Laurie and I recently saw "Bohemian Rhapsody," the biographical film about the band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury. Rock-and-rollers are supposed to break rules, not follow them. Yet for all the differences in content and tone, biopics of today are fundamentally the same as those of the 1930s and '40s:
Hero shows promise.
Hero struggles to succeed.
Hero has groundbreaking ideas.
Hero is told "You can't do that."
Hero is vindicated.
Hero finds love.
Hero loses love.
If already deceased at the time of production, hero dies a noble death.
And of course, the movie's title must be drawn from one of the hero's best-known works.
In my younger years, I had difficulty accepting the liberties that filmmakers have always taken in portraying the lives of real people. I was offended by composite characters, made-up characters, telescoped timelines and events presented out of their actual chronological order, to mention only a few of my grievances. Instead of making a movie based on a version of a suggestion of a hint, why not just tell the truth?
My feelings began to change after I saw 1938's "Marie Antoinette," with Norma Shearer in the title role. I went to the screening knowing little about the picture and not expecting to like it. To my surprise, I got caught up in the drama with the rest of the audience as though we all didn't know how the story would end. And my appreciation of the film remained undiminished when I read later about its many examples of dramatic license. Yes, Marie still dies on the guillotine; otherwise her life is streamlined in the cause of plot advancement. But it works.
A further stepping stone for me was seeing "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 biopic of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda, resenting its fictional aspects, then reading a standard Gershwin biography. In his last days, the composer tried to push his chauffeur out of a moving car and later crushed chocolates that had been sent to him as a gift and smeared them all over his body. Mores of the times made their decision easier, but I realized the makers of the film still deserved credit for not pairing Gershwin's glorious music with an attempt at realistically depicting the effects of the brain tumor that killed him.
I'm happily reconciled to the fact that feature films will never be a place to learn the truth, despite movie trailers continuing to promise "the untold true story." Since coming around to this reality, I enjoy biographical pictures for the things they do well. The musical performances captured in "Rhapsody in Blue" more than make up for its historical inaccuracies, as does Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody." And if I want to know what really happened, that's what books are for.