Can Pop Culture Eulogise the Dead?

So I’ve been thinking about the film Bohemian Rhapsody recently. It’s a film that I have complicated feelings over. My review might read: a film of good acting and subpar to decent filmmaking. It also reminded me how fond I am of the music of Queen, which was surely part of the impetus behind the film’s creation. There’s also the worrying stink of Bryan Singer and all the sexual assault allegations against him. All that aside, there was an interesting thought that occurred to me. The film seems to be pushing and pulling between two instincts. Is this a biopic of Freddie Mercury or Queen? The two might seem to be synonymous in some ways. The story of Queen is the story of Freddie Mercury, right? The film follows Freddie as the protagonist. From his quiet family life to his meteoric rise, to his attempts to break away from Queen, to their reunion for Live Aid. However, the film from a thematic standpoint is about the band as a family with Freddie as the wayward rock star son. It has been pointed out that the other members of Queen get to be the level-headed paternalistic members of the band while Mercury plays to the standard rock star tropes. Also, noteworthy is that the still-living members of Queen got some significant power over the film by virtue of licencing all their songs and being creative voices in the room. This no doubt led to the push and pull of the film’s narrative vs themes. With this in mind, can pop culture ever truly eulogise the dead?

One reason for this tension that is interesting is the film’s climax. The film was clearly envisioned with Live Aid as the high point for the film, both from a filmmaking perspective and on a narrative level. This means that the later years of Mercury’s life have to be rearranged to fit within the narrative for the film to feel like a complete picture. Things like the timeline of his relationship with Jim Hutton being moved up, as was his diagnosis with AIDS. If you were to put a narrative to the lives of these musicians, Live Aid would be the obvious dramatic climax. However, that creates the problem that the rest of Mercury’s life plays as a quiet denouement that plays out off-screen. There’s nothing innately wrong with this but it feels like the most palatable for a mainstream audience element of the film. Olly from Philosophy Tube in his video on Transphobia brings up the concept of Yer Dad. The example he gives is of people who say ‘I have no problem with gay people, so long as they do it away from me’. There’s a certain ostracising in that idea that doesn’t allow people to be themselves (hold hands, kiss their partner, etc.) in public without fear that their behaviour will be policed. Basically, I think the film shies away from a bolder bisexuality that Mercury could inhabit. It shows him very much post-coital with his female partner but resorts to mainly passionate kisses with his male love interests. There is a sort of sanding-off edges that feels like it comes about during the film. Mercury lived a more interesting life than the one that Bohemian Rhapsody follows and I would like to see that.

There is a struggle when making a biopic. Do people’s lives fall into a neat narrative structure? If one broadly defines a three-act structure as beginning, middle, and end then most anyone can fit into that model. However, the question of the scope means that a work of fiction focuses on the most interesting part of that person’s life. Then, does that part of that person’s life fit neatly into a story structure? We, as people, tend to narrativise the elements of our life. We explain the circumstances of our life as if there is a central causality to them. We ascribe cosmic meaning to the timing of tragedy. Changes in our own lives must always be good whereas others are capable of making wrong decisions from our point of view. Perhaps, with all this self-mythologising, the only people that culture can eulogise at all are the dead. The living have perspectives and frameworks. The dead can have their life viewed from a wider lens. However, the problem then becomes that someone else has a firm grasp on your life. They can alter and shift the events of your life to fit into the story they want to tell, which might be true in life too. We are often depicted from a different perspective by our friends and family. So, then a bigger question arises. Does a story need to be truthful to be true?

What I mean by that statement is: how much do the material facts of a ‘true’ story matter in creating a story that is true to the ethos of the people or moment being depicted. The Death of Stalin is a romp of a good film (Again, with the shadow of allegations over a cast member). The film is probably not historically accurate to exact details. However, its purpose is to show the politicking and petty squabbles of Stalin’s inner circle and their moves in the wake of Stalin’s death. The film is making a point about autocratic structures and undermining faith in infallible figures of history. Does the truth matter when telling a good story? My gut tells me that ‘of course it matters’, the above examples suggest that maybe not. Perhaps the truth matters if it doesn’t gel with the truthiness of the true story. If the truth undermines the story, perhaps that’s when it matters. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to eulogise the recently deceased (recent, as compared to biopics about figures from 100+ years ago). The dead do not get to refute falsehoods. Their relatives might, but that doesn’t carry the same inherit weight as someone who was ‘in the room where it happens’.

 

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