Since the movies began to sing they have loved the songs and stories of famous performers. Over the years, the “musical biopic” has become as common a cinema staple as the romantic comedy and the horror movie. Hollywood loves the chance to sing and dance.
The Oscar-nominated “Bohemian Rhapsody” reminds us why we both love and loathe the musical biopic as a movie standard. The film’s efforts to examine the life and career of Freddie Mercury and his legendary rock band Queen can seem as realistic as the false teeth that adorn Best Actor nominee Rami Malek. It’s no surprise that describing an R-rated life in a PG-13 movie may require a compromise here and there. But when the movie begins to sing, the power of Mercury’s presence and Queen’s impact are impossible to ignore, making the movie easier to enjoy than it may deserve to be.
Like most musical biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody spends its first act tracing the rise of a promising new talent, from the routine of his job throwing bags at Heathrow Airport to finding himself in the right place at the right time when an up-and-coming band needs a songwriter and lead singer. Within a few minutes on screen, Mercury stands in front of the band, in front of a crowd, and hoping to get in front of his life. But a sense of obligation to his traditional parents, as well as confusion about his identity, start Mercury’s struggle with himself just as his music begins to take off. As in many musical biopics, the lead character’s attempts to balance personal priorities and professional ambitions become difficult for this talented man to handle.
The best musical biopics feature strong performances that reach beyond the superficial stories and slick moviemaking. Bohemian Rhapsody benefits from Malek’s energetic presence on stage and his vulnerability in the quieter moments that fill some gaps in the narrative. The actor effectively captures the magic of Mercury on stage, even while lip- synching the vocals, and tries to bring depth to Mercury’s efforts to confront his demons. Almost magically, Malek recreates the physical energy that Mercury brought to his performances, especially in the film’s thrilling finale.
But the film, like too many musical biopics, works better when it sings than when it talks. Malek’s efforts to create a multi-layered characterization are undermined by the shallow treatment of the deep issues that defined Mercury’s life. Rather than detail the singer’s struggles, to help us better understand the man behind the music, the synthetic script seems more intent on creating transitions between songs. Still, thanks to Malek, we experience that sense of wonder Mercury could create on stage. If only the script had enabled us to get to know the man offstage as well.
Many were surprised when Bohemian Rhapsody landed in this year’s Best Picture race. But never underestimate the popularity of the musical biopic at the Oscars. Since movies began to sing, in fact, 13 of these films have been nominated for Best Picture. Because the Academy loves movies that tell the stories behind the songs.
Film Nutritional Value: Bohemian Rhapsody
3-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
Content: Medium. The story of Freddie Mercury’s rise to fame yields better transitions into songs than insight into the man, his demons and his soul.
Entertainment: High. No matter how the film may disappoint in its dialogue, it does come to life when Rami Malek impersonates Mercury on stage, especially in the film’s finale.
Message: Medium. As meaningful as the film could be, the decisions to dilute the content of Mercury’s life results in a disappointing exploration of his highs and lows.
Relevance: Medium. The focus on the music in the film can be a welcome diversion.
Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While the movie is a bit of a letdown, as many musical biopics can be, you’ll find lots to chat about with your older children.
Bohemian Rhapsody runs 2 hours, 14 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.”
Remembering musical biopics
The Oscar-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody is the most popular musical biopic of all time, based on box office returns.
But it’s not the first to have a date with Oscar. Since the Academy began honoring movies, the musical biopic has been one of the most popular types of films to be honored.
Take a look.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936): This epic musical from MGM was named Best Picture for its glorious black-and-white recreations of famed performances from the Ziegfeld Follies on stage. There was a story, too, of famed producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and the women he loved. Louise Rainer won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars for playing Ziegfeld’s wife, Anna Held.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): James Cagney – best known at the time for playing gangsters in melodramas – recreates the life of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan in this Best Picture nominee. Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for singing and dancing over such formidable talents as Walter Pidgeon, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman and Monty Woolley.
The Jolson Story (1946): Larry Parks was nominated for Best Actor for his recreation of famed entertainer Al Jolson. The film was so popular, in fact, that it got a sequel, Jolson Sings Again, in 1949.
With a Song in My Heart (1952): Susan Hayward brought the turbulent life of singer Jane Froman to this musical for which the actress was a Best Actress nominee. With Thelma Ritter on hand (a nominee for Best Supporting Actress) the film traces Forman’s fight to return to the stage after suffering serious injuries in a plane crash during World War II.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955): Susan Hayward was back in a musical bio pic, and back in the Oscar race for Best Actress, when she played singer Lillian Roth in this drama-filled tale. This time around, Hayward’s fight to come back to the stage involved Roth’s addiction to alcohol.
Love Me or Leave Me (1955): James Cagney found himself again in a musical bio pic and again in the Oscar race for Best Actor. The actor is cast as Marty Snyder the one-time husband and violence-prone protector of jazz singer Ruth Etting played with a flourish by Doris Day.
Funny Girl (1968): The life and loves of Fanny Brice burst onto the screen in this Best Picture nominee based on the hit Broadway musical. Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for recreating her stage performance. The popular film prompted a sequel, Funny Lady, in 1975.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980): It took a British director, Michael Apted, to capture the essence of rural America in the Best Picture nominee about the life of Loretta Lynn. Much to the surprise of audiences, Sissy Spacek did her own singing in the role, bringing an added dimension of realism to her sensitive portrayal of this country music legend. And Spacek won an Oscar.
Ray (2004): Perhaps the best of the recent bio pics is this captivating account of the life of singer Ray Charles that snagged a Best Picture nomination. Star Jamie Fox who captures the integrity and drive of this music legend. No surprise Fox was named Best Actor the same year he snagged a Supporting Actor nomination for Collateral.
Walk the Line (2005): Joaquin Phoenix is pitch perfect as legendary singer Johnny Cash in this musical bio pic that does not hesitate to cast an unflattering light on the star’s darker sides. At t Oscar time, Phoenix had to settle for a nomination while costar Reese Witherspoon walked away with an Oscar for the less demanding role of Cash’s wife June Carter.
Yes, Oscar loves musical bio pics. Stay tuned to see how Bohemian Rhapsody fares on Academy Awards night February 24.