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Are Biopics Good for Fans?
Within the last few years we’ve been graced with two masterpiece biopics; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ depicting Queen and particularly Freddie Mercury and ‘Rocketman’ depicting the life of Sir Elton John. It is no question to me that these two films are great pieces of cinema and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both – but the real question is – are they good for us as fans?
One of the main things about biopics that I love is learning all about the ‘behind the scenes’ lives of our favourite artists and their interpersonal relationships; and most importantly their issues. I’ve written many times before about the troubles that come with fame that we often overlook. Blinded by the glitz and glamour it’s far too easy to look jealously on at these heroes we put on a pedestal than acknowledging that they too have a life full of difficulties. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for example made a fantastic job of showing us some of the darker times in Freddie Mercury’s life when falling into a rockstar lifestyle of drugs caused him to alienate all of those close to him; or when Sir Elton John fell into a rockstar life of drugs causing him to alienate all those close to him (I’m sensing a theme here). For me personally a lot of this happened in the years before I was born, so whilst I’m familiar with the greatest hits of both artists I missed out on a lot of the tabloid’s headlines, publicised relationship problems and booze and narcotic fuelled antics. This meant that by watching these films I gained a deeper sense of sympathy, understanding and knowledge of some legendary artists who I’d only really known previously by voice. This was particularly true for Sir Elton, who having been recently 30 years sober, has throughout my whole life been one of Britain’s moral and upstanding sweethearts that warranted the ‘Sir’ prefix. You can imagine my surprise therefore when ‘Rocketman’ depicted the artist battling through countless childhood traumas and mental difficulties whilst filling his body with a plethora of illegal substances and essentially falling off of the rails. I’m sure this was no surprise to an older audience who probably remember reading about it but for me goes completely against the depiction I had of the man.
This isn’t a problem for me though; it’s actually a huge bonus. Whilst watching these films we are often shown explanations and inspirations for songs that before we may not have known. Again, the best example of this for me comes from ‘Rocketman’ and the title song itself. In my limitless naivety and squeaky clean impression of Sir Elton I had always assumed this song to be a triumphant telling of a man flying out into space. One look at the lyrics will let you know the extent of my stupidity, but to be honest before seeing the film I had no reason to question my view. It has however given me a new appreciation for the metaphor and the darker meaning behind the song – moving it up even further in my list of classics. This was similar in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in which we were shown Freddie Mercury slowly but surely piecing together the all time great song that shares its name with the film. We see him battle through many a confused face and disapproving look to pull together his artwork and although I’ve heard it a thousand times watching it come together like this really just makes you realise how bizarre it is, and how genius. I think these films really give fans a new appreciation of the sheer talent of these artists that we’ve maybe ignored in the past. Sure you’ve been hearing them on the radio for years but have you really ever stopped to consider their lives, their inspirations or their sheer musical talent? Now this would obviously be a pretty dull article if I didn’t have some sort of downside or counter argument so here goes. Can these films give us the wrong impression? I think ‘Rocketman’ probably gets away with this more. The film makes it clear that it takes artistic liberties from the start – we see Elton floating from his piano and seeing people who aren’t really there. It’s an amazing commentary on his mental state and I think only adds to the theme of the film, but it also makes clear to audiences that what we see isn’t exactly how it happened but more an artistic variation based on a thoroughly researched version of the truth. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the other hand attempts to almost remake some of Freddie’s life shot for shot. Sure we know going to the cinema that what we are seeing is an adaptation but it’s made to look and feel so real. This is probably a credit to the writers, set designers and actors if anything but it does make it difficult to see where the line blurs. I’m sure there are some parts of the film, some private conversations or small parts of chronology that slightly don’t add up but when you watch it’s made to be so accurate that you just can’t tell. I’m sure most of it is accurate and very well researched with a lot of input from people who were there, but still it can be a dangerous game to blur the line so closely. Another fantastic biopic I haven’t mentioned does the same. ‘Straight Outta Compton’, which depicts the rise and fall of N.W.A, is another must see but also makes the mistake of not telling us entirely the truth. Again, we all expect there to be some artistic liberties but the film is depicted to be so real, and in collaboration with people who were actually there, that we really have no way of knowing. This came to a head when after the film I was shocked to find out that one of the most bad-ass and iconic scenes didn’t really happen. During a concert the group are warned against performing their song ‘F Tha Police’, by the police. Being N.W.A they play it anyway and eventually get stormed by police and leave the show in handcuffs whilst officers outside are being mobbed by angry fans. It’s pretty cool. It turns out that in real life whilst it did kind of happen it’s dialled down by about 100. Instead of firing gunshots from the crowd, the police threw small fireworks onto the stage to cause a commotion before catching the fleeing band and issuing them with a fine whilst asking for autographs for friends and family. I can see why they spiced it up a bit, but in a film that seems so true and close to the mark, and with inputs from all those involved, it seems unfair that they’d trick an audience by again blurring that line.
So – are biopics good for us as fans? Overall it’s a resounding yes. I’ve learnt so much in the past about some great, great artists through biopics and I always find that after watching I’ve got a reignited love and passion for their songs. It seems that as soon as the credits roll I’m adding songs to my playlist that I’d forgotten about, or have just gained a new appreciation for. I think this is the same for a lot of fans, who love seeing what goes on behind the smoke and mirrors of the glitz and glamour. I also think it’s a fantastic way to drive home the message that these people we put up on a pedestal do have their own issues and struggles and I know that I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation for Sir Elton after understanding all that he has been through. My only qualm really is that the films should either be artistic or accurate. It seems to me that if you’re going to make a film that plays out as being 100% factual, it’s not really fair to start juicing up scenes or changing chronology to suit the script. If you want to be artistic about it and add some drama, then follow in the footsteps of ‘Rocketman’ and make it clear that this is what you’re doing and use it to really drive home the message.
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