Biopics – Pointless genre or pointless argument?

Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic that went through multiple directors, lead actors, and took the best part of a decade to make, finally got its release this year and people were… well, people about the whole thing.

Some people adored it, saying it was a wonderful reminder of Queen’s music and many have praised lead actor, Rami Malek, for his performance as the group’s charismatic frontman. Others claim that the film was unmemorable, uninspired, and a total chronological mess. It’s the final of these complaints that got me thinking.

As an ardent Queen fan, I went into the film with mixed opinions and expectations. How on Earth were they going to capture the magic of one of the biggest musical acts of all time? How were they going to tackle some of the sensitive issues, such as Freddie’s sexuality and his AIDs diagnosis? How were they going to recreate those teeth?

Like just about everybody else in the world who has seen this movie, I picked out a few inaccuracies with the film’s portrayal of real-life events in the cinema and then noticed about a dozen more when I got home and jumped on Google. I could sit here and write them all out, but I’d only be repeating what you’ve probably heard a thousand times already.

A film depicting a real-life celebrity and their real life has come under fire for inaccuracy: a biopic changes events to fit its story – shock horror! Forgive my sarcasm, but it’s not like we haven’t heard this before. There are countless examples of biopics making small changes to a person’s story or even making things up entirely. 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks totally changed the story of how Walt Disney secured the rights to P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (this film was made by Disney, by the way, so Walt also comes across as a charming saint, surprise surprise). Denzel Washington’s character in Remember The Titans wasn’t the inspiring, heroic man that was portrayed in the film, in fact, he was pretty horrible. And don’t even get me started on all the Winston Churchill biopics.

This brings me back to the title of this piece – are biopics a pointless genre? Or is it the argument surrounding their flaws that is pointless? As with most things, there is good evidence to support both sides.

I personally do not enjoy biopics. I don’t understand the point of portraying real-life people in a dishonest way, especially if it then influences people’s opinions of that person. I can guarantee that most people who saw Bohemian Rhapsody will take the movie as totally factual, and the same can be said for any other biopic too. People don’t like to do their own research, and if they’re presented with a story that makes sense and is entertaining, they’ll probably believe it.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not giving people enough credit. Perhaps, by now, people have realised that biopics are just a fanciful way of telling the story of a famous person. They’re never going to be 100 percent accurate – it’s why you always see ‘based on a true story’ at the start of a movie, and never just ‘this is a true story’. There’s no way that a director or scriptwriter could fit every little detail of a person’s life into a two-hour film. It seems that, in order to tell an engaging, yet concise story, certain details or certain events have to be omitted.

So what’s the problem here? Is it the dishonesty of a biopic? Or the expectations of the audience? Well, I hate to say it, but I think it’s us that’s the problem.  

If we go into a biopic expecting to be told a totally accurate, completely honest story about someone’s actual life then we are, quite frankly, poor viewers. Of course, things are going to get changed. Of course, people are going to be presented differently to how they were in real life. Of course, they’re going to be wearing prosthetic teeth (honestly, the best bit of the movie, Rami looked great). If you’re after an accurate representation of historical events, be they political, military, cultural or anything else, then watch a documentary. These things don’t exist in Hollywood biopics. If you expect to get these things from a biopic, then, of course, you’re going to end disappointed every time.

By all means, please keep watching biopics if you enjoy them, but stop complaining when they aren’t what you think they are. If you haven’t learned by now that these sorts of films aren’t totally accurate, then it’s your own fault. I believe the expression ‘Fool me once’ is quite appropriate here.

Whether it is to cut the runtime, make the story easier to write, or even just the biases of the people making the movie, a biopic is never going to deliver the wholly accurate story that you are after. Biopics should be enjoyed for what they are; an entertaining, yet somewhat fictional account of a real person’s life. So please stop complaining that Freddie Mercury didn’t get diagnosed with AIDs until 1987. I’ve read the exact same Wikipedia page as you have.

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Jacob Simmons

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August 2022
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