So, I seriously hated Bohemian Rhapsody. I hadn’t been hopeful for the Queen biopic given the years of pre-production problems, all the dirt former attached star Sacha Baron Cohen spilled about the band’s demands, and, of course, the Bryan Singer problem. Still, I hadn’t expected to feel so incredibly insulted by what I saw. On top of the film being ineptly made, with some of the worst green screen effects of 2018, Bohemian Rhapsody is a blatant vanity project of the highest order for Brian May and Roger Taylor, who exerted immense creative control over the final product. What should be a striking and vibrant story of one of the era’s most iconic rock bands becomes a sanitized round of score settling that utterly desecrates the life of a man who is not here to defend himself. If it weren’t for the brilliant lead performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, the film would be completely irredeemable. You wouldn’t be blamed for coming out of Bohemian Rhapsody thinking the surviving band members of Queen actually hated their leading man.
The problems of Bohemian Rhapsody are not unique to one film. Indeed, the biopic genre is practically defined by its decades of historical whitewashing, meddling estates, fetishized hero narratives, and old-school hunts for glory. Nowadays, audiences cannot help but see news of the latest biopic and immediately think of Oscar campaigns, major physical transformations and the accompanying interviews of dedicated actors bragging about their agonizing journeys into embodying a long dead hero.
Biopics are a strange genre of film in that they’re ubiquitous with acclaim and prestige yet are typically viewed with cynicism from critics and academics alike. Dennis Bingham’s wonderful study on the biopic, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, calls it ‘a respectable genre of very low repute.’ He notes the ways this genre, so codified in its audience and industry expectations, typically works to strengthen notions of ‘Great Men’ (biopics centred on female subjects, which are far less numerous, are usually about the victimization of women). The biopic is a genre mostly associated with safeness: Simple storytelling, easy to swallow morals, the kind of entertainment you can watch on a Sunday afternoon with your grandparents and know that nothing truly scandalous will appear on-screen. The formula is so well-worn that it was parodied to perfection in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a movie that Bohemian Rhapsody seems to have used as a completely unironic template.
There’s a difference between a biopic and a historical drama that focuses on a real person. Amadeus, for instance, is a historical drama inspired by true events but it’s clearly not meant to be taken as gospel. Biopics are more likely to try and craft a full story around an individual’s life, finding the narrative spine that connects every element together for maximum neatness. There will be the lowly origin scene, possibly part of a flashback, then the inciting incident that leads to the rise to greatness. A brief downfall is often desired, but nothing too messy, and then a tense climax brings it all together.
Biopic acting is a curious skill to judge, especially when the actors in question are playing someone familiar to us. If they don’t look exactly like the central subject then we’re instinctively thrown off because we are so aware of the performance going on in front of us. This bugs some more than others, but I can’t tell you of the sheer number of times my grandmother complained about Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got To Do With It? because she didn’t think she looked enough like Tina Turner. The flipside to this is the glamourizing aspect of the biopic. The genre is chock full of the best looking people on the planet playing figures of more average appearances, which can’t help but make the viewing experience different. Think of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. I would not classify that film as a biopic in the traditional sense, but a major reason so many people know T.E. Lawrence best from that film over his own words and deeds is because Peter O’Toole is super attractive in that part, way more so than T.E. Lawrence ever was, and his sheer handsomeness gave that part the movie hero edge.
I always have trouble looking at biopics and their central performances as artwork independent of homework. Watching Bohemian Rhapsody is a reminder of that because, as great as Rami Malek is, I was never unaware of the difficulty of his job and that part. I saw every tic, every beat of the biography being hit, and every moment the cast and crew knew audiences would be on the lookout for in case he didn’t 100% nail it. It leaves very little room for artistic interpretation because to deviate from what millions of people already know about a figure is to betray them in some twisted manner. Even if that fictionalized version of the icon is complete bullshit, it still matters for us to see some level of authenticity in the performance.
Bohemian Rhapsody never escapes this quandary, in part because the surviving members of Queen don’t want it to. For them, as it is with many films over the decades, the biopic is a means to strengthen a particular interpretation of history. May and Taylor want everyone to know that yes, while Mercury was an important part of their band, they were all the heroes in that story and if Mercury’s narrative has to be sanitized, moralized and beaten down to make that happen then so be it. Audiences love a good tragedy, especially if it swings back around to a neat redemption story, but that’s not how true life works. Walk the Line ends with a romantic kiss because it’s a Hollywood movie but it still has to include a coda on how issues like Johnny Cash’s addictions continued after their designated Happy Ever After.
Certain edges are often softened as well. This may be to make the central subject a more palatable cinematic focus, or because the estate don’t want anyone to see the sordid truth, or because audiences just don’t want to deal with such imperfections. They don’t want to see the actual struggles with mental illness John Nash had, they want A Beautiful Mind in all its treacly sentimentality. They don’t want a Margaret Thatcher movie that shows why she was so hated (or at least Americans who have no idea who she is don’t want that), so we get Meryl Streep hamming it up to the nines in a stock ‘underestimated lady boss’ tale. We don’t want to destroy the fairy tale of Princess Grace so Grace of Monaco must overlook huge chunks of its central subject’s life in favour of rehashing the same clichés that have made iconography of a silent woman for so long.
Biopics seek to understand. They view people as puzzles that can and will be solved in two hours or less, breaking down what makes an icon the way they were. Perhaps it was all in their childhood or their closeted sexuality or their desire for fame or their crushing loneliness. Bohemian Rhapsody desperately tries to categorize Mercury’s life as chapters in a book with comforting conclusions that fulfil the desired agenda of the central brand. But people’s lives aren’t storytelling devices, nor are they lessons for the rest of us to learn. We don’t come to biopics for a history lesson but we still cannot avoid the eagerness for simplicity. When we turn ourselves into characters for a movie, we must bend reality to suit the needs of the medium, and making cinema from the messiness of real life seldom does justice to real life.
The biopic is an ill fit for Freddie Mercury, but not Roger Taylor and Brian May, two men who still have money to make from the brand their late friend helped to define. What may make for good storytelling - and in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, the crafted story is just flat-out bad - cannot happen free from the context of its real-life inspirations. You can’t call ‘artistic licence’ on turning a man’s life and death into a cosy moral for PG-13 audiences and pretend it won’t have repercussions on those issues in our society. Freddie Mercury isn’t here to refute the obvious failings of Bohemian Rhapsody, but his story stopped being his own a long time ago.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox