Rockin’ the jazz biopic
changing images of African American musicians in Hollywood biographical films
Keywords:African American musicians, American cinema, biopic, blackness, jazz, popular culture, popular music, race
Mixing facts and fiction, Hollywood screen biographies have told the lives of popular music icons at least since The Jazz Singer (1927). However, biopics construct narratives that deal problematically with issues of race. My essay aims to describe how representations of African American musicians have changed from 1970s ‘black jazz biopics’ (Gabbard 1996) to more recent films on rock, hip hop and rhythm ’n’ blues acts. On one hand, I analyse the way 1970s music biopics constructed a peculiar new narrative about race and popularity. On the other hand, I show the extent to which films such as Tina (1993), Ray (2004) and Notorious (2009) have subtly modified the racialized distinctions of former biopics, placing black musicians within a cinematic mythology which historically had been reserved to white subjects. The shift from jazz to other music genres, thus, is related to significant changes in biopics’ narratives and visual strategies. However, I argue that music biopics still deal with a distinctive notion of ‘the popular’ (Williams 1983), which frames blackness as otherness and whiteness (Dyer 1997) as just ‘human nature’.
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