“Will the Real Rhapsodist Please Stand Up?”
I was 18 years old when Queen performed at Wembley Stadium as part of the Live Aid rock concert on July 13, 1985. The fundraiser to benefit starving Ethiopians amid a civil war and famine was one of the most sophisticated live events in the history of broadcasting, using satellites to link the London venue to John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia.
Between the two venues, there were 170,000 live attendees, with an estimated worldwide audience of well over one billion people. The sixteen-hour concert included live television coverage by the BBC and MTV, with ABC airing a three-hour prime-time segment hosted by Dick Clark.
Queen’s twenty minute set at Wembley is often cited as the greatest live performance in popular music history. While co-organizer Bob Geldof demanded that all of the recordings be destroyed to preserve the integrity of the live event, the BBC refused. Years later, edited footage of the concert was released to home video as a DVD box set, including all twenty minutes of Queen’s performance.
I obsessively watch Freddie Mercury’s performance at Live Aid; it is virtuosic. He is adept at mugging for the television cameras surrounding him, projecting his subcutaneous assault on traditional sexuality out to the global audience. He simultaneously engages each of the 70,000 people in the arena in front of him.
Figure #1: Freddie Mercury in front of 70,000 fans at the Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium
During the chorus to “Radio Gaga,” Mercury pumps his fists to encourage the audience to join him in the rite he is enacting. A reverse angle reveals everyone in front of him clapping and chanting in unison. In our dark times of division, it is startling to witness such a moment of global harmony.
Figure #2: The crowd claps in unison to the chorus of “Radio Gaga”
Mercury has tremendous stage presence, playing the piano intimately as if he’s in your living room, then galloping around the stage, hopping down onto the apron to draw in the crowd. At times, he stops to form a melodramatic tableau, turning himself into a living statue.
Figure #3: Freddie Mercury playing the piano at Live Aid
My favorite is when he kneels down on the stage, reclines his body backwards, in some grotesque parody of Rodin’s “The Thinker”; let’s label it, “The Actor.” Mercury uses a broken microphone stand, his signature stage prop, to play air guitar and also simulate masturbation.
Figure #4: Freddie Mercury as a prop in a stage tableau
But none of this would matter without his voice, one of the great musical instruments of the twentieth century. With well over a three octave range, Mercury sings in perfect pitch from bass to soprano.
In a call and response section of the concert, Mercury channels Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” to engage the audience. Freddie scats, and the audience delightfully mimics back. At a precisely timed moment, Mercury belts out a seemingly impossibly high note and holds it for what also seems an impossibly long time.
Figure #5: Freddie Mercury during the call and response portion of the set
Critics would go on to call this, “The Note Heard Round the World.” In short, seeing Queen at Live Aid, both live and for many years afterwards on home video, haunts me to this day. We witness theatrical perfection striking the television screen like lightning from the heavens.
And thus, I went to the new Queen bio-pic, Bohemian Rhapsody on opening night, rabidly awaiting the film for months since I first saw the coming attractions trailer. I cried throughout the entire third act of the movie, a meticulous re-creation of the Live Aid performance.
The shots of Mercury from the front of the piano reveal an exact mix of half-empty plastic cups of beer and far more waxed paper Pepsi cups as can be found in the video images which captured Live Aid. And yet, immediate emotions aside, Bohemian Rhapsody is a standard rock music film.
Figure #6: The cups littering the top of the piano at Live Aid
Bohemian Rhapsody consists of a string of clichés common to all musical bio-pics. It is no better, nor worse, than Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), The Doors (Oliver Stone, 1991), Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980), or, for that matter, Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984).
Watching Mercury perform at Live Aid most makes me think about Mozart. We are witnessing the sublime, captured for as long as civilization may last. And yet, there’s no way Bohemian Rhapsody can capture the ephemeral.
This new film is not a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece. Indeed, its director, comic book hack Bryan Singer was fired late into production for being a typical Hollywood miscreant. Dexter Fletcher, director of the pleasant diversion, Eddie the Eagle (2015), had to finish the film in Singer’s absence. Rami Malek, sporting an insulting dental prosthetic, is otherwise engaging as Freddie Mercury, but is not Sir Laurence Olivier.
I want to suggest we look for Mozart elsewhere in Bohemian Rhapsody. In clearly the film’s best, and perhaps only great idea, comedian Mike Myers shows up as an idiotic record executive, Ray Foster. At EMI, shepherding the Queen album, A Night at the Opera (1975), Foster refuses to release the group’s magnum opus, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as a single, arguing vehemently that no one will play Queen on the radio.
The executives cannot foresee teenagers bobbing their heads up and down in the car to the beat of a six-minute experimental rock song. Mercury throws a fit, astonished at the record executives’ lack of vision, declaring that one day Foster will be sorry. In a hilarious shock cut late in the film, Myers’ Foster sits dumb-founded at Queen’s success and his own stupidity.
The joke works so well because one of Mike Myers’ best comedic bits is in his film, Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992): Wayne and Garth (Dana Carvey) drive around the Chicago suburbs with their friends, jamming to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The use of the song in that popular Hollywood film introduced Queen to a new generation of fans, particularly in the United States. Queen’s last performance in the United States with Freddie Mercury was in 1982, three years before Live Aid.
Figure #7: Jamming to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World
Let me go out on a limb and suggest that Mike Myers is a comedic virtuoso, akin to Mercury and Mozart. I know that’s a bit hyperbolic, but Myers has been of considerable interest to me for quite some time. Within Bohemian Rhapsody, his understated, nuanced cameo is the only evidence of great artistic talent beyond the spectral Freddie Mercury being poorly summoned by the mediocre film.
After a successful improv career, Myers rose to stardom as a member of the cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. The success of the popular “Wayne’s World” skit as a feature film spinoff spawned a mediocre sequel, but also allowed Myers to develop So I Married an Axe Murderer (Thomas Schlamme, 1993), clearly the funniest film of the 1990s, and perhaps one of the decade’s best films of any genre.
Myers plays both Charlie Mackenzie, a Beat poet and his father, Stuart, an outrageously funny Scot prone to insulting Charlie’s younger brother’s inordinately large head: “It’s like Sputnik… it has its own weather system.” Stuart observes that the wee lad will go to bed crying… “on his gigantic pillow.”
So I Married an Axe Murderer went the way of many great Hollywood romantic comedies, into the dustbin of film history. Myers would find mainstream fame in a trilogy of films about Austin Powers, a ribald James Bond, and as the voice of Shrek the ogre in a series of extraordinarily popular animated feature films.
Once his comedy was pigeonholed into these two blockbuster franchises, Myers floundered otherwise, falling flat as Dr. Seuss’ beloved The Cat in the Hat (2003). The Love Guru (2008) met a fate even worse than So I Married an Axe Murderer: it was both a flop, and horrifyingly unfunny. A once beloved comedian was being regularly nominated for Razzie awards as the worst of the worst in Hollywood.
Myers then cannily extracted what was most successful about both the Austin Powers films and So I Married an Axe Murderer, his extraordinary ability to play multiple roles, mauling his face and body into very different personae. Myers’ role as Ray Foster in Bohemian Rhapsody is only the latest of a series of cameos in which the comedian is virtually unrecognizable by design. For example, Myers played General Fenech in Quentin Tarantino’s eclectic war film, Inglourious Basterds (2009).
But the Myers performance I am most interested in is as purportedly real-life game show host, Tommy Maitland on ABC’s 2017 reboot of The Gong Show. During the show’s pre-publicity, and during its entire run, Myers disappeared completely into the persona of Maitland, a sort of British vaudevillian gone horribly wrong.
Figure #8: Mike Myers as Tommy Maitland on the reboot of The Gong Show
Myers’ interest in comic method acting created an elegant solution to the problem presented by The Gong Show. The original game show was created by Chuck Barris for NBC daytime television in 1976. It aired in syndication on American television until 1980. Barris played a seemingly insane, drunk, and untalented host of a series of vaudeville acts that ranged from being in poor taste to downright surreal.
Figure #9: Chuck Barris on the original version of The Gong Show
In 1984, Barris published his autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed to have been an operative for the CIA. The bizarre story, the layering of one absurd life, as a game show host, on top of another, that of an assassin, provided the perfect soil for Myers to work his craft. Rather than following the path of George Clooney, who in 2002 turned Barris’ book into a feature film starring Sam Rockwell, Myers submerged his identity into an equally fictitious comedian, Tommy Maitland.
More than just stunt casting as the guy from Wayne’s World, Myers as Ray Foster in Bohemian Rhapsody brings an extraordinary level of commitment to performativity to the otherwise uninteresting and tame bio-pic. Myers’ cameo proves crucial for understanding Freddie Mercury.
Farrokh Bulsara, the son of a Parsi Zoroastrian family from Tanzania, transformed himself into the teenager Freddie Mercury when the migratory immigrant family moved to Britain. On top of that, in the mid-1970s, Mercury broke the heart of his lover and best friend, Mary Austin, when he stopped repressing his true sexuality, that of a gay man.
Mercury’s volcanic performativity was driven by the displacement of his identity as a gay man of color, subsumed underneath the persona of a masculine and white star, the only kind allowed to front a legendary stadium rock band.
As interesting a performer as Rami Malek is becoming—Mr. Robot (USA Network, 2015-2019) is a fine start—the only person on the set of Bohemian Rhapsody who is even close to being able to negotiate a performative life as complex as Freddie Mercury’s is oddly, the film’s only comedian, Mike Myers.
Bohemian Rhapsody does not do justice to the genius of Freddie Mercury, but buried within is someone who could have.