In defence of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

1308227299001_5810993950001_5810990937001-vsReal talk: I liked Bohemian Rhapsody quite a lot. 

Is is the Best Picture of 2018? Hardly – I’d pick BlackKklansman or possibly The Favourite over it any day.

But in this era where there’s often no shades of grey in debate, Rhapsody sure has come under an awful lot of fire by the critical class – who are probably spitting bullets that it won four Academy Awards (more than any other movie this year) and has grossed US$214 million, becoming the biggest biopic of all time. 

“Rhapsody” isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a rousing entertainment that superbly speaks to the American Dream, circa 2019 – which is, simply, getting famous. Every other person wants to be a star, whether it’s on Instagram or YouTube, and Freddie Mercury’s story hits a chord with them. Farrokh Bulsara, a native of Zanzibar, reinvented himself as a star. 

I remember Freddie Mercury’s death, in 1991, which seems a million years ago now. I’d never have thought we’d still be talking about him quite so much in 2019, but when he died, there was an outpouring of Queen tributes and the songs were inescapable (thank you, Wayne’s World). Mercury’s AIDS-related death at just 45 is a key reason for the ongoing posthumous fame – there’s few more inescapable storylines that run through the annals of rock history than dying young. 

queenQueen are a band critics loved to hate. “Lyrically, Queen’s songs manage to be pretentious and irrelevant,” The New York Times wrote in 1978. Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh actually called them “the first truly fascist rock band,” which, wow, is not a piece of criticism that’s aged well. 

I wouldn’t call Queen my favourite band by any means, but I appreciate a lot of their work, their raucous anthems and their sprawling eclecticism. Queen didn’t take themselves that seriously – an awful lot of their songs sound like band in-jokes – but they hit on one of the key qualities for rock’n’roll success, the marriage of the sublime and the absurd. There’s few songs more ridiculous than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but dammit if Mercury’s aching solo verses don’t get me every time. 

Bohemian Rhapsody, penned by Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten, has come under fire for historically fudging the facts. No, Mercury didn’t tell the band he had AIDS before Live Aid. No, the band didn’t break up before that concert. But I’d argue that the biopic as a genre has never been about 100% historical accuracy – look at Amadeus, another Oscar-winning musical which portrayed Mozart and Salieri as mortal enemies, which they weren’t in real life. The biopic tells a story, using history, but it isn’t history. 

McCarten’s screenplay does what it can with Mercury’s complicated sexuality – Mary Austin was indeed the ‘love of his life,’ but Mercury was also gay. He also was extremely private and didn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis until the day before he died, so the movie’s sometimes cagey take on his private life echoes Mercury’s own.

I wouldn’t argue that Bohemian Rhapsody is fundamentally flawed because it stretches facts, like most other biopics have. There’s a divide in watching it between the head and the heart. My head saw some pretty darned clunky lines and a lot of Rock Movie 101 cliches, but my gut was swayed by Queen’s absurdly catchy songs, Rami Malek’s outstanding performance and that go-for-broke Live Aid show climax which is every fame-chaser’s dream of acceptance. 

PRY8WA-920x584It’s a very simple story of a band that came from nothing and made it big, which has its DNA all over every single reality TV show millions watch every single week. Rhapsody works for many because it speaks to the weirdos and the oddballs, to that dream of getting famous. Everybody wants to be something. It’s no wonder it’s a global hit. 

Look at me, who they once called the gay “Paki” boy with funny teeth, with thousands screaming my name.

Look at me. Aren’t I beautiful? Don’t you want to be me? 

Flying away: New Zealand’s extinct birds

300px-Giant_Haasts_eagle_attacking_New_Zealand_moaIt’s not an insult to say that New Zealand is literally for the birds. 

Birds were the dominant species in New Zealand right up until the first Pacific Islander settlers arrived here a mere 800-900 years ago – a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. We were the real-life Jurassic Park – an island ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, busily doing its own thing filled with creatures strange and bold. 

While it’s been knocked about quite a lot by us disruptive humans in the centuries since, if you squint hard sometimes you can still imagine what NZ, this land of birds, once was like. 

I sit out on my deck on a calm evening and can hear the gorgeous hooting black-and-white tui, the massive kerurū pigeon with its distinctive whoosh-whoosh wingbeats, chittering flocks of colourful rosella parakeets originally from Australia, and more. 

New Zealand was a beautiful paradise floating off all by itself in the southern oceans for millions of years, but it didn’t take much for the bird-based ecosystem to be nearly destroyed after humans came along. 

I wish I could have seen some of New Zealand’s extinct giants in the wild – the massive moa, taller than a man, running across the Otago plains, or the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle in history with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (3 metres). These were the apex of New Zealand’s pre-mammal ecosystem, and would’ve been something to witness indeed. They were huge, probably terrifying birds, but they didn’t last long after the first people, ancestors of today’s Māori, arrived here. 

Huia_BullerOther species lasted longer. Another long-gone beauty is the huia, a gorgeous little thing that went extinct around 1907. The huia had one of the more striking differences between male and female birds in the world – the male had a standard-issue shortish beak, but the female had a dazzling, bizarre bill that was twice as long as the male’s, arcing downward like a rainbow. The huia were extremely sacred in the Māori culture, with feathers worn at the most sacred occasions. 

Then there’s the sad and wistful story of the Stephens Island wren, which by the time humans took notice of it was only found on one tiny island in the Cook Strait between North and South Island. The story is that the species was entirely wiped out by the local lighthouse keeper’s cat, which isn’t entirely the whole truth, but a good example of how easy it was to knock native NZ species off the map entirely. A few feral cats and an entire species is gone forever.

220px-XenicusInsularisKeulemansLittle battlers like the wren – which was apparently flightless – didn’t stand much of a chance when settlers came knocking with their cats and rats and the like. 

New Zealand still has many of the world’s unique birds – the kiwi, so strange and curious it’s like a living fossil, is our national icon and so famous it’s what most people around the world call us all. It’s nearly become extinct several times in the last few decades, saved only through the hard and innovative work of some very dedicated people.

But sometimes I wish I could still see the ones that aren’t here anymore and the wonders they must have been. 

Marvel’s What If … why not?

kodf8yfigrevel4wiivsOne of my favourite comics from the ‘80s into the early ‘90s was Marvel’s What If? Each month, a different alternate reality would be explored – What If The Hulk were blue? What if the Fantastic Four were five? What if Wolverine was really even-tempered? 

What If? was my gateway drug into how wackily vast and imaginative the comics cosmos could be. The first issues I remember getting were ones like “What If Wolverine Killed The Hulk?” and “What If Conan Walked The Earth Today?” (which is solid GOLD). 

cleanThe biggest geek-appeal of What Ifs were that in retelling classic stories with a twist, characters could die – hell, everybody could die. “What if The Hulk Went Berserk?” was an issue that scarred the heck out of teenage me because I walked in expecting a typical Hulk story and then characters like Iron Man and The Thing started dropping like flies… oh, and it ended with Thor snapping the Hulk’s NECK which is pretty darned grimdark, ain’t it? 

The original What If? series lasted 47 issues up until 1984, most of which are pretty darned fun. The second series started in 1989 and ground on until the late 1990s but it got to be pretty darned bad by the end, going full-1990s with utterly horrible art and stories that were less grimdark and more straight-out nihilism. 

Since then, alternate realities have become pretty damned boring, mostly because they’re way overused in comics. We saw it with the X-Men “Age of Apocalypse” crossover in the mid-1990s and Jim Lee’s “Heroes Reborn” event, and now you can’t go five minutes without some other dark/doomed/daring reimagining of an existing character. I’ll take a battered 1980s issue of What If? any time where the tragic story of Spider-Man’s marriage is done and over in one issue rather than yet another all-encompassing comics event any day. 

What_If_Vol_2_41A cursory look at comics from the last few months turns up “Infinity Wars” (Marvel characters like Captain America/Dr. Strange mashed up, again!), “The Batman Who Laughs” (what if Batman was REALLY dark?), “Spider-Gwen,” “Spider-Noir” and a hundred more variations of Spider-Man. Not saying these are all terrible stories (although a lot are), but the main thing is that the novelty is gone. Whoa, you just showed me an alternative world where Superman is DEAD? I’ve seen that six times this week already, son. 

Amusingly, at least half of the stories in the old 1980s What If? series have actually “happened” in comics in the years since then, to varying returns. Marvel brushes off the What If? brand every few years with a few one-shots but they’re never as memorable as the old issues in my mind. When everything’s an alternate reality in a multiverse of characters, asking What If? isn’t as fun a question as it once was. 

‘The Young Ones’ will never grow old

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It’s only right that I ended up living somewhere in the former British empire, as one of the key warp engines on my young American mind was British comedy. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits,” the Beatles and rare Dandy comics, Adrian Mole and Peter Sellers – all these things I mainlined under sunny California skies. 

But for me, my first love will always be “The Young Ones.” I spent the weekend re-watching the entire series for the first time in ages, and its wacky, ugly and surreal comedy still holds up. The punk-rock anarchy of “The Young Ones” combines the rude genius of the Pythons with classic sitcom tropes and a Looney Tunes-style madness that still makes it shocking today.

YO-leadRik, Vyvyan, Neil and even comparatively dull Mike were my Beatles of comedy. Like the best British shows, it knew when to quit – 12 episodes and that’s it, and with the late, great Rik Mayall leaving us way too soon in 2014, there’ll never be another. 

“The Young Ones” for teens in the US was like a secret treasure, airing on MTV in the dark of the night around 1985. Screaming punks, snotty anarchists, soiled hippies – What the hell was this? The sheer surrealism of the show blew the mind of us California high-school kids. Objects might start talking, the scene might abruptly shift to the middle ages or a Rat Pack TV show. Anarchy!, as Rik would shout. One of my all-time favourite moments is “Elephant Head” in the episode “Summer Holiday” – the 11-second cameo makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and to my 14-year-old mind watching MTV in the ‘80s, that’s what made it totally brilliant. 

“The Young Ones” could be stunningly gross (nobody who’s seen the “Sick” episode and its cure for Neil’s sneezing fits can ever forget it) and scathingly harsh about British politics. The recurring gags about racist British cops are funny, but admittedly a punchline like “Sorry, I thought you was a n*****” doesn’t hold up so well today. The violence may be a bit much for some, but I can’t help but crack up every time Vyvyan whacks Rik in the head with a blunt object. And there’s more catchphrases than one can safely repeat in one lifetime in the show’s 12 episodes (my go-to is “Cor, that looked just like a negative reality inversion, didn’t it?”)

YOUNG-ONES-9Several times, episodes build up with plots involving things like axe murderers or vampires or marauding medieval peasants only to abruptly draw curtain on the episode. Nothing really matters, the ‘madcap adventures’ can be waved off and the show will restart as normal the next episode. There’s something very existential about these damned housemates, trapped in their greasy grey pigsty and never changing, being squashed by a giant eclair in one episode and back for more in the next.

The funny bits of “The Young Ones” when I was 14 are still funny, but the bits that sting even more today for me are the ones that wail and cackle endlessly into an uncertain void and make me wonder if Vyvyan smashing everything around him to bits had the right idea. That’s life, innit?

RIP Julie Adams, the Creature’s one true love

DyiRW9YV4AArB-y.jpg-largeJulie Adams wasn’t a household name, but she was legendary in her own way as one of the last surviving “scream queens” of the classic Universal Monster movies of the 1930s-1950s. Adams died at 92 this weekend, and horror geeks like me are mourning her today. 

She had a lengthy and impressive career, but it was as the damsel in distress in 1954’s “Creature From The Black Lagoon” that Adams swam through our dreams. 

She was probably one of the very first celebrities I ever got a crush on, when I saw “Creature” on TV sometime in the early ‘80s. On the page, Adams’ part is nothing too special – the standard “scientist’s girlfriend” seen in a hundred other movies of the era, who has a monster fall in love with her. Yet there’s something so iconic about Adams in the film, with her white swimsuit and wide-eyed charm. 

The scene where she swims idyllically in the lagoon while underneath, the misshapen Creature stalks and pines over her, is the blueprint for a thousand other sequences like it (you wouldn’t have the famous opening of Spielberg’s “Jaws” without this scene).

“Creature” itself will always be in my top 10 movies – elegant, simple and yet pulsing with unexplained mysteries and thanks to Adams’ unforgettable performance, a primal sensuality. Sixty-five years on, it still simmers and entertains.

I can take or leave the Oscars a lot of years, but when Guillermo Del Toro’s superb, dreamy “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture and Best Director last year, I cheered. More than anything Del Toro’s masterpiece is a loving homage to the mystery and magic of classic horror movies, “Creature” in particular, and I couldn’t help but feel it was almost as if the Gill-Man himself was getting a belated honour from the Academy. Del Toro himself wrote yesterday, “I mourn Julie Adams passing.  It hurts in a place deep in me, where monsters swim.”

Creature

The only remaining star of note from “Creature” left is none other than the Gill-Man himself, Ricou Browning, 88, who played the monster in the swimming scenes. When he’s gone, the final curtain will draw at last on the Universal Classic Monster series. But they’ll continue to haunt the dreams of movie-loving fans forever. 

The Pop-Up Globe: Keeping Shakespeare real

img_0696One of my highlights of the last three summers has been working at the remarkable Pop-Up Globe theatre in Auckland, a working replica of the famous second Globe Theatre of 1614 that Shakespeare and company used. 

Its design closely replicates the actual experience of the punters of 400 years ago, lords and ladies, groundlings and commoners. The Pop-Up Globe, created by Dr Miles Gregory, has been so successful it’s gone on to be replicated in Australia and is now in its fourth season here in New Zealand. 

I started volunteering there a couple years ago, and it’s been an amazing experience. You help the crowds, deal with any issues, and get to bask in the glow of some amazing actors performing the greatest plays in history. The Pop-Up Globe has done some smashing productions (A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the fairy dialogue done entirely in Māori and an all-female Henry V are among my favourites) and sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. 

img_1910I’ve loved Shakespeare since a superb high school teacher (thanks, Mr. Lehman) showed us how the Bard wasn’t all dusty words and impenetrable verse, but a living, breathing body of work that contains some of the greatest stories ever told. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not merely read aloud in a halting adolescent voice in a dry classroom. 

The biggest appeal of Shakespeare to me is that he seems bottomless – you can spend a lifetime studying the plays and still come up with new angles, new turns of phrase and new spins on characters you’d never imagined. 

One of the great things about seeing a play multiple times is how it changes, in small and big ways, from show to show. The weather, the audience, the actors’ moods, a quirk of fate. Watching Richard III five or six times in a row and it’s never quite the same show. You get a heroic appreciation for the actors and crew who sweat and bleed for their art nightly.  It’s why theatre will always be there because it’s so cracklingly alive compared to staring at a screen.

img_4348A joy for me is seeing how into the plays the audience still are in 2019. This isn’t boring Shakespeare – trust me, when the stage blood starts gushing into the audience during the bloody close of Richard III, you wouldn’t call this stuffy. There’s a witty, relaxed vibe that’s perfect for a New Zealand summer. We get all kinds of crowds – young, old, repeat customers and those who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in their life.

A big highlight has been working at a dozen or so school shows. You haven’t seen Shakespeare’s gender-studies comedy The Taming of the Shrew until you’ve seen it with a capacity crowd of 700 screaming high school girls. 

I’ve just been a tiny, tiny part of the Pop-Up Globe, working somewhere near 50 shows in the past three seasons. But it’s been an immense highlight of my summers and it’s a star performer of New Zealand’s theatre scene. Long live Shakespeare. 

That’s So ’90s Week: The day Kurt died

January 2019: …Let’s wrap up That’s So ’90s Week here on the blog with a multiple-flashback-approach. Here’s a newspaper column I wrote in April 1999, on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, trying to make sense of that moment in time. Revisiting my words now in 2019, nearly 25 years on (!) after Kurt’s death, it’s a weird echoing effect indeed. A reminder that something sad never quite leaves your brain, that few moments are ever completely one thing. It’s one of my favorite of the couple hundred columns I wrote, back when there were newspaper columns. 

kurtcobain06

April 1999: Five years ago now.

Few people noticed it and few comments were made in the news about it, but Friday was the fifth anniversary of the day Kurt Cobain died. The lead singer of the grunge rock band Nirvana took his own life with a shotgun in an apartment in Seattle five years ago.

In his suicide note, Cobain quoted Neil Young’s lyric about how it’s better to burn out quickly than fade away.

The thing no one told Kurt is that everyone fades, in fact and in memory.

A lot of you out there could probably give two tosses for Kurt Cobain’s sorry fate. Just another screwed-up junkie musician.

But I cared about him then and I care about him now, in the strange way you can care for someone you’ve never met who touched your life with their work – the way I care about, say, John Updike or George Lucas or Michael Stipe. It’s an abstract emotion but that makes it no less real.

A song can capture a moment forever. I hear “Pretty In Pink” by O.M.D. and I’m 15 again, instantly. The Velvet Underground always conjures up drunken all-night college parties, me leaning with my head up against the speaker.

And Nirvana. Nirvana was the music I listened to when I drove, loud clashing and screaming about the world. The music spoke of the underbelly of life, the flesh-rendering pain love can cause, the numbness a life can slip into, potential wasted. It was the music for me, then, the person I was then.

Strangely, the day Kurt Cobain died was one of the finest days I had ever known.

That morning, I had found out that I was the recipient of a summer internship with Billboard magazine in New York City.

I’d won out over dozens of other journalism students from around the country, and I’d spend the summer working for one of the biggest music magazines in the world, in the heart of the Big Apple. It was all too good to be true, and the world itself seemed to blossom and spread around me, acres of possibility and potential flowering.

I decided to drive home, from college in Mississippi up to Memphis to tell my parents the good news. I turned on the radio, and they were playing Nirvana, “Come As You Are,” and I began humming along. The song ended, and I heard the DJ say something about “the late Kurt Cobain.” My heart skipped the tiniest bit, the way it always does when you first hear bad news.

I gleaned the rest of the details over the next few minutes. Found in Seattle. Suicide. A shotgun. Heroin problems.

Kurt Cobain was dead.

It was a black spot, a small black spot on an otherwise pristine day.

I drove around Memphis that sunny April afternoon for a good while, playing the tape of Nirvana’s In Utero album I’d kept in the car and thinking what I considered mighty deep philosophical thoughts about life, the universe and everything, about how maybe only a razor’s edge of choice and circumstance separates the cocky college kid from the rock star with a shotgun in his mouth.

The sun splintered jewels of light into the car as I drove, pinballing between highs and lows.

I felt insanely happy one second – I was bound for New York City, where all things begin, where I could be anything! – and terribly apprehensive the next – New York alone, I was only 22, what would happen to me there?

The black spot on the day sat there, too, imprinting on the back of my brain a vague terror of demons unseen, unknowable.

Photo of Kurt COBAIN and NIRVANA

“What else should I be? All apologies… What else could I say… everyone is gay… What else could I write… I don’t have the right… What else should I be? All apologies…”

—Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994

Yeah, he was a junkie. He was a self-proclaimed screwed-up loser who felt he didn’t deserve half of the adulation and acclaim given him during his short, sad life.

Kurt Cobain was not the nicest guy, and his music reflected that – the burnt-throat garglings of someone who would wake up some mornings with absolutely no idea of why he was here or what the point of it all was.

His screams and fractured musical chords tried to make some sense of that chaos. I would not wish his life on me or anyone, but what he said to me with his music made a difference to me, then, and when I listen to it now it still resonates.

I wrote a column, back then in spring 1994, about Kurt Cobain’s death.

I wrote: “I know there were others out there who gladly drank in Nirvana’s music, their corrosive rage and pain, and who saw Cobain as another scared, angry kid like themselves. Cobain’s music didn’t appeal to everyone: it was probably just scary noise to a lot of you reading this. But to me, there was something that could seem so very eloquent about a scream. Nirvana’s music could be beautiful in its ugliness.”

Kurt Cobain’s music came from pain. But in some way, the raw abrasiveness of it all was a healing salve to me. Ugly and beautiful, now strange and gone with no more to come from that dark and gifted place in Kurt Cobain’s heart.

It was a beautiful day there, driving around Memphis five years ago. That little black spot that was Kurt Cobain’s end… perhaps it made the air and sunlight seem sweeter still.

Another fine singer who is a favourite of mine put it best, perhaps, in a song of his own:

“There’s a bit of magic in everything, And some loss to even things out.”

–Lou Reed, “Magic & Loss”

Photo of Kurt COBAIN and NIRVANA