At certain times in history we desperately want to take our mind off the present and the feared future by going back to the mythical past. It’s a British habit and it’s sometimes very educational, as in ‘Horrible Histories’. But what if that version of the past is so edited, so banal, so denying of differences, that its ‘pure’ blandness is all that matters, so meaning and depth goes out the window? Essentially, both ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ offer celebrated moments of British togetherness; for some this is akin to the ecstasy of a royal wedding and is just as delusory. If the Beatles had not existed (the premise of the Boyle film), what about everything else connected to them, like the many superb films George Harrison produced? Today, certain things are way more blasphemous than the content of ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ (Terry Jones, 1979), bankrolled by Harrison remortgaging his house which, as the posters in Sweden read, ‘is so funny it is banned in Norway’. We don’t need to mention the triggering show ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, narrated by Ringo (honestly, we don’t…).
Both of these recent bio-pic/anti-bio-pic films ignore most of the transgressive elements of their interesting subject matter, creating what amounts to a sterile view of Britain and the world. They are fantasy post-Brexit worlds, looping back to a past that never existed. Sure they are ‘fun’, at times emotional, and of course they can be moving. Not everything needs to be subversive. But there are obvious problems. After three years of avoiding differences over what we see ourselves to be politically, these films and others like them again avoid differences, avoid conflict, and therefore avoid any truth. But it seems this is what audiences want, or are told they want: fake MTV but on a big screen for two hours, like Top of the Tops 2 without all those dodgy DJs.
Gone is Godard’s notion of cinema being truth 24 times a second. Truth is just too difficult and challenging. Truth is anathema, it’s the biggest transgression. And yet, underneath the screened togetherness of the masses (the bliss of the Live Aid sequence for example highlighted frequently as the best part of the Queen movie – even if you weren’t there now you can be), overtly hidden but not forgotten are the notable cracks being put on hold. The burst of rocking-out joy and nostalgic bliss in both films is short lived. However much we may paint a picture of unified feeling in the crowd, editing out the difficult parts, they come back to haunt us. You don’t have to be Freud to understand the return of the repressed.