Yesterday the director Nicolas Roeg died. I wrote about him a few weeks ago, upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. He was, among other distinctions, a man who could draw memorable acting performances from such rockers as Mick Jagger (Performance) and David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth). It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of Freddie Mercury.
~Bohemian Rhapsody is not a Nic Roeg film. It's a biotuner, as they used to say. I only caught it because I was walking into the multiplex to see the new version of A Star Is Born, when I suddenly remembered that A Star Is Born has spent the last eighty years getting worse, from Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937 to Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 to Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976 to Lady Gaga and whoever the other fellow is right now. So, seized by a panic attack, I detoured into the welcoming arms of Freddie Mercury. To be honest, my main reason for doing so is that, for the last seven months, litigious wankers Cary Katz and CRTV have been suing me over this essay, which they claim is defamatory and disparaging of them, on the following grounds:
We Are The Champions, my friend
And we'll keep on fighting till the end
We Are The Champions!
We Are The Champions!
No time for losers...
Obviously, it can't be defamatory, as Judge Gordon found and Judge Bransten upheld that we are the champions, we are the champions, and they are the losers, notwithstanding that these losers expect us to make time for them for another five years of meritless suits. But, aside from the fact that "We Are the Champions" is res judicata, I've developed a certain fondness for the number ever since our longtime California correspondent Dan Hollombe pointed out that Freddie Mercury's verse for the boffo anthem is a direct lift from "Send in the Clowns", since when I find myself slipping back and forth from one song to another, and indeed may do it as a medley on the forthcoming Dennis Miller/Steyn tour, and dedicate it to Katz and his legions of loser lawyers.
Anyway, that's why we made a sudden detour in the multiplex lobby - even though all biotuners are the same, and have been since the prototype Jolson Story in 1945. And even that was more or less a real-life remake of the fictional plot that made Al Jolson a movie star way back when in The Jazz Singer in 1927.
In the usual conflict between personal life and professional ambition, The Jolson Story ends in a nightclub with Al, ostensibly having forsworn showbiz for the little woman, being talked back on stage for a quick chorus of "April Showers" in the course of which a tearful Mrs Jolson realizes his first love will always be performance and pushes her way through the cheering throng and into the divorce courts. Mass adoration versus human intimacy: it's no contest. "In the end, she's only a shag," observes John Lennon (Ian Hart) in the equivalent scene in Backbeat, with "Twist And Shout" substituting for "April Showers". Mammy singers yield to crooners to big band swingers to rock'n'rollers, but the conventions of the biotuner remain unchanged. In The Glenn Miller Story, Glenn is obsessed with the need to play his music his way. So are Johann Strauss (The Great Waltz) and Buddy Holly: "I gotta play ma music ma way," he told a man in a suit (representing hidebound conventions soon to be overturned by rock'n'roll) eight times a week for ten years in the West End jukebox musical Buddy.
Because Freddie Mercury was a flamboyant gay Zorastrian Parsi from Zanzibar who liked ballet and Marlene Dietrich, one might have expected Bohemian Rhapsody at least to have offered a few exotic variations on the traditional narrative. But, in fact, Bryan Singer (X-Men et al) and a decade's worth of script rewrites have wound up with a very conventional biopic of a very unconventional man, in which all the rituals of the genre are lovingly observed: thus, Freddie's disapproving father is embarrassed by all the rock'n'roll and can't understand why his son wants to ditch his ethnic identity ("Farrokh Bulsara"); the girl next doorish (actually a sales assistant at trendy boutique Biba) inspires his early songs but is soon left behind for the more transient encounters that attend global success; the philistine exec at EMI (amusingly rendered by Mike Myers) thinks the eponymous "Bohemian Rhapsody" is far too long and a lot of pseudo-operatic bollocks.
So far, so predictable, if enjoyable enough. The original plan called for Sacha Baron Cohen to play Freddie, which would have been terrible. So the lesser known Rami Malek stepped in to the undershirt and black leather and, aided by lavish prosthetic choppers, looks the part, and sounds it: The singing is dubbed, but the affected drawl of the speaking voice approximates to my own memory of the man. I had a very slight acquaintance with him through Capital Radio's Kenny Everett, who turns up (played by the arrestingly named Dickie Beau) in a recreation of the famous scene when Freddie brought Kenny an advance pressing of the pseudo-operatic bollocks EMI wanted to eighty-six and Kenny made it a monster hit. "I had no idea Kenny and Freddie knew each other so well," says a mystified Mary (Lucy Boynton) on the other side of the glass. Hmm.
My mutual acquaintance was not as mutual on my part as theirs: Kenny and Freddie were both lovers of the same Russian bodybuilder (Nicolai) and his Spanish waiter chum (Pepe). In the Eighties "The Fab Four", as they styled themselves, shagged anything that moved, and Nicolai in particular was an industrial-scale HIV-distribution machine in the London of the 1980s. With the exception of that one brief scene in the Capital studio, all these relationships are absent from the movie, and replaced by a very demure friendship with a gay caterer whom Freddie takes to tea with his parents. Sacha Baron Cohen apparently withdrew from the project because he felt the script's downplaying of the conscious hedonistic excess was making Freddie too boring. And he has a point. The joke about Queen, well caught in the early scenes as his putative bandmates urge him to get his teeth fixed, is that it was one freaky misfit plus three near parodically dull factory-issue rock-band blokes. In this case, the dull rock blokes have wound up in charge of the movie, and have more or less confirmed the joke: The three of them turn up with their missuses for one of Freddie's orgiastic party nights and make polite chit-chat over the peanuts and cocaine for ten minutes before making their excuses and leaving early. But, more disastrously, the Queen survivors' control of the film has sanitized their frontman to an almost ludicrous degree. Bryan Singer, an A-list director semi-Weinsteined during last year's #MeToo fevers on the Kevin Spacey side of the ledger, if you get the cut of my jib, seems only too relieved to dial it down. The poster's tag line is "Fearless lives forever", but the film itself is oddly fearful and tentative, seeking the cachet of gay flamboyance without the actual flamboyance. This was a perennial problem of gay movies a while back - see Tom Hanks at the world's tamest gay party in Philadelphia - but it's strange to find it here.
Along the way, the particulars of a life get lost. As I noted in my allegedly defamatory essay, Freddie's dad was the cashier at the Zanzibar High Court ("where, frankly, Defendants would far rather be", as we put it in a recent legal filing in the second CRTV suit). Surely, with such rare trees, the forest has to be more than just the usual price-of-fame clichés, doesn't it? Yet Bohemian Rhapsody treats its subject's life like modular furniture, culminating in the film's dreariest re-shuffling of reality: the Wembley Live Aid concert recreated as Freddie's inspiring act of defiance against his Aids diagnosis. In fact, he did not discover his medical condition until some years later, and his actual non-stadium non-anthemic musical leave-taking is both more moving and subtler than the banalities offered here. That said, Rami Malek's performance - more child-like and unknowable than the real Mercury - is oddly mesmeric, and the sense of time and place is quite well done.
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