The Trouble with Biopics

Like many others, I bought a copy of Bohemian Rhapsody a few days back. The film tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen from their humble beginnings in the 1970s through their landmark performance at Live Aid in 1985.

This was actually my second time seeing the film. I caught it in the theater a few months ago. My reaction was pretty much identical: I was amazed by Rami Malek’s virtual channeling of Mercury (which earned him an Oscar); I was reminded of what an incredible band Queen was; and I cried during the Live Aid sequence again, for which I refuse to apologize.

But the film wasn’t perfect. The narrative’s chronology was off, like having the band play the hit song “Fat Bottomed Girls” during their 1971 tour, several years before the song was actually released. And just when Mercury told his bandmates about his illness is subject to debate. But I got over it, because it was a really entertaining movie.

Unfortunately, more than a few others didn’t.

Social media was filled with more than a couple of posts from people who refused to see Bohemian Rhapsody because of these errors. While I understand the irritation (I felt it too, after all), throwing down the gauntlet of boycott struck me as a more than a little extreme.

Here’s the thing: if we really want to be honest about the biopics we have enjoyed over the years, we must accept this simple fact: NONE of those movies are historically accurate. None of them!

I’ve been watching movies about music and musicians for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen Gary Busey play Buddy Holly, Kurt Russell play Elvis, Jaime Foxx play Ray Charles, Andre Benjamin play Jimi Hendrix, John Cusack play Brian Wilson, Chadwick Boseman play James Brown, and countless others. Some of the performances (like Busey and Foxx) are quite remarkable. Others — like Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash — didn’t resonate quite as well. (Still, Walk the Line is an entertaining movie.) But at no time did I accept any of these movies as gospel. Frankly, it stuns me that people see these films and believe they are getting an exact account of someone’s life.

Get a grip, guys.

It’s not music-based, but Denzel Washington gave one of the most compelling performances of his life when he portrayed Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s film of the same name. There were times when I was convinced Denzel was Malcom. Still, I knew better than to take every word in the script as an absolute holy nugget. Hollywood movies are designed to entertain first, and inform second. If you went to see Straight Outta Compton with the belief you were gonna see a documentary, well … let’s just say you were in for a huge disappointment.

One of the keys to enjoying a movie — ANY movie — is to embrace the “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, one must be willing to put logic aside and embrace the idea that anything within the confines of a film is possible. Granted, this is easier to do when watching Star Wars than it is when enjoying Ray, regardless of how badly I want a lightsaber.

I’ll be the first to admit that this concept can be challenging where biopics are concerned. A person’s life story is being told. So why not tell it accurately? Well, there are a few reasons for this. Most of them are best explained by the filmmakers. What I have learned over the years is there simply isn’t enough time within the confines of a film to tell a 100 percent accurate story.

Think of all the people you’ve met in your life. Some of them have contributed no more than one or two significant moments to your personal story, regardless of how important they were. Now imagine if there were ten or 20 of those people, and you only had 120 minutes to introduce them to me, get me to care about them, and then see their contribution to your story. And these are minor players! It can’t be done. So Hollywood gives us “composite” characters: a player or two who can do all the things the minor influences have done, relatively quickly. Is it accurate? No. But the points are made, and the landmarks are noticed.

No one lives a drama-filled life every day of the week. No one’s life is filled with snappy dialogue and pithy comebacks. Some people are able to handle life’s disappointments and dramas with complete stoicism. Well, that makes for a boring movie! So things get amped up a bit. Drama now exists where it didn’t before. The timing of certain facts is tweaked just a bit to aid in the film’s narrative flow. That’s just the way it goes.

In the end, the filmmakers have (hopefully) made a compelling bit of entertainment people will be willing to plop down their hard-earned money to see either in the theater or at home via Blu-ray. The stories may not be completely accurate, but at least you found the subject matter interesting.

My point is this: don’t go to a Hollywood biopic looking for a documentary. You’ll only end up disappointed. Hollywood knows documentaries don’t generate profit. If you want a 100 percent accurate account on the life of Freddie Mercury, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Brian Wilson or anyone else, I would recommend you start a GoFundMe page and hire yourself a historian, so you can make the film you want.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to see the Live Aid sequence again.


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  1. They are not documentaries. Movies take liberties with source material all the time. Whether its fictional or not. I dont know why people get mad.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have not seen Bohemian Rhapsody, I do desire to see it. Biopics are oftentimes a catch 22. You cannot portray all of the events in a person’s life and for musicians, it can be difficult to get the song rights especially if the musician is dead. I loved Ray and Straight Outta Compton, i have not seen the other biopics.

    Liked by 1 person

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