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? 

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. 

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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

 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know. 

Review: The Breeders, Powerstation, December 11, Auckland

IMG_4440I’ve been on an unabashed ‘80s music nostalgia kick lately, seeing Bauhaus and Billy Bragg in recent weeks, so it was time to move on to the 1990s and the glorious return of that kick-ass combo of rock’n’roll twin sisters, The Breeders, featuring Kim and Kelley Deal. 

The Breeders, featuring the line-up that put out their hit album Last Splash in 1993, rolled into Auckland’s sold-out Powerstation last night on the final show of their world tour. It was a loose, giddy affair, with the Deal twins clearly having a lot of fun on stage at the end of a big year. 

Kim Deal made her name as part of the legendary Pixies, and was an integral part of their sound, but for my money, her best work has always been the more personal, evocative pop-rock she created when she set out on her own in The Breeders with her twin sister Kelley. The Breeders have been equal parts surreal, goofy and spooky in their career, always anchored by Kim Deal’s crystalline croon of a voice. 

The band barrelled through most of Last Splash and a lot of this year’s All Nerve, easily the Breeders’s best of their sporadic albums since Splash came out 25 (!!) years ago (and far better than the newer Pixies reunion albums minus Kim Deal have been).

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Photos by myself

The sibling banter of the Deal twins was often a highlight, but the powerhouse drumming of Jim MacPherson and bassist Josephine Wiggs anchored the songs with tremendous force.

The band romped through excellent new tunes like “Wait In The Car” and the sultry “Walking With A Killer.” Kelley Deal took centre stage for a show-stopping solo vocal turn in “Drivin’ On 9” while the sole Pixies tune of the night, Kim Deal’s “Gigantic,” had the audience pogo-dancing in glee. And of course, they played inescapable groove of “Cannonball,” one of the coolest songs of the 1990s, which sums up the Breeders sound nicely – rambling, groovy and always taking unexpected turns, combining classic pop riffs with grunge-era clatter and feedback.

(Edit: And here’s another excellent review by the Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn-Scott)

Review: Billy Bragg, Hollywood Cinema, November 21, Auckland

IMG_4220These days, it feels like there’s nothing more revolutionary than being sincere, than just being a man, alone, on stage with a guitar and a message. 

Folk singer from Essex Billy Bragg is back in New Zealand for a three-night run of shows at the grand old Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, and his first gig in the series was like a tonic in troubled times.

Being a protesting folk singer in 2018 may seem like a throwback. The old names like Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs are all gone and those that are left are getting up there in years. And it’s so, so hard for a protest singer to find that thin line between hectoring and speechifying, to not get stuck in rant mode eternally. But Bragg has ample humour and an immensely quick wit to carry him through the night. We need more voices like his.

His rallying cry at each show is a rejection of cynicism and a call for activism. Bragg is one thing a lot of musicians aren’t – utterly sincere on stage, clear-eyed without being naive. It’s inspiring and more than a little comforting to see someone unafraid to take a stand and who can sing a song like Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” and make you believe every word of it. 

This first night of his run at the Hollywood, Bragg was in fine, upbeat form, playing for over two hours and loosely changing his set on a whim, at one point playing an amazing Leadbelly cover to demonstrate the skiffle sound (which, of course, he’s written a book about). He spoke nearly as much as he sang, on everything from Brexit to Stan Lee, but always engagingly.

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With immense control, he spun from a grim recounting and song about America’s history of lynchings to breezily playing a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” from his busking days. What I’ve always liked about Bragg is his ability to switch gears between the hard-edged protest songs and open-hearted songs about love, or as he called it, “songs about rain and wanking.” Songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” or “Greetings to the New Brunette” are little gems of lyrical power and longing. 

And when several hundred people are lustily singing along and stamping their feet to “There Is Power In A Union,” for a moment, the world feels like it isn’t completely screwed in the long run. 

He capped things off with a biting and clever rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” for the Trump era, blasting at the grim tide with lyrics like “The land of the free and the home of the brave / Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave”. 

I don’t know about you, but these days I can get behind a protest song or three. 

Long live the revolution. 

Review: Peter Murphy/Bauhaus, October 20, Auckland

Sometimes, you just want to get dark. 

Peter Murphy and Bauhaus were progenitors of a lot of what’s called goth – black-clad attire, grimly themed lyrics and a thrumming dark atmosphere. Murphy passed through Auckland’s Powerstation Saturday night with his old Bauhaus bandmate David J to play a nearly sold-out crowd. 

They played the band’s epic first album, 1980’s “In The Flat Field,” in its entirety, and then a sprawling second set of Bauhaus numbers including what’s their best known number by far, the none-more-goth tune “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Fittingly, the show was on what would’ve been Bela’s 136th birthday. 

I’ve loved Murphy’s gloomy rock for years – his breakthrough solo album after Bauhaus broke up, 1989’s “Deep,” was in heavy, heavy rotation when I was a gloomy would-be-goth teenager. (Spoiler: I was never a very successful goth.) 

But I’ll tell you what – I feel a hell of a lot more goth at 40-something than I did at 19. You know more about life’s twists and turns by 46 and how dark it can get. So why not sometimes embrace the melancholy, lean into the comforting charms of the void? Why not listen to Bauhaus sing that “the passion of lovers is for de-a-a-a-ath”? And have fun doing it? 

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So to be in a crowd full of people dressed in black, some in outlandish makeup, and singing along with a chorus of “Undead / undead / undead!” – that felt like my tribe. Seen today, “In The Flat Field” looks like a fierce, uncompromising classic, and not-quite-Bauhaus performed the hell out of it, hitting high notes like “A God In An Alcove,” the creepy “The Spy In The Cab”, the frenzied “St. Vitus Dance.” 

It was a terrific show that Murphy is still in fine voice 38 years after Bauhaus’ debut album – his rich baritone contains caverns. Sure, he looks less like one of Anne Rice’s vampires than he once did, but he’s got a magnificent, strutting, slightly camp stage presence. 

For the encore, he pulled on a red scarf, looking more than a little bit like Bela Lugosi did as Dracula, and sang about poor dead Bela. It was dark, and it was wonderful, and as the show ended nobody wanted to go back into the light. 

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Pictures by me