“Bohemian Rhapsody” and the upcoming premiere of “Rocketman” confirm the good times ahead for a genre with a rather unusual track record: biographies of music stars
The biopic is in a genre of its own by definition, as it’s a permanent debate between whether to approach the myth, in other words, the vision the public have of the star, or try to understand the individual, thereby creating a narrative tension which in most cases involves waiving the substance to focus strictly on the form. That’s why filmmaking biographies have often been synonymous with a bland, TV movie-style, and, in many cases, can be condescending. Deep down, you know that what you’re watching is not the truth, but the version of reality they want you to see, with the added offense that screenplays have been supervised and sanctioned by people who have no interest whatsoever in depicting the true face of the protagonists. In the case of films about music stars, there is the additional feature that taking a walk on the wild-side is even more normalized when it comes to their lives, and therefore we generally get more about the forging of the myth instead of their decadence or mistakes. These are stories of overcoming one’s own demons, of unaddressed trauma, of truncated lives that leave extraordinary legacies behind. Interest tends to focus more on the legend than on building a storyline, which is entirely conditioned by loyalty to the existential journey of the character.
Take for example the majority of titles about music stars produced in the past few decades. “La Vie En Rose“, “Selena“, “Tina“, “Ray“, “Get on Up“, “The Buddy Holly Story“, “La Bamba“, “Last Days“, “The Runaways” and “Walk The Line“. They all have a certain element of interest to them, but they’re almost identical in structure. A structure that focuses heavily on the mishmash surrounding the protagonist, more specifically, everything concerning their sentimental lives, but very little about the creative process behind their work. Basically, one of the fundamental problems of all these films is that they take what cinemagoers know about the stars for granted and somehow merely string together a series of profile prints that underpin our vision of the character. Of course, it goes without saying that there are several outstanding exceptions to the rule, like “The Rose“, a covert biography of Janis Joplin starring Bette Middler; “Sid & Nancy“, a unique reconstruction of the career of Sex Pistols frontman; “Bird“, the extraordinary tribute to Charlie Parker by Clint Eastwood; “Great Balls of Fire“, a suggestive approach to the figure of Jerry Lee Lewis; “The Doors“, where Oliver Stone hits the nail on the head with the images he brought to the musical atmosphere of Jim Morrison; and, above all, “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There” by Todd Haynes. The former about the relationship between David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and the latter reveals the many faces of Bob Dylan. But they are, let’s say, improvements of praiseworthy originality in a genre that ends up relying almost entirely on the empathy the soundtrack awakens among cinemagoers.
In this sense, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the synthesis of its virtues and defects. As a biopic about Freddie Mercury, it’s clearly lacking, because it’s a biased, whitewashed and self-serving vision of reality, but as an emotional journey to the generational influence of Queen’s music, it’s extremely effective and even brilliant. Its enormous global success will have an immediate impact on the commercial relaunch of the genre, and the first echo should be heard this coming May with the premiere of the Elton John biopic, “Rocketman.” The fact that the film is being presented as a “musical fantasy” about Elton John is at minimum an act of honesty, because at least they’re not trying to sell it to us as the biblical, absolute truth. The only thing we don’t know is whether the film, like the others to come, persists in the mistake of simply praising the star or, on the other hand, someone will make the most of the opportunity to produce a personal and critically-minded film.