Sun, 23rd Feb 2020

Biopic: The Musical!

Text by: 

Brianna Dunigan

Photo by: 
Samuel Dixon on Unsplash

Move over superhero blockbusters. There’s a new trend in major motion pictures and if the 2019 and 2020 film awards seasons are any indication, it may be here to stay. I refer of course to the musical biopic, which has already covered the likes of Elton John, The Beatles and Freddie Merc- I mean, Queen.

With only three of the 20th century’s major music legends commemorated in film, there is plenty of territory left to cover by ambitious directors and screenwriters still. But with Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019) and Yesterday (2019) all taking wildly different approaches, it poses the question of ‘Which one does it best?’ I know better than to judge a film’s merit purely on the number of accolades it receives, but if you’re wondering, Bohemian Rhapsody has received the most favourable critical acclaim of the three.

So, where do these films steer away from each other in terms of creativity? A biopic is nothing new, but a biopic that is also a musical extravaganza may as well be for all the attention BoRhap and Rocketman are getting. Unfortunately, the advent of factchecking does these two no favours. They are both guilty of taking some artistic licence in the portrayal of what have become significant historical events and the relationships the leading man has with his friends, family and lovers. Rocketman gets away with this a little, having been encouraged to change things as needed by Elton John himself. The film alludes to this: it is a ‘true fantasy’. But the unnecessary alterations to the events of Freddie Mercury’s life, BoRhap being more focused on that than Queen as a whole, is a tad frustrating when I go home and learn about just how much has been manufactured to create ~drama~.

It may seem hypocritical, but Yesterday is exempt from a need to be accurate because, well, it isn’t actually a biopic about The Beatles. That’s already been done, and the decision to break away from the mould of musical tribute films is really Yesterday’s strongpoint. Rather than focus on the life or musical career of The Beatles or one of their members, Yesterday follows struggling musician Jack Malik when he finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed and, conveniently, realises he is the only one who can remember their brilliant songs. Jack takes advantage of this, performing their songs as his own and becoming a superstar. It’s an unconventional plot, a big ‘what if?’, but that makes it fun and really distinguishes it from BoRhap and Rocketman.

Unfortunately, innovation isn’t always rewarded, and Yesterday is critically the least popular film of the three. It doesn’t have the sparkling cinematography of a blockbuster film, though it is still visually very beautiful, albeit in an honest way. It’s fair to note that although the narrative is great, some of the characters of Yesterday don’t feel or act as fully fleshed out as real people do. Freddie and Elton’s paths to fame and glory, and subsequent crashes, and then their roads to redemption, are brought onto the silver screen by rising stars Rami Malek and Taron Egerton, respectively. Having the chance to learn who they are portraying from memoirs, biographies, documentaries and interviews has allowed them both to take their performances to the next level. In particular, Egerton’s real-life familiarity with Elton John adds something personal to his depiction of the larger-than-life artist.

As I write this I’m struck by the similarities between Freddie and Elton, two flamboyant British rock-stars who haven’t faded to obscurity at all. Both had been in relationships with women despite being famously gay and both had worked with John Reid. Each had battled addiction and overcome substance abuse. After first seeing BoRhap, I was reluctant to watch another two-hour biopic that flashed up the occasional musical montage, which I expected Rocketman would. While BoRhap was a great film, I struggled to rationalise how it could have won a Golden Globe with Best Picture. There were issues with editing, pacing, focus and accuracy and I didn’t feel like it was as daring with direction as it could have been. How cool would it have been to show actual clips of Queen’s Live Aid incorporated into the film’s grand finale?

I was worried that Rocketman would suffer the same issues, or at least make me wonder what I’d got out of it that I couldn’t have gotten out of any Elton John documentary. It was a pleasant surprise to see not just a biopic, but a jukebox musical. The film occasionally divulges into beautiful musical sequences that are perhaps better suited to a Broadway production than a movie musical. Still, they fit in perfectly with the narrative and action of the film and make Rocketman standout in a fun and engaging way. My only critique of these sequences is that there simply weren’t enough of them. I was also glad to see an ending sequence with more innovation than BoRhap had offered.

Like I said, I know better than to judge a film based on how many awards it wins. I hope readers know better than to judge after reading one review, including this one. So, see the films yourself and make your own judgement. I regret ruling Rocketman out as being just like the rest and almost missing out on what is a heartfelt and touching movie and tribute to Elton John. But Yesterday is the film I think I will watch more. It is quieter, yes, but that’s why it’s enjoyable. Yesterday isn’t about the glitz and glam of stardom that comes with musical prowess. It is about loving the music itself, as it should be.