Priscilla and the Art of Musical Biopics Being Denied Music Rights

Movies Lists Elvis Presley
Priscilla and the Art of Musical Biopics Being Denied Music Rights

Who gets the right to tell their version of a famous musician’s story? Even the biggest of stars are real people who deserve robust and ethical treatment from filmmakers, yes, but surely it is an artist’s right to extrapolate beyond the authorized, approved version of events? Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla sidelines the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s perspective to illustrate just how deeply Elvis sidelined his younger wife. The change in perspective reveals infinitely more than the approved Elvis narrative will allow. How did those around Elvis see him? How did he see us? But there’s a difference between who gets the right to tell their story, and who is allowed the rights—that is, the rights to an artist’s music. Recording labels and musicians’ estates have to formally approve or deny access to filmmakers for every song they use, and if you’re making an especially audacious, crass or even misguided story about an artist, their label or family can kill your biopic dead by denying you their music.

Except, sometimes they don’t die, they just soldier on. The canon is filled with movies that were denied the rights to songs or whole discographies, and were forced to adapt their production into something that’s sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always marked by a unique absence. 

In celebration of Priscilla, here are 10 movies that were denied use of a musician’s music:

All the Unproduced Biopics

Before we drag up the kneecapped biopics and legally contested art films, first we must sing an ode to everyone that threw in the towel before the cameras could roll. After directing the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012, Danny Boyle wanted to stage a big-scale David Bowie biopic—but was bereaved after his official request was declined. The Weinstein Company wanted to make a Bob Marley biopic circa 2008, but the Marley estate declined, as they were already backing a documentary that then had Martin Scorsese attached to direct (Marley would go on to be directed by Kevin Macdonald). Kevin Smith ended up shooting a week’s worth of documentary footage about Prince in the early 2000s, but the film was never released (there is, as there always is, a great Kevin Smith story about it). These films likely wouldn’t have been tremendously good but, crucially, we will never know for sure—their ambitions were effectively thwarted by the music rights being withheld.

Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B

If you hear that Lifetime is trying to make a movie about your tragically deceased relative, you better slam that veto button post-haste. That’s exactly what Barry and Jomo Hankerson did—they ran the record label that owned Aaliyah’s masters, and are also the young R&B star’s uncle and cousin. Lifetime pushed ahead anyway, but the complicated and controversial handling of sensitive material by an artistically unsophisticated network led to original lead Zendaya dropping out of the project. The finished film was considered by both critics and audiences to be a bit of a disaster, not least because, without having access to Aaliyah’s music, Lifetime had to record new covers of the few songs that they included.

Jimi: All Is by My Side

Here’s the formula for making a music biopic with no authorized music: Set it in their early years before they made all their iconic music. It keeps the production design budget down (small, murky gigs are cheaper than sold-out concert venues), the pressure to match the actor with their iconic later-in-life image is lessened, and you’ve got a handy excuse for not using any of their hottest hits—they haven’t made them yet! It’s convenient, but staggeringly uninteresting: The artists themselves don’t do a lot to interest a wider audience. Writer John Ridley (American Crime, 12 Years a Slave) also directed this alternative take on Hendrix to muted response—even more muted than estate-authorized biopics usually get.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Before Priscilla, Todd Haynes had the honor of making the best film about a musician that was denied using their music, and is still the best one that can’t be watched in a quality higher than 480p. Crucially, Superstar—a condensed, experimental account of Karen Carpenter’s fatal struggle with anorexia, acted out nearly entirely with Barbie dolls—did include The Carpenters’ hit songs without authorization. After losing a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Richard Carpenter in 1990, the film all but disappeared—Richard clearly did not predict the advent of the Internet. Today, in its grainy, bootlegged strangeness, Superstar stands as a defiant testament to the estate-approved version of an artist’s legacy.

Miss Americana

This Taylor Swift documentary qualifies for this list on the thinnest of technicalities, and because it’s instrumental to understanding the pop superstar’s current business practices. Four years ago, Swift aired her deep-felt grievances with Big Machine Records, who owned the masters to her first six studio albums (that’s Taylor Swift to Reputation, in eras terms). According to Swift, the label prohibited her from featuring her older music in her upcoming documentary Miss Americana. Big Machine initially denied Swift’s claim, but then subsequently cleared her older music to be used in Miss Americana, kinda outing their copyright malpractices in the process. The doc stands as a crucial artistic and business turning point for the musician, and is inseparable from the complicated copyright issues baked into its construction.

Velvet Goldmine

musical biopics denied music rights

Before Moonage Daydream, there were two unauthorized David Bowie movies named after one of his songs—and this Todd Haynes film didn’t even feature David Bowie by name. Still, the glam-rock fantasia made several attempts to use six Bowie songs and receive his personal blessing. But after a drawn-out period of hemming and hawing, Bowie declined Haynes’ request. 25 years on, Velvet Goldmine stands as a rigorously queer work that’s  deeply engaged in the myths that artists project to the outside world, intentionally or not. The soundtrack—filled with artists from the contemporary 1990s—allowed for a patchwork of collaboration defined by reimagining, rather than the trotting out of yesterday’s classics. 

American Graffiti

American Graffiti

This throwback from George Lucas is positioned right on the cusp of “the Elvis Era” and the tumultuous musical revolt of the mid-to-late ‘60s—but no Elvis music is featured in the film. Lucas was ambitious regarding the amount of diegetic, era-appropriate music that would be featured in the film (so ambitious that the film had no money left for a composed musical score). After flirting with the idea of getting an orchestra to re-record the songs, the studio offered music publishers a flat deal that promised the same amount to each label, and one of the only companies to reject the offer was RCA, who owned Elvis’ records. The lack of Elvis didn’t hamper the film’s success—apart from being a box office hit, the soundtrack album 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti has been certified platinum in the U.S. three times.

Dazed and Confused

You gotta feel bad for Richard Linklater. His breakout hangout film, charting 24 hours in the company of students at an Austin high school at the end of term, is named after a song from  Led Zeppelin’s debut album, and the soundtrack is packed with hits from all walks of ‘70s rock. And yet, Led Zeppelin were notoriously stingy about licensing their songs for films, having previously only allowed one film—Fast Times at Ridgemont High—to use their song “Kashmir.” They would later go on to let pretty much anybody use their songs—Small Soldiers, Almost Famous, Shrek, Oblivion, Argo, The Big Short and David O. Russell on several occasions. And that’s not even including the multiple iconic cinematic uses of “Immigrant Song!” Bad luck for Linklater, who missed out on getting Led Zeppelin’s approval by a few years, even though he named his film after them.


One of the most spectacular music biopic misfires came from the baffling idea of making a pre-stardom David Bowie movie without authorization to use his music. Clearly not getting that the odds weren’t in their favor, director Gabriel Range teamed up with Johnny Flynn to show the Bowie-before-Ziggy on his American tour promoting his third studio album. It’s a clumsy, embarrassing affair, with a misfire performance from Flynn and an unshakeable “everyone is dressed up to look ‘70s” vibe. It’s not necessarily proof that you can’t tell an artist’s story without featuring their discography, but when you clearly don’t have a handle on who Bowie is as a person, and the hoops you have to jump through to avoid playing Bowie’s songs are this egregious, it felt like a final nail in the coffin for films that were denied music access. Until…


Priscilla review

How do you tell a story about a superstar, one regarded as a certified legend, without calling to mind the reverence and affection audiences feel towards their art? You may wonder why any filmmaker would do such a thing—it’s because the quality of an artist’s work has served for so long as a hagiography, as if their non-performing actions and behavior automatically conform to the high standards set by their music. In adapting Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis & Me, Sofia Coppola deftly explores the blind spots created by only engaging with a superstar through the lens of their legend, pulling focus onto Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) to explore how Elvis’ artistic success was prioritized over the wellbeing of his younger partner. Just like the bands, the movies and the glittery outfits, Priscilla was just an accessory to Elvis’ fame, and by only hearing songs from other artists, ones that came before and during his reign, Coppola highlights other voices that had to adapt to Elvis’ titanic presence. While Priscilla herself has fully backed the project, the Presley Estate refused use of Elvis’ music in the film—a challenge that ended up benefiting Coppola’s astute vision. This is part of the queasy deal: If you want to use an artist’s music in your film, it has to be a flattering depiction or association with the artist in question.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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