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How Do You Like Your Music Biopics?


We’re experiencing something of a renaissance for music biopics. The tropes have been firmly in place since Walk the Line and Ray, but popularity hit its peak only 3 years ago when the Queen (by way of Freddie Mercury) biopic made nearly a billion dollars. We now have about 18 music biopics in the pipeline, and I hope that means we can expect 18 distinct films, but I'm not too sure. The parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played out all of banalities of the genre, extenuating how terribly on the nose these films can get, and in the 14 years since, few have taken the hint.

Even worse than overly familiar stories, at their worst, these films let the music and creativity of the artists down. The saving grace of almost all of them are the stars, who typically knock it out of the park, in likeness, style and persona. Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I Am Woman, Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, and the spectacular Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up come to mind. But the two most notable modern examples of the genre are undoubtedly Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. So whose lead would I prefer the upcoming films take?

Bohemian Rhapsody is a very solid production and it does a good job of getting people swept up in Queen's success story, going through the motions when it comes to painting band frontman Freddie Mercury's personal growth. I would say it trades the lively fantasy of traditional musicals for a realistic take on Freddie's life, but that's not really true. The film plays fast and loose with the facts, mostly to reframe the Live Aid performance as the climactic victory of the band over their squabbles, and Freddie over his problems with the band, drugs and having to come to terms with his AIDS diagnosis.

In reality, at the time of the concert, the band had not broken up, they enjoyed and encouraged each other to do solo work, Freddie continued taking drugs well into his illness; and wouldn't find out about his HIV-status until April 1987. It's all to invest the audience in the, admittedly rapturous, concert finale. It's an engrossing sequence, not the least because it communicates the titanic importance of witnessing that moment in history (either as someone after Queen's time, longing for their missing untouchable Rock God status, or to relive it). The music, the moves, the sense of community is all so palpable that it leaves a sweet taste in your mouth, and disguises an otherwise serviceable movie. Rather watch the real thing.

Other than the concert, the best moment of the film comes when Freddie has to come out to his wife, while his performance of Love of my Life, written earnestly to her, plays on the television. Also undeniable is the draw of Rami Malek's performance, which accomplished the impossible by largely satiating the masses who felt that there is only one Freddie, and no substitute. That remains true, but Malek takes a phenomenal crack at it, imitating Freddie's mannerisms without falling into parody, and capturing his slinking, bouncing, charming theatricality.

Rocketman, Elton John's biopic, is thoroughly entertaining the whole way through, wonderfully original and so propulsive that you never notice the film crescendo-ing to its conclusion (it's just too involving). Freddie is corrupted by fame into hedonism at the cost of his true family; the band. Elton also climbs the dangerous ladder of pop stardom, but his problem is feeling that no-one in his life truly loves him, as he wants to be loved. Having to be whatever everybody else wants you to be, because you think you won't have anyone if you try to be yourself. It's a far more relatable feeling being communicated, and more difficult to solve. Freddie just has to get over himself and value the people who matter in his life. Elton has built so many ways to give the people what they want, so that he won't feel unloved. Stopping, understanding that he needs to work on himself, not being everything to everyone, means abandoning his coping mechanisms for no certain substitute. It makes the significance of self-love clear, and it doesn't make it soppy.

The film marries this improved drive with inventive sequences that beautifully speak to Elton's state of mind, paired seamlessly with his music, and gets to be almost as camp as Elton himself at points. It seems a little by the books in the first 20 minutes, but it hits its stride and only gets better as it goes on.

As for its best scene? I don't think I will ever forget the image of Elton, having downed a cocktail of pills, floating weightlessly above his vulnerable young self, in a space suit, sat at his piano at the bottom of the vast emptiness of what, a moment ago, was his pool, as the echoes of Rocketman begin to play. It's a perfect microcosm of the film; a flash of divine inspiration and beauty, striking at the darkest moment in Elton's life.

I wholeheartedly prefer the Rocketman slant. It distils the life of its subjects into an expression not unlike their music, and I think that makes for a more fulfilling experience for fans of the musician. The next big music biopic slated for release (not that anything keeps its release date these days) is Respect, chronicling Aretha Franklin’s life. I’ve got a feeling that South African born director Liesl Tommy won’t be taking a fantastical approach.