Who wants to live forever?
That's the defining question Freddie Mercury asks in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a story detailing the band’s rise to fame and culminates in their now-infamous Live Aid performance – a concert so legendary it has since been called the greatest live performance of all time. But before you ask ‘who wants to live forever?’, it makes sense to know how you live forever. In this post we will find out.
Bohemian Rhapsody paints Freddy Mercury as a creative genius whose true life goal is to gain acceptance from his deeply conservative father. Throughout his career, Freddy is fuelled by his father’s rejection to embrace new ideas and explore everything of what life has to offer – including drink, drunks and sexuality. His darkest days see him fall in with the wrong crowd, who lead him astray from those who love him, and make him self-destruct – using them to fill the void of approval his father has left him with. Eventually, due to his party lifestyle, Freddy learns that he’s contracted AIDS and finally regroups with the rest of the Queen members, whom he informs of his condition. The band, aware of Freddy’s short time left, work tirelessly to rehearse their set for Live Aid – the biggest charity concert the world has ever seen – and, come the day of the gig, Freddy finally makes amends with his father, who is proud of him for the first time.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a brilliant film, truly. Go and see it. Even if you aren’t the biggest Queen fan, you won’t help but be moved by learning how songs that have defined genres and generations were born, and you will come away buoyed by the struggles to create even the greatest artists in their fields grappled with – there’s hope for us all yet!
However, as I was watching the film, it stirred a thought within me. The events of the Live Aid story happened so poetically, as if the universe itself had ordered them in such a way to serve as a lesson to us all, they surely couldn’t have been a coincidence and had to be designed? After a little research into Queen and Freddy Mercury's history, I found my answer: the filmmakers had rejigged events to make them as emotionally engaging as possible.
This kind of cinematic tampering with history opened up a question: if a film that’s based on historical events isn’t historically accurate, then should it be made? This is less an objective question than a subjective opinion, and the answer to it will likely differ based on your relationship with the content of the film. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, if you’re a die-hard Queen fan, then you may find the re-ordering of history – giving Mercury more focus than the other members of Queen – insulting, and wish the film had treated the true order of events with more respect or not be made at all. However, if you’re a more casual cinema-goer, after a poignant lesson from one of history’s greatest performers, then you’re probably glad for the film existing in its current form.
Which leads me to my answer to this question. Bohemian Rhapsody, whilst based on historical events, doesn’t refer to itself as a documentary. It doesn’t pretend to be an accurate representation of historical events – indeed it bills itself as "based on" true events – and, because of this, has used techniques to make the story as emotionally engaging and coherent as possible. Life, even of the most amazing performers, is often dull and un-cinematic, so a gentle re-ordering of events can make a story come to life. Hence, the story has a right to exist in the way it does, and the filmmakers have a right to make it in any way they please.
Yet at what point does a film that bills itself as “based on” a true event cease to represent that event in any meaningful way? How many changes to the way actual events unfolded can there be in the film before the film can no longer be said to be a representation of the event it’s based on?
In essence, this is the same question as posed by the great philosophical thought experiment Theseus’ Ship, an experiment that goes as follows:
There is a ship owned by a great Roman warrior that has been sailing for decades. Over time, each piece of the ship has been replaced: every single wooden plank making its decks, and all the ropes used with its masts and sails – eventually no item that comes to make the ship is original. To anyone's eye, it is the same ship, and when anyone talks about Theseus’ ship they are referring the ship in question, but is it the same ship?
The Theseus’ Ship thought experiment shows that what constitutes personal continuity through time is often subjective and a matter of degree: argue too extreme for no changes and your argument quickly falls apart under scrutiny, but argue for many changes and your argument also suffers the same fate. For example:
1. If you argue that only the original ship, as it was made in the warehouse, constitutes Theseus’ Ship then what about if the ship was slightly chipped on its launch from the dry dock? The ship has been changed, however slightly, by having a splinter of its hull knocked off and is no longer exactly the same as when it was made in the warehouse. It therefore fails to meet your standard for what constitutes being Theseus’ Ship and cannot be referred to as such – this seems absurd.
2. If you argue that the ship can be called Theseus' Ship so long as it is still recognised as Theseus’ Ship, then what if the ship were to still be around in 1000 years? By this point every single part would have been replaced and nothing about it will have come from that original warehouse, yet it is still determined to be the same ship – this also seems absurd.
In the same way, what constitutes a film representing a historical event in any meaningful way? Set the bar too high and nothing will qualify as being a representation, but set the bar too low and anything could. For example:
1. If you argue that everything has to be exactly the same as the original historical event for a film to be permitted to bill itself as “based on” that event, then we can only have a hope of creating films based on events of seconds ago. Why? Because people and settings are constantly changing – hair falls out, plants grow – and everything is in flux: only things filmed almost exactly as an event has ended, exactly where it ended, have a chance of conforming to these standards. To this extent, history would almost cease to exist as it couldn’t be recorded in any meaningful way – everything would be lost to time as soon as it was over.
2. If you argue that everything only has to be recognisable as the original historical event for a film to be permitted to bill itself as “based on” that event, then things could get wild. The biggest events in history would be reverted to huge metaphors and suddenly every event would be unrecognisable. The sinking of the Titanic could be filmed as a young woman walking along a street texting, walking into a lamppost and falling over in agony just as much as the Brexit fiasco could be. Every story would mean both everything and nothing synonymously – meaning, ultimately, that all meaning would be lost entirely, and the true timeline of historical events would become lost to re-written metaphorical nonsense.
Hence what constitutes a film to be permitted to bill itself as “based on” a historical event must sit somewhere in the middle of 100% accuracy and 100% metaphorical license. Go too far to the former and we become so bogged down in facts and accuracies that it becomes impossible to represent historical events at all – meaning that everything would be forgotten as soon as it was over. Go too far to the latter and we become so fanciful with our metaphors that every story can be said to be “based on” every historical event – ultimately crowding out the true timeline of events from record and memory.
It is therefore the case that the current set-up of cinema has got the balance just about right. Want a true, fact-based film? Watch a documentary. Want to be emotionally moved, even if historical events aren’t represented entirely accurately? Watch a story “based on” an event. The difference in aims between the two is key, and ensures we continue to have access to the emotional lessons of history alongside the true timeline of historical events.
If you want to live forever, be remembered forever. That’s the only way you will be recognised for centuries to come.
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