Biographical Double-Whammy: Bohemian Rhapsody & The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

I’ll make this quick.

I saw Bohemiam Rhapsody this month and was pleasantly surprised to find that, contrary to those early scathing reviews, it was just bland and unremarkable, making it one of the best films I’ve seen all year by default. Critical reaction towards the Freddie Mercury biopic has been polarizing since its wide release, with some lauding it as a pitch-perfect representation of Mercury’s life and others decrying it as disrespectful to the point of homophobia. As with The Last Jedi, I find myself balanced in the middle of the critical teeter-totter, not hating it, not loving it, but also not remembering most of it despite having seen it last week. Then again, I can’t really recall what I had for breakfast on any given day, due to the inordinate number of head injuries I’ve had in my life.

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I’ll be clear, Bohemian Rhapsody is not a bad movie – in fact, it’s intermittently amusing – but like most biopics it feels like a dispassionate highlights reel of its subject’s most famous and infamous exploits that’s largely bereft of emotional anchorage, not to mention historical accuracy. Many reviewers have already voiced their displeasure over the script’s dramatic liberties and glaring omissions – the former of which I’m admittedly reluctant to condemn. Few real-life stories translate to film with enough dramatic heft to engage audiences naturally (save Goodfellas), so liberties and embellishments (within a reasonable limit) are often necessary for the story to function on the big screen. By all means, Hollywood, exercise your artistic license with Freddie Mercury’s biography, just remember to sharpen that focus, slow the living hell down with the pacing, and have an actual point beyond restaging all the hits in his discography.

See, in the little-film-that-could Citizen Kane, after the death of Orson Welles’ titular character, head newspaper editor Mr. Rawlston states to his staff “It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was.

Here is where Bohemian Rhapsody failed. For all its gusto where its musical numbers are concerned, it offers little insight into the man behind the flamboyant stage persona, which as any Queen aficionado will know was just that – a persona that masked a highly introverted, sensitive soul who shied away from the spotlight. What was it deep down that drove meek and mild-mannered Farrokh Bulsara to don the patterned leggings of internationally-renowned rock star Freddie Mercury? The movie doesn’t seem all that interested in finding out. Case in point, early on we see our hero auditioning in front of Brian May and Roger Taylor (a fabrication), and then almost immediately we see the fully assembled Queen recording “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You remember the hit song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” don’t you?? Of course you do, because even if you haven’t seen Wayne’s World you still live on a little planet called Earth. “Killer Queen,” “We Will Rock You,” and “Another One Bites the Dust” also factor into the plot with little narrative fluidity. Bohemian Rhapsody is always in such a rush to depict things we already know that it squanders all opportunities to enlighten us with something we didn’t. Mercury’s enduring love for Mary Austin is largely glossed over, which is more than can be said for his relationship with Jim Hutton.

Most unforgivable of all the movie’s sins, however, was its explicable refusal to depict Queen’s recording of the Flash theme. Then again, they may be holding off on that until the inevitable Sam J. Jones biopic…

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For your viewing pleasure

For all its historical revisionism and pacing issues, Bohemian Rhapsody’s ultimate undoing is that it utilized a stock formula known as –

THE STANDARD HOLLYWOOD BIOPIC TEMPLATE

Essentially a fill-in-the-blank model for screenwriting, the Standard Hollywood Biopic Template has been implemented in the production of a multitude of forgettable pictures – none of which I can remember offhand because they’re so bloody forgettable. You see, the first priority of this template is invariably “cast somebody who can do a spot-on impression of the subject.” Granted, this is where even the most passable biopics soar, and Bohemian Rhapsody is no exception. Rami Malek embodied Freddie Mercury better than I ever imagined and certainly made it further than Sacha Baron Cohen ever could have in pursuit of those monumental high notes. So Bohemian Rhapsody gets an automatic half-point for Malek’s talent. Congratulations, Malek – you’ve been complimented by a man who shaves his face with a Fisher-Price razor.

Beyond that, the only other line item on the template’s agenda seems to be “pinpoint all the famous (and infamous) episodes in the subject’s life and then recreate them using movie science.” The working assumption is that if the audience sees enough familiar moments and set-pieces reenacted before their very eyes it will negate the need to chart an actual plot.

We see evidence of this lazy paradigm in such biopics as Chaplin, Man on the Moon, and the recent Disaster Artist. In each case the performances by Robert Downey Jr., Jim Carrey, and James Franco were the most impressive components of the movie, while the plots felt strung together like dollar store Christmas lights. Chaplin attempted to tackle the entirety of its subject’s life from toddlerhood to death and was paced too frenetically to leave much emotional impact. Narratively it was miles wide and inches deep. In addition, Man on the Moon functioned as little more than a recollection of Andy Kaufman’s most scandalous escapades, but those unacquainted with his comedic sensibilities, the Fridays incident, or his disastrous Letterman appearance may be left scratching their heads as to why he really did anything he did. Finally, The Disaster Artist felt like a shallow celebration of both Tommy Wiseau and The Room that failed to grasp the magic ingredient that makes a bad movie worth watching (for the record, it’s the sick thrill of watching a genuinely ambitious storyteller fail).

These biopics banked on both their star’s versatility and the audience’s familiarity with the subject’s history in order to make money – and the worst part is, with Bohemian Rhapsody it’s actually working. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how shallow the story is – as long as these movies surpass their box office projections, the Hollywood moguls will continue to milk the template for all it’s worth.

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***Not a rip-off of South Park. I’ve never even heard of South Park***

I’ll be clear, Bohemian Rhapsody is not terrible or even offensive. Truthfully, it commits a far greater trespass than being bad, and that is being dull. Sure, it’s being celebrated by the general populace now, but after a few years I can’t imagine that anybody will remember it with much clarity. On that note, here’s an actually great biopic that nobody remembers –

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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS

Along with the immortal Ed Wood and the respectable Capote, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is one of my favourite biopics and something of a forgotten gem from the early millennium. Starring the venerable Geoffrey Rush in the title role, TLADOPS fulfills its genre obligations by hitting many important milestones of Sellers’ life – his role in the Pink Panther films, several of his turbulent marriages, his relationships with auteur Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci), director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), and clairvoyant Maurice Woodruff (Stephen Fry), and his aspiration to create something aesthetically significant in Being There. The point of the film is clear from the onset and concerns Sellers’ search for himself, which he conducts in the realms of money, fame, women, sex, cars, and his own cinematic roles, the latter of which gradually eclipses any real trace of who he might be. TLADOPS does more than just revisit Sellers in his Inspector Clouseau duds, it reveals his mounting dissatisfaction with them and his desire to be something more to the world than a comedic goofball. Sellers as a character is more than just present in the restaged hallmark moments of his life, he’s traversing through them in a narrative journey of self-discovery – a journey he ultimately fails.

It’s sort of ironic that I’m decrying Bohemian Rhapsody for not offering us any insight into Freddie Mercury when TLADOPS also doesn’t provide any definitive conclusion on who Peter Sellers was either. The difference, however, is that Sellers’ search for personal identity was the entire point of the film and followed a clearly defined narrative progression. Though he succumbs to fits of temper and acts erratically, we still sympathize with him because his search for meaning is something fundamentally human that we all know and have probably experienced ourselves at some point in our lives. This makes the story of Peter Sellers all the more tragic to witness, as his inner torment and monstrous behavior intensifies with every scene until the only thing he becomes known for is the heartache and misery he brought to those who genuinely tried to show him love. Because substance is prioritized over spectacle, the film’s callbacks to Dr. Strangelove and 1967’s Casino Royale feel natural and come as welcome treats as opposed to check marks on a tally sheet. Then again, that’s assuming that people today even remember that there was a bizarre non-Eon Casino Royale movie made in 1967. How bizarre was it, you ask? Well, it had almost as many credited directors as it had actual James Bonds, so you do the math.

TLADOPS also sets itself apart from standard biopic fare through some unique creative touches, such as its use of interluding vignettes where Geoffrey Rush slips into the shoes of another character and directly addresses the audience in soliloquy. On top of being a clever way of disguising exposition, this also provides some viewers with an opportunity to see Rush in drag without having to surreptitiously Google it in the middle of the night – if that’s the sort of thing you’re into, anyway. No judgments.

Suffice to say, TLADOPS has personality that makes it stand out even after fourteen years. Some less enthused contemporary critics accused it of having perhaps too much personality, but in my opinion having too much personality is better than none at all. Hell, I myself have an extra personality taking up residence in my head – the unfortunate irony is that he has no personality.

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CONCLUSION

Bohemian Rhapsody and TLADOPS have quite a bit in common – they both center on larger-than-life performers with extremely troubled private lives who died relatively young. Where TLADOPS triumphs, however, is in its endeavor to tell us who Sellers actually was, even if the final answer is “nobody knows.”

I can’t help but feel that Bohemian Rhapsody would have fared better in the hands of a true auteur with an artistic modus operandi. David Fincher, for instance, could have elevated Bohemian Rhapsody above the Template’s shortcomings and infused some much-needed depth into the movie’s non-musical scenes. Think of the melancholy overtures of The Social Network counterbalancing the energy of the stage sequences and how poignantly such an approach could have framed Mercury’s life. Sadly, Bohemian Rhapsody lacked identity and can now rank amongst the multitude of other ineffective biopics that also favoured the highlights reel approach over real storytelling.

For my parting comment, there is a line that Jules Vern penned in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” that has resonated with me for years, partially because it serves as an ironic description of the novel itself, in that it is “factually correct but lacking in emotional impact.”

Though Rami Malek is on point in the lead role, Bohemian Rhapsody is both factually incorrect and lacking in emotional impact.

Bohemian Rhapsody5.5/10

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers8.5/10

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