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In a Post-‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ World, What’s Next for the Musical Biopic?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | March 5, 2019 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | March 5, 2019 |

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There’s nothing I can say here about my opinions on Bohemian Rhapsody that haven’t already said better or louder elsewhere. I hated it. That’s no surprise to anyone. Now that the Oscars are done and the film walked away with more awards than any other film nominated, including Best Actor for Rami Malek’s impersonation of Freddie Mercury, we are all left in the aftermath of this train-wreck. In a few years’ time, someone will compile an amazing oral history of the 2018 awards season to decipher just what the hell happened in Hollywood. For now, there is a more intriguing question to be answered. How does this one truly terrible film, the one that made more money than any other musical biopic ever, pave the way for the future of the genre?

The biopic genre is one mired in controversy and critical cynicism. Film scholar Dennis Bingham, whose work Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre is one of the defining books on the subject, refers to biographical films as being ‘a respectable genre of very low repute’, meaning that essentially it’s the epitome of middlebrow in the most uninteresting ways possible. The basic appeal of the genre has remained the same since its origins: Take a familiar musician or public figure associated with music; narrativize their live in a convenient package that won’t take up more than a couple of hours; insert said figure’s music, art or professional achievements into key places to tell the story, regardless of historical veracity or creative sense.

The Great Ziegfeld, a 1935 musical drama based loosely on the life of Broadway figure Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., was one of the biggest films of the decade and helped to define not only the contemporary musical but the accompanying biopic. It didn’t really matter that the story was, at best, mostly fictional and not an accurate representation of Ziegfeld’s life. What audiences wanted was the glamour, the music and that instinctive rush of aspiration. Sure, it’s probably not 100% true, but some of it is, and as the Great Depression rolled on and films about the fancy-free lives of the upper-classes reigned supreme at the box office, this one offered just a sliver more connection to reality.

We typically think of musical biopics as ‘rags to riches’ stories. We want to see the struggle from the bottom to the top. We love seeing those lightbulb moments where a random encounter inspires the biggest hit of their career. It’s still glamorous but with a sheen of grit that keeps things humble. Stories crave order in ways that real life seldom provides.

Bohemian Rhapsody faced heavy criticism not only for how it fudged with various details of Mercury’s life but for how it did so to craft a cinematic narrative that Queen songs could be shoehorned into for emotional impact. Sure, the song ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ didn’t come out until 1986 and Freddie didn’t get his AIDS diagnosis until 1987, but it’s 1985 and we need an inciting incident with accompanying emotional musical number for Live Aid! This need to connect the life to the art has its creative justifications but it can often lead to making connections where there previously were none before. We need an excuse to play ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Quick, have the band arguing inspire the riff! Then add it to a scene of Freddie prowling some gay bars for maximum effect! The film is hardly the first offender of this trend, but it speaks to larger problems with the musical biopic, audience expectations and the inherent failure of the genre as a storytelling medium.

Fans of these musicians and bands want to hear the music. Of course they do, why wouldn’t they? Hearing your favourite song ever up on the big screen is one hell of an emotional punch. Even as I spent two solid hours seething at how much I hated Bohemian Rhapsody, I was still ready to break into a lip-sync battle when ‘Under Pressure’ started playing because even I can’t resist the pull of my favourite song ever filling my ears from every angle. The music is what’s lucrative about these biopics, not the film itself or even the central celebrities. Remember John Ridley’s Jimi Hendrix movie that starred Andre 3000 in the leading role? No? Most people don’t, in part because it never had the rights to Hendrix’s music. That requires the involvement of the estate, and they tend to come with agendas and desires that may stretch the limits of honesty or reality.

That hunger opens up the biggest problem for this genre: In order to get the music that audiences want to hear so much, you need to get the musician’s estate on your side. You may get lucky and find that the person in question, or their family and managers, are pretty open to you being brutally honest with the story. They’ll let you depict the sex, the drugs, the spousal turmoil, and so on. But then you may get a situation where the surviving band members have scores to settle and don’t mind a little historical white-washing to make their image as clean as possible for international audiences. This can stretch the bonds of reality in completely bonkers ways. Imagine a Janis Joplin biopic about a nice girl who just enjoyed the occasional cocktail (actually, a Broadway show from a few years ago faced this criticism for its downplaying of Joplin’s hard living). Some changes are relatively tame, but then there are times where the heavy hand of an estate’s influence comes into play. One of the most egregious things about Bohemian Rhapsody is how the entire film feels like Roger Taylor and Brian May trying to shame someone who is no longer alive to defend himself, and how much that ego stroking feeds into homophobia. At what point does moulding a narrative to satisfy cinematic conventions become a well-funded hit job?

But here’s the saddest part: Most fans didn’t seem to care about these changes, or they were a tolerable means to an end to get to that big-screen singalong. Plenty of people have taken notice of that too. So what does that mean for the genre’s future? I can’t imagine a whole lot of producers or studios will be all that eager to push back against unfeasible or self-serving demands of these estates, even if they will inevitably lead to a bad film.

The other option is to take the music and run. As Broadway has proven for many years, there’s nothing that gets people tapping their toes more than a jukebox musical. Mamma Mia! has made billions of dollars worldwide through various iterations of the show, the two films, and endless cast recordings, thus ensuring ABBA’s legacy for a whole new generation. Before dancing on Mercury’s grave with Bohemian Rhapsody, we had the truly heinous We Will Rock You, a show that once again proved people will do anything to listen to Queen songs. Plenty of jukebox musicals act as biopics, but the idea to create a whole new story around these iconic songs may prove less ethically sticky in the long term. We’re seeing those projects come to full bloom post-Bohemian Rhapsody too, with a Celine Dion film that’s inspired by her but resolutely not a biopic coming soon. The benefit with that particular project is that it gives the producers the freedom to avoid topics in Dion’s life that can’t exactly be played as romantically as she herself may have liked, such as her meeting her husband when she was 12 and he was pushing 40.

Whenever I think of these musical biopics, my mind inevitably turns to the current ghoulish trend of hologram performances. Roy Orbison’s estate licensed it, and ‘Amy Winehouse’ was set to go on tour until even her vulture of a father decided it may be in poor taste. This translucent mirage of a real person, programmed to shut up and sing, feels like the musical biopic in a nutshell at its very worst. They can’t talk back, they can’t sully the brand, they’ll never be late for rehearsals or succumb to addiction yet again. They’ll be utterly dehumanized, a bare remnant of the person audiences loved so much, but at least they’ll sing the songs we love so much.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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