Our expectations of and reactions to biographical films really depend on what we bring into the arena.
Rarely has a conjunction been used as much as it is when viewers react to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the country's top film at the box office this week.
The film is a biography of Queen and focuses on the band's outrageous lead singer Freddie Mercury. The band that launched in the early 1970s went on to become one of the best-selling bands in the history of music.
Music is what brought many to Queen, but others were and are brought in by the extravagant way Mercury displayed his sexuality. The things that made an older generation cluck disapprovingly in 1978 have become, 40 years later and after his 1991 death from complications from AIDS, one of the reasons he's an icon, particularly for an LGBTQ born long after his death.
For some in the audience, Mercury's bisexuality (or homosexuality, or overt sexuality, or some other part of his sexuality) is the key part of the man's story. Since the movie doesn't deal exclusively or explicitly with the issue, for some that means “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a “bad” movie.
Another complaint about the film is the chronological storytelling uses songs and events out of order, out of context and even sometimes goes straight to convenient albeit falsified shortcuts to make the story tidier.
These issues will continue as biographical films about classic rock icons continue to be made, and the $50 million opening weekend for "Bohemian Rhapsody" guarantees that will happen. And none of those complaints deal with the issue of film structure, which is annoyingly consistent among all music biopics.
The story arc is predictable and cliched. The decision to frame the film with Queen's Live Aid performance, slavishly recreated, is just the largest cliché. The rise-fall-redemption music biography template is well worn, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” wears it out even further. The breakneck rush to wrap up loose story strings in the final 30 minutes even extends to photos with coda captions just before the credits roll.
Yet none of these are reason enough to skip the film. The performances are mesmerizing even when the story turns inevitably predictable. The ability of the actors playing band members to bring distinct personalities in a brief amount of time is remarkable. (And the running joke about one of the band's songs is hilarious and hopefully 100 percent accurate.)
The problems are ones that affect all music biographies to assorted degrees. But there are two reasons to hope filmmakers keep trying to solve them.
First, there's very little in acting more exciting to most of us than watching an actor trying to inhabit what we know of a real person. A personal example is Gary Busey as the subject of 1978's “The Buddy Holly Story.” The story bore little resemblance to reality, but it was real enough as Busey embodied the character and brought him back to life two decades after a plane crash ended Holly's life.
Similar praise should go to performances like Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray” (2004), Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in “The Doors” (1991), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) and Laurence Fishburne (Ike Turner) in “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (1993), Jennifer Lopez as the title character in “Selena” (1997) and Cate Blanchett as a version of Bob Dylan (the 1965-66 amphetamine-fueled one) in "I'm Not There" (2007).
The second reason to root for continued efforts at depicting real musicians on film is the eventual outcome. In 1978, people investigating the veracity of the real Buddy Holly story had opportunities to read more about the truth via magazine articles and biographies. Today, it's even easier.
One might come across, for example, a guy who wrote a book about the start of Queen's career, and made a fuss regarding the presentation of how Freddie Mercury came up with his iconic half-microphone stand. For that author, the movie was “bad” because the incident was presented earlier in the story than it should have been.
Millions of others won't have the movie spoiled for them by that. But everyone is going to be viewing it through their own prism. That's the important thing to remember when you see a biographical film. They're not documentaries, even at the times they might seem to be.