This last year witnessed the release of two of the greatest biopics of the decade. You guessed it, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman.
There is much to say about these movies and it is tempting to indulge in the pleasure of comparing both films and performances - but many have done it better and earlier.
However, I find it triggering that such similar movies were released with so little distance and so much success. Biopics seem to be evolving, and in our world of relatability, diving into the inner lives of these burning stars speaks loads about the times we live in.
A perception shift
Hollywood has always loved retelling the story of those who inspired us, and the last two years have seen no less than 5 Oscar nominations for biopics.
In the traditional formula, the film focuses on the protagonist’s main life achievements (Invictus, La Vie en rose, etc.) or one’s struggle and ultimate accomplishment of their destiny (Malcolm X, A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech, etc. - or even I, Tonya).
Although both elements are prevalent in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, these films also - and arguably mainly - dive into the inner consequences of fame and success, ie. the inner life of the artists, and the consequences of their achievements on their mind. Which Eternity’s Gate, also released last year and focusing on Van Gogh’s final years, notably does as well.
To me, this evolution is no coincidence, as the possibility of fame has never been so prevalent. A few decades ago, celebrities were perceived as unattainable creatures, benefitting from a sacred status and a sense of unattainability. So long for those, as fame has never been so close to normality - and with a little bit of self confidence, anyone can reasonably hope to become famous or at least…influential.
The American Film Institute’s ranking of the best actors and actresses of the XXth century.
In this era of achievable fame, we relate to the rise and struggles of celebrities more than ever. We used to laugh at Britney Spears shaving her head, but we now feel pain for Demi Levato and Selena Gomez’ depressions and health issues.
Thanks to Instagram and other social media, we engage with celebrities on a more personal level and relate to them more. With the rise of non artistic influencers, we also realize that literally anyone can be famous.
Thus, celebrities become as human as we are, and a key-likability factor for celebrities now is to feel relatable - ie. normal. The line between public and private life is more blurried than ever, with examples like Ariana Grande going through tragedies in front of her audience (the Manchester bombing or the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller) and transcending the pain through sharing it and singing it out loud - by the way leading to unprecedented fandom.
We now relate to stars. And in this context, it is no coincidence that the two biggest biopics of the year follow modern heroes whose success and celebrity led to pain. This is no news and older myths such as Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde remind us that a life of earthly pleasures, excitement and success usually leads to heavy backlash. Beyond the religious morals, these myths ground themselves in the hard truth that is personal void. And perhaps, a reminder that what we seek is not always what we truly want.
The cost of success
What outcome can we get from these biopics? To really understand Freddie Mercury and Elton John though, we cannot dismiss their early years and the incredible obstacles they overcame through talent and drive. First and foremost, both of them are prodigies in the purest sense: musical and charismatic genuises. Moreover, they committed hard to their craft, and as Elton presumably says in Rocketman, “the problem is [other people] have never understood [him] and what [he has] to go through”.
Both films remind us that artistic success comes at a cost. The cost of diving fully into a life that noone could ever be prepared for. The cost of estrangering families and friends. The cost of finding one’s perceived flaws and choosing to fight against them or to accept them.
Ultimately, these films warn us that the fame, the success or even just the creativity we are seeking may bring an illusion of joy, but not joy itself. They remind us that happiness is found in true love, in helping out one another, in creating for oneself and not for an audience, of building honest friendships and relationships based on trust.
And yet, we may watch these films and read these stories over and over, we all fall into the trap of being attracted to these joyless successes. Why is that?
Beyond the glitter, living life to its fullest
No matter how much pain these celebrities go through, they all give us the impression of living life to the fullest. The redemption they eventually find - or the unsolvable pain they have inflicted on themselves - have the merit of coming from truthrful attempts. They haven’t been sitting down in the classroom of life, they walked out of the door, gave a big sign to the teacher, and spread their wings - sometimes burning, sometimes flying.
Maybe that’s why attracts us so much to these celebrities. Life is scary, and their life proves that it is scary for some reason. But refusing to live by proxy, to some of us, is the exact same as refusing to die.