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Not Making a Prince Biopic is the Best Decision

He was an enigmatic wonder, but that’s precisely why his songs can — in jukebox musical form — teach volumes about the politics of identity.
Prince Purple Rain
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on December 4th, 2018

Hollywood’s obsession with throwback aesthetics can really push boundaries, and right now, a movie based on Prince‘s music catalog is catching my eye. Variety dropped the news that Universal Pictures has finally acquired the rights to a number of musical classics by the late pop icon after the studio “aggressively” worked to get them. The word is that Prince’s estate has been shopping the film’s concept for a while, although we shouldn’t hope for a typical biopic to be put in the works.

Instead, a jukebox musical centered on Prince’s music will spawn from this deal. This is evidently preferable to any run-of-the-mill biographical drama, as the estate figures that the musician’s feature film debut Purple Rain already covers those bases. This in spite of the fact that Purple Rain is still a largely fictional take on the artist, even if it has helped to craft Prince’s elusive image over the years thanks to his memorable work as its protagonist, the Kid.

However, the game plan for Universal’s Prince is to definitively go for something “outside the box” this time, creating an original story that utilizes the performer’s songs to steer the narrative. Other commercially successful jukebox musicals such as the Mamma Mia duology are specifically noted as a reference point for the film, too.

Before we even dive deep into its potential, the Prince musical certainly already feels right at home at the Universal camp, seeing as the studio has been tapping into this niche of big-screen entertainment for a while. Besides Mamma Mia, they were in charge of bringing the Pitch Perfect trilogy and the animated film Sing to life in the last few years. At the moment, the studio is even in the midst of overseeing Paul Feig’s George Michael-infused Christmas film. They’re on a roll.

Of course, it’s also impossible to ignore how music-inspired projects have been popping up all over the place these days, regardless of studio affiliation. Fox’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and Warner Bros’ A Star is Born remake are recent box office successes operating within that realm. Indeed, the power of song and an adoration of nostalgia go hand-in-hand for broad audience appeal.

But here’s why the jukebox musical, in particular, can be so potent against play-by-play retellings or even redos: because they are largely dependent on the songs at their disposal, they end up being much less predictable and arguably heaps more fun to anticipate, in spite of an existing fanbase that’s built up around the musicians in question. And especially when it comes to a truly enigmatic figure like Prince — someone who made changeability his unapologetic brand — we’re in for a delectable treat if this movie is done right.

There’s just a wealth of information to draw from. Not only is Prince’s discography massive, but it also happens to be immensely diverse. His Royal Badness went through many disparate eras across his decades-long career, creating music that encompasses a myriad of genres and stylings. From pop to funk, from R&B to rock — no matter if a tune was written to be bombastic like “3 Chains o’ Gold” or more minimalist a la “Sign o’ the Times” — Prince did it all excellently.

Distilling a selection of Prince tunes into something quintessential to the musician’s ethos is admittedly tricky. After all, his headstrong and malleable persona — the way he openly dressed and performed however and whatever the hell he wanted — made his art inherently, fluidly, and powerfully political.

Still, that’s precisely what makes Universal’s project so intriguing in its challenges. This Prince musical may not track the artist’s specific journey as a rule-breaking chameleonic icon. Nevertheless, Prince’s politically charged image and art, coupled with the revelations of his quiet activism, fuels the relevancy and importance that this musical film could have to the current filmic landscape as a whole.

If there’s one thing about Prince’s aesthetic that’s the least bit cohesive, it’s the fact that he celebrates a kind of individuality that dismantles toxic expectations, namely that of African-Americans. Moreover, Prince’s own black identity greatly fueled his work and legacy. Hence, it’s imperative that this musical remains committed to a focus on black voices behind and in front of the camera going forward.

Overall, without the pressure of re-creating any peculiar gestures and mannerisms in order to generate a precise persona on the screen, jukebox musicals can prove to be exceptional storytelling devices. Some can be far from serious. For example, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was my personal summer movie pick this year for the very reason of escapism and pure, unadulterated Good Times (I know it doesn’t have a tenable plot, though).

Yet, there is room for fare like Moulin Rouge! as well, which takes audiences on a rollercoaster of emotions that are compellingly authentic. At the same time, director Baz Luhrmann keeps its spectacle alive and rich with dazzling set pieces. Something similar can be said for the zany Across the Universe, even if it is comparably more hopeful in tone. Julie Taymor’s tribute to The Beatles is electrifyingly engaging in its choreography and visual ambition, but it hits hardest with its emotional earnestness.

The bottom line is that mining Prince’s songs for a movie that could potentially align with his values is the way to go. There are already a couple of Prince-centric ventures in development as it is. Ava DuVernay and Netflix are teaming up for an epic documentary about him. Elizabeth Banks wants to retell the story of a chambermaid who accompanied Prince to a film premiere in her hometown (becoming a “queen for a day”). Universal is avoiding the competition of fidelity in favor of something more creative and that makes their project noteworthy.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)