Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Now that Rami Malek has won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of legendary rock b8773b7e-d2f0-4a29-855d-c9b090a2283a_16x9_788x442vocalist Freddie Mercury in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the movie itself won for Best Drama, it’s high time I address this film and the mixed reaction to it among the press and the public.

First, though, I want to make a point about biopics and how they differ from documentaries.

A biopic, by definition, is a biographical movie.  It offers a director’s subjective retelling of a real person’s life story using actors and a screenplay to produce a finished work of cinematic entertainment.

In a documentary, on the other hand, the director uses actual film clips of the subject, interviews of those who knew the subject, and some sort of narration, assembling all these pieces to tell the person’s life story more like a news feature.

The most important difference between the two is that a biopic’s primary purpose is to entertain, while a documentary is meant to inform.  Biopics sometimes tell only a portion of the story, glossing over or even omitting certain elements in order to focus on what the director feels are the most dramatic or crowd-pleasing aspects of the subject’s life.  Because of this, biopics have sometimes been (fairly or unfairly) dismissed as Hollywood fabrications that fail to tell the “warts and all” characteristics that producers fear will alienate mainstream audiences.  If you want all the unpleasantness, they say, go 51b5jap34zl._sy445_find a dreary documentary on the subject.

But if you take a look at the history of biopics of popular music artists, you’ll find that many of the best films hold back nothing, giving us the good and the bad in an attempt to tell the whole story.  In recent years especially, there have been many fine examples of biopics that avoid sugarcoating the subject’s life in favor of a more truthful exploration:

Ray” (2004), starring Jamie Foxx as the troubled legend Ray Charles

Walk the Line” (2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the volatile Johnny Cash and June Carter

Straight Outta Compton” (2015), a brutally frank look at the story of hip hop pioneers N.W.A.

unknown-33Get On Up” (2014), with Chadwick Boseman’s riveting performance as The Godfather of Soul, James Brown

Love and Mercy” (2014), a unique biopic featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack each playing Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson in two different chapters of his problematic life

Going back even further, consider 1980’s “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Sissy Spacek as country star Tammy Wynette, 1979’s “The Buddy Holly Story,” with Gary Busey as the pioneering rockabilly star, and 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” starring David Carradine as hardscrabble folk hero Woody Guthrie.

All of these films offer unflinching views of their subjects’ difficult stories, and all of them were nominated for, or won, Oscars or Golden Globes.

So this brings us to director Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It’s beautifully shot, it’s well acted by a top-notch cast, and it includes a dazzling in-concert sequence at film’s end.  Many people I know, including family members and music-loving friends, have raved about it, and they were consequently puzzled to learn a classic rock music fan like me had only a lukewarm response to it.

Indeed, at first I wrestled with this, trying to put my finger on what it was about the movie that didn’t quite sit right.  Then I took a look at some of the film critics’ reviews, and I happened upon an especially perceptive one in Variety, written by Owen Gleiberman.  It was like he was channeling me and putting into words exactly what I liked and didn’t like about the movie.

In a nutshell, it’s this:  Malek delivers a truly astonishing performance as Mercury, but freddie-mercurydirector Singer missed a golden opportunity to give us a truly authentic, penetrative look at what made Queen, and Mercury, tick.  As Glieberman put it:  “The movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them.”

Even more to the point is Glieberman’s view (and mine) that,  “It treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-glove reticence, so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either.”

It’s fairly remarkable that “Bohemian Rhapsody” took the Golden Globe for best drama, because it received the lowest score on the Rotten Tomatoes review-aggregate website (62% approval rating out of 335 reviews) of any film winner in nearly 40 years.  The majority of critics found Malek’s acting performance extraordinary but the film no better than average.  They described it as “sanitized,” “self-indulgent revisionist history,” and “a bit of a mess.”  The British film mag Empire said the flick was “a safe, competent, decidedly non-scandalous biopic.  It treats the life of Freddie Mercury with cautious affection, happy to play within the rules while depicting a man who did anything but.”

I’ve even read some comments from hard-core Queen fans who concede that, though they enjoyed the film, they felt it wasn’t entirely honest in the way it told us (or, more accurately, didn’t tell us) about Mercury’s conflicted sexual identity, which he kept hidden from the public and that ultimately led to his illness and premature death.

The movie takes artistic license by showing Mercury informing the band of his debilitating disease just prior to their monumental appearance at Live Aid, which makes his triumphant performance there seem more dramatic to the moviegoer.  In fact, Mercury wasn’t even officially diagnosed with AIDS until several years later, in 1988, and 17948373the audience learns nothing of Mercury’s slow, private demise in his final years because Singer chose to end the film following the Live Aid sequence.

That’s too bad, because Singer had an opportunity to show how incredibly heroic Mercury was as he soldiered on in the studio even while he was suffering mightily, producing some amazing vocal recordings on latter-day Queen tracks like “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “The Show Must Go On.”

Brian May has said Mercury was increasingly ill and could barely walk during the 1990 sessions for the “Innuendo” LP.  “I was concerned whether he was physically capable of singing his parts, but he went in and killed it.  He completely lacerated the vocal.  He would come in for maybe an hour at a time, and he kept saying, ‘Write me more stuff.  I want to just sing this and do it, and when I’m gone, you can finish it off.’  He had no fear, really.”

Wow, what powerful, poignant scenes these would have been in the movie, but for reasons unknown, Singer neglected Mercury’s last chapter and how he withheld official announcement that he was suffering from AIDS until November 23, 1991.  He died the next day.

This is probably a good place to point out that there are at least a half-dozen documentaries about Queen and Mercury that delve far more deeply into the particulars of the singer’s quasi-mysterious private life and tragic end.  You might want to check out “Freddie Mercury:  The King of Queen” (2018), “Queen: Mercury Rising” (2011),  “Queen:  Days of Our Lives” (2011) or “Freddie Mercury:  The Great Pretender” (2012).

As a student of rock music and how great bands have made great recordings, I was disappointed that “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t spend more time showing us just how Mercury and Queen worked unknown-32together in the ’70s to create their unique heavy metal/pop echo chamber wall of sound.  Together with producer Roy Thomas Baker, they were sonic experimentalists when they came up with the vocal acrobatics in “Killer Queen,” their 1974 breakthrough hit, and then took it all to stratospheric heights the following year with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by all accounts a monumental, game-changing recording.

But no, this biopic offers almost nothing about any of that.  As Glieberman put it, “The merging of Mercury’s vaudeville jauntiness with Brian May’s guitar-god power, backed by the insane multi-tracking of the group’s voices into an infinitely mirrored chorus — that’s the invention of Queen’s singular sound, but it’s barely an afterthought in the movie.”

It rightly lavishes attention on the title track, but focuses more on the arguments with record executives regarding its length and suitability as a single than in how it came to be written and created in the first place.  The songwriting contributions from May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon are also given short shrift, an unforgivable omission given the key role their songs have played in Queen’s success (“You’re My Best Friend,” “’39,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Fat Bottomed Girls”).

“Bohemian Rhapsody” also fails to spend any time discussing Queen’s huge role as pioneers in the art and commerce of music videos.  Their “short film” released to coincide with the release of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” single in 1975 came out years before the birth of MTV or VH-1.  “It’s not an overstatement to say that video revolutionized the way music would be consumed in the 1980s and beyond,” said music journalist Paul Gambaccini.  “Every band suddenly started looking at how they could p06ppfsfmake a video of their new single.”

Quite frankly, I’m not sure “Bohemian Rhapsody” might even be worthy of an entry in my blog if it weren’t for Malek’s jaw-dropping depiction of Mercury.  Queen’s surviving members May and Taylor insisted on approving the selection of actors who would play the key roles, and they were enthusiastic in their green-lighting of Malek as Mercury. From the stage strutting to the prosthetic overbite to the very convincing singing, Malek does a superlative job of channeling Mercury’s flamboyant, rock-god bravura.  As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone put it, “Malek digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing.”

Speaking of the real thing, Queen was indeed a mega-popular band from roughly 1975 to 1990 or so, particularly in their native UK, where 15 of their 17 LPs reached #1 or #2.  In the US, their five albums in the 1975-1980 period went multi-platinum before their popularity waned somewhat in the Eighties.  Even after (and perhaps because of) queen1974_gruen_webuseonlyMercury’s death in 1991, Queen’s popularity surged, and seems to be stronger than ever today.  The use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the hit 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” certainly didn’t hurt.

But I must confess that I was never much of a fan during their heyday.  I thought individual songs were compelling (the hard rock of “Keep Yourself Alive,” the rock-guitar-meets-cabaret of “Killer Queen,” the haunting, lovely “You Take My Breath Away,” the way-cool collaboration with David Bowie on “Under Pressure”), and I was drawn in by the broad appeal of their best LP, 1975’s “A Night at the Opera.”  As the band’s popularity grew, though, I found their material grew more pretentious and annoying.

I would be a very happy man if I never again have to hear “We Will Rock You,” “Bicycle Race” or “Another One Bites the Dust.”  Singles as irritating as those kept me from exploring their albums any further, which, in retrospect, was perhaps foolish on my part, because I could have discovered bonafide jewels like “Spread Your Wings,” the blues shuffle “Sleeping On the Sidewalk,” “It’s Late,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Dragon Attack,” “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” and “Man on the Prowl.”

I have come to respect the successful manner in which Queen dabbled in multiple genres, from progressive rock and glam rock to baroque pop and rockabilly.  It’s not every rock band that can pull off convincing forays into opera, gospel, ragtime and disco, and do so with professional theatricality.

The shy young man with bad teeth who was born in 1946 on the African island of freddie-mercury-ne1mkn0oz6w9duhlftslobtk7engdbh96w68jpl7uoZanzibar had ambitious dreams and a ton of musical talent.  He developed uncommon confidence that he might one day be a larger-than-life singer in a rock band, and he knew he wasn’t going to get there with a name like Farrokh Bulsara.  He adopted the name Freddie while still in high school, and then when he joined the group that would become Queen, he completed his personal re-invention by choosing the last name Mercury (“the messenger of the Gods”).  He took to wearing a red robe and crown, projecting a decidedly regal authority on stage.

So, actually, from the very beginning of Queen’s career, this wasn’t his real life.  It was just fantasy.

 

 

 

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Such a fine line between stupid and clever

I have a sheepish admission to make.

As a devotee of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I have been called “a walking encyclopedia” of song lyrics, rock band trivia, chart success of albums and singles, and all manner of unusual anecdotes about rock culture of those years.

But I must confess:  I never got around to seeing the celebrated 1984 rock documentary parody film “This is Spinal Tap” until two days ago.

11976492_1300x1733In rock music circles, my failure to be hip to this movie would be regarded as unforgivable for a rock blog writer.  It has gained its place as an iconic, can’t-be-missed gem that brilliantly satirizes both the rock music business as well as the documentary genre in general.

So anyone who dismisses “This is Spinal Tap” as a silly cult film would be wrong.  True, it took in a rather meager $4.5 million at the box office upon its release.  But this unique and hilarious “rockumentary” has been widely praised by just about everybody who’s seen it (and thanks to video/DVD sales over the years, that number has grown significantly).

Consider this:  “This is Spinal Tap” is ranked #29 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Comedies of All Time.”  Entertainment Weekly included it on its “100 Greatest Movies” list, calling it “just too beloved to ignore.”  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating, with this critical consensus:  “Smartly directed, brilliantly acted, packed with endlessly quotable moments.  An all-time comedy classic.”   Even the friggin’ Library of Congress deemed it “of aesthetic cultural significance” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry!

Pretty damn solid credentials for a film that was shot in a month by a first-time director who had no script.

video-this-is-spinal-tap-trailer-2-videoSixteenByNine1050That director was the great Rob Reiner, who started his career as an actor playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the Seventies TV classic “All in the Family” and has gone on to direct such landmark films as “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,””Ghosts of Mississippi” and “The Bucket List.”

Reiner has comedy in his genes, thanks to his father, the legendary Carl Reiner, instrumental in early television sketch comedy on “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) and “Sid Caesar’s Hour” (1954-1957), as well as creator of the brilliant “Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966) and director of several Steve Martin comedy films like “The Jerk” (1979) and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982).

Not surprisingly, it was a challenge getting “This is Spinal Tap” made in the first place.  In those days, a TV actor who had the audacity to say he wanted to direct a film was laughed out of every Hollywood office he approached.  But Reiner kept at it, eventually getting enough seed money to shoot a 20-minute demo of what he had in mind, and then shopping that around until Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and other award-winning TV shows, agreed to back the project.

spinal-tap-0617-GQ-MOST04-02

McKean, Shearer and Guest

Reiner had been friends with comic writer/actor Harry Shearer, and they teamed up in 1978 with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, comedians who had originally been musicians, on a sketch about a parody rock band for a comedy show called “The TV Show.”  The foursome decided to expand that simple sketch into a novel idea for a faux documentary about a British heavy metal band trying to make a comeback on what became a rather disastrous American tour.

 

“Chris and Michael had been improvising for years with these characters, playing up their British accents and their dimwitted naiveté,” said Reiner.  “We put together a general arc of a story line, but when we shot the movie, we made it up as went along, because they were just so good at it.  We often used the first take in the final cut, because it captured the natural reactions best.”

Cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on rock & roll documentary films like “Gimme Shelter,” was brought in on the project.  Says Reiner, “The whole time we were shooting, Peter kept turning to me and saying, ‘What’s funny about this?  This is not funny.  This is what they (rock musicians) do.’  And it’s true.  Apparently, a lot of bands at that time were well-meaning but seemed so entitled, and genuinely clueless.”

spinal-tap-2-435x580“This is Spinal Tap” is mischievously witty without being mean-spirited as it tells the tale of an aging, pitiable, slowly disintegrating band, with an arrogant, ineffective manager, who try vainly to keep their hopes up even as they face the embarrassment of half-empty venues and cancelled gigs.

It has an “is it or isn’t it real” quality that at first fooled many viewers into thinking Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was a bonafide documentary.  Hand-held camera techniques and deft editing between concert footage and backstage interviews made it look not all that different from actual rock docs like “The Last Waltz” or “Don’t Look Back.”

Reiner had seen how Martin Scorsese had put himself in his film “The Last Waltz” as its director, and decided to do the same thing.  “I called myself Marty DiBergi, sort of combining Scorsese, Bergman and Fellini all rolled together.”  He is seen interviewing band members and hangers-on backstage and at press events, and also introduces the film as its director at the beginning.

Much like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and other comedies of its era, “This is Spinal Tap” is riddled with quotable lines.  One memorable scene has Guest’s guitarist character showing all the band’s equipment to Reiner’s interviewer character.  He points Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Elevenout that they have earned the reputation as “England’s loudest band” because they have amplifiers that can be turned up to 11.  “All these other bands, they can only turn the volume up to 10, but when we need that extra oomph, we can go up one more notch,” the guitarist explains confidently as Reiner stares at him, puzzled.

Reiner said he was dumbfounded when people asked him why he did a documentary of a band no one had ever heard of, a band that was so bad.  “And I would have to say to them, ‘Um…Haven’t you ever heard of satire?  You know, making fun of it all?’  And they would say, ‘Oh, okay…’  It took a while for people to catch up to it and realize it was all a spoof.”

Notorious party-boy rocker Ozzy Osbourne said he was among the audience members who assumed Spinal Tap was a real band.  “When I learned the truth, I realized I should’ve known better.  They seemed quite tame compared to what we were up to.”

In 2005, when U2 was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist The Edge had this to say:  “It’s been so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself.  If you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh.  I wept.  I wept because I recognized so much of ourselves in so many of those scenes.”

film__3046-this-is-spinal-tap--hi_res-5993de24Said Shearer in 2002, “The cast and crew love to hear that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can’t watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life.’  That’s the highest compliment of all.  It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.”  Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie.

When he was casting “The Princess Bride” in 1987, Reiner said Sting, who had come in to audition for the part of Count Humperdinck, told him, “I’ll bet I’ve seen that movie 50 gal-spinal-tap-hutson-inset-jpgtimes.  We wore out our video copy on the tour bus.  Every time I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Speaking of casting, “This is Spinal Tap” includes some “don’t blink, you’ll miss it” cameos by well-known actors in bit roles.  Billy Crystal, Angelica Huston, Fred Willard, gal-spinaltap-crystal-jpgFran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., Howard Hesseman, Dana Carvey and Paul Shaffer all show up to add their two cents in the merriment.

Much of the credit for the film’s effectiveness as a parody must go to the trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer for their spot-on performances as fading British rockers who are continually humiliated by the scheduling snafus and corporate disrespect they face.  Guest, you may be aware, has had success in recent years imitating the mockumentary style of “This is Spinal Tap” in such critical favorites as “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in.  McKean, who got his start playing neighbor Lenny in the TV chris_michael_harry_pressshow “Laverne and Shirley,” has appeared in nearly 70 films and 100 TV shows over the years, and currently plays older brother Chuck McGill on the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”  Shearer, of course, has been one of the most important voices of characters on TV’s “The Simpsons” for two decades and running.

These guys wrote and performed Spinal Tap’s musical numbers themselves, with help from a few session players, and truth be told, some of the songs aren’t much worse than the tracks you might hear on your average heavy metal album of 1984 (which isn’t saying much).

tapbackfrondead_400x400In the years since the film’s original release, Guest, McKean and Shearer have periodically reunited as their film’s characters and improbably turned Spinal Tap into an honest-to-goodness band that went on the road and into the studio.  (A Spotify playlist below provides a decent sampling of their repertoire.)  Their 1992 album “Break Like the Wind” reached #61 on the US charts, and 2009’s “Back From the Dead” peaked at a respectable #52.  Said Guest, “We played the Pyramid Stage, we’ve played at Wembly, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall.  It’s weird, but great.  The fictional became real.”

 

Art imitates life:  The ’70s hard rock band Uriah Heep once found themselves having to perform at a lame Air Force base social event, an incident that Shearer chose to include in Spinal Tap’s itinerary.

Life imitates art:  Heavy-metal titans Metallica said their 1991 LP “Metallica” (commonly known as “The Black Album”) is a tribute to the film’s scene where Spinal Tap’s record label replaced offensive artwork for its “Smell the Glove” LP with a plain black cover.

In one telling scene, Spinal Tap’s band members are angry about their album cover — a 64625_mx_uKqoNLdISDnxr_34157photo of a naked woman on her knees restrained by a dog collar and leash — being refused, when another group is given permission for their cover, which instead features the band members in the same degrading position.  When the difference is pointed out to them, they look at each other and say, “Hmmm.  It’s such a fine line between stupid…and clever.”

So true.  I suppose some people might find “This is Spinal Tap” monumentally stupid, but for those who appreciate finely tuned parody, I think it’s clever as hell.  As someone who just viewed it for the first time in 2018, I think I could make the argument that this movie probably works better today than it did when it was first released.  One of the movie’s goals was to satirize the concept of aging rockers engaging in “comeback” tours and albums, and, while there was plenty of that taking place in the early ’80s, it has surely become even more prevalent today.  Heavy metal headbangers might look absurd on the stage in their 30s; how about when they’re old enough for Medicare?