On January 17th, Mac Miller dropped a new album called Circles, a companion piece to Swimming. The album was released posthumously after the rapper’s untimely death from a fentanyl overdose. Relatedly, when Universal Pictures released its Black List of unproduced scripts, it included a biopic about the late rapper, allegedly called Blue Slide Park. According to the report, Michael Vlamis and Kyle Anderson co-wrote the script.
Understandably, the possibility of a Mac Miller movie has rap enthusiasts and executives excited. But rap biopics often make a critical storytelling mistake. To understand this mistake, it’s important to understand the two forms that a rap biopic can take. For this, the best examples are 8 Mile (an indirect biopic about the rapper Eminem) and Notorious (a direct biopic about the rapper Notorious B.I.G.).
8 Mile (2002) tells the story of Jimmy Smith Jr., aka Jimmy Rabbit. Two rap battles bookend the entire arc of the story, which involves romance, friendship, and betrayal. The whole film unfolds over a short period of time in the rapper’s life. We get nothing of Eminem’s infamous 1999 performance at the Rap Olympics, which landed him in the studio with Dr. Dre. We get none of his meteoric rise. We get none of his scandals. Instead, we watch only a short segment of his life, which captures the thematic essence of the Eminem story, not the entirety of its details. This is the “short story” formula for making a rap biopic.
Notorious (2009), on the other hand, tries to capture the entirety of Christopher Wallace’s life in one film. The film includes his upbringing in Bedford Stuyvesant; his going to prison for weapons possession; his signing a record deal with Puffy’s Bad Boy Records; his feud with 2pac; and his eventual assassination. And that’s not even mentioning any of the three love stories going on in that movie.
The problem with Notorious is that capturing someone’s life in less than two hours runs the risk of going cursory. By the end of Notorious, we know very little about Christopher Wallace as a thinking being. We have no sense of his core tensions, his motivating philosophies. All of the screen time has been dedicated to cramming the Wikipedia details of his life into the film’s run time. The themes of Biggie’s music and life are left untouched, passed over for a focus on rapid plotting.
Unfortunately, the Mac Miller biopic is primed for this latter kind of storytelling also. Miller’s untimely death, like Biggie’s (and 2pac’s in All Eyez on Me) is likely to direct the writers of Blue Slide Park towards his break up with Ariana Grande because of his use, and the decline of his health from there towards his passing as a natural denouement. The mistake would be to make the other bookend Miller’s birth. A strong Mac Miller biopic needs to follow the 8 Mile formula and not the Notorious formula. It needs to find a focus and tell his life story through its themes and not its plot.
Mac Miller’s story is a powerful one. In a year when other rappers like Juice Wrld and Lil Peep died from drug use alongside Miller, it begs the question if rap culture is a healthy one. Mac’s music too plumbed the darker depths of fame and stardom, and the loneliness that it entails. Although this theme–how people get faker the closer you get to the top–is prevalent in rap at large, it seemed to be in all of Miller’s music, and to affect him more deeply.
There is a version of a Miller biopic that could garner critical acclaim and satisfy fans. It would open when Miller is already famous, eschewing the false lure of portraying his “come up.” The rags to riches aspect of rap is cliché by now. What’s interesting and deeply relevant in 2020, especially in the United States, is the way in which fame and wealth do not equate to freedom or happiness. What’s so profound about Miller’s life is that his pain seemed to worsen the more popular he became. He went from the happy-go-lucky stoner of Senior Skip Day to the depressive addict of his later work. And that happened as he dated a mega star and accrued financial wealth and international acclaim–successes many that many pine over.
But we don’t need to see his early life to understand this inverse correlation between the things we think we want and the way we want them to make us feel. Strong dialogue can reference an absence such that the absence is made present in the mind of the audience. We could observe Miller watching old videos of himself, or Grande critiquing him for who he’s become. Starting mid-fame would buy the filmmakers the time they’d need to linger on the quiet moments, the moments where loneliness really lived in Miller’s life. His was undeniably a tortured one, stricken by mental illness and the disease of addiction. A creative genius that many wish they had distorted Miller’s life into something unrecognizable. These are the profound facts, not where he first met Ariana, or what label he signed to first, or a scandalous reconstruction of the night of his death. Miller was lonely, the most American feeling of all. And that loneliness deserves a skillful, thematic depiction, not a superficial accounting. For this reason, let us hope that Vlamis and Anderson have enough sense to slow down and give Miller’s story the short story treatment it merits.