“The bad guy in every musician’s biopic is the musician himself.”—Zadie Smith
“I’m Mr. Bad Guy/Yes I’m everybody’s Mr. Bad Guy.”—Freddie Mercury
[Warning: spoiler alerts, yadda yadda yadda]
I’ve never cried to “We Are The Champions.”
I’ve never cried to “We Are The Champions,” that is, until watching Rami Malek, playing the role of Freddie Mercury, reenact its performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert. The song appears after a series of life events so dramatic it could give a telenovela a run for its money. Band fights abound. Mercury’s solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, tanks (total U.S. sales around 100,000). Managers summarily are fired. Freddie enters an AIDS clinic to get his test results.
To hear and see “Champions” on screen at Live Aid after all that Sturm and Drang, the first and only time the song is performed in the film, just broke me. Along with everyone in the theatre, I’d gone through the Freddie Mercury stations of the cross after two hours and change, and it occurred to me that, despite historical errors both minor and glaring along the way, despite reading reviews so over-the-top negative you would think they were reviewing actual Queen albums and not a biopic of its lead singer, and despite knowing this movie would represent an attempt to tell the story of Freddie Mercury in all its shapeshifting, codeswitching, gender-bending and globetrotting glory, I needed to keep my shit together.
I did not keep my shit together.
I get it. Freddie Mercury is a mustached riddle, wrapped inside a leather-shorted mystery, inside a four-octave enigma. He was also a flawed genius. That’s what makes Freddie Mercury special to many and so maddening to others. What also makes Freddie special and maddening is that he kept his mysteries mysterious, even concealed. He contains multitudes. His POCness. His immigrant heritage. His sexuality. His weaknesses. His glaring contradictions. His buck teeth. He hid these all the while showing strength, confidence, power, vainglorious pomposity.
Is this mix of contradictions maddening? To some critics, yes. Mysterious? Yes again.
This is also what makes Freddie Mercury a diva.
The diva possesses a very specific quality, the quality of being critic-proof. Divas speak directly to their audience, who in turn return their love, unconditionally.
The movie was way better than what I expected it to be. What I saw on screen was the story of the lead singer of Queen, dramatized using composite characters and compressed timelines, at least two man-on-man kisses, leather and leather bars, loads of dodgy Germans, lines of cocaine, and empty bottles of Stolichnaya. There’s also origin stories for “Another One Bites The Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” and the movie’s namesake, the epic six-minute song that almost didn’t get released as a single.
Most scenes are largely—how can I put this?—wrong on a factual basis and correct for storytelling purposes. Far from adhering to the Queen canon of biographies and memoirs—and I have shelves filled with them—the movie combines album looks and mashes together songs and tours in a rock and roll biopic version retroactive continuity. Outfits and hairstyles intermix; characters linger far longer onscreen than they existed in the band’s actual biography.
One thing they did get absolutely right, factually and narratively, is the nasty and malevolent influence of Paul Prenter, who in real life worked as Freddie Mercury’s personal manager and not the band’s, who created rifts and made a point of being high-handed and rude with the media. He was also a gay man who rounded up drugs and male lovers and gave really bad career advice. He comes off as too nasty, too stereotypically Castro clone-look villain to be true, and the fact that this is one storyline singled out as too nasty or hateful to be true speaks volumes about what some critics want to see in a true story, which is things that are not, in fact, true.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t mind any of it, and neither should you. I will appropriate a great rant from Billy Eichner to make my point here. If people can believe Chewbacca exists inside a cinema for three hours, then buy action figures of same or dress like them at conventions, I figure people should be able to suspend disbelief that “Fat Bottomed Girls” was performed on tour in 1975-76 when it was clearly not, or that A Day at the Races and The Works albums do not merit mentions at all. You should be OK with this if you care to know about the man who sang these songs.
It just so happens that even Queen’s epic tale is subject to The Law of Conservation of Detail.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned in the past few weeks, it’s that, despite the band’s popularity increasing and reaching multiple generations, and it entering the canon of great rock music, critics have found new ways to problematize their enjoyment of Queen. I’m not talking about representation here—the biographies and memoirs have painted a fuller picture of Freddie Mercury as a gay man who, yes, did loads of drugs and had lots of sex, but also liked to play with his cats. I’m talking here about the music. The critics never got Queen. But, in the past decade or so, as more and more people have learned to love them, critics in turn have approached Mercury and Queen’s music as if it had to be deeper than it was if it was in fact that good. Even the rare critic, who just, like, enjoys Queen, tends to like them—how should I put this—in the wrong way. They will like them with “air quotes” or asterisks. They will say they like “Somebody To Love,” despite their best instincts, or as that lamest of designations, the “guilty pleasure.” The reviews of the movie use similar logical structures: “You might walk out of Bohemian Rhapsody with a smile,” one reads, “but it sells short as a biography, an exploration of their creative process or the interpretation of Mercury himself.” You’re wrong to smile! How dare you enjoy yourself!
This makes me think of an oddly touching segment on the podcast Snap Judgment, in which journalist Marc Hawthorne thinks he had become friends with Third Eye Blind’s lead singer, Stephan Jenkins. Jenkins ghosts him, and Hawthorne wants to know why, and it leads to a remarkable exchange.
“You write about me as being a guilty pleasure,” Jenkins says. “I’m just a pleasure.”
Queenzone.com is sort of the 4Chan for Queen fans. I have tried and failed to avoid commenting and engaging in discussions there over the years. It’s a curious, self-selected cohort of Queen fans, the kind that will debate topics like Freddie’s vocal range and whether the highest note in his head voice is an F5, then complain about other fans (like me) who are obsessed about Freddie Mercury's private life, sexual conquests, and when and where he contracted HIV. Homophobic and ignorant comments are not uncommon, all about the same singer we all worship.
A curious thing happened on the way to this movie coming out. Many of those same fans who have said for years that they don’t care whether Freddie was gay or had a cocaine habit on the one hand or cracking wise about Freddie Mercury having sex with a monkey were now complaining about a sanitized Queen movie, a Queen movie they hadn’t yet seen, because in part it wouldn’t show enough sex and drugs.
It’s a curious Venn diagram: homophobe Queen fans who bemoaned the exit of a Sacha Baron Cohen-helmed Freddie biopic that would have been Fight Club meets Walk The Line. Others bemoaned the over-involvement of the Queen camp—basically guitarist Brian May and Queen manager Jim Beach, as well as drummer Roger Taylor, executive music producers all—of dictating the entire production.
Never mind that it’s silly to think that Bohemian Rhapsody was some vanity project with a huge studio behind it, along with other, higher-ranking producers involved, countless executives and collaborators. The idea that this would be some hetwashed hagiography is just too lazy of a conclusion. Bohemian Rhapsody, as it turns out, is far from a G-rated sanitized tale, but people still want to see the decadent parties, the mythical little people with trays of coke atop their heads. Non-Queen fans feel entitled to these scenes, because that’s one of the reasons they can like, listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now” and still feel cool.
This movie isn’t for them. I am fine with that.
We do get to see a motley group of Munich musicians assembled in the studio to record Mercury’s first and only proper solo album, 1985’s Mr. Bad Guy. If anything, the film understates how truly terrible and disastrous this album was. It’s too bad. By not including even a single track from the solo album onto the soundtrack—my pet theory is that it must have been rights issues from the Mercury estate—it opens up criticism that Freddie may have been a viable solo artist, which he was not, and that Brian and Roger had tipped the scales of history to make Freddie look bad, which they did not, at least in this case. The truth is Freddie wanted to keep both revenue streams going a là Phil Collins with Genesis, and when that didn’t happen he had no choice but to come back to the band earlier than he had thought. Did he really return with his tail between his legs? Maybe. Listen to Mr. Bad Guy and decide for yourself.
I have to say this, because I realize I haven’t said this yet: Rami Malek’s performance is heroic. It is empathetic and way more accurate and human than I expected it to be. Is it Oscar-caliber? I’d say yes, if for no other reason than his physicality, his posturing.
The mouth-over-the-teeth, well, that’s a bonus.
The appeal of Queen is that it’s the only rock band with a diva as its lead singer. Queen is just a pleasure. And so is Malek’s performance.
At the second screening I went to, my friend raved about Malek, and said that Bryan Singer, the film’s erstwhile director, could have dialed down some the camera-angle trickery for the Live Aid segment. Objectively, I think he’s correct. Subjectively, I have seen the original Live Aid performance more times that I can count, and so seeing how it might have looked from different angles—Brian May’s look of astonishment in close-up, a swoop under the piano bench to Roger’s drum riser—lifted me into full-on Queen reverie during that finale, and, yes, I felt entitled to my fan-service.
I usually think of Queen’s Live Aid set as those first three songs: the “Mama” section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” which segues into “Radio Ga Ga,” followed by the “Day Oh” crowd back and forth and a blistering “Hammer to Fall.” Of course, they performed three more songs after that.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised Bohemian Rhapsody includes another song, “We Are The Champions.” But I was surprised.
Here is a song that is played in commercials for Gatorade, Audi, and Viagra, after every Little League baseball team wins a championship. I remember when Liza Minelli sang it at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992, with, like, Guns N’ Roses and members of the Scorpions swaying behind her, and thinking it was a lovely homage from this woman Freddie adored and emulated. When the Eagles finally won the Super Bowl last year, I remember hearing it played and thinking, heretically, that this song had somehow lost its anthemic power.
But there was something about how “Champions” is presented at the end of the movie, something about it made me re-hear the bits about fighting til the end and having his share of sand kicked in his face, and I just broke down and ugly-cried, right there in the Crossgates Mall Cineplex.
I didn’t expect that.
I’m not a movie critic. I’m barely a music critic, or at least a rock critic. I mean, I have opinions. Maybe this explains why reading the reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody gave me headaches. I realized that I would have to ignore the reviews in order to be open to liking the movie.
Something happened about midway through, maybe the first time I saw Malek-as-Mercury in his clone mustache look circa 1980: I suspended both belief and disbelief.
I guess what I am saying is that it turns out that the movie was way better than it needed to be, and it may be actually great in parts. If Bohemian Rhapsody is basically a glorified Wikipedia page, as some of the critics say—well, it’s still a pretty fucking great Wikipedia page.
On the way out of my second screening on a huge IMAX screen, I thought to myself, did anyone expect a movie about Queen and Freddie Mercury to be anything other than a brazen and shameless attempt to pull at every available heartstring? Did the people reviewing the movie ever actually listen to Queen music? Did anyone expect Freddie Mercury’s life to be depicted as anything other than soapy drama, complete with nodding roadies and tearful hugs?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Queen fan, as someone who has written two artsy fartsy books on Queen and who has closetsful of memorabilia, ephemera, Freddie Mercury Caganer figurines and a Brian May replica guitar—it’s that the appeal of Queen bypasses the critic’s call to determine, as Matthew Arnold writes, “the best which has been thought and said.” The appeal of Queen is that it’s just pleasure. I feel ill-equipped as a reviewer, then, other than to say I liked the movie, and I loved it in certain parts.
Also, I’d like to have a few moments alone with my diva now.
Daniel Nester is an essayist, freelance writer, poet, writing professor, erstwhile literary journal editor, reading series curator, and Queen superfan. He is the author most recently of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects. His other books include How to Be Inappropriate, and God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic online, American Poetry Review, New York Times, Buzzfeed, Salon, and other places. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.