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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Freddie Mercury

Bohemian Rhapsody: Right tone, wrong timeline

Stephen H. Provost

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The opening lines of the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody are also the question viewers are left asking after seeing the film of the same name. At least this viewer.

This this is the kind of thing that happens when the fan and the historian are the same person. You love a movie that paints a triumphant picture of your favorite band, but you hate the fact that it paints outside the lines to do it: especially when it messes with the chronology.

Granted, Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury painted outside the lines all the time. It’s part of what made them great, and band members Brian May and Roger Taylor did produce the movie, so ...

Bohemian Rhapsody is epic. I loved it. But it’s also wrong, and what’s troubling about that is that it exposes something about propaganda in general: It gives us not the whole truth, but what we want to believe. The truth on steroids, which is, in the end, not the truth at all. What we end up with is what’s convenient to the storyline, and history be damned.

In an era when politicians rewrite history – without apology – for their own exaltation, that’s even more worrisome.

The Real Rio

The moviemakers decided to make Queen’s inspiring Live Aid performance the lynchpin of Freddie’s life. The film begins with him about to step on stage at Wembley, then ends with the band whipping the massive soccer stadium crowd into a frenzy. That moment was a kind of magic, no question. Queen stole the show. You couldn’t imagine a greater triumph if you tried.

But the film does try. Too hard. Sometimes, it seems like it doesn’t want to be a Queen biopic, but Rocky VII. To create an epic comeback story, it has Freddie quit the band (something that didn’t happen), and posits that he found out he was HIV-positive just before that epic performance. The truth? He wasn’t diagnosed until two years later.

Reality check: Queen released an album called The Works the year before Live Aid, and toured in support of the album after that. That record-breaking Rio performance, depicted in the film as happening sometime in the seventies? It actually took place during this tour, in 1985. The band hadn’t even performed in South America before that. This was during the time the movie suggests Queen was “broken up,” but the Rio show was part of a tour that ended just two months before Live Aid.

Broken up? I don’t think so.

Freddie as Rocky Balboa

None of this is a problem for me as a moviegoer. I happen be a sucker for “Rocky” movies, and the story, as told by the movie, was inspiring. But as a Queen fan and history buff, it made me cringe: The movie should have carried the tag “based on a true story,” because it fudged so many things. Yes, I know Hollywood does this. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

When Ron Howard made Cinderella Man in 2005, he didn’t add to the drama by having Jim Braddock knock out Joe Louis in the final scene. He didn’t have to. Braddock’s shocking win over Max Baer was epic enough. The fact that Braddock lost to Louis in his next fight was no shame, especially when Braddock knocked down the greatest heavyweight of his era in that fight. (There were, to be fair, a few inaccuracies in that film, too; most notably, Baer was portrayed as a jerk, when the real Baer was apparently a teddy bear.)

Some of the historical inaccuracies in Rhapsody don’t add to the drama, but seem wedged in where they don’t belong for no particular reason.

Why, for instance, does Queen play Fat Bottomed Girls on a tour that supposedly took place years before that song was released? And why does the film show We Will Rock You being conceived after Crazy Little Thing Called Love was a hit? Contrary to what the film would have you believe, WWRY came out two albums earlier, and Freddie was not sporting his famous mustache at the time. There’s just no reason to do this sort of thing. Even casual Queen fans will know you’ve gotten it wrong.

What’s there, what’s not

Others have had different problems with the film. Some, for instance, say it glosses over Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle. I’m OK with that, because the movie made it quite clear that he loved to party and have casual sex. Sometimes, inference is a lot more effective than hitting someone over the head. I don’t need to see one sex-and-drugs scene after another paraded in front of me to get that point; if the movie had done so, it would have bogged down the narrative. I think the moviemakers took the right approach to this one.

They also got the casting right. Rami Malek doesn’t look as much like Freddie as I had hoped, but he makes up for it with a standout performance. And the rest of the band? Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are dead ringers for May and Taylor, respectively, and Joseph Mazzello looks a lot like the real John Deacon, too. The hair stylist deserves a shout-out for getting Deacon’s oft-changing coiffures dead-on most of the time.

(If you’re wondering, the photo above shows the three-quarters of the real Queen – Deacon, May and Mercury – on tour in 1977. Notice Mercury does not wear a mustache.)

The film’s lighter moments, such as the argument over Taylor’s tune I’m In Love With My Car, are a lot of fun, if perhaps a bit too few.

The film misses a few gems. David Bowie, whose memorable duet with Freddie on Under Pressure was the best thing about Hot Space, doesn’t make an appearance, and the film also fails to mention that Queen snagged its first Top of the Pops appearance because Bowie had canceled out 24 hours earlier. (Another connection: Queen’s first tour supported Mott the Hoople, whose biggest hit was penned by Bowie.)

Fans love this sort of trivia, but the movie was created for a mass audience, and it’s probably too much to ask that such minutiae be squeezed into 2 hours and 14 minutes of screen time.

And mass audiences seem to love the film. As of this writing, they’re giving it a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while less enthusiastic critics have it at 59 percent. As is often the case, I’m with the fans on this one. To reiterate, I loved the movie.

I would have loved it even more if the fictional Queen had played We Will Rock You in 1977 and Fat Bottomed Girls in 1978, the way the real Queen did.

Was that really too much to ask?

You're irreplaceable, no matter what they tell you

Stephen H. Provost

Something touched me deep inside the day the music died. - Don McLean, "American Pie."

The past few days have been difficult. 

It didn't affect me directly when David Bowie died, but  it did affect me personally - as it did when Alan Rickman passed away a couple of days later. I didn't know either of these men. I wasn't a member of any fan club. I never dressed up like Ziggy Stardust, and I wasn't a Rickmaniac.

Both men were British, both were 69 years old and each was profoundly successful in his chosen field. Both died of cancer. But they shared something more than all that, an intangible something that made them, in a word, irreplaceable. Each was unique - fearless in ignoring, stretching and ultimately redefining the boundaries of their chosen professions for the sake being true to themselves.

"Actors are agents of change," Rickman once said. "A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world."

"I don't know where I'm going from here," Bowie said, "but I promise you it won't be boring."

The sadness I felt at their passing had nothing to do with the fact that I'll never hear Bowie perform "The Man Who Sold the World" again or that I'll never see Rickman reprise his role as Severus Snape in some hypothetical "Harry Potter" prequel. It stemmed instead from the realization that I'll never witness them explore new creative challenges, which I have no doubt they would have met with the same finesse and originality they displayed in their previous work.

When a creative soul dies, it's as if creation folds back in on itself, curls into a fetal position and weeps. That's what I felt like doing because, in a sense, the music died again with Bowie. Just as it had with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in that plane crash 57 years ago. Just as it did again on Dec. 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot. And when Freddie Mercury died. And Elvis. And so many others.

I can tell myself it's resurrected every time their songs are played and it's reimagined every time a new, vital artist comes along to stretch the boundaries in new and undreamt-of directions.

But that doesn't make the loss any less painful. Any less personal.

As if those losses weren't enough to deal with this week, I also learned that some people I knew had been laid off. They aren't celebrities, like Bowie or Rickman, but when I heard they'd lost their jobs, it felt no less  profound to me.

I imagined them going to exit interviews and being being fed that same old half-excuse, half-apology: "Don't take it personally. It's just business."

I have no idea whether these words were spoken in their cases, but they've been used often enough that they've become a cultural cliche, a way for us to console ourselves when we hurt someone. When we leave a relationship. When we hand someone a layoff notice. When we cut someone from the team. We tell them not to take it personally because we don't want to feel personally responsible for the pain we're inflicting.

But just what are we implying?

That to us, the person on the other end of our rejection was never a person in the first place. He or she was just a position, an impersonal cog in a malfunctioning machine that needs to be removed for the sake of efficiency. An obsolesce at best; a mistake at worst. And now it's time to get "leaner and meaner," with the emphasis on "meaner."

I can't think of anything meaner than treating someone as less than a person, more cruel than chastising him or her for having the audacity to take it personally when you've turned their personal lives upside down.

Of course, it's personal.

And here's the thing: Each of those people - each and every one of us, in fact - is irreplaceable. No less so than David Bowie or Alan Rickman. Each of us has it within ourselves to stretch boundaries, to imagine new vistas, to change at least some part of our world forever. And each time we tell someone, "It's nothing personal," we spit in the face of a unique, creative soul with boundless capacity to make a lasting impact on the future.

As a creative person, an author, I feel we have a basic obligation to nurture one another's artistry and to affirm each individual's personhood.

On the other hand, I count it a tragedy when we dehumanize people to assuage our own guilt or protect our bottom line. It's as if we're thumbing our noses at the people like David Bowie, Alan Rickman and all the other artists who've challenged and inspired us. By depersonalizing them in our own minds, we're eating away at our own humanity, our sense of empathy, our very souls.

All of this makes me very angry; I think I have a right to be.

And yes, I take it personally.