So You Wanna Write A Hollywood Musical Biopic…

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Bohemian Rhapsody is not a particularly good film. It’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own way but as a work of artistic merit it is, gotta admit it, extremely flawed. I mean, poor old Deackie! The one non-Freddie member of Queen who wasn’t involved in the making of and he’s inexplicably (non-coincidentally?) the butt of every joke. Well, every joke except that one where the others roast Roger Taylor for writing that classic mechanical romance ‘I’m In Love With My Car’… which, to be fair, is an absolute jam if you can get past the subject matter.

Then there’s the cameo from a heavily disguised Mike Myers. Like, shout out to Wayne’s World for being the classic that it is (party on), but they’ve literally stuck that bloke in there to be the dude who denied Queen. The bloke who said that Bohemian Rhapsody would never be played on the radio - in fact there’s a tragic Wayne’s World reference which will make your eyes roll back with the self-serving hilarity of it all. The first hour of the film is just Freddie Mercury and Queen becoming increasingly more and more successful to a soundtrack of songs that they hadn’t even written yet. Replete with stupidly convenient plot devices (like, here’s a shot of old mate circling an apartment ad in the paper, signalling he’s about to move out of home… plot development check).

Oh and since when did they start handing out Oscars for false teeth and lip synching? Rami Malek might be a great actor but that wasn’t Freddie Mercury. Tell you the truth, that accent sounded more like Teddy Perkins. The signature moves were there but the depth of personality was not. There was no hint of that raw sexual energy. The sharp and sassy wit, bordering between playful and scathing depending on his mood. And this bloke just spoke… so… slow…

And yet if you’re keen for some good tunes and a rollicking experience then Bohemian Rhapsody is going to do the trick. For all its many faults it remains a bloody good yarn. A bloody good yarn in which chronology has been sacrificed for the convenience of the plot (pretty sure Freddie didn’t find out he had AIDs ‘til a couple years after Live Aid – also, not a spoiler, his whole life has been public knowledge for decades). And a bloody good yarn which has been shaped with further convenience to paint the band in the best possible light. Like I said, this is as self-serving as it gets.

But, hey, welcome to Hollywood, youngblood. This is how we do things around here. It’s fan service first and last and Bohemian Rhapsody is the highest grossing musical biopic of all time. One of Hollywood’s most fabled (read: lucrative) genres and this was the one that clocked the formula.

Oh mate and what a formula. Not sure if you’ve seen the legendary comedic masterpiece that is Walk Hard, but ten years ago that film skewered every little cliché of one of the most clichéd film genres out there and ten years later that genre is as powerful as ever. It works, dude. That’s the secret. People know how the Freddie Mercury story ends. They’re just watching to nostalgically relive it and Bohemian Rhapsody has done so well because… not sure that it’s because they realise that, to be honest. I think it’s more because Brian May and Roger Taylor (bless their souls) were so involved in the process and their priorities were also somewhat along the self-deifying line of thinking. But we end up with the same film either way, so it goes.

Bohemian Rhapsody. Walk The Line. Ray. Straight Outta Compton. All Eyez On Me. Get On Up. Behind The Candelabra. I Saw The Light. Love & Mercy. Jimi: All Is by My Side. Miles Ahead. All musical biopics from the last few years, ramping up the pace in what was already a popular genre. They’re about to release an Elton John biopic too. There is no let up. Obviously some of those are excellent films, just as some are pretty rubbish. Special praise for a couple Ethan Hawke joints – Born To Be Blue and Blaze (he acted in the former, directed the latter) which do some funky things with the format that I really rated.

But even breaking the format requires acknowledging that there is a format… so here are the seven things you absolutely have to include in your own musical biopic attempts, because we might as well all get in the bread line.

Childhood Trauma

Johnny Cash’s brother died. The NWA lads grew up amidst violence, crime, and police brutality. Ray Charles went blind. Not every musical biopic treads this line specifically but they all give their heroes something to rally against, a certain adversity which both oppresses them but also pushes them to break the shackles of their lives and take the first steps towards who they were meant to be. These films are always Hero’s Journeys to a degree and they all need that early framing device.

With Freddie Mercury, the first half of the film is so inane as Freddie just randomly goes out one night, meets the love of his life, joins a soon-to-be-iconic band, and basically gets his entire life in order for perfect success with such ease that you wonder why he didn’t just do it earlier. By the way, no indication of his musical prowess prior to that – we’re supposed to already know of his talents because it’s a Freddie Mercury biopic and why else would you be watching anyway? His childhood trauma appears to be his rebellion against his immigrant family’s cultural expectations and it’s never really dealt with properly other than a nice moment with his dad towards the end. I guess they want you to think that Freddie Mercury arrived fully formed. I dunno. It works if you turn your brain off.

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Fact or Fiction?

That phrase ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’? Yeah, that’s the musical biopic to an absolute tee. The thing they get you with is the whole true story quack. True for whom? Autobiographies are notorious for telling one version of the truth, one heavily biased interpretation of what happened. It’s only one person’s voice after all. Well, two if you include the usual ghost-writer. And these estate sanctioned biopics are the same.

Bohemian Rhapsody is the version of events which makes Queen look like the most ground-breaking, popular, important, endlessly creative, and socially conscious band that ever lived. They were all of those things to a degree… but yeah. The glorified version is a bit weird. One would imagine that plenty of the fringe characters (especially the record label men) saw it all differently than what’s presented here. Let alone the way that time is moulded and ignored in convenient ways. But I’ve already mentioned how they played those tricks. All in the game.

Montage Sequence

The rise to fame. The days of increasing glory, those first glimpses of immortality. Sure we could spend the whole film on the endless tours that made the band so popular and the recordings that made them legends. But usually we just get one or two examples of that process before launching into one of the most overused aspects of the whole thing: the montage.

In Bohemian Rhapsody it’s a largely animated run of cities that the band conquered on their way to the top. It’s not a musical biopic but the best ever example of this was in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull as boxer Jake LaMotta shoots up the rankings with fight after victorious fight, his personal life gliding upwards along the same trajectory. Basically, if there isn’t a montage then how are we supposed to comprehend our hero’s popular ascent?

The Spoils of Excess

And then when they get there they take it too far. Drugs, sex, booze, violence, general debauchery… Johnny Cash popped pills and Freddie Mercury threw insane parties, both to escape the inner turmoil that they suffered from. And of course we know why. We saw the whole childhood trauma aspect and we saw the turning point on the upwards swing of fame. In Freddie’s case, things really took a crunch when he put the band on hiatus to go and record his first solo album. A perfect way for the two remaining Queeners to apply some retrospective justice to the situation… ignoring, naturally, the fact that in real life Roger Taylor was the first member of the band to put out a solo record. Not important. Refer to Thing #2.

What’s important is that the spoils of excess demonstrate the emptiness and loneliness of fame and fortune, eventually taking the protagonist to a point of rock bottom where they are forced to acknowledge their problems and make amends on the way to the next musical biopic cliché.

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Redemption

With rock bottom having been hit, with the knowledge that their current lifestyle is unsustainable, it’s time to make those amends. Generally involves some emotional breakthroughs with the people who were with them before they got famous, the people that they hurt along the way in other words. And ultimately, as is always the case, the solution lies with the embrace of love. Redemptive love. Johnny Cash and June Carter love. Also it helps if it’s pouring with rain at the moment of revelation, I guess it’s like a form of cleansing or something.

With that all dealt with, out hero is now saved. Forget about the ongoing complications and complexities of real life, in the biopic we live upon a narrative arc and that means redemption is permanent. Emotional turmoil is negated. Knives are placed carefully back in the top drawer. Tears are shed, words are spoken. All is good again and we can breathe easy knowing that our hero is no longer, in the parlance of our times… problematic.

Standing Ovation Finale

All of which leads us to the grand finale. The standing ovation. The moment when our redeemed hero returns to the stage to embrace their legendary status before legions of adoring fans. I mean, Walk The Line framed this nicely with the Folsom Prison gig but never has this step been more egregiously exploited than in Bohemian Rhapsody where Rami Malek and company re-enact THE ENTIRE LIVE AID GIG over a full twenty minutes within a CGI version of Old Wembley, featuring all sorts of twisty, alternate camera angles (but with the actual soundtrack from the actual show – more lip-synching). All of which is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, to be fair… but it’s ruined by the crowd shots of randos in distinctly 80s attire who are literally crying tears of joy at the occasion. Like, chill out fellas. We get the picture. We even paid to see it.

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Outstanding Soundtrack

Goes without saying, really.


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