Thursday, 17 January 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody and its critics

You can listen to the official Bohemian Rhapsody Soundtrack (Apple Music) here.

Note: Since the piece below was written, the film Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars, although not Best Picture.

***

As I went through the doors into Screen Six, the first sound was a triumphal wall of graphite-strengthened guitar.  I was in time for the 20th Century Fox opening fanfare at the beginning of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody (Oct. 2018).  The original fanfare had been dubbed over by Queen at a higher voltage.  Right from the start, this drummer-boy dub seemed to define the whole exercise, a prelude for what would be stirred emotion, but a pointless one for the critics.  I wasn't sure why.  From then on, in the following two hours or so, every melody that came along was an pleasing acoustic memory.  Now with pictures, it was important and interesting history.  The loud sound and sonic effects, the ones you only get watching films in cinemas, amplified my euphoria.  A week after its opening, I had viewed it three times, and each time the images grew stronger and the whole point of all the emotion, clearer.  And with things going wrong in Britain right now, don't we just need a soothing spoonful of the Freddie Mercury syrup?  Britain’s favourite syrup.  It's rather comforting to be reminded, that we, the British, are still the world's finest exporter of culture, especially when we team up with Hollywood.  Us Anglo-Americans again!  A-A…  A set…  American-Airlines…  Pocket-rockets…  Two-Aces in the hole! 

I am writing about the unashamedly popular art of Queen.  It’s the genuinely heroic tale of Freddie Mercury, delivered by the best professionals in the film-making business, costing fortunes but hated by the mainstream critics.  In its first month, not one professional critic awarded more than the seemingly obligatory three stars (out of five).  I saw about 20 three stars.  And now today, in early January 2019, it has, 'surprisingly' according to the B.B.C., won two Golden Globes: one for best film drama, and the other best drama actor (Rami Malek).  The earlier tocsin-ringing by the critics was ignored by the Golden Globe voters, who sided instead with the public.  The public rated it an '83 per cent' on the useful IMDb app, compared to the miserable ‘49 per cent’ Metacritic average of the reviewers.  I suppose those producers in Britain and Hollywood are just that much closer to the public than the reviewers, who have all sorts of personal motivations for what they write.

And show those producers in Britain and Hollywood a hero, and they will write you a tragedy, full of emotion and tug.  Deliveries of emotional art are much sort-after, but elusive.  What really helps is a good subject.  They are equally rare.  Find a good subject and show those producers, Britain and Stateside.  Someone like Alex Higgins with his potting will do.  Show them Bobby Fischer with his moves.  "I only believe in good moves" Bobby will tell them - in 'Pawn Sacrifice' on Netflix.  Show them T.E. Lawrence and his Arabs, or Freddie Mercury with his musical anthems and strutting about.  Genius and illness conjoined.  Then perhaps, perm a light tale, from the array of those terminally unique, and your chances of delivering artistic success improve measurably.  In sales or votes. 

But don't get slaughtered in the process, like they all did.  The critics will accuse you of making frothy and shallow emotional appeals to the public. They will call your work 'populist art' rather than 'popular art', preferring the former.  'Populism' is the elite's own term, loaded with danger, delivered with a distaste for an emotional public, or those pied-piper populists, like Farage and Trump, who serve the public.  One is never sure whether the pied-pipers are to blame, or the public, or both.  Generally, critics of populist culture target the producers, not the audience, more so than critics of populist politics who readily and brazenly dismiss the public’s views.

  

The realism of the film: Freddie Mercury at Live Aid.  Or is it Rami Malek?  
No copyright infringement intended.  Source: here.


With this film, the totemic lines come regularly and in-time - evocative now in the light of Mercury’s death - lines which, frankly, defy rational explanation.  But we still know what they mean when Freddie Mercury the man rears up to deliver them, and knowing enough of his story:  Who wants to live forever?  Everyone wants to put me down.  Ay-oh!... Ay-oh!...  Ay-oh.  The Show must go on!  Keep yourself alive!  I want to break free.  Don’t stop me now!  Does anybody know what we are looking for?  Gordon's Alive!  What are these lines about?  What does it even mean, “Bohemian Rhapsody?” asks Mike Myers, who plays the music boss.  “Nothing really matters to me, just keep the sentences short, and don’t use a long word when a short one will do… and add a new para ___

And add a track called: “I’m in love with my car.”  The film reveals the band management's pressure to publish that song, and it did indeed appear in A Night At the Opera (1975) - ‘the machine of a dream’ - the most expensive album ever made at the time.  The vast money down was a warning sign for the critics then – the cost – just like “10 years to make, multiple directors” regularly comes into the critics sight-line with Bohemian Rhapsody the film.  They say good art is often spontaneous and cheap to produce.  Critics take themselves off to obscure film festivals in places like Reykjavik to produce their kindest reviews.  With populist art however, being lavish helps greatly.

The totemic anthems of Queen – the band’s speciality and essential vigour – are lost on the new film’s mainstream critics.  Are they even mainstream anymore?  They have always seen Queen and its straightforwardness as rather vulgar, like Status Quo, when measured against their own expert yardsticks: just a bit simple and obvious.  And the direct crowd engagement and sing-alongs to ‘We will rock you’ are: proper ugh and yuk.  The material isn’t obscure enough to dig their critic tentacles into, and tell us what it is all about.  We know already.  It's an emotional procession or something, it's enjoyable and meaningful to us in our own way.  We don’t really need the critics parading their talent for revealing hidden meanings, and picking up on odd controversial remarks, when this show is so gloriously simple, but, somehow, requiring a hatchet job.  The more you blithely ram into us the same regurgitated brain-dead clichés (ah, both clichés themselves), – the more we don’t listen, or read, or watch.  The less we care.  In the digital world, increasingly, people want to choose their own stuff, on demand, and make their own minds up.  And look at the star ratings on Amazon or somewhere to determine what our fellow man thinks, because that’s the most reliable guide for now, aggregated and averaged up, rather than a few opinions of experts.  But something new will come along that's an even more reliable guide, mark my words!

Clearly the censors deliberated long and hard about whether Bohemian Rhapsody was a 12 or PG, eventually coming down on the side of a 12 / PG13 certificate.  What a discussion that must have been!  I’m glad I was out of the oak-panelled room, as the great and the good of the British Board of Classification (another B.B.C.), no pipe-smoking to be seen, but deep-sunken in their weathered leather armchairs around the board table - ironically made of an (E.U.) banned material - mahogany - itself of nuanced and much-analysed grain – opined on the nuanced textures to the film.  Or lack of them, probably.  Whatever nuanced textures are?  

Maybe they are only visible to a few when the fog of reviews descends on art and glorious simplicity is lost.  I think the textures may have been about homosexuality and drugs, at the highest level.  And whilst we are now sanctioned to take teenagers to see the film, and are grateful we may do so, the reviewers were desperately upset!  They (and Sacha Baron Cohen who left the part of Mercury thankfully) seemed to want the film to have enough drug-fuelled descent and lurid homosexual action to warrant an 18 classification. 

I sympathise with drummer Roger Taylor’s relief when they were rid of Baron Cohen.  “We didn’t want it to be a joke… we want people to be moved”, said Taylor recently, “as ever… as ever”, he could have continued ad infinitum.  But the reviewers wanted their truth out, how Mercury challenged the prejudices of the day: the film ‘could have been a little franker on Mercury’s gay relationships’, lamented Tim Robey in The Telegraph.  (Reasoned conclusion: he didn’t sufficiently represent his homosexuality and gay rights).  What about how difficult it was to be an immigrant at the time, from an obscure Parsi background via Zanzibar? (Conclusion: ‘he was a victim too’ – B.B.C. Radio 4 Front Row.)  

And here was the ‘missed opportunity’ ‘bedevilling the whole thing’ (Telegraph): what might have been rather than what was.  Jasper Rees, writing in The Spectator (groan, has PC reached this far?) wanted more of the feast of life, but the film was a famine: “Demoralising, the weird tale of a Parsi immigrant, an astrophysicist, a dentist and an electrical engineer is packaged as a succession of pre-digested clichés…”  


I think this reviewer wanted a study of the whole band Queen, not Freddie Mercury!  


Is he mad?  Keep the band away from the film altogether should have been the maxim.  That this largely happened, is a tribute to the humility of the band in their direction of the film.  No one says this, yet we know Mercury wrote all the hits as well as singing them.  The relationship between the “Mercury” in “The Band” is like “Britain” in “The E.U.."  Freddie is sort of in the band, but it’s Freddie that really counts.  He is the interest and the spark.  The appeal is always the person or the country.  Not the band or the E.U..  Both are only required sparingly.

That of course – ‘the what’s missing’ - is the favourite tack of any reviewer; his pretext to talk about his own creative ideas and mock idealism, giving up on the film itself, boring us all senseless.  ‘Den of Geek’ displayed in his review, another tiresome habit of the critic: a penchant for comparison with all the other films he knows about, to reveal his own very precise knowledge, and ability to pigeon-hole within a continuum of all the other rock biopics he has watched and rated.  Den says “in essence, Bohemian Rhapsody is a greatest hits album wrapped in the same package that moviegoers received for Ray, Walk The Line, Beyond the Sea, and Jersey Boys (it’s lesser than the first two but far superior to the later)”.  Where will “Rocketman" (2019) about Elton John, to be released next year, slot in, do we all wonder?   I hope it somehow weaves in Trump's use of the word "Rocketman" as a description of Kim Jong-un, because it was perfect.  But I fear it's going to be a long time.  A long, long, time.  

When Rocketman is launched, expect its gayness to be analysed in minuscule detail.  And discussed, more worryingly, by the critics clutching a glass of wine in the foyer, at the pre-screening in Shepperton Studios.  That was where, I presume, they had agreed to give Bohemian Rhapsody three stars - "But no more!"…  They had exclaimed in unison a couple of times, "BUT NO MORE!", and were now rolling around with laughter, wine splashing about, their spectacles gone quiffy so spastically did they roll around.  But, taking control of themselves again, they took in a deep, long intake of breath whilst arching their backs to upright, specs nudged back into place over their long noses.  
Some hands were thrust into mainly skinny hips, jolting them sideways as a result.  They looked down solemnly.  Some placed a hand their chin.  They were chastening themselves from all their jeering, and feeling their rancour.  A guilty feeling probably, for being such a venal lot.  But once the ice was broken with the three stars business, the critics seized their opportunity once more, to fire their best lines into the huddle, on how the film fell short, and laughter erupted again.    

The Metro man bemoaned Brian May and Roger Taylor’s insistence on the film remaining ‘family friendly’.  There was too much about the heterosexual relationship with Mary (to whom he left most of his estate, b.t.w. Metro).  However, a friend with me at the cinema enjoyed that bit the most – “every good film should have some love story” she declared.  Mmmn.  I agree with that sentiment.

And do people really want gay advocacy and raw cock shoved down their throats... as I have just done to you?  Doesn’t it make you squirm and feel uncomfortable?  I only say those words to illustrate the point – I don’t like writing that sentence.  And shamefully I will not easily put politics before my popularity with you.  But I challenge any reviewer to say it, too, or if they really mean it, to say this film is “beautifully gay” (and it is).  I want to see it on paper.  From a progressive paper.  The Guardian would be nice, but not essential.  I’ve never seen that even in The Pink Times – I think I’ve seen “beautifully African” somewhere and agreed, but never “beautifully homosexual”, although both are ugly and generalising labels.  They will do however for now, just to feel the reviewer’s tolerance.  For as long as he utters specious stuff such as "gayness could have been explored further", I will remain unconvinced.  Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.  Worse, I will think the male writer is pulling a fast one, bathing in a warm virtuous feeling of being ‘right on’, without paying the fare that is risking his readership to get there – a sham signalling of virtue, not virtue itself.  

This is the true enemy of promise that the 'Nancy-boy Poets' suffered from, as described by George Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Politics and the English Language (1945).  Lots of words about very little, Mandarin style done badly.  Staleness of imagery, lack of precision, dying metaphors, pretentious diction, always in the passive, meaningless words untethered from real objects.  The kind of thing that 'those moneyed young beasts... write almost in their sleep', as they glided gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and then on to the critic columns of the old press, with no intervening time whatsoever. 'Money and Culture!  In a country like England you can be no more cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.'  I think Orwell would have taken heart right now, at least with the lowering of Old Media’s colours.  There are good things about our world today.  Let's say it!

Warming to my task, I plead to the reviewer, just say “raw cock” to show honesty, but “Cock and balls”, a dying metaphor, will not do.  If you want raw cock on celluloid, then just mention those words in ink why not, on your own canvas, as a starter?  Don’t be disingenuous.  Prove to us your true worth, not your double standards.  Don’t criticise a film’s taboos, whilst shying away from them yourself, without even showing a picture, but as graphically as is possible - just spell it out on paper!  Do I have to do your hard work for you, Tulip Tinkerbell?  


The woman from the B.B.C. piped up that it was against the Trust’s constitution or something, and the man from The Independent said it was firmly against the editorial guidelines, even OFCOM.  “I would be sacked” he said.  “Well come and write online then!” I seduced in my head, thinking of turning rebellion into money, “You can make good cash if you write what we don’t get in the established papers, and people like it” I thought, “although you may have to pay 63 per cent of it back as Universal Credit tax."


I suddenly feel a twinge of sympathy for the mainstream reviewer; he’s perfectly well, just caught in the whole wretched declining system of old media.  I say: “being a fit and healthy writer, in old media, not on benefits… you are missing out on so much that is new and interesting."  This conversation did actually take place, with a pro-reviewer friend, in a London Club of all places, on Carlton Terrace between Whitehall and Buckingham Palace.  'Enemy territory' I suppose, but the grand-old-enemy in the form of the Nancy-Poets, who have some sneering charm, and nearly all are genuine public school and Oxbridge.  I like the old Nancy-Poets.  Generally they elevate the aesthetic above the political, and therefore are more interesting.  Not this burgeoning new cultural PC enemy who are more likely to be found in the Groucho Club, when not in Millbank presenting B.B.C. Breakfast or 'Today'.  Worst of all is that ghastly little toad who somehow manages to swap the sports news for sport politics news, every time, at around 07:25, and then rounds of his bulletin with farcical racing tips, disgracefully dismissive ones actually, usually drawn by funny name or topicality, to round off the miserable little report about women's cricket, the thin gruel of what's left of the B.B.C.’s 'crown jewels of sport', and link back as quickly as possible to John Humphries.


Originally, this new cadre of the elite harked from Northern housing estates, so the story goes.  They had one attribute in common: intelligence.   Therefore, arguments about meritocracy could be employed to justify their promotion.  They were made good (or less authentic, depending on your view) via grammar schools, even comprehensives, and then the red-brick universities.  This process was very much like a new car being put through the paint-shop.  Prior to this make-over of the best of the working class into MP material, Labour MPs were ex-public servants or union men, their politics hewn from practical experience.  Likewise, Tory MPs got practical experience of life via pre-political careers in business or in the professions.  Now, if the new cadre haven't already slipped quietly into the B.B.C. in their early 20s, or slotted-in high up the civil service via the administrative grade exam ('administrative' is civil service code for the top reaches), they will be destined to be political researchers for a single-issue lobby or a Lord or an MP; then policy advisers, always with the aim of becoming an MP themselves.  We are talking only about the current non-creative side of the new elite, the most dangerous side.  Of course the creative Nancy-Poets would never have dreamed of going into politics.  Even their direct descendants, the modern day critic, although more politically motivated and very political in his or her writing, wouldn't fancy politics as a profession, at all, either.  That is for the new cadre of the politically motivated, whose spirit intends to govern, rather than understand, who put a grimy revolver to our noses and growl “Be like Me or Die!”  To regulate rather than to create is their only mode of operation - regulare non creare! That could be on their Coat of Arms.    


I felt grateful that I could write in my home territory of Addlestone, not in this stuffy club, or in the dried-out atmosphere of a Millbank tea-room.  
I like to get deep-down and dirty with my subject, by living, working and playing where it exists.  Poverty is what I am writing about and I find it here in Addlestone.  It is my gift that I was forced to report the matters of the poorer towns, from the poorer towns, where writers are few on the ground yet excitement abounds. 

Orwell knew the external treasures lay about, going down and out, but he didn't have the helping hand of alcoholism to take him there.  He was though, always a physically weak man, riddled with tuberculosis by the end, with a bullet injured throat yet still a smoker.  Coughing and spluttering through the dust, he became a professional ethnographer – learning about it, by being part of it - rare and good.  But his descent into poverty from the stellar trajectory promised as a trained little-winner, then precocious Eton scholar - was made out of political choice, not really circumstance - however much he often pretended otherwise.  For all his integrity, he played his literary tricks, but hardly committed any offences.  Where others may have been found guilty of minor fraud, Orwell was of 'good moral standing' - so his integrity gave him ample scope to play games.  Highly entertaining ones they were, for our benefit.  He never spent very long down mines, or as a plongeur in a Parisian hotel in the 1920s, or homeless in London, or getting shot at (and hit in the neck) during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  But reading him you would have thought he had spent most of his life ducking in and out of trenches or small-doored hovels, or bumping his head as he struggled along the two-mile stretches of tunnel to the coal-face, a mile down.  


Coming up for air, as soon as his notes were taken, the pencil was thrust behind the ear, his lips were pursed below his pencil moustache, and he tried to work out where the train station was.  His tufted hair was a crest of dignity combined with that long, earnest, but caring face, in his working uniform of the ethnographer: a tall tramp's suit, slightly moth-eaten hairy twill, patched-up; woollen tie, old Clydella shirt, looking around again, before heading off to another industrial town.



He hoped he would return after only a few weeks more away, although the Spanish trip occupied him for months, as did Paris.  He usually resurfaced in the pleasing surrounds of a Hertfordshire village, or in the care of a champagne socialist like Sir Richard Rees on the coast.  Orwell would have made a promising subject of a heroic biographical film.  But it would have to be a courageous one that didn't include his work after 1946, ruling out Animal Farm and '1984', when he was largely spent, close to death and could hardly crawl from bed to desk at times.  

At this low-ebb, Evelyn Waugh unexpectedly pitched up at Orwell’s bedside.[1]  They had never met, but now were the two English titans of their literary age, standing tall above the post-war rubble, like skyscrapers.  And despite all their similarities, and shared interest in responding to the malaise of their times, Orwell was told by Waugh he had got it all horribly wrong in his contempt for the spiritual.  And I think Orwell knew that the truth he had told was an overly-material one, as the pale-cast of death loomed - as Waugh loomed - along with the ghost of Lord Marchmain by his side, especially for Orwell.  The once arch-atheist patriarch of Brideshead, Lord Marchmain, was now making a feeble sign of the cross, once more.  For Waugh, the truth about the malaise could be found inside a Catholic church, not down a coal-mine.  Anywhere really, bar in external objects.


Back in the Club, I was just a guest in a very big house where the Nancy-Poets formulate their words around their aesthetics – where you stand a good chance of talking about Waugh and Orwell, knowing the steak and kidney pudding will be paid for.  It's an established rule that the member always pays for his guest in his own club.  A splendid rule.


I offer further inducements to my host and friend, this professional reviewer, to come over to my side, and I think he is politely losing patience with my cheekiness, as I teed off again:  “It will cure you instantly of all those bad and lazy habits you have picked up writing for the papers, and not for your readers.”

“And you can write much more, 5,000 words even, if you can carry the reader with you via the compulsion of your words.”  

I’m back in the unsympathetic groove, hostile and slightly angry, the state any writer should be in at least at the outset, before the bravado is kicked out of him by the subs, the industry and the critics - just like what could have happened to poor Freddie.  In the film, one could feel his torture in his press conferences, from the endless questions about drugs and his sexuality.  


I suppose it’s the writers ideal of authenticity that can feel threatened, as he comes blinking into the world of being sampled, recorded, reviewed and minced.  I noticed that Rami Malek used that word, 'authenticity', an avowed attribute of the populist, at the Golden Globes award ceremony.  The actor talked about how Queen resisted losing it, when they would have been feeling the pressure to actually alter their output, to conform to a numbing code of acceptability.  Pretty much the same code the actor was now hearing in all the other acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes ceremony.  They were nauseating.  I suppose the pommelling effects of the critics is
 why the first material of any popular artist will often stand as his best, after which his steam has been spent and no longer propels the whole venture forward.  How much energy does political correctness kill in the creative?  In Mercury's case, admirably little.  That was the core of his heroism.  Never giving in to the critics or the bosses.  Staying unique to the end.  

What the pro-reviewers seem to forget, or not pick up, is just how brazen Freddie was about “getting fucked all the time” (his words in the film and also in real life).  I gathered from the film alone that he liked Burt Reynolds types, but from Northern Ireland.  Thick-set, square jaw, short hair to the side, classic butch good looks and moustachio’d.  And he probably liked them recibiendo.  How much more detail about this, or indeed the drugs do we need to know about before laws of diminishing returns kick in, and we are all sufficiently aware?  We resist the siren calls from the critics for More! More!  We are helpfully reminded by Lucy Boynton, who played Mary (and is rumoured to have had a relationship with Remi Malek since), that “Freddie Mercury proved your sexuality doesn’t have to define you”; but for the reviewers, the film, somehow, remains a ‘homophobic biopic’ (Forbes), before the feeble qualification: ‘whether it’s homophobic or slut-shaming, it’s icky’.  For Little White Lies’ Hannah Woodhead: ‘the attention paid to his sexuality feels cheap, with one scene contrasting the recording of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ with Mercury visiting a gay club’.  Apropos, I thought, through the gathering gloom of memorising these unmemorable reviews. 

For The Guardian’s Steve Rose, ‘the film might have explored the relationship between Mercury’s hedonism, his mostly closeted sexuality and his on/off-stage personas in a more nuanced way’ (that word again), no doubt like all those Steve has watched with his reviewer pals, at some art-house cinema near The Barbican.  Or through that side door, round the back of Waitrose in Barnsbury.

And of course Mercury wanted and got more drugs than we see or ever have seen.  We all want more palliative drugs.  That is the modern condition.  It’s just that we’ve had enough of the anti-heroic drug-demise film genre, and for some of us even the drugs themselves.  Wisely.  We have turned the corner, off misery porn street.  I feel spared in this film from the squalid details which I know too much about.  But I enjoyed the line from Freddie: ‘Being human is a condition that requires anaesthetics’.  That, really, is all you need to know about the problem of drugs. 

I turned to the review in The Sun, thinking that if anyone would step out of line and award more than the seemingly obligatory three-stars, it would be the populist paper of Britain.  But no, three-stars had been awarded again.  Remarkably, and I don’t know whether the reviewer still has his job, The Sun’s beef was the commercialism of the whole project:  ‘to make you walk out of the cinema and immediately start streaming or downloading the band’s incredible music… if however, you were expecting something more than a rose-tinted version of what could have been… beware.'

***
Out of the Club and back in Addlestone’s cinema, I feel that warm inner glow of contentment again, thrusting backwards into the over-sized chair, and resting my legs on a poof provided.  (A furniture poof that is, Steve).  I know it’s not going to last long in this exciting brand new cinema that is packed out.  We will be caught up, oblivious to life irritants: tobacco-craving - the filling bladder - the coughing-person behind - “you’ve already had your six cans of Red Bull today”; in the company of a truly great but tragic rock hero.  Facing it with a grin, never giving in!  Carry on Maestro, please!  Until your fast-approaching death, that is.  There really isn’t time to hypothesise about drugs and homosexuality, on with the show.  

What descends on me in the cinema, watching this film, is a rare moment of internal peace during which the washing-machine head asks no questions, especially political ones.  I’m going to enjoy the ghastly tub-thumping bits.  And all the bizarre and wonderful moments that are rarely mentioned in the reviews: his glorious debut for Queen, singing the wrong lyrics to a different old Queen song - and the astonished band's reaction as they played the backing, it was either Seven Seas of Rhye, Who Wants to Live Forever, or Keep Yourself Alive! - it could have been any two from three in either order - a reverse combination forecast if you had to bet - but it was clever and risky unless down brilliantly - which it was of course.  There was the understandable kinship with gay DJ Kenny Everett; the stage action combining imperious vocals with perfectly synced strutting, with the long, delayed swinging arms (he must have seen bullfighters do that so gracefully with the cape and the sword).  I've practised the move many times in my part-time job.  The slow and steady, parabolic movement of hand and tray, withdrawing from the dining table, tray perched on four fingers and thumb, all splayed to the very maximum.  Without a wobble to full-arm extension, raised-high up above my customers’ eye-lines, the tray is no longer of interest to them.  It passes from utility to redundancy for a while, bar becoming the adorning prop, just like the microphone of Freddie Mercury.  I started to fantasise about me, performing with my tray, as Mercury himself.  

Those shots from behind, showing Mercury alone bar the prop of the microphone, which has now become sexualised in a bewildering number of ways, in front of another ginormous crowd, sometimes giving a knowing smile of stadium unity, a sincere thank you, signed off at Mercury’s zenith, at Live Aid, with the most elaborate and beautiful bow you have ever seen.  Good night Freddie: it doesn’t get better from now on - and I feel tears coming.  Before that, ‘Miami’ Beach always looking like a teddy bear was oddly memorable, but Tom Hollander always plays a teddy bear!  Mike Myers as the gnarled music boss, his pores still oozing toxicants taken back in 1967, yes definitely.  The sound mixing and huge effort of recording Bohemian Rhapsody – the most expensive record ever produced at the time – everything Queen did was the most expensive.  And I thought about the title, 'Bohemian Rhapsody': dictionary accurate for both the song and the film. 

Do you know how the song was first received by the critics back in 1975?  It was a similar reception to the one they gave the film over 40 years later: “It will be interesting to see whether it’ll be played in its entirety on the radio” observed Pete Erskine of The NME.  “It’s performed extremely well, but more in terms of a production than anything else… Someone somewhere has decided that the boys’ next release must sound ‘epic’.  And it does. They sound extremely self-important.”   Here is another early catastrophic judgement of anything Queen, with Ray Fox-Cumming of Record Mirror the most unmoved of all:  “It has no immediate selling point whatsoever: among its parts there’s scarcely a shred of tune and certainly not one line to latch onto.”  It would become the UK’s third best-selling single of all time, a nine-week UK No.1, including Christmas 1975. 

Critic lines jump into place like iron filings obeying the magnet, they always conform to existing rules.  And too, the lines are like balls in a tombola with no prizes; sooner or later they will yawn out of the ball machine, and then again and again, in turn, each time with no prize, endlessly, meaninglessly.  

Throughout Bohemian Rhapsody, we see a muscular, still swaggering Freddie Mercury from the rear, a good Rami Malek rear (although you must know it’s an American rear!)  Or is it an Egyptian one with a bit of Greek?  Is it erotic?  Yes.  But the gay rights critics want politics here, not aesthetics.  He’s about to climb the Live Aid stage in 1985, bouncing like a bull-fighter again.  The bouncing is all about the bum, and Rami Malek bounces brilliantly.  For a moment I consider that homosexual aesthetic and its beauty.  I remember it was the bum of the bullfighter, clad tightly by his suit of lights, that offered considerable pleasure to my gay friends at the bull-ring in Beziers or Seville, and to me a bit, if I am honest.  I realise that the whole Bohemian Rhapsody is shot through with homosexuality or gay erotic to enjoy and write about, and my mind unfortunately flicks back onto the reviews again.  Like Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, groaning out loud, ‘it treats Freddie’s personal life – his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay-clubs – with kid gloves reticence’.  I suppose this is one step short of the prim incomprehension of Kate Mossman on Radio 4, who, with a baffled shrilling, says: ‘it’s a [pause, up an octive] very odd [down an octave] film.’  She’s talking about the least odd film of the year!  Or the final descent into the bizarre with the New York Post’s review: ‘it looks like it was shot in a sauna’.

I scribbled a note when I watched the film, "Bohemian Rhapsody will receive no Oscars", but now my feelings are less certain, with these Golden Globes awards.  But the reviewers are unrepentant.  Scott Mendelson came back with a rejoinder after the first reviews and the hoards had flooded the cinemas.  Look! you are the problem here, not me!  “Although it's rather out my province to affect viewership figures” - plenty of disingenuous humility there – and unconvincing modesty here: “Bohemian Rhapsody is just the latest big movie with bad reviews to score big specifically because even the pans didn’t necessarily scare off those who wanted certain (populist) elements from a given movie” – god, what a terrible sentence to re-type.  And they said exactly the same thing after Brexit.  And Scott Mendelson boasts he has “studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for 28 years.”  What an indictment of both cinema viewers and his long weary life.  And he still doesn’t know what causes a box office smash.  A good film makes you feel better not think harder.
   
Bohemian Rhapsody is a biographical account which is best not carved up.  If the myth turns into reality, sometimes you still need to print the myth, to echo director John Ford.  What the reviewers aren’t doing - and what Mercury did so well, and this film does too - is connect with the public and give them what they want - in order to feel better.  That, by itself, is good enough for a populist artist, his only trusted measure of success is moved feelings.  So it was for Mercury who said his best songs were the ones that sold best.  If you want ‘meaning songs’ look elsewhere, or if you really want to analyse what Bohemian Rhapsody could mean – try the internet here.  But the genius of Bohemian Rhapsody – dictionary defined ‘an emotional or ecstatic construction by a socially unconventional person’ - is actually that ‘it can mean whatever you want it to mean'.  That, incidentally, is the band’s retort to Mike Myers, the despairing music boss who wanted more convention, ironically, given how he looked himself.  

This is the wrong film to batter with sociological commentary from the old divides, questioning the motivations of those involved, and how it all could be so much better.  Mainstream media has lost its way here on the biggest film of the year, not you the viewing public.  Their dead hand of political correctness sees the challenges to Mercury’s success as the interest or the problem, being homosexual, drug-use, his immigrant status, his public school, the capitalist industry and his relationships with the band.  If those were really the challenges, the real interest is how he overcame those challenges, rather than the challenges themselves.  Mercury is the living thing, and should be written in the active.  He is like the hammer that hits the anvil.  He isn’t the anvil being hit by the hammer.  That said, I think getting HIV was the main challenge – a genuine challenge to Mercury.  One could credibly say that AIDS destroyed him.  AIDS got Freddie, he didn’t just get AIDS.  He was acted upon, he didn’t act in this instance.  Although Mercury the hero kept battling on, finally with the album Innuendo (1991) which is largely an elergy to himself, coming down with a fever and going slightly mad.  "Rule with your heart" and "live with your conscience" - not bad at all - "these are the days of our lives".

Overcoming challenges is tantamount to being heroic and this film is a visceral study of heroism.  It’s with some understatement and maximum strength he sings at Live Aid - 'We Are The Champions' and that it’s been no bed of roses”.  Central to film, truthful or not (we don’t know), is the suggestion that he appeared at Live Aid knowing he had AIDS when none of the audience did. What a secret.  What a challenge that is.  The critics' suggestion that Mercury didn’t know for certain he had AIDS as early as 1985, is designed to defuse the populism of the movie, despite evidence he may well have known then he was doomed.  The purpose as ever is party-spoiling by the reviewers.  
When I recognised what mean tricks the reviewers were up to, (see here and here for a full cross-section), that once again the established media had, en masse, got Queen wrong and misjudged their popularity; then I knew I was impelled to spit out my own review, to help correct the balance in a very small way.  But the main reason for what I have written is to say it again: trust the wisecrowd, not the experts!  The many are smarter than the few!  In our digital age! 
  
***

Editing notes.  Originally written 7/11/2018. Revised 05/12/18 (9,500 words), Proofed, Amends made, Revised again after the film’s Golden Globes win 08/01/19 and 14/01/19.  The purpose of the essay is to affirm the wisdom of crowds – the many are smarter than the few.  This latest version: Thursday 17th January 2019.  6,547 words.





[1] Lebedoff, David (2008).  The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War.  Random House (New York).  Chapter 8: ‘The Meeting’. 
  





 Freddie Mercury, performing at Live Aid, 1985






Remi Malek Performing as Freddie Mercury, 2018