In Defense of the Mediocre Music Biopic

Great Balls of Fire. Photo: Orion Pictures

I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody on opening day, against the advice of my critic friends, whose admonitions of “Mediocre!” had by then all blurred together like a choir of falsetto “Galileos.” It’s nothing but serviceable fluff, they said. Hardly an unsalvageable mess but far from transcendent, a perfunctory exercise that’s elevated only by one particularly good concert sequence and Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury — which, by the way, deserves far better than another rehash of the old rock biopic rubric of rise, fall, and redemption. If Malek actually gets his shot at an Oscar, it will be because he persevered over the movie’s enervating, cumbersome okay-ness, just as surely as he worked around those massive dentures. For all of Queen’s stadium-shaking greatness, my pals warned me, the movie was more like a cover band wowing the corporate Christmas party.
I went anyway. Not because I’m a huge Queen fan. I definitely like Queen, yet I’d be the first to admit that my knowledge is mostly limited to the massive radio hits (so, approximately 150 songs). I’m aware of Freddie Mercury’s enormous, idiosyncratic talent as songwriter and showman, as well as the enduring symbolic importance he has for, like Malek’s Mercury declares in the film, the other misfits in “the back of the room” to whom he gave so much courage — but if I’m speaking honestly, for me those guys were Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain. I didn’t have much personal investment in it at all, really, which I’m sure allowed me to shrug off those early criticisms and go into Bohemian Rhapsody without worrying that I’d get incensed by its many omissions and inaccuracies, its fudging of timelines, or the way it puts a sanitized, PG-13 gloss on Mercury’s private life. I went not in spite of these things but because of them, because “mediocre music biopic” happens to be one of my favorite micro-genres of film, right up there with “blatant Goodfellas ripoff” and “movies about writer’s block.”

I love the particular clash of huge ambitions and inherently crippling flaws, the way they can be both fawningly reverent and so incredibly insulting to their subjects. Mostly, I love watching a movie that teases you with the idea that you only think you know the story, then proceeds to unspool a narrative so predictable that Walk Hard forever ruined it more than a decade ago. I don’t know why. I can’t get enough.

It’s possible that I’ve just been conditioned this way. After all, “mediocre” seems to be the default when it comes to movies about musicians. There have certainly been exceptions: Ray and Walk the Line, for example (although you could say that they benefited greatly from popularizing the formulas everyone else has since tried to emulate — or escape). Sid and Nancy and 24 Hour Party People (although I’d argue that both of those were more about scenes and their overarching philosophies, and some truly fucked-up people). Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine (although these are less “biopics” than fever dreams). I like and/or love all of those films. But I will also always stop and watch Notorious, the decidedly solid-C retelling of Biggie Smalls’s life, whenever I happen across it on cable. Ditto any of the dozen D-grade “Movies That Rock” that VH1 churned out in the late ’90s and early aughts. (I have particular affection for Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story, in which Romany Malco reveals the unexpected pathos of the “Pumps and a Bump” video.) Growing up, my burning crush on Winona Ryder meant I’d endlessly rewatch Great Balls of Fire, where Dennis Quaid plays Jerry Lee Lewis as a sort of manic, cousin-fucking Daffy Duck. My teen bedroom boasted a poster for Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a ludicrous film that I still love and will wholeheartedly defend for the way it accurately captures the overbearing self-mythologizing and boorish pretension of Doors fans like me. As with Bohemian Rhapsody, all of these movies may leave you with less understanding of their subjects than you’d get skimming Wikipedia. But to me their charms are as undeniable as they are ineffable, even as I am now attempting to eff them.

Part of this is probably very easily explained: They’re not very good movies that are nevertheless trying very hard to be — desperately trying to be worthy of their subjects but coming up short, which makes them inherently entertaining. I don’t need to get into the various hierarchies of superiority at play here, but there’s a specifically smug joy in watching a movie star try to be a rock star who just ends up embarrassing them both. I’m not particularly proud of it, but this pleases my insecure little lizard brain. Similarly, there’s an inherent camp factor to watching a famous person play another famous person, re-creating events that history tells us happened, yet are just too freighted with significance to ever seem totally real. There’s just no way to stage a “John meets Yoko” scene that doesn’t feel as phony as a wax museum, for example. (Although that certainly hasn’t stopped them from trying.)

In these moments, the mediocre music biopic tends to lean into the skid, often building entire scenes around little more than a famous rock star shaking hands with another historical figure while they each say their full names aloud. And finally, there is the purest pleasure of that word we critics like to throw around as so much faintly damning praise: “watchable.” And is there anything more “watchable” than a biopic of someone we already know? There’s just something so pleasantly soothing about seeing those beats play out, like bingeing an old favorite TV show. Oooh, this is the episode where Biggie meets Tupac! I love the way their arc unfolds! (And as a side note to Ryan Murphy: I would eagerly watch an anthology series where each episode was focused on a musician, their story cut down to just the most salient and sensational bits.)

But I think the primary reason I’m drawn to the mediocre music biopic is that I know, from personal experience, that most actual bands are incredibly boring. I’ve spent much of the past 25 years around musicians — interviewing them, hanging out with them, even performing, recording, and touring in some bands myself. And I can tell you with confidence that, say, 95 percent of them would make for abysmal movie subjects. Being a musician is a monotonous process that’s mostly about waiting: waiting to get to the gig, waiting for sound check, waiting until it’s time to play, waiting to start making actual money at this. Even the documentaries of the most legendary bands to have ever lived, your Stones and your Beatles, are largely dominated by scenes where someone lays down a tambourine while someone else watches, their facial expression suggesting that they vaguely prefer this to a desk job. Sure, there are the onstage highs and the occasional bursts of offstage glamour. There are drug binges and fights with your bandmates and even sudden, tragic deaths, all of which can create moments of real narrative tension. But mostly it’s just overdubs and cigarette breaks, and arguing over where to eat lunch.

The mediocre music biopic, however, cuts everything down to a manageable, melodramatic size. It preserves the illusion. It gives you a greatest-hits package filled with rapturous lip-syncing, interspersed with ludicrously speedy trajectories and Shakespeare in Love--style winks to the future that even the most casual fans can appreciate. (If your only knowledge of Queen comes through Wayne’s World, then Bohemian Rhapsody has you covered.) And to its credit, Bohemian Rhapsody does engage with the reality of the creative process more than some, staging scenes where the group methodically layers in operatic falsettos take by take, for example, or another where John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) first plucks out the strutting bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust” while the group sets aside its bickering, briefly united by its undeniable pull. Maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but it still captures the way Queen’s disparate members didn’t really belong together, yet always miraculously coalesced in song — and makes the point far more elegantly than any of the scenes where somebody just straight-up says that.

Still, by the end of it all, we know far more about Deacon’s bass part than we do Deacon himself — or any of the other members of Queen, for that matter, other than how pissed they are at Mercury. Or really, anything that doesn’t directly service either the movie’s jukebox-musical sequences or the boilerplate narrative of Mercury’s struggles with sexuality and his terrible loneliness. “It’s the in-between moments,” Malek’s Mercury sighs at one point. “I find them intolerable.” The film agrees, speeding through those valleys like it’s fast-forwarding a cassette of Queen’s Greatest Hits. In its own disdain for anything that isn’t one of those big moments, the film itself similarly shrinks to a hollow, middling size.

Again, if you were personally invested in the story of Queen or Freddie Mercury, you might take umbrage with the way it collapses and conflates, or even totally misrepresents things — not to mention how it just totally ignores a good five-year chunk of his life at the end there. But really, every biopic struggles with how to make tidy narrative sense out of the messy complexities of a life, and every artist biopic, specifically, is forced to render the mostly internal, often-tedious creative process into something that isn’t deadly dull on screen. Winnowing it down even further, I would suggest that the musician biopic has it the hardest. After all, there is no subject so untouchably larger than life, yet so incredibly personal to so many, than the musician. You naturally go into these movies with your guard up, protective of what they and their music mean, so certain that the film will fail to do it justice — sure that no matter how great an actor’s performance, they will never truly become them. Who ever could? Malek’s phenomenal, but he’s no Freddie Mercury. That’s not even him singing!

And in these preconceived notions, the mediocre music biopic proves you right, and in its own way, it’s a relief. It gives you some cheap highs and maybe some cheaper laughs, but mostly it reminds you of just how special the subject was — and will now remain. It leaves a space in between, some room for the truth to remain elusive and the myth to endure. And if you’re anything like me, you kind of love it for that.

In Defense of the Mediocre Music Biopic