Cinema regularly explores the flipside of the rock and roll dream, acquainting viewers with the troubled reality that often lurks backstage. Edited excerpts from the article.
Still from the film Amy (2015) by Asif Kapadia
Cinema is endlessly interested in the seamy side of rock fame. The backstage view that brutally balances out the high artifice on stage. And who better than the ultimate doomed hero of rock, Jim Morrison, to drive home the grisly point? Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) cast Val Kilmer as the troubled and terrific lead vocalist of the iconic 1960s band. Kilmer matched Morrison’s dreamy looks and musical swag ably. Here, too, was a woman (Pamela Coursan, played by Meg Ryan) enmeshed in the rock idyll moving to its inevitably ugly end. Kilmer was reportedly so invested in the challenging role that he needed therapy to get out of the dark space he found himself in after filming.
Still from the film I'm Not There (2007) by Todd Haynes.
In Amy, Asif Kapadia’s 2015 masterful documentary on troubled singer Amy Winehouse, the dark side of rock is the unforgiving focus. The film uses extensive video footage from Amy’s shows and journeys, studios and home, events and holidays. It achieves the heartbreaking feat of restoring the singer’s voice posthumously. The narrative arc of the film moves predictably from her prodigious talent to public recognition to fateful end. But it is the candid footage – belting out a happy birthday tune here or soaking in the afternoon sun there – that imbues the piece with pathos. The singer’s father, who had originally supported the work, was unhappy with the final film. He complained that he had been portrayed as the villain of the piece. Surviving members of The Doors, too, had problems with the way their band mate, and their story, was presented by Oliver Stone. The price filmmakers pay when they exhume a rock casualty.
A new film that explores the Freddie Mercury story had no such problems. Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018’s rock fantasy, promised a truly unfettered exploration of the cult band’s operatic lead. The story, after all, had all the elements. An unlikely star from an alien background. The band’s iconoclastic vision. Mercury’s flamboyant persona. His battle with AIDS. And a legendary rock legacy. The film-maker chose to especially focus on the song that gives the film its title, and the twenty minutes that are said to have changed music forever – the band’s electric performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley.
Still from the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) by Bryan Singer.
As rock fantasy, the film succeeds, interspersing dramatic sequences from Mercury’s life and career with karaoke-style sing-along segments. Rami Malek, playing the larger than life Mercury, does a remarkable job, especially in the Live Aid section, where he recreates the character with astonishing accuracy. But the portions of the film that deal with Mercury’s very human struggles, especially with his sexuality and eventual illness, are flat and underwhelming. The emphasis is on the talent, not on the provenance or price of the talent. The Queen for Beginner’s approach might have won the film a popular appeal. But for Mercury fans, it’s disappointing that the film contents itself with popular conceptions of the personality rather than a deeper excavation of the person.
Rehana Munir is an independent writer based in Mumbai.
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