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What Does ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Tell Us About Portraying a Rock Star?

Rami Malek is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination for his work as Freddie Mercury, but does the film do the late singer’s story justice? And how does it compare to other rock biopics like ‘The Doors,’ ‘The Buddy Holly Story,’ and ‘Last Days’?

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

It is a remarkable physical transformation: the lithe frame, the protruding teeth, the contorted face, the weaponized initial awkwardness, the total command, the sweat, the raw sexuality, and the horn-rimmed glasses. Yes, Gary Busey sure nails the essence of Buddy Holly in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story. “We’d like to do this one for the boppers,” Gary-as-Buddy announces in the striking opening scene, switching from acoustic to electric guitar and goading his nervous bandmates into playing the semi-raucous “Rock Around With Ollie Vee” and thus vying to burn down a 1950s roller rink in Lubbock, Texas. “Those of you who bop.”

The first pounded drumbeat turns the head of every kid at the snack bar, while the scandalized adults scowl and/or clamp their hands over their ears. The devil’s music! Gary-as-Buddy’s legs are spread wide, but not too wide; he is loud but not too loud, rebellious but not too rebellious. The song ends, and amid feral teenage whoops he yanks off his tie and launches into “That’ll Be the Day,” by which time he has incited what in a ’50s Texas roller rink passes for a riot. It ain’t Live Aid, and it ain’t “We Are the Champions,” but you get an immediate and vivid sense of the man, and the rock-star myth, and the oft-enormous chasm that can open between them.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Queen biopic starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, opened this weekend and made more than $50 million domestically. Rami-as-Freddie is excellent—his cheekbones alone deserve a Best Supporting Actor nomination—and somehow only gets better as everything around him gets lousier. This C-plus flick’s absurdly tumultuous eight-year path to the screen—different actors, different directors, different studios, different philosophies—is apparent in every wayward frame. Perhaps you recall that Sacha Baron Cohen spent years trying to get this project off the ground with Stephen Frears directing and a firm mandate of All Hedonism, All the Time. “Sacha wanted to make a very outrageous film, which I would imagine Freddie Mercury would have approved of,” Frears told Vulture recently. “Outrageous in terms of his homosexuality and outrageous in terms of endless naked scenes. Sacha loved all of that.”

The surviving members of Queen—guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and to a lesser extent, long-retired bassist John Deacon—did not love all of that. Since Mercury’s death in 1991 of AIDS-related pneumonia, they, of course, control the band’s legacy, and by extension Mercury’s legacy. They decide which version of the man, and the myth, makes it on screen. Even more importantly, they control the music. The final version of Bohemian Rhapsody is a muddle of rise-and-fall biopic clichés, its facts fudged, its handling of Mercury’s homosexuality stilted and somewhat grudging, and its flaccid and wanly PG-13 depiction of all that hedonism far more grudging still.

Only Malek’s shrewd, lewd, all-in flamboyance makes it watchable. Well, that and the songs, all 30-plus of them, the genuine articles delivered at pulverizing volume. There oughta be sing-along screenings of Bohemian Rhapsody in which they cover the screen with a heavy curtain. But that’s the compromise—and often the crux—of the rock-star-biopic dilemma: Do want the music, or do you want the truth?

How does one play a rock star in 2018, when rock ‘n’ roll is (allegedly) long dead, and the old-guard notion of a rock star is (almost definitely) dead, and this particular mustachioed rock star has been (literally) dead for 27 years? Is Malek playing the real Freddie Mercury, or the public idea of Freddie Mercury, or his bandmates’ preferred post-millennial vision of the public’s idea of Freddie Mercury? Does it matter that he’s lip-syncing? Is it preferable that he’s lip-syncing? Do Bohemian Rhapsody’s botched song chronologies and outright fictionalizations ruin the experience? Does the paradoxical attention to hyper-detail in some scenes—Queen’s climactic 1985 performance at Live Aid is eerily precise down to the Pepsi cups and the blown kiss, just now with way more cutaways to the other dudes in the band—honor Mercury’s legacy, or is exactly aping his movements a rejection of everything the (theoretically) singular and irreplaceable Mercury stood for?

This medium-bad movie made $50 million in one weekend, just in America. Get ready for a Hollywood rock-star onslaught. And get ready to argue about what makes a flick like this great, or terrible, and whether accuracy, emotional or otherwise, even matters at all. For if rock stars, in the classical (and classic-rock) sense, are truly dead now, we get to decide how we remember, portray, and reinvent them. Just keep in mind that the drummer sometimes gets a say, too.

Gary Busey is actually playing and singing throughout The Buddy Holly Story, by the way. He kicks some ass at the Apollo and everything. Oscar-nominated! (He lost to Jon Voight.) He sounds fine! Buddy Holly’s family and surviving bandmates mostly hated the movie, though, and thought there were too many facts fudged and liberties taken. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll for you, or at least, it used to be.

The two central rock-star-movie questions, actually, might be, (a) is the actor really singing?, and (b) is the actor trying really hard to win an Oscar? If the answer to both is yes, look out. One way to immediately improve your opinion of Bohemian Rhapsody is to revisit the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix in the starring role—that is his real voice, and his real sweat, and he spends the whole movie sounding vaguely nauseous. This sucker has aged, uh, poorly. (Phoenix was Oscar-nominated but lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman, though Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter, won Best Actress despite having to deliver the line “You can’t walk no line.”)

It is thus better for Malek, and for us, that he lip-syncs to Mercury’s actual vocals throughout Bohemian Rhapsody, which frees him to concentrate on his aura, on the regalness of his posture, and on the lasciviousness built into every gesture. (This is my favorite still image from a rock-star movie ever.) Yes, there is a scene that dramatizes Rami-as-Freddie’s songwriting process by depicting him in a rocking chair, teary-eyed and deep in thought, until he says, “That’s really good” out loud and then writes something down. Yes, there is a scene in which John Deacon, the bassist, quells a raging band argument in the studio simply by playing the bassline to “Another One Bites the Dust.” “Freddie, you’re burning the candle at both ends!” worries Mercury’s former lover Mary Austin, surveying the aftermath of some wan PG-13 hedonism; “But the glow is so divine!” Mercury retorts. Yikes. But soon the fellas are onstage at Live Aid, blowing through “Radio Ga Ga,” and all, or most, is forgiven.

Malek is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination, though the rest of the gang here—Bohemian Rhapsody is credited to Bryan Singer, despite him being replaced by Dexter Fletcher after yet more calamity—can forget it. And anyway, a certain trashiness—or at least, a less blatant sort of prestige aspiration—often does a movie like this a world of good. Think 1986’s cult classic Sid and Nancy, in which Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb spend most of their time super-blotto and screaming at one another when they’re not smooching in an alley as pieces of garbage fall around them in slow motion. Think Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in 1991’s mega-nauseous Oliver Stone joint The Doors, in which Val-as-Jim channels Jim Carrey and goes grocery shopping and hip-thrusts through rowdy gigs bathed in blood-red hellfire. Think Kristen Stewart (as Joan Jett!) and Dakota Fanning (as Cherie Currie!) slithering their way through 2010’s sleazy and ludicrous The Runaways, a very specific kind of wonderful.

The attempted blockbuster (and attempted Oscar-bait) biopics still happen, though they tend to fete rock stars in the genre-agnostic sense, from Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in 2004’s triumphant Ray to Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in 2014’s Get on Up. (The stars are lip-syncing in both, but especially in Boseman’s case, his dancing is so transcendent that you hardly notice.) For the highest of the highbrow, see 2007’s bonkers I’m Not There, in which Todd Haynes divides the Bob Dylan myth among six actors (and actresses). There was real triumph there, or at least a triumphant sort of defiant unknowability. But nowadays, for everyone else—even superstars of very recent vintage—it’s all wallowing, all the time.

In the 21st century, anyway, fictional accounts of actual rock stars tend to emphasize their sadness, their smallness, their brutal vulnerability. Gus Van Sant’s 2005 oddity Last Days casts Michael Pitt as Kurt Cobain in all but name, staggering around his filthy house and no longer functional enough to even eat a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Anton Corbijn’s well-regarded 2007 Joy Division tribute Control depicts Ian Curtis as being every bit as tortured and volatile as you’d imagine, when even the biopic-standard onstage freakouts turn out to be epileptic seizures. “André 3000 as Jimi Hendrix” was a superfan fever dream for years, but when it finally happened, in 2014’s Jimi: All Is by My Side, it was a modest character study, not a guitar-burning blowout. Trust a superstar rapper to understand how small even a superstar rocker seems to us today.

Consequently, part of what makes Bohemian Rhapsody so striking is how musically triumphant it is, even at its moodiest, and how mainstream the notion of a legit rock god still appears to be within this movie’s universe. But all the moodiness still gets to you. Rami-as-Freddie follows the usual biopic arc: humble beginnings, cocksure initial rise, brash superstardom, flagrant debauchery, cowering downfall, and teary redemption. But this movie somehow makes even the debauchery look depressing, with Mercury’s lavish parties mere salves for his crushing loneliness. A quieter film like 2014’s Love & Mercy, in which both Paul Dano and John Cusack channel the troubled-genius inner turmoil of Brian Wilson, thrives on that sort of melodrama. But it’s borderline scandalous that a Queen movie is only allowed to enjoy itself when the soundtrack kicks in and all the actors shut up; even the fun parts of rock stardom aren’t allowed to be fun anymore.

But this, again, is how Mercury’s bandmates wish Mercury to be seen now: as far more man than myth, seemingly embarrassed by the excesses that once defined him and elevated him to rock-star status in the first place. Rami-as-Freddie is a superhero who just wants to be human, a serial cat owner longing for one true best friend as he prepares to regale a billion or two people with “Hammer to Fall.” You walk out of the theater humming one of 30-odd bulletproof Queen songs to yourself, marveling that They Just Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore, as rock bands or rock stars go. Hollywood will be eager to duplicate this success. (U2? Van Halen? Guns N’ Roses? Smash Mouth?) Bohemian Rhapsody will do as a start. But I still think Sacha Baron Cohen had the right idea.