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Why I Hate Rock Biopics — But Don’t Hate ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Queen film

Presumably, rock biopics are intended for fans of that particular artist. Do you love Ray Charles? Well, here’s a movie about him. Did you ever wonder how Johnny Cash and June Carter met? Good news: There’s a film that answers that question. Rock biopics offer the comforting pleasures of seeing legendary musicians, often during critical moments in their career, electrify us with their genius. Like hearing a beloved song, these movies give us another opportunity to enjoy an old favorite.

But the truth is, most biopics are annoyingly average. With a few exceptions, they all follow the same trajectory:

  1. I’m a nobody with a dream!
  2. I got my big break!
  3. Now I’m rich and famous!
  4. Oh no, I’ve taken too many drugs and my life is spiraling out of control!
  5. Nobody remembers me!
  6. I sobered up and reconnected with my artistry!
  7. Hey, everything turned out great! (Or: Hey, I died!)

Get an actor who looks like the real person, throw in some familiar hits and you’ll have a successful rock biopic — a nostalgic, boring but financially successful rock biopic. Every once in a while, an independent filmmaker will boldly try to switch up the formula — like with the impressionistic Bob Dylan portrait I’m Not There or the pre-fame Jimi Hendrix drama All Is by My Side — but for the most part, the formula is the hook.

Bohemian Rhapsody couldn’t be more conventional in its treatment of Queen and its magnetic lead singer Freddie Mercury. The film hits every expected plot point and nails every cliché you can imagine. And yet, I had a blast watching it, even though most critics slammed the film for its cookie-cutter narrative. (That wasn’t their only issue, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

So, why did I fall for Bohemian Rhapsody? Two reasons. It’s one of the rare rock biopics that actually has a sense of humor about itself. And also — and this is really important — I don’t care about Queen at all.

By the time I came of age, the British rock band were already pretty much a relic of the past. They showed up a lot on classic-rock stations, and hits like “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” were already so ubiquitous at sporting events that it was hard to remember they were ever written by human beings. (It’s kinda how a new generation of kids knows “Seven Nation Army” as just something to chant at a soccer game.) I didn’t hate Queen, but I was never particularly interested in them — and when they gained newfound popularity thanks to a lengthy, overly cutesy homage in Wayne’s World, my curiosity dropped to about zero.

I say all that not to slag Queen and Mercury, who died in 1991, but to suggest that maybe rock biopics are best suited to those who really like music but don’t have a personal investment in the specific artist being depicted. Think about it: If you went to see a biopic of your favorite musician, there would probably be a hundred things about the movie that would drive you crazy. Maybe the actor isn’t quite right. Maybe the filmmakers change around the story to make it more dramatically appealing. Maybe the band’s best song is performed in some new way that annoys you. The movie may be about your favorite artist, but because you’re not telling the story, it’s inevitable that it won’t be to your exact liking.

Many creative liberties have been taken with Bohemian Rhapsody — the movie doesn’t even seem to know when certain Queen hits came out — and I can imagine that would infuriate the band’s fans, who have been waiting eight years for this project to hit the big screen. (Also, not for nothing, the film’s director, Bryan Singer, has a history of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against him.) And yet, I have to confess that, for someone like me who’s utterly blasé about Queen, there was a seductive, almost primordial thrill in watching Rami Malek command the stage as Mercury while his band mates played their instruments behind him. The factual inaccuracies and the rewriting of history didn’t bother me in the least. Because I was unaware of the heresy being committed, I was able to blissfully enjoy the film’s spectacle and big, likable tunes.

In fairness, too, while Bohemian Rhapsody is terribly clichéd, it seems to wink at all its stupid clichés as if to say, “Here are all the scenes you’re expecting — we’re at least going to have some fun with them.” I have no doubt that “Bohemian Rhapsody” wasn’t created the way this film portrays it. I’m sure “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” weren’t dreamt up with the ah-ha stroke of inspiration that’s suggested here. But the movie sells the myth that this is how rock music should come together. Even when the predictable downfall occurs, the movie is so juiced by its own giddy unreality that complaints about inaccuracy almost feel beside the point. Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t remotely accurate to human behavior — but it’s dead-on about what the fantasy of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle feels like to all of us who will never experience it ourselves.

That said, there is one area where the film’s revisionism is more troubling, and that’s in its muddled depiction of Mercury’s bisexuality, which opens up the film to criticism of “straight-washing.” The rest of Bohemian Rhapsody is such a campy, playful tour through one corner of classic-rock history that it’s a shame that the movie distorts the singer’s sexual identity in the name of narrative expediency — or worse, a fear that audiences couldn’t “handle” that core element of his being.

But at the same time, such distortions and revisionism are seen as integral to rock biopics — by and large, these movies are made to cement one particular view of a great artist that can then be treated like gospel. This is why rock biopics are bad — they’re true stories turned into totems, and they’re all churned out the same way following the same formula. If anything, it’s an indictment of the whole genre that I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody so much. It’s not made for me, and I barely cared how accurate it was. I just wanted to plug into its mythmaking and not give anything a second thought. And on that note, it succeeded tremendously.

Here are three other takeaways from Bohemian Rhapsody.

#1. Queen’s Live Aid performance really was pretty great.

Bohemian Rhapsody culminates with the band’s 1985 performance at Live Aid. Viewers have complained about the super-cheesy CGI crowd scenes — and, oh yeah, Queen hadn’t really broken up before Live Aid — but the power of Malek’s performance is such that it’s nonetheless a thrilling, emotional finale to the movie.

Turns out, the real performance was pretty special, too. Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene notes that Queen understood the significance of the show — not just because of the worthy cause (famine relief in Africa) but because it would be a humongous platform for the scuffling group. However, they’d be playing during a superstar-studded lineup:

“Money for Nothing” was the song of the summer, and Dire Straits had just played it with Sting before wrapping up with “Sultans of Swing.” Their set was preceded by U2, who absolutely destroyed the place with a two-song set that culminated with a 12-minute version of “Bad.” Queen also knew they were to be immediately followed by David Bowie, the first Who performance in three years and Elton John with special guest Wham!

Despite all that, Queen delivered one of Live Aid’s most memorable performances. Don’t take my word on it: You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

#2. Let’s look back at Rami Malek’s pre-‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ career.

Malek is probably best known for his Emmy-winning turn in Mr. Robot, but before that, he was a good character actor who showed up in lots of different things. He was the pharaoh in the Night at the Museum movies. He had a small part in The Master. Also, he was in the godawful video game adaptation Need for Speed.

But the film of his that’s most worth checking out is 2013’s Short Term 12, an indie drama about a halfway house for troubled kids. It’s a smart, touching low-budget gem, but it was also ground zero for some great young actors, who were either discovered or just getting their start at the time — e.g., Brie Larson (who went on to win an Oscar for Room), Lakeith Stanfield (who’s great in Atlanta and everything else he does), Stephanie Beatriz (one of the stars of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Malek, who plays a new counselor who discovers what not to say to the residents:

Short Term 12 made just over $1 million, but its impact extends way beyond box office. It’s hard to think of another indie that launched so many major actors. Still, who would have thought, five years later, one of them would play Freddie Mercury?

#3. If things had worked out differently, ‘Wayne’s World’ would have featured Guns N’ Roses, not Queen.

One of the most memorable scenes in 1992’s Wayne’s World is when Wayne and his buddies sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the car. If you need a reminder, here you go:

There have been entire oral histories devoted to that scene, which helped send the song back up the charts almost two decades after its original release. And one of the more memorable behind-the-scenes tidbits is that, originally, “Bohemian Rhapsody” wasn’t going to be the song selected. Lorne Michaels, the man behind Saturday Night Live and a producer on Wayne’s World, pushed for Guns N’ Roses, which would have made a certain amount of sense for suburban rock kids like Wayne and Garth. But Myers refused, threatening to quit the movie if he didn’t get his choice.

As Myers put it in 2015, “At one point I said to everybody, ‘I’m out. I don’t want to make this movie if it’s not ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.”’ I just love the song. It’s ballsy that it’s that long. It’s ballsy that it’s two songs in one, that’s it’s opera. Then when it kicks in, it’s just such a fantastic release. I didn’t think of another possibility.”

Myers grew up loving “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and his stubbornness paid off, resulting in a classic scene. (What GNR song would it have been? Myers says he can’t remember.)

That historical tidbit leads to Bohemian Rhapsody’s not-very-inside joke of casting Myers as a record executive who tells Queen that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a terrible song. Myers was on Colbert this week, recounting how he got cast: “I got a call: ‘Do you want to be in a movie called Bohemian Rhapsody? You play the EMI executive that turns to Queen and says, ‘You can’t have ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on your album.’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’”

It’s funny that, while I’ve never liked the Wayne’s World scene, I think his Bohemian Rhapsody cameo is pretty amusing. Any self-respecting film would never stoop to such a dumb, wink-wink joke. Bohemian Rhapsody, god bless it, has no such concerns.