Queen Got What They Wanted in 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' We Didn't
There's a certain ineffable quality about rock stars. Sure, plenty of people can sing and dance and play instruments, but they have something else. A mystique. They travel from place to place like a force of nature, leaving entire atmospheres transformed in their wake, demanding the attention of everyone before they even open their mouths to bless us with song.
It's a quality that movies have attempted to capture for decades. Biopics -- the shorthand given for "biography movies" -- about prominent musicians is a Hollywood staple. Think The Doors, Walk the Line, Straight Outta Compton, Ray, Amadeus and on and on and on.
All biopics come with a promise, to peek behind the curtain at whatever formula of nature and nurture could have birthed such a star, and the inevitable chaos that is created by their ascension to godlike status. A viewer enters with some memory of the iconic moments, legendary performances, controversial headlines, and expects to learn the deeper behind-the-scenes story that can perhaps explain why and how things happened.
Unless of course we're talking about Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddy Mercury, one of history's most rock-star-iest rock stars, arrives in his own story fully formed. He sings, he dances, he writes songs, he dresses flamboyantly, he struts around like a diva. Why? How? Who cares! Instead of inspecting how he became one of these rock gods, we're meant to simply appreciate that he was. His journey to becoming the world's biggest star over the movie's first hour is effortless.
In fact, it's hardly a journey at all. Instead of being organized in a cohesive narrative, building to a few quintessential moments, the story is blasted out like buckshot from a shotgun. Prior knowledge of Queen is essentially required to understand the context of each scene, as if the movie is saying "hey remember that?" or "this is that one thing, from that one song, ya know?" Over the course of the movie we travel across 15 years via these scattershot moments.
And the Queen songs, the whole reason butts are in the seats watching this thing, are mostly wasted. Concert scenes are pasted in like mortar to hold up a crumbling wall. They largely serve as transitions, and with no build up to get us excited they don't hit with even a fraction of the impact they could. Nothing about the performances move the plot along or reveal more about the characters, or even differentiate themselves from the others.
I was not surprised to learn that the director, Bryan Singer, was fired off the project before it was completed and someone else was brought in to finish it. I guess that explains the lack of cohesive vision and character development.
But I was even less surprised to learn how much involvement the surviving members of the band had. It actually kind of explains the whole movie. The band members knew the movie couldn't be made without their permission to use the music, and they held on tight to that bargaining chip.
Their oversight explains the "hey remember that?" construction, the sympathetic portrayal of their respective roles in the band's success, the multiple starry-eyed moments of band members saying something like, "we're all outsiders, and make music for all those who don't belong, man," the blind eye turned towards the band's well-documented hedonism, and even the strategic historical inaccuracies that place undue blame on Mercury.
With all that said, the music sounds great and the actors portraying the band look great performing it. I know this is breaking news, and I'm the very first person to have this opinion, but Queen songs are good. Really really good. To quote my favorite movie, Almost Famous, music is all about "the buzz." and this movie undoubtedly captures The Buzz.
Rami Malek embodies Mercury admirably, capturing his look and the way he moved, though I think we can go ahead and cool it on any talk of Oscar nomination. Not for the reason everyone has been saying!
Somehow his candidacy has been boiled down to the fact that he doesn't sing the songs, like presumptive favorite Bradley Cooper does in A Star is Born. Malek's lip-syncing is the only way the movie works. Aside from the impossibility of imitating one of the most iconic voices in music history, the entire story hangs on the undeniable once-in-a-generation vocal talent of Mercury. Every song has to convince the audience that dozens of people would stake their lives on that voice.
With the help of Mercury's real vocals, we buy it. Especially in the movie's climax, built around Queen's 1985 Live Aid performance. Despite the fact that the entire third act is a work of pure fiction, that millions will now accept as the historical record of Freddie Mercury, the artistic license does lead to a satisfying conclusion (a quick Google search will tell you that Queen never broke up, the show wasn't a reunion, and Mercury didn't know he had AIDS until years later, but ok).
For 10-15 dazzling minutes, that performance at Wembley Stadium is able to capture everything that is special about Queen and Mercury in a way that watching the actual video on YouTube cannot. It's one of the best individual concert scenes I can remember in a musical biopic. And it's the only thing that saves Bohemian Rhapsody from being tossed on the scrap heap.
Walk the Line (2005)
This week for our "something old" selection I decided not to travel too far back in time, because this Johnny Cash biopic is the standard bearer for the genre. All those tropes I mentioned off the top? They might've existed before this movie, but they were crystalized here. The tortured genius, the wet blanket wife, the substance abuse, the self-destruction. For better or for worse, it's all there in an earnest, self-indulgent package. And even though it's not a real fun movie to watch, all of those things are executed at the highest level.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
It seems I'm cheating again, as this "something to stream" choice isn't on a popular streaming service. But after looking around, I couldn't find any half-decent musical biopics available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO or Amazon. And if there was ever a genre that needed parody, it's this one. And so the Dewey Cox story deserves some love. John C. Reilly stars as the fictional music star. If you understand the beats of these type of movies, you'll die laughing at the way this movie twists them inside out and makes fun of them at every turn.