Friday, November 2, 2018

All Work and No Play: Bohemian Rhapsody

Gwilym Lee and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rock and roll has long seemed wedded to the movies despite the fact that film started a good 50 years before those percussive, jangling refrains entered the mainstream. But the immediacy, intimacy, and gigantism of that shimmering screen is so related to the feeling of excess engendered in rock and pop that it can seem like they have always been intertwined. (A movie like Rebel Without a Cause was so steeped in the youthful mythos of rock that it’s still surprising to realize it was released before rock existed as a mass phenomenon.) Thus it’s no surprise that the lives of rock gods and goddesses have served as fodder for numerous screenplays and treatments. The rock-and-roll biopic is a genre unto itself. The best of these pictures tend to hinge on who portrays the pop deity – if the actor is able to tear into both the myth and reality of their subject, the results can be spectacular, even if the movie itself is so-so. Jamie Foxx was terrific as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishing turn as Johnny Cash, and to a lesser extent, Reese Witherspoon’s as June Carter Cash, still haunt me, and Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline was a revelation. (Lange also had the great fortune to have Robert Getchell writing sharp, incisive dialogue for her.) Both Paul Dano and John Cusack broke my heart as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, and Beyoncé was mesmerizing as Etta James in the too little-seen Cadillac Records, to name just a few. Even if the movie is out-and-out terrible, a great star turn can make the experience worthwhile. It’s hard to see how Lady Sings the Blues could be much worse, just as it’s almost as hard to see how Diana Ross’s performance could be much better. (Go have the argument whether Lady is a jazz or blues biopic somewhere else: Ross’s performance is pure rock and roll.) But rock cinema is also riddled with great promise greatly denied: Dennis Quaid put all sorts of effort into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis, but never really came to life. Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison was stillborn (perhaps due to director Oliver Stone’s apparent belief there’s no greater rock star than himself), and let’s not talk about Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin.

There are so many conventions to these stories that unless either the performers or the filmmakers can effectively dramatize them, or upend the convention, all you get is lifeless cliché. There’s the formation of the band, the struggle to get heard, the playing to hostile audiences in lousy clubs. There’s also that magic moment when the artist first hears their song played on the radio. (That’s a scene that always works for me: long may it live.) Then there are the excesses of fame which threaten to destroy the artist’s career, followed by either the tragic crash (sometimes literally) or the triumphant comeback. The script writes itself! (All too often, in fact.)

Which brings us to Bohemian Rhapsody, the new movie about the band Queen and its flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. Amidst all sort of rumors about casting and directing difficulties (among the men previously named to play the lead were Sasha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw; the direction is credited to Bryan Singer, who quit showing up for work before shooting was finished, citing a family crisis), as well as reports that members of the band didn’t want the film to mention Mercury’s homosexuality or death from AIDS, the long-anticipated movie is finally here, with Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek undertaking the starring role. (Malek is an Egyptian-American actor portraying the Indian-Parsi Mercury, who was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, moving to England with his family in his late teens.) I watched the first season of Mr. Robot, a cult hit for the USA Network, and while Malek is clearly a great camera subject, with striking, wide-set,     heavy-lidded eyes, he never really did much with those gifts, content merely to let the camera gaze upon him. Still, I was curious what he would do with the role of Mercury, a character about as far from his work in Robot as possible.

Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton in Bohemian Rhapsody.

I should confess that Queen was a band I never much warmed to. Their over-the-top, “operatic” sound and campy songs, culled from a mishmash of inspirations and musical sources, never really cohering with each other, left me cold. Their albums seemed a collection of singles comfortably at home among the novelty numbers played on the old Dr. Demento radio show. (“I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike”: how the hell did that ever become a hit?) Nothing held the band’s work together other than Mercury’s undeniable vocal range and power and Brian May’s electric Creamsicle guitar sound. (I guess it says something that no one has ever sounded like either of them.) Their only music I have affection for is the soundtrack to the hugely enjoyable Flash Gordon. All that extravagant, pseudo-operatic overdubbing turned out to be a perfect fit for that wonderfully witty and visually hallucinogenic comic-strip movie.

But back to Bohemian Rhapsody: It won’t surprise anyone that the climax is the band’s much-lauded 1985 performance at Live Aid, the benefit concert held simultaneously in the United States and in London. (Phil Collins famously took the supersonic jet Concorde to play at both venues. Nobody I knew wanted to see him at either site.) I was among its record world-wide television audience of over 1.9 viewers, watching much of the coverage (too much, in fact), but I missed Queen’s set. Hearing all the praise afterward surprised me, and I’ve since been curious about that performance. It is reproduced here in its entirety, and it’s also the sequence where Malek finally comes alive as an actor. Portraying Mercury holding court over the 72,000 people singing in unison at Wembley Stadium, Malek has a fire in his eyes he hasn’t possessed before. Roaming and prowling the stage, he finally gives life to Mercury and you have an inkling of the charisma that made so many people fans of his and the band’s. The CGI work here to incorporate the actors into old footage of the crowd works well, and you’re convinced, through Malek, that Mercury was able to spellbind a crowd that large. The Live Aid sequence was the first footage shot by Singer and his crew, but as entertaining as it is, unfortunately it also seems they shot their wad. Even worse, the slavish restaging of the scene means that it doesn’t serve any real dramatic vision, other than offering a higher-quality viewing experience than the original TV footage.

As you might have surmised by now, the movie’s screenplay is a dull, by-the-numbers job. The great Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) has a story credit, so I suspect somewhere in Morgan’s desk drawer there’s an amazing script that got rejected, but the named screenwriter, Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything), is content to go the Wikipedia route and tell us everything we already know in chronological order. Until the final Live Aid sequence, the film is a snooze. Malek mostly seems to be struggling with his prosthetic overbite and the excess saliva it causes. He might as well be Mr. Robot. We see Freddie in conflict with his immigrant family. We see Freddie talk his way into the band. We see the band start to have some success. We see Freddie struggle with drugs and his sexuality. You get the rest.

Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello in Bohemian Rhapsody.

As the band, Gwilym Lee (May), Ben Hardy (drummer Roger Taylor), and Joseph Mazzello (bassist John Deacon) have an easygoing rapport that lets you believe in them both as a group and as second fiddles to their preening front man. Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) plays the thankless role of the enabling handler who supplies Freddie with drugs and hustlers while poorly disguising his own desire. (It doesn’t seem credible that Mercury never gratifies him, given Leech’s own good looks. Freddie sleeps with almost everyone else, why not him?) Lucy Boynton (wonderful in Sing Street, a lovely little fable that gets at the mythology of rock far more successfully than this film) has a dud assignment of her own, as Freddie’s gradually abandoned wife who nevertheless helps him accept his homosexuality. Mike Myers shows up in heavy disguise as a record exec who signs the band – it’s a shorter, cockney version of his turn as the nightclub impresario Steve Rubell in 54. There’s nothing there. Tom Hollander and Aiden Gillen manage to be relatively fine as suits who help the band along.

Singer (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel allegedly shot some scenes after Singer’s departure, and Dexter Fletcher was in charge of the final two weeks of the schedule) can’t really manage any excitement, visually, dramatically, or aurally. There is one entertaining fillip midway that made me laugh out loud: after the band has released their “masterpiece,” the title song, the screen is overtaken by printed quotes from rock critics excoriating it. It’s the one knowing moment in the entire movie. (I guess I understand why “Bohemian Rhapsody” appeals to people, in the same way that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” does, but boy, are they both godawful.)

The rest of the movie just proceeds with telling you things you already know. Even the expertly copied Live Aid sequence fails to make the case for Queen as a group of importance. Yes, Mercury had an amazing connection with his audience when he performed. So does Neil Diamond, allegedly, but that doesn’t mean I’m buying a ticket any time soon. By simply replicating Queen’s most famous appearance, the filmmakers abrogate their duty to place it in any sort of artistic context, to provide any dramatic insight. If the film had any style to it, if the scenes of decadence had any wit or humor, if the makers had somehow been able to communicate where the music was coming from, or if there was any inkling of what Mercury and the others were trying to achieve with those songs, there might have been something worthwhile to watch, but all we’re left with is the knowledge that Queen wanted to write and record hits. That makes them successful businessmen, not artists, and you can’t get less rock and roll than businessmen, however essential they might be to its promotion. There’s nothing rhapsodic, or even really Bohemian, about Bohemian Rhapsody.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner, Salon.com, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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