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It's completely understandable why movies based on true stories, specifically biopics, are so popular both with Hollywood and with audiences. There's something that just feels different when the drama that we're seeing unfold actually happened in real life. Of course, no biopic entirely survives adaptation, and so the story isn't ever 100% true, but the basic story is usually there. This is why the recent news that we'll be seeing a biopic about Madonna that will be directed by her, and before that one starring Chris Hemsworth as Hulk Hogan, is not surprising. It is, however, slightly disconcerting, because I'm afraid both of these films may fall victim to what I will call "The Bohemian Rhapsody Problem" and I think it's a reason that movies like these should not be coming quite so soon.
Bohemian Rhapsody wasn't a terrible movie. It was fine, fun even, and Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury was one worthy of recognition. Having said that, the movie also had some issues. First and foremost, it didn't offer much of anything new to the biopic formula. A lot of biopics fall victim to telling essentially the same story. The subject strives to achieve success in their chosen field, the subject achieves success, the subject falls victim to the pitfalls that come with success, which can include, but are not limited to, sex, drugs, and an ego the size of a skyscraper, From there, the subject hits rock bottom and then comes out the other side having learned a lesson. The subject achieves success again, but appreciates it more now.
There's a reason many biopics use this structure, especially when dealing with musicians. To a certain extent, it's because it's true. Frequently becoming a celebrity does bring with it a new lifestyle, one much faster paced, that can introduce temptations like drugs that had not been previously dealt with. Both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, two biopics that came out about a year apart dealing with musicians from the same era of rock and roll, both tell essentially this same story.
The Bohemian Rhapsody Problem
There was something about Bohemian Rhapsody that specifically bothered me when I saw it. While the film is certainly focused on the life of Freddie Mercury, it's also the story of the band Queen as a whole. And yet, this particular stereotypical arc only belongs to Freddie Mercury. It's interesting that the only member of Queen who was apparently ever an asshole is the one who wasn't alive to defend himself.
The rest of Queen was intimately involved in the creation of Bohemian Rhapsody, including having a hand in choosing Rami Malek to play Freddie Mercury. Even if it was unintentional, it's not surprising that Bohemian Rhapsody is kinder to the living members of Queen than it is to the one who is no longer with us. I'm not saying this was the intention of the film, I'm sure it was not, but it's human nature to want to paint ourselves in the best possible light, and only certain members of Queen had the ability to influence that, even if it was unconscious. In the end, it makes it look like Freddie Mercury was the only member of Queen who ever made a mistake.
Not Every Biopic Subject Is Going To Be Honest
I've been a professional wrestling fan since I was nine years old, and so seeing a biopic about the life of Hulk Hogan is something that interests me, but I'm actually less interested because Hogan himself will reportedly be an advisor on the picture. Hogan's support of the film will almost certainly help boost its profile, and so there's an incentive to keep him happy by making a movie that he's happy with. This is a guy who is famous within professional wrestling circles for not wanting to do the job in the ring. Is there a chance in hell he's going to willingly let himself look bad in a film?
The same thing is potentially the case with this upcoming Madonna biopic that will apparently be directed by the superstar. I'm certainly not going to argue that anybody understands Madonna better than Madonna herself, and the woman might every intention of telling an honest version of her life; something that maybe doesn't necessarily always make her look good, but her perspective is always going to be biased. Elton John seemed committed to telling a real story about his own life and not softening the edges, and that's part of what I think makes Rocketman a better movie than its Queen counterpart, but only slightly. John can clearly only understand his story from his point-of-view, and sometimes an outside perspective is what we need.
Certainly first-hand accounts from the main subject of a biopic are going to be important and frequently the most important element of any story, but they should not be the only element that's taken into account, and no movie should feel entirely beholden to the first-hand account as if it were gospel. It may be a perfect perspective on the events that took place, but that doesn't mean it completely understood those events, and how others saw your famous biopic subject can have value as well.
Time As Distance Give Perspective
I certainly hope that these forthcoming biopics on Madonna and Hulk Hogan are good. If they find unique and interesting ways to tell their stories, they can certainly still be entertaining. But if they want to be more than that, if they want to try and say something of interest about these people, and not simply recreate events, they may have more trouble. Madonna is great and she accomplished a lot, but she's actually not the ultimate arbiter of what Madonna will ultimately mean to society. That's going to come from others in the future looking back on what she did and how she lived.
Nearly every biopic exists to celebrate its subject unless it's the rare biopic designed to vilify its subject. In the end, the movie will show us that despite shortcomings and some bad decisions, there's a reason this person is worthy of having a movie made about them in the first place. But it would feel like that celebration was coming from a more genuine place if it wasn't being overseen by the person the movie is about. That makes it sound like they are the ones celebrating themself, and that's going to make us wonder just how true the story we saw really is.