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Episode 36.  What's Fact Got To Do With It?

In 1987 I was at Legend’s club in soho one night when a fight started between a famous 1970s Glam Rocker and some idiot who had had too much to drink. We were in the VIP area and the incident was quickly quashed by the bouncers, the idiot being thrown out whilst we quietly carried on knocking back vodkas. To my astonishment, it was unrecognizably reported in The Sun newspaper a few days later. The article had the Glam Rocker start the fight on the dance floor and then he and his entourage - which was me – were thrown out. Said Glam Rocker laughed at the article and said ‘It’s The Sun’.


It was a small incident, long forgotten by me until I happened upon it while trawling my diaries last week, just after I had watched the latest Rock bio-pic, Elvis. Some of the music aside, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film but, as with my own little experience, historically inaccurate in that a) Elvis performs Trouble in July 1956 in Jackson but Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller didn’t write it until 1958 and b) Elvis never fired his manager whilst he was on stage. There are other inaccuracies but these two I shall use as examples. The former can be taken as poetic license as it fits the narrative of the film and in this day and age, unless you are an internet moaning Elvis nut, it doesn’t matter but the latter depicts Elvis in a way which is historically inaccurate and these are the parts in bio-pics that rile me. It’s not just me either, people who knew the subjects have said the same. Not so long ago, I interviewed Peter Hince who was Freddie Mercury’s stage technician and when I asked him about the Bohemian Rhapsody film (2018) and if Freddie was portrayed well, he said “Not at all. He used to shriek with laughter! He had a lot of humour and there is not one bit of that in the film.” Likewise, when I interviewed Norman Watt-Roy, Ian Dury's bass player, I asked him if he had seen the Ian Dury bio-pic Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll (2010) and his reply was “Yeah, I didn’t like it at all. Hated it. Thought it was a load of rubbish.” These quotes from two people who saw Freddie and Ian pretty much every day.

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Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Trailer


I also recently watched Pistol, Danny Boyle’s miniseries about Steve Jones and the very brief life of the Sex Pistols, based on Jones autobiography, Lonely Boy. Having grown up through the Punk era, a lot of it didn’t ring true so I bought a copy of Lonely Boy along with Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography and also re-read both of John Lydon’s books and sure enough, inaccuracies abound in the miniseries. Now, given the nature of the four surviving members of the band and over four-decades of selective memories, I doubt they would agree on the way everything went down anyway but simple things like Chrissie asking Lydon to marry her, not Jones, which all three agree on, is pointless. That’s not poetic license, it’s re-writing history.


It’s an impossible task to recreate someone who is so highly regarded by so many people, albeit friends, family or fans and to condense their lives into two hours or even a six-hour miniseries. It can be done well and has been on many occasions but generally speaking, there seems to be in the movie industry a general lack of fact-checking so that whenever a biopic is made of a rock star, there are ridiculous inaccuracies. When I watched Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000) I was astonished to see the character perform This Old Guitar in the mid-1960’s when he didn’t write it until 1974. The film also states that he wrote Flying For Me for his father who was a pilot and died in 1982 when in actual fact, he wrote it after watching the Challenger disaster in 1986. Now to the average TV watcher, maybe even you, this may not seem important as the average viewer doesn’t really care but the problem is, these things have a habit of becoming fact because they are put down on film. Another film I recently re-watched was Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) and the sequence where Jim is being photographed for what would become the iconic Young Lion image has a glaring error. In fact, the photo was taken by the great Joel Brodsky but in the film, the photographer is a woman. That not only is inaccurate, it’s an insult to Brodsky.


I have to say that in pretty much every biopic I’ve seen and generally speaking, the actors and actresses do an excellent job of portraying the subject. I enjoy biopics even if they do have factual errors in them but it does bother me when the simplest of facts are changed for no reason at all. In the wonderful film Sid & Nancy (1986), Nancy is seen putting the famous padlock around Sid’s neck when in fact it was given to him by Chrissie Hynde, later of The Pretenders – at least they got that right in Pistol. The Runaways (2010) has so many errors that it would be impossible to list them all here but the outstanding one is when the band manager, Kim Fowley, brings in local kids to throw dog poop at them during rehearsals; that just never happened so why is it in there? In a scene from the film Ray (2004), a recording studio has florescent lighting and to my knowledge, there is no recording studio in the world that would use fluorescent lighting because it causes the equipment to hum. Also in the same film, Ray is banned from Georgia in 1962 after refusing to play a segregated concert but again, this never happened. Yes, he did refuse to play a segregated concert but he was never banned nor apologized to as the end credits state. The Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk The Line has a scene where he smashes the footlights in a theatre in Las Vegas when in actual fact, he famously smashed them at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

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Sid And Nancy trailer


La Bamba (1987) is a terrific film to watch with great music and superb portrayal of Ritchie Valens by Lou Diamond Phillips but it is ruined by one point and that is when Buddy Holly performs Crying, Waiting, Hoping. Buddy never played that song live as it was only ever recorded as a demo at his home in December 1958 with just himself and a guitar. The song wasn’t finished or released until after his death in February 1959 when the demo along with five others were given to producer Jack Hansen to add other musicians and singers; it was eventually released as the B-Side to Peggy Sue Got Married in July 1959. The set list for that tour has never been fully documented (and now probably won’t be) but according to guitarist Tommy Allsup:


"The set list started every night with Gotta Travel On. It Doesn't Matter Anymore had just been released, and we did it on the tour also. We also always did Peggy Sue, That'll Be The Day, It's So Easy, Everyday, Oh Boy, Early In The Morning, Rave On and every once in a while we would do some Little Richard songs."


So seems odd that of all the Buddy Holly songs they could have picked for the film, they use one that he didn’t play and whilst we’re on the subject of Buddy Holly, The Buddy Holly Story (1978) as entertaining a film is it is, is probably the most factually incorrect biopic of a rock star ever made. Gary Busey’s uncanny portrayal of Buddy is brilliant so why on earth in one scene is he depicted playing a white Fender Telecaster when everyone knows he played a sunburst Stratocaster? Why in that final concert sequence is he backed by a full orchestra when the reality was just a three-piece backing band? Also, with reference to that final concert, the billboard says Feb 3rd when of course it should be Feb 2nd and even the venue is wrong: the last show was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, not the Clear Lake Auditorium. The names of The Crickets were changed from Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin to Jesse and Ray Bob; Maybe Baby was not performed on the Ed Sullivan Show (That’ll Be The Day and Peggy Sue were) and the caps on Buddy’s front teeth were knocked out before the second show at the Hammersmith Odeon, London in March 1958, not in the USA and not before a TV broadcast as depicted in the film. All these things were known at the time of filming. All that said, this is still one of my favourite biopics - love it.

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The Buddy Holly Story trailer


Filmmakers will argue poetic license and that changing these things around make for a better film in some way but I honestly can’t understand why real names and real places can’t be used. When Kevin Spacey made the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea (2004), he did so with a love of the singer and as such went to great lengths to make sure the facts were correct and the structure of it – a film within a film – gives him enough licence to present an event that whilst maybe not factually correct, could have been what Darin believed or wanted to believe. I’m Not There (2007) about Dylan has six lead actors playing six different facets and cleverly says ‘Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan’ so doesn’t have to be factually correct although for a large part of it, it is. Great Balls Of Fire (1989) about Jerry Lee Lewis is by a large accurate as is Nowhere Boy (2009) about the young John Lennon. Other good ones are John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) and Sweet Dreams (1985) in which Jessica Lange captures Patsy Cline beautifully and reasonably, factually. On the opposite end of the scale, The Glenn Miller Story (1954) is chronologically incorrect all the way through; Lady Sings The Blues (1972) simply re-invents the majority of Billie Holliday’s life and Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story (2001) is geographically, chronologically and factually inaccurate. This one was particularly painful for me to watch as I toured with them at the same time as some of the key sequences, particularly, Rick Allen’s car crash.


Not recommended for historical accuracy but are very entertaining are Backbeat (1994) about the Beatles in their Hamburg days, What’s Love Got To Do With It? (1993) with marvelous performances from Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner and Why Do Fools Fall In Love? (1998) which isn’t strictly a bio-pic but focuses on the three women in the tragically short life of Frankie Lymon and their courtroom battle for his estate.

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Why Do Fools Fall In Love? Trailer


As stated before, I enjoy biopics very much but what you have to remember when watching them is that they are not accurate and never will be. It seems the dramatic events and scandalous incidents our heroes are involved in are not enough for a producer or director and need to be more dramatic, more scandalous or quite simply, changed for dramatic effect. So, in the next two or three years you can expect changes in the lives of Marianne Faithful, Jerry Garcia, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, Bob Marley, John and Yoko (again), Madonna, Lemmy, Brian Epstein, Amy Winehouse, Billy Joel and Ozzy, all of which have a bio-pic in various stages of production. In the highly unlikely event that anyone ever makes a bio-pic about me, I hope in the scene when me and Marc Bolan, played by Brad Pitt and Samuel L. Jackson, get thrown out of a London nightclub, it will be for clearing the dance floor, Elvis karate style.

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