Alfred Hitchcock once said this of his manipulative brand of suspenseful movie making: “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”
Directors of music bios enjoy playing the audience like suckers, with a piano usually tinkling nearby. Thinking that audiences never fact-check, these directors lazily expect music-loving moviegoers to gulp down popcorn with a gallon of hogwash, fudging the historical facts surrounding their subjects because they think it works better for the film.
The recent Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which was nominated for two Golden Globes today, may have started out telling the true Freddie Mercury story, but the heavy involvement of band members Brian May and Roger Taylor in the production meant, first of all, we didn’t get Sasha Baron Cohen as Mercury. The Borat star would’ve shown Freddie’s wild side and made a film about who he really was, the kind of guy who would throw lavish parties where little people with plates of cocaine on their heads milled about. But Queen the band (or rather, the "brand") were understandably out to protect their legacy and secure a PG rating, something that would seem an anathema to Mercury: He once said of a future film biography "My dears, the things I've done in my lifetime ... it'll be totally XXX-rated, I'll tell you!"
Consider that the Queen legacy earned £48 million in 2014 between the profits of their sell-out tour with Adam Lambert and their West End musical We Will Rock You. Bohemian Rhapsody has already outdistanced both of those post-Freddie ventures combined, so far earning $541 million globally as of this writing.
As lying sack of shit music biopics go, Bohemian Rhapsody obeys all six basic tenets:
1. Fudge the timeline whenever convenient
2. Vilify mostly-innocent people if no other villain is apparent
3. Consolidate or make up characters in order to simplify things
4. Make up events to advance the plot
5. Wink knowingly at the audience about some future fact that the people in the movie couldn’t possibly know
6. Have someone with a bias or questionable agenda serve as a consultant
The worst case of let’s-do-the-time-warp-again occurs when the film depicts Mercury (Rami Malek) telling the band he had AIDS before performing at Live Aid in 1985. Mercury wasn’t even diagnosed with the HIV virus until two years later. The band didn't learn about it until 1989. And while Live Aid was a convent place to end their career on a high note, it is a disingenuous one: Queen released three more album before Freddie’s death and a posthumous fourth, and undertook a world tour after that milestone.
Given all this horsing around with the truth, we thought it was time to measure how this film stacks up against questionable music biopics of yesteryear. Is this the real life? Or are these films just fantasy?
The Doors (1991)
Lying Sack of Shit Rating: 4/6
Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore served as technical advisors to this film, mostly to show their movie counterparts how to play their instruments and for Krieger to make sure we know that it was he, not Jim Morrison, who wrote "Light My Fire."
Anything to make Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) seem more like a rebel is included in this Oliver Stone opus, like showing Jim dropping out of UCLA to become a rock star instead of graduating with a film degree (which he did) and that his student film included Nazi imagery (which it didn't). Keyboardist Ray Manzarek fell out with Stone over the last whopper and in turn, Stone made Manzarek's character (Kyle MacLachlan) into an adversarial member of the group instead of the mentor role he held in real life. The movie reschedules Morrison's 1967 New Haven arrest to 1968 when the Lizard King was further along in his downward spiral, and Manzarek also disputed the incident where Morrison destroyed a TV set during a recording session, but when you consider that high-on-acid Morrison once came back in the recording studio after hours and ruined all the band's equipment with a fire extinguisher, we may be splitting hairs a bit.
American Hot Wax (1978)
Lying sack of shit rating: 3/6
Legendary disk jockey Alan Freed (Tim McIntire) was one of the earliest people to popularize the phrase “rock and roll” with his radio program and live shows. This movie is less a biopic than a fictionalized retelling of Freed's last days in New York radio, omitting any direct mention of the payola scandal which wrecked his career and left him penniless.
The movie timeline remains mostly true to the era, except when it makes mention of Buddy Holly's 1959 plane crash, which occurred a year after this film's final Alan Freed concert took place. There are a lot of made-up groups and songwriters in this movie too, including Saturday Night Live's Larraine Newman co-starring as a pastiche Carole King, but there are also real stars appearing in the movie's climax show at the Paramount. The movie's biggest slice of malarky: When informed backstage that the IRS has confiscated the show's box office receipts and that no one is hoping to get paid, the real-life Chuck Berry – a guy who insisted on being paid in cash before setting foot on stage, who used amateur pickup bands instead of paying musicians' per diems on the road for most of his career – says with a straight face that he'll perform for free. All for Freed, who swiped a co-writing credit for "Maybelline" in exchange for airplay on his show.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Lying sack of shit rating: 3/6
Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are listed as producers, the latter's involvement ensuring that his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. would get cast to play him.
For convenience's sake, N.W.A. is cuffed and harassed by the police for doing nothing but standing outside of a Torrance recording studio in the middle of the day. Seconds later, Ice Cube (Jackson) emerges with a completed draft of "Fuck tha Police." Snoop Dogg (Lakeith Stanfield) hands Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) a joint and calls it "that Chronic." One toke later, Dre and Snoop are recording "Ain't Nothin' But a G Thang" from, yes, The Chronic. This kind of forced exposition makes most music biopics unbearably pandering, and it's in full effect here.
While Ice Cube smashing up the Priority Records offices with a baseball bat is real, the band getting arrested at a concert arena after performing "Fuck Tha Police" isn't. The band actually got busted for inciting a riot after they went down to the lobby of the hotel to meet some girls. Also made up for the film is the depiction of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) going bankrupt; as a partner in Ruthless Records, he profited handsomely enough from the success of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony not to have to go back to bagging weed to make ends meet.
Lying sack of shit rating: 2/6
Ray Charles (Jaime Foxx) had two marriages and 12 children with 10 different women, so naturally, some consolidation in the female department has to occur. By the time he’s honored by the state of Georgia in 1979, he's pictured with his second wife who he'd divorced two years prior. The story depicting him being banned by the state of Georgia was simply untrue; he was merely sued by a promoter for breach of contract for not appearing at a segregated show. As a biopic within a confined timeline, this movie stays true to its subject despite the labored exposition ("Ray, you've combined gospel and rhythm and blues, no one's ever done that before”).
Walk The Line (2005)
Lying sack of shit rating: 2/6
Johnny and June Carter Cash's only child, John Carter Cash, is an executive producer here, and his parents approved the casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, respectively. Cash's other kids from his first marriage objected to the portrayal of Cash's first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) as a shrew who was against his musical career (she only objected to his not coming home). The depiction of his father as a miserable man who told Johnny he should've been the son who died after the death of his brother in a sawmill accident might be true; Cash extolled his father as an honorable man in his first memoir but was a lot less forgiving in his second one. As for truly made-up shit, Cash never toured with Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne) as shown in the movie, and it's unlikely when the real Man in Black was waiting backstage at Folsom Prison to perform that historic concert, there just so happened to be a table saw there to induce a whole 90 minutes' worth of flashbacks.
Lying sack of shit rating (3 out of 6)
Amadeus' trailer declares "Everything you've heard – it's true!" Fat chance.
Despite this excellent, Oscar-sweeping film being held up as the primary example of an overtly fictionalized biopic, many still believe it to be grounded in historical truth. For Amadeus to be true, you'd have to buy into the lie that Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) was a mediocre composer and that he considered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) to be his deadliest rival. The truth is he was actually pretty good, and the pair became friends and collaborated together later in life, although it’s unlikely Salieri showed up in disguise to commission Mozart’s "Requiem Mass." Salieri plays Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" to a priest at the beginning of the film, which is instantly recognized but was not even introduced the public until 1827, several years after the scene was supposed to have taken place.
As for the Mozart character's introduction, where he's shown propositioning a beautiful young woman to, let's not mince words here, lick his ass, that may or may not have actually happened. The real man, however, did write a song to that effect.
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Jersey Boys (2014)
Lying sack of shit rating: 5/6
Jazz purists objected to Clint Eastwood's first music biopic Bird when Charlie Parker's isolated tracks were coupled with new modern re-recordings so the film could be in true stereophonic sound. Four Seasons fans probably aren’t so uppity, since they've championed this stage show-turned-movie musical where the timeline is all over the place. When Frankie Valli's (John Lloyd Young) daughter Francine (Freya Tingley) dies of a drug overdose, he is shown recording "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," his first big hit as a solo artist, as a tribute to her. The song was actually recorded in 1967, 13 years before her death. And when she was a little girl, he lullabied her with "My Eyes Adored You," a song he would not record until 1974.
Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), who left the group in 1965, is shown to be a member until the end, giving short shrift to latter-day Four Seasons Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone, who did most of the lead singing on the group's last big hit "December 63 (Oh What A Night)."
Amidst all this time traveling, Joe Pesci (Joey Russo), who introduced Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to the group, is shown at one point in this movie saying "Funny how?" an allusion to his character in Goodfellas, who shared the name Tommy DeVito with the Four Seasons' most mob-affiliated member (Vincent Piazza). The naming of the group after the Four Seasons bowling alley, as unlikely as it is presented in the film, was apparently true.