November 4, 2018
Watch ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Then Watch These Movies
If you’re a fan of Queen — and who can’t say they’re a fan of at least one of their varied tunes? — then you’ll enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody for what it is, your typical formulaic biopic with contrived storytelling and lack of full factuality along with enjoyably familiar music and a well-mimicked performance delivering the greatest hits (of his life’s moments as well as his songs). And afterward, even if it turns out you didn’t enjoy the film, I encourage you to go watch the movies listed below that came before it. Don’t worry, Freddie Mercury loyalists, none of them are Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Frankenstein, or Peter Pan.
Shanghai Express (1932)
You may have noticed an iconic photo of Marlene Dietrich in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s very prominently on display on a wall in the home of Mercury (Rami Malek) at the start of the film, and there are other instances of the picture’s appearance throughout. What’s the significance? Well, that photo is known for inspiring Mick Rock’s album cover for Queen II, which was also the inspiration for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video (even though the song is from the later album, A Night at the Opera — the title of which, of course, is named after one of the band’s favorite Marx Brothers movies).
The image comes from the movie Shanghai Express, a Best Picture nominee and one of (arguably the best of) Dietrich’s many collaborations with director Joseph von Sternberg. She plays a prostitute called Shanghai Lily and nicknamed “the White Flower of the Chinese Coast.” The story is set on a train going from Peking to Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War in 1931, as Lily runs into a past lover (Clive Brook) and falls for him all over again. Did the actual movie mean anything to Mercury and Queen (one site claims it was a favorite of Mercury’s while also acknowledging that Rock introduced him to the Dietrich photo)? Maybe not, but anyone who likes that photo (taken on set by George Hurrell) should appreciate Lee Garmes’ (and an uncredited James Wong Howe’s) Oscar-winning cinematography.
Sweet Charity (1969) and Cabaret (1972)
Another influence on Mercury — for the composition of rather than the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” — was Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Or it’s soundtrack, at least. Apparently, he was listening to the music from the movie constantly while writing the tune in 1975. Interestingly enough, Cabaret is also, like Shanghai Express, set in 1931, but in Germany, as the Nazis were coming to power. Mercury said of the movie in a 1977 Circus magazine interview:
“One of my early inspirations came from ‘Cabaret.’ I absolutely adore Liza Minnelli, she’s a total wow. The way she delivers her songs — the sheer energy. The way the lights enhance every movement of the show. I think you can see similarities in the excitement and energy of a Queen show.”
For his portrayal of Mercury, Malek studied concert performances of Minnelli as well as her work in the movie.The actor told Vanity Fair: “Sometimes, we would sit in the dance studio and just watch Cabaret over and over again. Or Bob Fosse’s [choreography] in Sweet Charity, and you see the elegance that he has and the poise that he has coming from them.” Sweet Charity, a musical remake of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, stars Shirley Maclaine as a dancer-for-hire and one of her most iconic numbers in the movie is for the song “(Hey), Big Spender,” which Queen often covered in concert.
Live Aid (1985)
Technically, this is a live-broadcast TV special and can be debated whether it counts as a concert film as well. But whatever it is, the documented event — long unavailable in any official format following the day of its occurrence — is worth watching for the real deal of Queen’s performance. Bohemian Rhapsody does an amazing job of recreating Wembley Stadium as it looked in 1985 and the concert and the band’s appearance. And while you can just find Queen’s performance on YouTube, there’s something gained from watching Live Aid in its entirety to understand why Queen was not only then considered to be the best of the whole show but is still considered by many to have given the best live performance of all time.
In addition to watching the real Live Aid performance, I also recommend checking out other Queen concerts, some of which are simply available in the form of a basic video recording and others that are presented as legitimate concert films. There’s We Will Rock You by Saul Swimmer (Let It Be, The Concert for Bangladesh), which documents performances in Montreal in 1981 and which has been the subject of debate as to the filmmaker and band’s relationship during its making (there’s a Blu-ray release of the 35mm-shot doc that also includes Queen’s Live Aid performance). There’s also Gavin Taylor’s Queen Live at Wembley, which presents the band’s full-on return to the Live Aid venue in 1986, and Queen on Fire: Live at the Bowl. All three are fan favorites and often debated by Queen diehards as to which one is the best.
The Doors (1991)
Plenty of music biopics, including a few focused on bands, came before Oliver Stone’s The Doors, but this is the one that comes to mind as being closest to the model followed by Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite its title and apparent focus, the movie focuses mainly on the lead singer, who died too young. We see this frontman (Jim Morrison, portrayed by Val Kilmer) join up with musicians by showing them lyrics he’s written, we see the group on a big TV show where they protest a rule given to them and where a camera mistakenly focuses on the singer’s crotch, and we see him at a weird party where his bandmates feel uncomfortable and leave — all like we do in the Queen movie, too.
The big difference is that while both movies play very loose with facts and chronology, at least The Doors mainly does so for musical and thematic purpose, feeding into the lyrics and mythology of Morrison. Bohemian Rhapsody does it for convenient storytelling. As a huge Doors fans, though, I’ll admit that I mostly love Stone’s film because of my love for the music and the mythology, and I expect that Bohemian Rhapsody will similarly be popular for a long time with people who are huge Queen fans.
Wayne’s World (1992)
If you haven’t seen Wayne’s World before seeing Bohemian Rhapsody, you won’t get one of the latter’s biggest winks at the audience. Mike Myers, who plays the title character in this Saturday Night Live spinoff, appears in the Queen biopic as a fictional EMI executive who is based on the real Roy Featherstone. In his big scenes, he is pitched and then delivered “Bohemian Rhapsody,” over which he battles with the band on account of its length. He also claims kids will never bang their heads to the song in their cars, nudge nudge.
The whole thing is a nod to a famous sequence in Wayne’s World in which Myers and friends lip synch and indeed bang their heads while listening to that very tune in the car. The allusion is overplayed, to the point where Myers might as well be staring right into the camera when he says the head-banging part. And has an allusion ever been so much longer than the thing it’s referencing? After Wayne’s World, watch Wayne’s World 2, too, for its homage to The Doors and its plot revolving around the planning of a Live Aid/Woodstock type concert.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
When critics and audiences complain about authenticity in biopics, I think of Velvet Goldmine, the perfect music biopic that takes so many liberties and just literally changes all the names. Todd Haynes’ fabulous film set during the glam rock movement — overlapping with the time period of Bohemian Rhapsody — is about two singers (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor) whose stories are respectively based on the lives of David Bowie and Jobriath, and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Like Mercury, the former initially has a wife (Toni Collette) but then gives in more and more to his attraction to men, including the latter character.
Despite being fictional, Velvet Goldmine is still able to be a jukebox musical by employing mostly preexisting songs by such relevant bands as Roxy Music, T. Rex, the New York Dolls, and The Stooges — plus a couple originals modeled after Bowie hits. The fact that it isn’t technically about real people, however, probably curbed its success. A real Bowie biopic would be a much bigger deal. Even a cameo portrayal would be nice. How great it would have been for Bohemian Rhapsody to feature an actor (preferably Rhys Meyers) as Bowie for a look at the recording of “Under Pressure”?
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Just because a spot-on parody of a genre comes out doesn’t mean that genre should stop existing. Or continue with the same conventions that are lampooned in the comedy. In fact, we’ve gotten more movies like This is Spinal Tap after the release of that mockumentary. And we will keep getting formulaic music biopics in the wake of Walk Hard. Hopefully, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, others will try for some freshness. Love & Mercy gave us a depiction of Brian Wilson’s life despite the heavy Wilson spoofing in Walk Hard, for instance, but that’s a better movie so it wasn’t as criticized for the connection.
Here are some review blurbs referencing this movie: “If there’s anything more tiresome than the movies that inspired the Dewey Cox story, it’s a movie that uses Jake Kasdan’s damning parody as a template” (IndieWire); “a painfully by-the-numbers biopic, squeezing the narrative into a Walk Hard box” (Forbes); “unironic remake of Walk Hard” (Washington Post); “the kind of thing Walk Hard was meant to prevent” (Newsday); “a structure that…has been unforgivable since it was parodied in Walk Hard” (BBC); “basically Walk Hard without the parody” (Paste); “so hollowly, even comically formulaic that even Dewey Cox of Walk Hard might snicker” (AP); “like Dewey Cox, Freddie Mercury ‘needs to think about his entire life before he plays’” (Slate). And Chicago’s Daily Herald went the extra measure and published an offshoot article titled “Walk Hard remains a perfect parody of music epics like Bohemian Rhapsody.” Maybe biopics aren’t the only things that could use an infusion of original ideas.
Sing Street (2016)
If you enjoy Lucy Boynton as the girlfriend and muse for the singer in Bohemian Rhapsody, you definitely need to check out this movie by John Carney (Once) featuring Boynton in a breakout performance as the girlfriend and muse for the fictional teenage singer of the titular ’80s high school band. The movie, which also co-stars Bohemian Rhapsody actor Aidan Gillen and spotlights some amazing fashion, was sadly underseen in theaters and is still really only a cult film as far as its popularity goes. Sing Street should have received an Oscar nomination, which might have given it a little more attention, as noted by our own John DiLillo:
‘Sing Street‘s soundtrack is a pure delight to listen to, a pop confection that weaves between plaintive U2-esque slow-builds and goofy ’80s synth-rock in the same fashion that its young protagonists weave between styles. It’s a pure-hearted blast, and the whole thing builds to the song that should have won Best Original Song in 2016, the film’s climactic jam “Drive It Like You Stole It.”
Untitled Rick James Biopic (?)
If you love Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll likely love some other biopics in the works, particularly the upcoming Elton John movie Rocketman, which is directed by Dexter Fletcher, who came on to finish the Queen film when Bryan Singer was fired. And you’re probably anticipating the Rick James biopic that has been promised for over a decade now with nothing firmly in the works just yet. I have a request for when it finally happens: Queen’s “Under Pressure” needs to feature on the soundtrack at some point, just as James’ “Super Freak” is heard in Bohemian Rhapsody, presumably as a nod to both songs later being exploited as samples in very popular rap songs.
Bonus: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
This recommendation isn’t a movie, so it’s a bonus entry. One of the throwaway characters in Bohemian Rhapsody is Tim Staffell (Jack Roth), the singer in Brian May and John Deacon’s pre-Queen band, Smile. There’s a lot of Staffell’s significance missing from the biopic, including the fact that he and Mercury were buddies for a long time before the latter replaced the former in the band. He wasn’t just some random guy who went off and missed out on fame and fortune.
Staffell managed to have a steady if not so well-known music career before and after the moments seen in Bohemian Rhapsody (he recorded new vocals for the movie, too). And when he took time off from music he directed TV commercials and worked as a model maker and animator, most iconically creating the original trains for the kids’ show Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and also contributing to the special effects of the BBC’s six-part adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hopefully, it’ll now come out what exactly Staffell created for the series.
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