James Ledesma hails from Los Angeles and doesn’t let anyone forget it. He has a podcast on music called Mixtape Preservation Society available on iTunes and Soundcloud, with an accompanying blog at www.fornicatti.blogspot.com.
Ahh, the rock biopic. Rife with tropes, clichés and stereotypes. Abundantly mythologizing and fetishizing their subjects beyond the pale. Playing fast and loose with the facts and compressing years of music history into neatly packaged montages. They often end up technically brilliant productions that lack any emotional resonance and usually leave more discriminating viewers feeling vaguely dissatisfied while fans and enthusiasts come away feeling like they might have learned a thing or two about a singer, musician, or music group to whom they listen or might admire.
When they’re good, they’re really good, and when they’re bad, well … you can still enjoy them. For every I’m Not There, you can bet there’s a Great Balls Of Fire! that still manages to entertain you even as it insults your intelligence. The extremes between good and bad, however, house a large berth that is highly subjective: Is Oliver Stone’s The Doors any worse than Taylor Hackford’s Ray? Did La Bamba miss the target any more than The Buddy Holly Story? Is the idea of Kurt Russell playing Elvis Presley more appealing than watching the King act in his own wretched films? Are any of the multitude of Beatles biopics out there actually any good? (We’re not including the mid-’90s Anthology because it’s not a biopic.)
Bohemian Rhapsody, directed (?) by Bryan Singer, falls comfortably into that wide no-man’s-land, where the quality of the film depends on both the viewer’s feelings for the music and the perceived accuracy of the portrayal. It is better than most biopics, but it isn’t the best. It also isn’t the worst (no matter what Evan says), but it gets close to being (at the very least) embarrassing for everyone involved. Does it sully Freddie Mercury’s legacy? Nothing can really do that; the man’s talent and genius speak for themselves. Does it truncate the truth in order to deliver a streamlined vision of what the band stood for? Of course. That’s a given in a genre that gave us Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline.
I’m of the opinion that the rock biopic as we know it is an endangered species. I predicted that the future of the rock biopic would be relegated to streaming media after the release of Straight Outta Compton, which this Queen movie strongly resembles in content and structure. Band members are executive producers and it’s directed competently if not elegantly, with similar story arcs and the death of an important member of the group under near-identical circumstances. A movie like Compton or Rhapsody needs to be done as a Netflix or Amazon Prime original series, and the upcoming Wu-Tang drama series on Hulu will be the standard by which my hypothesis will be tested. The scope of any worthy band, whether their career spanned decades like Queen or lasted for a few albums like N.W.A, deserves better scrutiny. A streaming series can be more faithful to a group’s actual history, without having to resort to narrative juggling and factual fudging in order to conduct the dramatic flow of a film like a symphonic piece, which is how a lot of the better biopics end up.
Rhapsody gets a lot of things wrong, but the ones critics seem to be focusing on — Mercury’s sexual and racial identity, in particular — matter least. Yes, Mercury was the face and the voice, but Queen was, more than most bands, an equal opportunity for all four of its members. There haven’t been many bands this democratic in their dealings. Roger Taylor and Brian May, the two members who are executive producers on Rhapsody, do their best to keep this from being “The Freddie Mercury Story.” Some would argue they should have gone that way fully (like Sacha Baron Cohen), but given that Taylor and May originally wanted Mercury’s death to be shown halfway through the movie, the best that can be said is there was a lot of compromise in play. It almost feels as if the filmmakers purposely generated conflicts to put into the script just to give it more drama than it already had:
The band never broke up, and the other members released solo albums while still in the band … but you wouldn’t know this from watching the movie.
(END SPOILER ALERT)
I think the quality of a rock biopic largely rests upon how well the music is handled. These movies aren’t meant to be taken as high art, even if they are done well, even if they win Oscars or get accolades and awards. Many times, the best moments get ignored for so many other factors. One of the finest performances in a biopic that I’ve ever seen is Andre Benjamin playing Jimi Hendrix in All Is By My Side, but practically no one else has ever seen it because it was buried upon release, and there isn’t a single original Jimi Hendrix composition in the entire movie. The estate would not give its blessing, and so the movie is limited to being set in London before Hendrix made it big. There are some controversies surrounding the portrayal of Hendrix in that movie, but Benjamin’s acting captures the late guitarist perfectly.
Not that getting the green light from a late singer’s estate or the surviving members of a band guarantees success when depicting the rise and fall of a rock sensation. What We Do Is Secret suffered from punk credibility issues, even though the remaining members of the Germs gave their approval. Same deal with Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, which is a great movie but is despised by the likes of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, who felt that the movie was exploitive. Not every movie based on a pop star’s memoirs turns into Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Also, scores of productions never see the light of day because no one has faith in the actors picked to portray an artist: Elijah Wood as Iggy Pop? Mike Myers as Keith Moon? I’m kind of glad those movies weren’t made. And yet … I would watch them if they were, just like I watched Alan Rickman in the awful CBGB flick. My curiosity gets the best of me. I just had to see Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart in The Runaways. And if the late Bill Paxton had been picked to play Jim Morrison (he auditioned for the role), I would’ve paid money to see that.
Speaking of Jim Morrison and the Doors, I felt like Oliver Stone’s take on the rock quartet was everything that was wrong with rock biopics when it first came out in 1991. I was an enormous Doors fan at the time, having just read the biography No One Here Gets Out Alive and worshiping the ground on which Morrison walked. Watching the movie was a huge disappointment. The crowd was unruly and wasted, howling at all the wrong moments. While it was a sonic marvel and visually stunning, I thought Stone got Morrison completely wrong and also gave the other band members the short end of the stick as characters. The surviving Doors had given their consent to this film — drummer John Densmore even appears in the movie in a small role — but it was clearly Stone’s jackoff tribute to the Lizard King, reverent but speculative and pseudo-mystical.
Rhapsody shares a lot of qualities with The Doors, not the least being the way the lead singer’s life and reputation overshadow not only the action of the movie but how the rest of the band is depicted. Both groups shared songwriting chores and money evenly while their respective lead singers shouldered the burden of the public attention despite evidence that other members of each group could (and would) write major hits for the bands. Is it because the other members aren’t as interesting? Probably. But there is also simply a tendency by fans of rock groups to assume the singer is the head honcho, even going so far as to assume the bands are named after the singers. Ever met a Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin fan who declared, “I like his songs”?
Is it wrong to relegate the sidemen to the dustbin of history just because they weren’t as charismatic as the singers? Even the John Deacons of the world need to be recognized for their efforts. And if you don’t know who John Deacon is off the top of your head, then I’ve made my point.
I remember watching Live Aid as a kid. I was 11 years old when I witnessed Queen’s triumphant Wembley Stadium performance. I definitely recall watching Dire Straits playing “Money For Nothing” and “Sultans Of Swing” before Queen went on, which is alluded to in the movie. And I remember being blown away by Mercury’s command of the stage. He seemed invincible, tough, macho, perhaps even … manly. I didn’t know what it meant to be gay other than what I could glean from TV shows like Three’s Company. Mercury may have been openly closeted — flirting with gay chic even as he denied reports about his sexuality in the tabloids — but the impression he made upon me was that he was one bad motherfucker.
That feeling of elation and transcendence is repeated in the movie’s climax, and it makes sense to end the movie on this high note. I used to joke with friends that I wanted the song “We Are The Champions” played at my funeral, partly because I don’t want people to be sad at my passing. I want people to be uplifted by what my life meant to everyone who survived me. Seeing Rhapsody wrap things up with that rendition at Live Aid reminds me of the power of that song, which is an extension of Mercury’s personality. The power behind his performances lies in the absolute energy he was able to generate. As someone who has gone onstage and performed for crowds, there is an exhilaration that overtakes you, and you can either use it selfishly or generously. A performer of Mercury’s caliber is always being selfless; yes, he’s getting his rocks off but he’s also getting your rocks off. And so it makes sense emotionally to make this singular event the bookend by which the movie opens and closes. As a result, the narrative must change, the timeline must be bent to the will of the emotions being stirred up. After all, music is an emotional art form, and few bands were capable of manipulating the audience’s emotions as well as Queen did. They were often taken to task for their utter shamelessness in giving the unruly mobs what they crave. More than one critic referred to Mercury and Queen as having a bombastic, almost fascist appeal.
The best moment in the movie Rhapsody is when the single from which the movie takes its title is released, and the various reviews by music critics are blurbed on the screen, excerpted from their original sources. It is a gentle reminder to the general public that Queen was not a critical darling; indeed, they were often derided as derivative, pretentious and nonsensical by their contemporaries in rock journalism. Queen is one of those contradictory bands that critics have always had a hard time wrapping their heads around — openly gay but heavily closeted, wildly original yet wearing their influences on their sleeves, bouncing between hard rock and tender ballads. Queen never let itself be easily categorized and, critically speaking, it paid the price. Modern audiences look back fondly on artists of yesterday with nostalgic fondness but oftentimes we miss the context within which they produced their finest works.
Queen is no exception to this and, in fact, may be the purest example of the retrofitting of popular history. Had Mercury not died at age 45 from an AIDS-complicated illness, would we hold him in any high esteem at all? I suspect that given his outrageous offstage antics and indulgences, the former Farrokh Bulsara might instead be a suspect in the many post-Me Too allegations and scandals that have recently popped up. However, it seems like rock stars are invulnerable to this type of assault upon their reputations. The late David Bowie and the still-alive Jimmy Page have detractors raising ire about their youthful indiscretions, but to go forward with such accusations would probably bring all of the historical rock ‘n’ roll canon crumbling to its knees. Mercury definitely existed in a time when his behavior was tolerated in a different mode. And it seems like some critics are having their cakes and eating them, too. On the one hand, they criticize the movie for “straight-washing” Mercury’s personal life while at the same time rewriting Queen’s cultural significance by both mythologizing the band’s stature in rock history. They perhaps expected a biopic that delivers what Mercury was most certainly not, at least in his own lifetime — a gay icon, an activist and a pioneer.
I understand the idea of not reinforcing negative stereotypes of gay men in cinema, but Mercury was a complicated person. Yes, he was extremely flamboyant and gender-fluid; this was the glam era, after all, and he was seen by many as a second-rate David Bowie or Marc Bolan when the band first started out. He was also an immigrant’s son living in 1970s England, several times mistaken for a “Paki” or other dark-skinned type. Whether by his own design or perhaps under pressure (no pun intended) from their management and / or record label, Mercury was closeted (not very well, but still closeted) and clearly kept questions of his ethnicity on the back burner.
I think the best explanation for why the singer’s former manager is vilified in this movie is simple and has nothing to do with his homosexuality: He broke the trust of the band. I think that the other members of the band were fine with Mercury’s predilections but took the press coverage seriously and wanted to protect not only Mercury but each other. You don’t play in a band for almost two decades without being perfectly OK with your singer’s bisexual tendencies. Having been told by their handlers their careers could be over if the world knew the truth about how gay Mercury really was, the rest of the group were naturally protective of him, even as he did himself no favors by cavorting with unsavory characters gay and straight. The late Paul Prenter’s non-consensual outing of Mercury after they parted ways might have been seen as an act of aggression against the whole band, much in the same way Suge Knight’s role in the N.W.A story affects the likes of Ice Cube, even though he wasn’t technically in the group when Knight became affiliated with Dr. Dre.
Being in a band is sometimes like being in a gang. One of the strengths of Rhapsody is showing the banter between the members throughout their many phases. It may seem perfunctory, and certainly not as detailed as Mercury’s relationship with longtime girlfriend Mary Austin, but there is a discernible thread of kinship depicted in the movie, especially between May and Mercury, the two chief songwriters and the band’s strongest personalities. The scene where Mercury implores drummer Taylor to stay for dinner at his new home is heartbreakingly subtle: Mercury is lonely but he is also embracing his homosexuality more, and Taylor (the band’s male slut, shagging hetero groupies left and right) cannot relate while still feeling love for his band compadre.
Ultimately, it’s the (acting and musical) performances in Bohemian Rhapsody (including a hilarious Mike Myers, thankfully not doing Keith Moon) that make the movie enjoyable. Rami Malek deserves all the praise being heaped upon him for his sensitive job of making Mercury both vulnerable and insufferable. But the supporting cast is pretty damn good, too, especially Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do but she anchors the movie with emotional weight that can’t be supplied by the characterizations given to everyone else in the movie. And Allen Leech, who plays Prenter, evinces some genuine pathos in his portrayal; he may be the villain, but there is sympathy for this devil.
It’s the fans’ reactions that create the buzz, not critical assessments. I saw the movie a second time and, in the theater, a girl to the left of me was dancing in her seat to the Live Aid segment, as if she were watching it in person. It reminded me of the time I saw The Doors on its opening night and the entire audience was hooting and hollering throughout the movie. As a 16 year-old Doors fan, the audience reaction put me off: They weren’t getting the point! But looking back, I was the one who needed to relax and let it wash over me.
Because after all, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.