music artists,” D’Angela Proctor, TV One senior vice president of original programming and production, said. “We have a treasure trove of musical shows from Unsung to build our movies around.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.