I was recently interviewed for an article about the factual accuracy of musical biopics, written by Tom Fordy for the Telegraph. Following on from last year’s Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was criticised for manufacturing and being loose with the truth (notably in relation to Freddie Mercury’s diagnosis and disclosure that he had AIDs), there was a rash of articles that explored the printing of musical legends. With the recent release of the Rocket Man about Elton John, similar thought pieces have made a return.
Fordy asked me to talk about the ‘truth’ of the Sex Pistols-related film Sid and Nancy and the Joy Division films Control and 24 Hour Party People. One thing that I wanted to get across, which is in the piece, is that music films rarely do a good job of dealing accurately with bands. They are oriented towards star turns by individuals, including the ability of an actor to assume the persona of a lead singer or musician. What they do not manage to capture is intra-band politics. Hence, Gary Oldham delivers an astonishing performance in Sid and Nancy, where he embodies the spirit of Sid Vicious. Andrew Schofield’s limp turn as Johnny Rotten could hardly be called nuanced, however. Similarly, the various Joy Division films have worked hard at capturing the tics of lead singer Ian Curtis, but have spent far less time on the other members of the band (this seems particularly unjust, as Joy Division are one of the rare bands in which each member’s contribution is equally vital). Bohemian Rhapsody offers a partial exception to this rule, with its attention to detail spreading beyond the lead singer. The fact that Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor acted as consultants to the film presumably helped here, as did the fact that the group had already developed ways of portraying themselves on screen, notably in the video for ‘The Miracle’, in which four young children do a great job of being Queen.
Another thing that I talked about with Fordy, but which did not make it into the article, is that this analysis of historical accuracy should be extended to documentaries. It is presumed that they get closer to the reality of singers and musicians than acted portrayals, but I’m not sure this is always the case. On the one hand, musical biopics such as 24 Hour Party People or the Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There have done a better job of capturing musicians and scenes than most parades of talking heads could ever do. On the other hand, a documentary can be just as partial as a biopic. They will be oriented towards one version of the truth or one member of a band. Take, for example, the three attempts that director Julien Temple has made to tell the Sex Pistols’ story. He has spoken of the Rotten-oriented The Filth and the Fury (2000) as being a ‘corrective’ to his earlier film, the Malcolm McLaren-instigated Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). This did not stop him from having another crack at the Pistols, however, providing a more London-based setting in The Knowledge (2008). Each film has its moments, but they are also indicative of the fact that the Sex Pistols’ story is too rich and diverse to be contained. A further point about documentaries is that their tendency to place social context around music can be just as falsifying and mythologizing as the manufacture of narrative events in biopics. About ten years ago I heard a great talk by Richard Witts, in which he took apart the documentary Factory: Manchester from Joy Division to Happy Mondays, indicating that its scene-setting footage of Salford, which was supposed to visualise the milieu in which the members of Joy Division emerged, was in fact taken from an era prior to their births. It had originally been employed to illustrate ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of slum clearance, but the film implied that those slums were still there.
And there’s a final thing that I didn’t mention to Fordy at all. When analysing the ‘reality’ of music films, the focus tends to be on truth to history, truth to personality or truth to sociology. There is less discussion about truth to music. But which films best manage to capture the spirit of a song? Musical biopics are not the place to look. With their orientation towards narrative and character they lose the ability to deliver a good tune. Documentaries can edge closer to the marvels of music. As I have written elsewhere, there is something exciting about hearing music talked about. It sets up a thrill of anticipation for the moment that the song in question finally arrives. Ultimately, however, the films that best communicate what music feels like for us – the fans - are not the ones that concentrate on its makers. It is the reception of music that comes across most effectively. Therefore, if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man.
And which moment of film best captures the essence of Queen? It’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Wayne’s World of course.