Bio Movies: Dramatic vs Documentary

When presenting a story about a famous person on film, which is better: a scripted dramatic film starring professional actors or a documentary film featuring actual footage of the person with comments from friends, family and other associates?

This question comes to mind after seeing films during the last year about Freddie Mercury, David Crosby, Miles Davis, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Garland. Also, the Ken Burns PBS series about country music caused me to recall dramatic movies about Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, among others.

My examples listed here are music stars but the question also applies also to films about well-known individuals in other walks of life. It’s my belief that each style (dramatic or documentary) has its own virtues.

In a dramatic telling of a person’s life story or, as with the Judy Garland movie, a brief period of a person’s life, the filmmaker has the opportunity to massage the facts to present a coherent narrative with elements of conflict, romance and the ups and downs of life. Timelines can be condensed or expanded. Events that may have seemed inconsequential at the time can be presented as key turning points.

In a documentary film, the filmmaker also has the ability to shape the content that makes it to the screen, but he or she is working with actual events and real people. Is a documentary biographical film the complete and unvarnished truth? No. It is a version of the truth. But with archival footage and present day commentary, it has a level of authenticity. The best documentaries, I believe, have a point of view and may not present all sides of a story.

A successful biography type film, be it dramatic or doc, adds to our understanding of an individual and our appreciation for that person’s challenges and accomplishments.

Of course, a key consideration is money. Production costs for Bohemian Rhapsody are estimated on imdb.com at $52 million. The film’s worldwide gross is nearly one billion dollars. Documentary costs or revenues are never anywhere close to those numbers. For that reason, producers may be more quickly willing to risk an investment on a documentary about a person such as Linda Ronstadt whereas a dramatic telling of her life/career story would be a much riskier proposition.

With both styles of storytelling, there will always be complaints that a real life event was depicted incorrectly or that certain events or people are totally omitted. But, hey, you can’t please everybody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian

The musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody are brilliant. Exciting. Thrilling. The biopic that surrounds the music is okay but not as special as trailers might have suggested.

Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) story follows that familiar showbiz path: obscurity, success, excess, debauchery, downfall and, finally, redemption. Whether it’s vital that an actor resemble the real-life person he/she is portraying can be debated, but Malek does look like Mercury, especially with the moustache.

But his prosthetic teeth eventually become distracting, almost like the ones Mike Myers wore in the Austin Powers movies.

Speaking of Myers, he plays a record exec who snubs the song Bohemian Rhapsody because of its length. Interestingly, the song is not performed in its entirety in the movie. Too long, maybe? (Snippets are heard.) The depiction of the recording of the song is one of the film’s highlights.

Myers’ casting appears to be payback for his giving the song new life in the 90s by using it in Wayne’s World.

I like Queen. I played their music on radio. I appreciated that they delivered a variety of sounds and styles in their tunes. The song Bohemian Rhapsody stands tall among the mostly tired and overplayed music genre known as “classic rock.”

Hardcore Queen fans will find much to like here. Boomers and Gen-Xers who thrived on Queen’s music will enjoy the nostalgia and may pick up unknown or unremembered tidbits about the band’s time in the sun. Millenials and Gen-Zers who adore Malek in Mr. Robot will want to check him out in this role.

With all those constituencies already titillated by the preview trailers, Bohemian Rhapsody should be a gorilla at the box office. Enjoy the music!