Deep Throat never told Woodward and Bernstein to “follow the money.” William Wallace was never actually called Braveheart. Salieri didn’t detest Mozart and despair in creative frustration and professional rivalry. P.T. Barnum wasn’t really a lovable champion of the outsider. Churchill sure as hell didn’t ride the London Underground and focus group his ideas with common citizens before delivering his iconic “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. And Freddie Mercury didn’t break up Queen to pursue a solo career nor did he tell them he had AIDs right before their iconic Live Aid performance.
Ah, yes. All of that might be true of history, but it’s not how the movies – All the President’s Men, Braveheart, Amadeus, The Greatest Showman, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody – based on those people presented things. For historians, that’s an ongoing problem; for Hollywood, meh – never let the facts get in the way of a good story. To paraphrase John Ford, “When the legend becomes fact, adapt the legend into a movie and maybe just hire a token historical consultant to cover your ass on the facts.”
Bohemian Rhapsody – History Written By the Survivors
In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, the consultants included the surviving members of Queen – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor – as well as the band’s former manager, Jim Beach. There is no Bohemian Rhapsody without them or at the very least there’s no actual Queen music in Bohemian Rhapsody without them, and what producer is going to want to front the money for a Freddie Mercury biopic without getting to hear him sing his most famous songs?
The result is a film which makes May, Deacon, and Taylor out to be lovable misfits who wouldn’t dare partake in the rock star lifestyle and depicts Mercury (Rami Malek doing his best impression of him) as a lonely, sad, sexually confused man who let vice and misplaced trust lead him astray. On two different occasions, he’s shown to be late to and largely uninvolved in the recording sessions for some of the band’s most iconic songs. His realization of his own homosexuality is presented as the beginning of his own downfall, opening him up to being eventually misled by his own Yoko Ono who happened to be a dishonest gay lover/personal manager.
The only suggestion of any kind of failing on the rest of the band’s part is Mercury’s repeated vague references to Taylor’s on-the-road shenanigans, the unspoken suggestion being he has cheated on spouses and wouldn’t want Mercury blabbing about it. Mercury never does and gets his shit together just in time for the band’s triumphant reunion at Live Aid, which they perform in almost “Win one for the Gipper” fashion. The band rallies around Mercury and watch in awe as he delivers a career-best performance despite his recent AIDS diagnosis. In true Walk Hard fashion, the film ends with the impression Mercury might as well have died literally the moment he walked off that stage.
Nevermind that Mercury wasn’t diagnosed until well after Live Aid and didn’t share the news with the band for years. Or that they had been touring for months prior to Live Aid and continued touring for several years after. Or that Taylor was the first to record solo albums, not Mercury. Or…any number of other ways in which the film just completely rewrites history.
“Real life,” as Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen argue in Based on a True Story, “is not so obliging as to organize itself into three discrete acts with a clear narrative through-line.” Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) looked at the messy story of Queen’s history and wrestled it into a familiar three-act structure, charting, the rise, fall, and triumphant return of one of rock’s greatest bands and most gifted lead singers. In the process, Mercury was transformed into a tragic figure and his bandmates ever-patient companions.
Not everyone’s cool with that. As Uproxx’s Mike Ryan put it, “Either the surviving members of Queen still resent the fact that so much of their legacy is wrapped up in Freddie Mercury that they had to make this revisionist history of a movie, or the surviving members are so cinematically tone deaf they inadvertently made a movie that sure comes off like that’s what they were trying to do.”
Thrillist was far more concise in its criticism: “Bohemian Rhapsody glosses over, rearranges, and outright edits away so much of Queen and Freddie Mercury’s history that you wonder why the movie was even made at all.”
Bohemian Rhapsody Rocks the Box Office
But audiences don’t seem to care. Bohemian Rhapsody is currently on pace to become the highest-grossing musical biopic ever, passing Straight Outta Compton, and certainly “the biggest LGBTQIA-themed movie of all time,” according to Forbes. It has done so by managing to pull off the rare multigenerational sweep of appealing almost equally at the box office to the 18-24 crowd, 55 and older, and everything in-between, earning an almost even split with women (51% of the film’s opening weekend ticket-buying audience) and men (49%) in the process.
Audiences have been willing to accept whatever they see on film as true since pretty much the creation of the art form. We’ve at least come a long way from the days when those first viewers of The Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station apocryphally jumped out of the way of the Lumiere’s oncoming train. We get that the moving images on the screen won’t reach out and touch us. Similarly, one would like to believe we’re all sophisticated enough to assume any “Based on a True Story” movie is probably 95% bullshit and that we should simply enjoy the pleasing fantasy on screen. We have over 100 years of film history telling us that’s what we should do.
However, this is the age of fake news, a time when deteriorating social institutions and the slow-drip death of traditional media has opened the gates for yellow journalism to ultimately shape popular opinion and alter the political whims of the moment. Far too few check the sources behind what they read on the internet and our popular imagination is as malleable as ever. We’re all supposed to be trying harder at this! Shouldn’t Hollywood be doing the same? I mean, in 2018 why is the bullshit historical movie, like Bohemian Rhapsody, still a thing?
Bullshit Historical Movies – It’s the Ticket Sales, Stupid
Because they still make money. As Mark C. Carnes, an influential historian behind the widely-used textbook Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, told a TV interviewer in 2004, “Hollywood makes films for the money. Same reason McDonald’s makes burgers. Sometimes McDonald’s gets it right, but we don’t speak of its contribution to the culinary arts. Sometimes Hollywood makes good films about the past, but that is incidental to the main purpose: money.”
Bohemian Rhapsody, The Greatest Showman, and Darkest Hour are three such recent money-makers with a sometimes outright hostile relationship with actual history. That didn’t step Showman from becoming one of the leggiest box office hits of all time nor did it rob Gary Oldman of his long-deserved Oscar.
The same year as Argo, however, Zero Dark Thirty’s awards ambitions were largely derailed by controversy over its historical accuracy. The same winds blew against The Imitation Game a year later. So, there’s a limit to how much fiction audiences and/or awards bodies are willing to accept in their “Based on a True Story” movies, and making a lot of noise about persistent historical inaccuracies has been one of the recent go-to moves for rival PR firms involved in hotly contested Oscar races.
Regardless of Oscar considerations, doesn’t the movie industry have a responsibility to get things right? John Sayles, writer-director of such historical films as Matewan and Eight Men Out, doesn’t think so, telling Past Imperfect, “I think using responsibility in the same sentence as the movie industry – it just doesn’t fit. It’s not high on their list of things to think about.” After all, they’re not making documentaries. Their job is tell stories in a way audiences will want to hear.
But Isn’t This the Age of the Documentary?
An increasing minority of audiences, however, are gravitating toward actual documentaries, a style of film certainly not above manipulation of deception but inherently more devoted to the truth than feature filmmaking. Buoyed by the success of RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary is having a bit of a cultural moment at the box office.
Would Queen’s actual history be better served by a documentary? Absolutely. But even in success, it wouldn’t have begun to reach as many people as Bohemian Rhapsody has. Some fans find this absolutely galling. “Every story point was not only fiction but insulting to the legacy of one of the greatest rock stars of our time. There’s dramatic license and then there’s this abomination,” wrote LaPanIAm on Letterboxd. “An honest, captivating and respectful biopic […] that brought tears to my eyes on several occasions,” countered Lucy Goes to Hollywood.
What I Thought of Bohemian Rhapsody
I lean toward the side which argues Bohemian Rhapsody is an enjoyable, but very meat and potatoes biopic that does have an odd tendency to make Mercury out to be the villain of his own story. The recontextualization of Queen’s Highlander love song “Who Wants to Live Forever?” into an AIDS hymn genuinely moved me, though. Still, Bryan Singer made a noticeably old-fashioned superhero movie a couple of years ago, X-Men: Apocalypse, even as competitors were advancing the genre. Now, he’s – along with his eventual replacement, Dexter Fletcher – done the same with the music biopic, producing rather pedestrian work which absolutely pales in comparison to the stunning fly-on-the-wall photography and artistry of A Star is Born.
The Big Takeaways
The larger takeaway, ultimately, is not what Queen does to Freddie Mercury’s legacy or the way The Greatest Showman unjustly deifies P.T. Barnum. No, the real lesson here is Queen’s music truly is universal and audiences everywhere are responding to Bohemian Rhapsody’s easily digestible, but empowering story of a group of outsiders conquering the world while its lead singer overcomes adversity, adding sexual orientation, restrictive religious upbringing, and discriminated-against-ethnicity to Mercury’s list of challenges to hurdle. The Greatest Showman, similarly, speaks to a very-now mindset of embracing the outsider, small-minded society be damned.
We look to history not just to understand the past but also better contextualize the present; Hollywood looks to history for marketing hooks. The real history is always complicated, the reel history always simplified. Which reel history films hit at the box office and which don’t often tells us a lot about what kind of historical stories we all needed to hear at any given moment. Right now? One artist’s journey of self-discovery and creation of some great damn music with his quirky friends is apparently what the world wanted, legacy-altering historical inaccuracies and all.
Nothing really matters, in this case, other than the music, and history-setting ticket sales? That’s always going to be music to Hollywood’s ears.
Sources: Cineaste, Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorites By Jonathan Vankin & John Whalen, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies,