Friday, February 15, 2019

Galileo Blasts Off for Mercury (Freddie, That Is)

When I was in Cuba last December, our group enjoyed hearing a wonderful choir. At a recent music festival, we were told, they had performed Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Did they know there was a new American movie by that name? “Oh yes,” said the choir director. “But it hasn’t yet arrived in The Package.”  The Package (or “El Pacquete Semanal”) is a collection of digital materials—American soap operas, movies, pop music, and the like—that since 2008 has been sold each week on the Cuban underground as a substitute for broadband internet. The source of these compilations is apparently unknown, but some theorize it is actually the Cuban government, making a buck while winking at the notion of revolutionary cultural purity.

I wonder what Fidel Castro would have thought of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of a Zanzibar-born Parsi who, having changed his name to Freddie Mercury, became an English rock god before dying of AIDS. I know I personally enjoyed the film, but it flunked my acid test for greatness: I rarely thought about it the following day.

Bohemian Rhapsody, of course, is one of eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 2018. Which puts it in the company of such intensely artful, deeply imaginative films as Roma, The Favourite, Black Panther, and BlacKkKlansman. (The idiosyncratic spelling of that last, much as I admired it, is slowing driving me crazy.) Like Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic, shining a light on an influential figure of the recent past.  Like A Star is Born, it chronicles the goings-on of the pop music industry. Like Green Book, it touches on the plight of an outsider whose musical gifts allow him to transcend the usual restrictions placed on others of his kind.

Much of the negative press about Bohemian Rhapsody—and there has been a great deal—involves snarky insinuations that this film has falsified the twists and turns of Mercury’s life and musical career. I did not grow up in the era of Queen, and so I can’t pretend to know what is accurate and what is not. Perhaps the details of the story we see on screen are as bogus as star Rami Malek’s prosthetic teeth. The fact that actual Queen bandsmen Brian May and Roger Taylor have executive music producer credits on the film may be what’s keeping the band’s story seeming so remarkably benign, even despite the lead singer’s sexual and other shenanigans. (Surely this is the most supportive group of sidemen ever captured on film.) By contrast, the role of Mary Austin, Mercury’s once-girlfriend and lifelong best friend, is a sort of mysterious blank; though Mary, as portrayed by the lovely Lucy Boynton, remains sympathetic, there’s no clear sense of what keeps her around throughout the years. The events depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody fall into a conventional sort of “and then I wrote” progression, but no one can deny that Malek’s portrayal of Mercury has an energy and a boldness that brings it alive. Will he be honored with an Oscar as the year’s best actor? Signs point to yes.

I can’t leave the topic without pointing out that the members of Queen, unlike such earlier rockers as the Beatles, were not scruffy lads from blue-collar homes but rather middle-class youngsters with college degrees. Guitarist Brian May, for one, earned a PhD in astrophysics, and served as a science team collaborator with NASA’s New Horizons mission. Not only did he contribute his scientific perspective; he also (natch!) wrote a song honoring the probe that was on its way to Pluto. Too bad it wasn’t heading for Mercury.

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