How to, and not to, make a music biopic: Bohemian Rhapsody and Lords of Chaos
Music biopics are tricky. They are extremely prone to fall into the excessively celebratory trap or to focus too much on the private life of the protagonists instead of the musical aspects of it. I approach any music biopic very carefully and I’m often skeptical of their quality. I was very much so for both the most recent biopics I watched, Bohemian Rhapsody and Lords of Chaos.
For those who don’t know either, the former is a movie about the history of Queen with a strong focus on Freddie Mercury and the latter is a movie about the early black metal scene in Norway, with a strong focus on Euronymous of Mayhem. Both are music biopics then, but that’s where their similarities end.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a good music biopic
I’ve stressed out the “music” here. In Bohemian Rhapsody the music is fully central to the plot, nearly every Queen album is named and there are plenty of moments of the band playing live, rehearsing, registering in studio and writing songs. There are hardly 10 consecutive minutes in the movie where nobody is either playing, singing or talking about music. It is fundamentally a movie biopic.
To be honest, I feared that it would indulge too much on the private life of Freddie. I delayed watching it as I wanted to check the first reviews, especially fans’ ones, before committing myself two hours of my life to watch it. Yet I’m glad that I finally did.
There definitely are a few somewhat long moments where the movie is too much about Freddie’s life and his internal struggles and external partying. These are important though to understand his personality and his commitment to the band. They are a vehicle to build up the finale, with Queen playing Live Aid at Wembley in a full set (or it looked like the full one). These scenes about Freddie’s lovers, cats, parties and drug abuse are the weakest part of the movie as a whole but I understand why they were included, as beneficial for the watcher to “bond” with the latter, final, scene. A digression from the music is thus justified by the setting up of the movie as a whole.
Another fear I had was that the movie would be too much about Freddie Mercury and too little about the Queen as a band. The focus is obviously on the lead singer, while the private lives of the other members is barely hinted at. Not a bad thing in itself as from the musical perspective each member is shown contributing, writing and playing at least once throughout the movie. The watchers are left with the idea that the Queen weren’t just Freddie Mercury, and rightfully so.
Bohemian Rhapsody is in the end a well done movie biopic exactly because it tries to do exclusively that, narrating the history of a music band. The few deviations from the music are justified from a narrative point of view. Obviously the good acting helps a lot but even without that it would have still a very enjoyable experience.
Lords of Chaos is teenage drama
Totally different is Lords of Chaos. Whereas both movies start with the very same objective, narrating the history of 2 bands, Lords of Chaos totally fail at that, and spectacularly so.
From the very first scenes of the movie you’re catapulted into the early black metal scene of Norway. Which would be fine if you knew beforehand something about it as the movie doesn’t even attempt to make you understand it outside of “a few youngster got bored in the late 80s and started playing loud music in basements”. Which is as much an informed statement as “a few slaves played acoustic guitars alone in the swamps of southern USA out of sadness” would be about Delta Blues. There’s much more to both genres than this.
Jonas Akerlund, the director, should be at least aware of the particularities of the black metal scene as he played for Bathory, albeit much more briefly than he’d like to admit. Bathory being actually the foremost source of inspiration for many early black metal bands. He can’t claim he knows little about the scene though, unless he forcibly forgot it.
Yet in the movie you see Mayhem already formed, already playing gigs, changing singer and drummer, opening the infamous Helvete shop in Oslo and getting to know the second protagonist of the movie, Varg Vikernes, in a matter of less than half an hour into the movie. All without naming any album, any song, any other bands outside of, oddly, Scorpions. Of course that has a lot to do with the widespread opposition the actual members of the bands have towards Lords of Chaos. Yet naming would have been free of permission, but the screenwriter didn’t found important to name a couple of bands involved in the scene more than Mayhem and Burzum. The original Mayhem drummer, Kjetil Manheim, gets replaced without being even named once and having had an amazing amount of 30 seconds of screen time. Lords of Chaos makes it seem like Mayhem were the sole responsible for the birth of the second wave of black metal and the only band worth naming from that time.
It’s like Akerlund couldn’t wait to get rid of the music introduction to get into the meat of the movie, which is the rivalry between Euronymous and Vikernes. I wouldn’t have expected any movie about Mayhem to not to focus on it, it is just too much of a great story to not swallow up most of the movie. I would have forgiven the lack of the music if at least their stories would have been well directed, well acted and insightful. Sadly, they are not.
Without music what remains?
Euronymous and Varg, mostly. Varg is, purposefully I believe, played by the least resembling actor of the whole cast. That in order to make him look as bad as possible. The movie spends a great deal of scenes to show the personality of Varg, making him appear like little more than a young idiot trying to feel like a grown up through his crimes. Which, again, could be very close to the truth and forgivable if there was any of his music in the movie. The most we hear about Burzum is through an excited Euronymous listening to a demo in his headphones and the cover of Aske. That’s about it. Once you remove any music from the life of Varg, it remains only the nazism and crimes. Sounds perfect for making him the antagonist.
On the other hand, the real protagonist is Euronymous, of whom Lords of Chaos repeatedly attempt to make him look good, much better than he truly was. All of the blame for his murder is on Varg, all the good musical choices of Mayhem are on him, precisely because we don’t see any of the other members expressing any voice in musical matters at all. He even has a sort of “redemption” at the end through an imaginary girlfriend, going insofar as cutting his hair short and trying to completely cutting ties with the “bad guy” Varg, distancing himself from his crimes but still considering him as a good friend, which somehow enrages Varg.
I know the movie doesn’t pretend to be 100% accurate and basically all the people still alive that are depicted in it distanced themselves from it. Yet if music is missing from Lords of Chaos, and there’s no psychological introspection whatsoever, not even for the poor Dead, and the main plot of the movie is fake or forced, what remains? A movie for whom? Surely not for those who don’t know the history of black metal as they will invariably get out of it little musically and nothing of the actual reasoning of the characters outside of “they wanted to play evil”. How insightful.
Nor for actual metallers that will spot the fake in a second and will not learn any new fact. They might be better off reading a Wikipedia article on Mayhem than spending 2 hours of this teenage drama. Because in the end that’s what Akerlund managed to film, a teenage drama in Norway that ended up quite badly. He could have made up every part of the plot and it would have had the same effect.
I believe Akerlund deep down despises black metal. He exploited the story and sold it to a public of teenagers wanting to watch a movie about their angst, leaving the bare minimum of space to the music. For a supposedly movie biopic, that’s an nonredeemable crime.