In Defense of the Mediocre Music Biopic

I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody on opening day, in opposition to the recommendation of my critic mates, whose admonitions of “Mediocre!” had by then all blurred collectively like a choir of falsetto “Galileos.” It’s nothing however serviceable fluff, they mentioned. Hardly an unsalvageable mess however removed from transcendent, a perfunctory train that’s elevated solely by one notably good live performance sequence and Rami Malek’s efficiency as Freddie Mercury — which, by the way in which, deserves much better than one other rehash of the outdated rock biopic rubric of rise, fall, and redemption. If Malek truly will get his shot at an Oscar, it will likely be as a result of he persevered over the film’s enervating, cumbersome okay-ness, simply as absolutely as he labored round these large dentures. For all of Queen’s stadium-shaking greatness, my buddies warned me, the film was extra like a canopy band wowing the company Christmas get together.
I went anyway. Not as a result of I’m an enormous Queen fan. I positively like Queen, but I’d be the primary to confess that my data is generally restricted to the large radio hits (so, roughly 150 songs). I’m conscious of Freddie Mercury’s huge, idiosyncratic expertise as songwriter and showman, in addition to the enduring symbolic significance he has for, like Malek’s Mercury declares within the movie, the opposite misfits in “the again of the room” to whom he gave a lot braveness — but when I’m talking truthfully, for me these guys have been Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain. I didn’t have a lot private funding in it in any respect, actually, which I’m certain allowed me to shrug off these early criticisms and go into Bohemian Rhapsody with out worrying that I’d get incensed by its many omissions and inaccuracies, its fudging of timelines, or the way in which it places a sanitized, PG-13 gloss on Mercury’s non-public life. I went not despite these items however due to them, as a result of “mediocre music biopic” occurs to be considered one of my favourite micro-genres of movie, proper up there with “blatant Goodfellas ripoff” and “films about author’s block.”

I really like the actual conflict of giant ambitions and inherently crippling flaws, the way in which they are often each fawningly reverent and so extremely insulting to their topics. Mostly, I really like watching a film that teases you with the concept that you solely suppose you recognize the story, then proceeds to unspool a story so predictable that Walk Hard eternally ruined it greater than a decade in the past. I don’t know why. I can’t get sufficient.

It’s attainable that I’ve simply been conditioned this manner. After all, “mediocre” appears to be the default on the subject of films about musicians. There have actually been exceptions: Ray and Walk the Line, for instance (though you can say that they benefited drastically from popularizing the formulation everybody else has since tried to emulate — or escape). Sid and Nancy and 24 Hour Party People (though I’d argue that each of these have been extra about scenes and their overarching philosophies, and a few actually fucked-up folks). Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine (though these are much less “biopics” than fever goals). I like and/or love all of these movies. But I will even at all times cease and watch Notorious, the decidedly solid-C retelling of Biggie Smalls’s life, at any time when I occur throughout it on cable. Ditto any of the dozen D-grade “Movies That Rock” that VH1 churned out within the late ’90s and early aughts. (I've explicit affection for Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story, during which Romany Malco reveals the sudden pathos of the “Pumps and a Bump” video.) Growing up, my burning crush on Winona Ryder meant I’d endlessly rewatch Great Balls of Fire, the place Dennis Quaid performs Jerry Lee Lewis as a kind of manic, cousin-fucking Daffy Duck. My teen bed room boasted a poster for Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a ridiculous movie that I nonetheless love and can wholeheartedly defend for the way in which it precisely captures the overbearing self-mythologizing and boorish pretension of Doors followers like me. As with Bohemian Rhapsody, all of those films might depart you with much less understanding of their topics than you’d get skimming Wikipedia. But to me their charms are as plain as they're ineffable, at the same time as I'm now trying to eff them.

Part of that is most likely very simply defined: They’re not excellent films which might be however making an attempt very onerous to be — desperately making an attempt to be worthy of their topics however arising brief, which makes them inherently entertaining. I don’t have to get into the assorted hierarchies of superiority at play right here, however there’s a particularly smug pleasure in watching a film star attempt to be a rock star who simply finally ends up embarrassing them each. I’m not notably pleased with it, however this pleases my insecure little lizard mind. Similarly, there’s an inherent camp issue to watching a well-known individual play one other well-known individual, re-creating occasions that historical past tells us occurred, but are simply too freighted with significance to ever appear completely actual. There’s simply no solution to stage a “John meets Yoko” scene that doesn’t really feel as phony as a wax museum, for instance. (Although that actually hasn’t stopped them from making an attempt.)

In these moments, the mediocre music biopic tends to lean into the skid, usually constructing total scenes round little greater than a well-known rock star shaking palms with one other historic determine whereas they every say their full names aloud. And lastly, there's the purest pleasure of that phrase we critics wish to throw round as a lot faintly damning reward: “watchable.” And is there something extra “watchable” than a biopic of somebody we already know? There’s simply one thing so pleasantly soothing about seeing these beats play out, like bingeing an outdated favourite TV present. Oooh, that is the episode the place Biggie meets Tupac! I really like the way in which their arc unfolds! (And as a facet observe to Ryan Murphy: I might eagerly watch an anthology sequence the place every episode was centered on a musician, their story minimize down to simply essentially the most salient and sensational bits.)

But I believe the first purpose I’m drawn to the mediocre music biopic is that I do know, from private expertise, that almost all precise bands are extremely boring. I’ve spent a lot of the previous 25 years round musicians — interviewing them, hanging out with them, even performing, recording, and touring in some bands myself. And I can let you know with confidence that, say, 95 % of them would make for abysmal film topics. Being a musician is a monotonous course of that’s principally about ready: ready to get to the gig, ready for sound test, ready till it’s time to play, ready to begin making precise cash at this. Even the documentaries of essentially the most legendary bands to have ever lived, your Stones and your Beatles, are largely dominated by scenes the place somebody lays down a tambourine whereas another person watches, their facial features suggesting that they vaguely favor this to a desk job. Sure, there are the onstage highs and the occasional bursts of offstage glamour. There are drug binges and fights together with your bandmates and even sudden, tragic deaths, all of which might create moments of actual narrative rigidity. But principally it’s simply overdubs and cigarette breaks, and arguing over the place to eat lunch.

The mediocre music biopic, nonetheless, cuts all the pieces all the way down to a manageable, melodramatic dimension. It preserves the phantasm. It provides you a greatest-hits bundle crammed with rapturous lip-syncing, interspersed with ludicrously speedy trajectories and Shakespeare in Love--style winks to the longer term that even essentially the most informal followers can recognize. (If your solely data of Queen comes via Wayne’s World, then Bohemian Rhapsody has you lined.) And to its credit score, Bohemian Rhapsody does interact with the truth of the inventive course of greater than some, staging scenes the place the group methodically layers in operatic falsettos take by take, for instance, or one other the place John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) first plucks out the strutting bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust” whereas the group units apart its bickering, briefly united by its plain pull. Maybe it didn’t occur precisely like that, however it nonetheless captures the way in which Queen’s disparate members didn’t actually belong collectively, but at all times miraculously coalesced in track — and makes the purpose much more elegantly than any of the scenes the place any person simply straight-up says that.

Still, by the top of all of it, we all know much more about Deacon’s bass half than we do Deacon himself — or any of the opposite members of Queen, for that matter, aside from how pissed they're at Mercury. Or actually, something that doesn’t immediately service both the film’s jukebox-musical sequences or the boilerplate narrative of Mercury’s struggles with sexuality and his horrible loneliness. “It’s the in-between moments,” Malek’s Mercury sighs at one level. “I discover them insupportable.” The movie agrees, dashing via these valleys prefer it’s fast-forwarding a cassette of Queen’s Greatest Hits. In its personal disdain for something that isn’t a kind of huge moments, the movie itself equally shrinks to a hole, middling dimension.

Again, if you happen to have been personally invested within the story of Queen or Freddie Mercury, you may take umbrage with the way in which it collapses and conflates, and even completely misrepresents issues — to not point out the way it simply completely ignores a superb five-year chunk of his life on the finish there. But actually, each biopic struggles with the best way to make tidy narrative sense out of the messy complexities of a life, and each artist biopic, particularly, is compelled to render the principally inner, often-tedious inventive course of into one thing that isn’t lethal uninteresting on display. Winnowing it down even additional, I might recommend that the musician biopic has it the toughest. After all, there isn't any topic so untouchably bigger than life, but so extremely private to so many, than the musician. You naturally go into these films together with your guard up, protecting of what they and their music imply, so sure that the movie will fail to do it justice — certain that irrespective of how nice an actor’s efficiency, they are going to by no means actually turn out to be them. Who ever might? Malek’s phenomenal, however he’s no Freddie Mercury. That’s not even him singing!

And in these preconceived notions, the mediocre music biopic proves you proper, and in its personal means, it’s a reduction. It provides you some low cost highs and possibly some cheaper laughs, however principally it reminds you of simply how particular the topic was — and can now stay. It leaves an area in between, some room for the reality to stay elusive and the parable to endure. And if you happen to’re something like me, you type of like it for that.