Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, and the Myth of Authenticity
The upset Golden Globes victory of one music drama over another hints at which is the more comforting retelling of the same rock-and-roll narrative.
Accepting the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture, Rami Malek thanked Freddie Mercury: “You beautiful man. This is for and because of you, gorgeous.” He also gave a shout-out to the members of Queen who produced the Mercury biopic that shocked Hollywood by winning Best Drama on Sunday night. “To you, Brian May, and to you, Roger Taylor,” he said, “for ensuring that authenticity and inclusivity exist in the music, and in the world, and in all of us.”
Authenticity—what a fight starter! Bohemian Rhapsody, picked apart by cultural commentators for its divergences from the real story of Queen’s rise, is great for its realness? A band that campily reimagined rock and roll as opera, that played with baby talk and disco beats, whose lead singer paraded about in royal finery, is the ensurer of authenticity? Wittingly or not, Malek was framing what might become the key division of this awards season’s battle of the band movies.
Pundits are puzzling out how Bohemian Rhapsody beat A Star Is Born, another musical drama, which featured bigger stars, won warmer reviews, and performed better at the U.S. box office. But fans of Rhapsody know how to feel. One tweet praised Rhapsody’s “validity as a memoir and narrative of a factually based story about a band many of us loved.” A Tumblr post with scores of likes defended Rhapsody on the grounds that “these actors had to study other people day and night, learn how [to] get every live performance on point, learn how to talk like someone else, act like someone else, even look like someone else.” Another fan posted, “This is why bohemian rhapsody deserves all the awards,” with a video comparing Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance with Malek’s re-creation.
How fitting that truth and fiction are at issue with two mass-market rock-and-roll movies now positioned as rivals: Mass-market rock itself has long relied on fake identities turning real. Bohemian Rhapsody lays out how Farrokh Bulsara changed his name, downplayed his Parsi heritage, played coy about his sexuality, and yet became an icon of—as the Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King put it in the night’s final speech—“the power of embracing your true self.” A Star Is Born demonstrates this pop alchemy, too, as the unpolished Ally (Lady Gaga) adopts artificial sounds and hairdos, dismaying her earthy benefactor (Bradley Cooper), on the way to fame.
Deep down, though, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born’s approaches to “truth” are different. The Queen biopic did greatly concern itself with the trappings of nonfiction: Malek nailed every Mercury mannerism, two original band members consulted on the production, and the film concludes with that painstaking Live Aid reenactment. Still, there’s a lot of fantasy. The screenwriters bent timelines and invented twists not merely for dramatic convenience, but also to present Queen’s messy story in a bright and uplifting light. Drugs, infidelity, and illness appear only in glimpses, while the real draws of the film—the thing that makes the people who love it love it—are the heroic concert scenes, the light humor, and the inspirational themes.
A Star Is Born, meanwhile, is almost explicitly a work of mythology: It retells a fictional narrative arc that’s been passed down over generations. But like so many great myths of ancient times, the story is brutal—so as to make a point about the real world. In every iteration of A Star Is Born, a young woman’s rise is enabled by the support of a man who’s eventually snuffed out, and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s portrayal of that downturn in the movie’s second half is particularly unsparing: a threnody of humiliation, urination, rehab, and (spoiler) death. It’s so wrenching that Gaga has said that when she sits in screenings of A Star Is Born, she walks out before the end.
The Star story resonates in the real world in a number of ways and to varying degrees of coherence, playing on gender panic and genre disputes. But at its most fundamental level, it’s the legend of Icarus—a precipitous rise comes with a precipitous fall. It’s also a familiar pop-culture saga about greatness undone by addiction and self-loathing, forces whose persistence have been highlighted all too frequently of late by actual celebrity deaths. There’s great joy in A Star Is Born, of course, but the power of the film is in how the highs dovetail with its attempts to understand suffering.
It’s easy to forget that Bohemian Rhapsody is about addiction and self-loathing, too. Some viewers (myself included) felt that the movie too sanctimoniously portrayed Mercury’s partying as a futile response to an emotional void, almost implying that he was at fault for contracting AIDS. But even so, the film doesn’t dwell much on Mercury’s tragedy. It hints at his indulgences furtively—a line of cocaine in a quick shot, a night cruising at the bar rendered in hazy montage—so as to present his personal ups and downs as mere complications to Queen’s otherwise unified creative project. Instead of delving into his final years, the film opts to end with a triumphant concert.
That relatively feel-good, Disney-fied take on a famous doomed hedonist is what the culture already subsists on: The movie’s not unlike a poster of Queen, or a wax statue of Mercury, cashing in on the goodwill the band has already amassed. The cheeriness that results obviously works for a lot of people, including Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters and the international audiences that have pushed Rhapsody to far outpace A Star Is Born in global ticket sales. It even, as Malek said, helps the cause of inclusivity, with it becoming the highest-grossing LGBT film ever.
But as the Bohemian Rhapsody crew celebrated its unexpected victory on Sunday, there were reminders of the ways in which the film’s pick-and-choose version of authenticity finds echoes in the real world. Backstage, a reporter asked Rami Malek why Bryan Singer, who directed most of the film before being fired and who is facing a rape accusation, wasn’t mentioned in the acceptance speeches. “There’s only one thing we needed to do, and that was to celebrate Freddie Mercury in this film,” Malek said. “Nothing was going to compromise us giving him the love, celebration, adulation he deserves.” The uncomfortable truth, in other words, wasn’t going to get in the way of glory.