Posts Tagged ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

emma blizzard 04

Right you film fans. Our look at movies about music concludes with Category D: Old biopic crud from Hollywood, by which I mean everything from before Hollywood discovered that not all people are white.

I was mainly thinking of the ’50s and before, but once I seriously got into this, I found I didn’t want to revisit these old music flicks. They’re too restricted, racially (you couldn’t make a story about a black entertainer, but you could black the face of a white one) and technologically. Also, I want to move on to something else. These six will stand for all the rest.

The Jazz Singer (1927)
Scholars have written books about this one, so I’m not going to touch it, except to say that the soundtrack is an example of how musical tastes change. No one alive today would choose to spend one minute with “April Showers,” “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” or that ultimate in cultural appropriation, “My Mammy,” and their incredibly hammy performances. The auditory quality is, of course, dreadful. What else? It was 1927!

The film was remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond and no blackface.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
In 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy was placed on the National Film Registry for being “the most obvious film ever made.” James Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar, and he earned it – he’s in every scene except the one where his character is born and the Civil War reenactors fire off a cannon because it’s a boy. He never stops talking, singing, dancing, cajoling, bantering, butting in, and exploding off the walls. Jimmy Cagney was a one-man bouncy castle.

I have this suspicion…and I apologize for expressing a negative thought about the film that won the war…that Yankee Doodle Dandy does not accurately portray the life of a working vaudeville entertainer from the early 1900s. I think they fudged some of this stuff. Like maybe all of it.

The official soundtrack wasn’t released until 1989.

Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Kirk Douglas falls in with some African-American musicians who sense his white power and bless him with their black magic. Daring at the time. Even if you can get past this, you’re still stuck inside a Kirk Douglas movie from 1950. Do you believe Douglas as a Roman slave? A Viking berserker? An Australian gold miner? How about as a trumpeter? I wouldn’t hire him to play a green tambourine.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Jimmy Stewart, who flew more than 50 missions over Nazi Germany, plays band leader Glenn Miller, whose plane disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel in 1944. I know I saw this picture several times on the “Million Dollar Movie” rerun channel in the ’60s, but all I remember today is that Stewart looked good in a uniform. The soundtrack is a passable big band compilation. You can find better ones.

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
The forgotten Tyrone Power massacres this portrait of forgotten pianist and band leader Eddie Duchin, with music by the forgotten Carmen Cavallaro. Cavallaro’s readings of Duchin’s works are overwrought, about what you’d expect from Liberace. They probably hired him because he was cheaper than Liberace. One grace note: Cavallaro’s “Chopsticks.” Must be heard to be believed.

The Benny Goodman Story (1956)
Suggested by Loyal Reader Wm Seabrook. Good thought, Bill. Steve Allen (“Steverino”) plays Benny Goodman, who made musical history in the U.S. with the first integrated orchestra. “If a man’s got it, let him give it,” Goodman declared. “I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Whether Allen as Goodman says that in The Benny Goodman Story, I can’t recall. I know this was another “Million Dollar Movie” rerun, which is where I saw it when I wasn’t watching Get Smart! or 12 O’Clock High. I wonder how serious they were about tackling the integration issue: there are nine real musicians in this film, including Steve Allen, but only two are African-American, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. (There’s one African-American dancer: Sammy Davis, Sr.).

Nevermind the quality of the film. The soundtrack is a must-have collection of Benny Goodman performances, most of them live, and as I type this you can buy it on Amazon for $1.66 or just 1,500 Euros.

Thank you for reading along this past week as I meandered through movie history. I received super suggestions from Loyal Readers mikenr (“I put forth the fantasy biopic Yellow Submarine for your ridicule”) and Darwin (Across the Universe, “one of my favorite movies ever”). In time, gentlemen. Those will be a pleasure to rewatch.

And here’s something I never thought I’d write: Thank you, Queen.

Notes: The photo is of Emma, Boise, Idaho, 2004. She was mesmerized by a bone and didn’t notice when it started snowing. The title is from Loyal Reader lizkatz, who said this toward the end of one of our Passover seders.



blues brothers bobs country bunker

If you’ve just joined us, we’re examining movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody. This list is incomplete, idiosyncratic, and possibly inaccurate. Welcome to Category C: Totally fictional biopics!

The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler stars in a film that’s “loosely based” on the life of Janis Joplin. I’ve never seen The Rose because the Divine Miss M and I go together like peanut butter and SPF 50 sunscreen.

Midler doesn’t have Joplin’s grit and she doesn’t know Joplin’s pain, but she has a superlative voice, and on this platter she proves she can sing rock ’n’ roll and the blues. Two of the songs became hits, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the title track. Her producer used different musicians for different songs; to my ears, that prevents the songs from hanging together. And yet in many places this record rocks. I’d say it’s unlike anything else in Midler’s catalog but first I’d have to listen to Midler’s catalog. I’ll stop here.

Renaldo & Clara (1978)
Bob Dylan filmed his Rolling Thunder tour and cast the musicians in a movie-within-a-movie. Ronnie Hawkins stars as @RealBobDylan and Bob Dylan stars as the fictional Renaldo. Dylan co-wrote the script with Sam Shepard. Jettison the escape pods.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film has as much to do with making a living in music as Raiders of the Lost Ark has to do with making a living in archeology. The soundtrack is a gas, even though John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd don’t sing well. The six people who did the most to popularize American roots music were John, Paul, George, Ringo, Jake, and Elwood.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can anyone say about this picture except turn the volume to 11? It’s the closest thing on my list to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Commitments (1991)
One of those rare moments in Western civilization where the book and the film are equally memorable. The soundtrack, though it was played by amateurs, holds up well on long car trips.

Almost Famous (2000)
A teenage boy cons Rolling Stone’s editors into giving him the sort of assignment an experienced writer would kill for: Embed yourself with Billy Crudup’s band and write a psychologically revealing feature about them. Hijinks ensue. It’s a fun film, the soundtrack is a buffet of early-’70s gold, and I can even accept the two songs written by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

What I particularly loved about this picture was the kid finally admitting to his editors that he had no story and instead presenting them with wadded-up pages of disconnected, almost indecipherable, notes. That, ladies and gentleman, is what I put my editor through every week.

That Thing You Do! (1996)
I was working at a software company when this film was released. One of my co-workers, Hojo*, appeared at my desk one day, proclaimed, “I have discovered the worst song of all time,” and placed his headphones over my ears. This is what I heard:

You got me all tied up in knots
And I’m lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m just lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m lovin’ you lots and lots

Hojo was right. The opening track of That Thing You Do! is so bad that resistance is futile. The rest of this album is a perfect rendering of pop music after The Beatles invaded the U.S. but before the U.S. struck back with The Byrds and The Monkees.

True, this is an all-white lineup, the two songs by girl groups are abysmal, and the true-to-the-period fake band names (Saturn V, The Heardsmen) will only take you so far. But a couple of songs are worth repeat listens. “She Knows It” could’ve been a Beau Brummels B-side. “Mr. Downtown” sounds like the theme song to any American private-eye show of the ’60s, and it’s sung by somebody who can belt out ridiculous lyrics without losing one goddamn bit of his pretentiousness.

The film is silly, and it needed a clash between the two alpha males over Liv Tyler (who plays The Reward), but as a glimpse of that era it’s above average. It was probably written by the kid from Almost Famous.

* I immortalized Hojo in this story. After he read it, he said, “Your Hojo is too nice!”

La La Land (2016)
I was impressed by La La Land, the story of an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, and I was happy that so many people would pay real money to see a film packed with all that jazz. This is particularly noteworthy today, where jazz festivals that want to turn a profit usually start by ejecting the jazz.

The soundtrack sounds just like a musical from the swinging ’60s. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do their own singing; they’re not great, but they don’t embarrass themselves. Gosling’s character is a reactionary who wants to stop the musical clock in 1960, and Legend’s character might as well be walking around with a big sign on his chest that says SELLOUT, but Stone won an Oscar and I’d see this picture again in a heartbeat.

Grace of My Heart (1996)
Illeana Douglas tries to make it as a female songwriter in the ’60s. (Note how often that decade appears on my list.) Douglas is always watchable, but the vaguely Carole Kingish narrative is dizzy with plot and the music doesn’t stand out for me. Joni Mitchell and the team of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello each contributed a song.

Subcategory: Totally fictional biopics that star actual musicians

’Round Midnight (1986)
A slow, ultra-depressing movie about a self-destructive sax legend played by formerly self-destructive sax legend Dexter Gordon. The real theme of this film is France’s unending love of American jazz. The soundtrack is an avalanche of bop-you-in-the-head jazz players, led by Gordon and Herbie Hancock.

Next time: We wrap up with our final category, Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Brace yourself for some serious suckicity.


rock me amadeus

Our survey of movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody, continues with Biopics about non-Beatles. It’s amazing how many older films are not instantly available in our instant-grat culture. I’m relying on faded memories of some of these pictures while listening to their soundtracks today (except when I refuse to listen to their soundtracks any day).

Thanks for all the comments that have been pouring in from up to two of my three Loyal Readers. I’ll address your concerns when all this is over.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross portrays Billie Holiday.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
Gary Busey does for Buddy Holly what Rami Malek does for Freddie Mercury. Malek, though, was working inside a much stronger movie. The Buddy Holly Story is nothing without Busey. Busey does his own singing (his guitar was overdubbed), but without the 2018 technology that boosted Malek’s voice, he can’t come anywhere near Holly’s. The music works only while you’re watching the film. Alone, it’s like a hot dog without a baseball game in front of it.

Living Proof: The Hank Williams, Jr. Story (1983)
Richard Thomas, seeking to escape his John-Boy Walton persona, makes a credible Hank Williams, Jr. Filled with country music, which is a deal-breaker for this reviewer.

Amadeus (1984)
Tom Hulce as musical idiot Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as that mixed-up nutburger Antonio Salieri tear it up like William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban in “Space Seed.” Abraham won for Best Actor. Milos Foreman helmed the one entry on my list that took home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The four-hour director’s cut includes Mozart’s work as a script doctor on The Pirates of Penzeance.

Amadeus illuminated this era of classical music for me. Was this the real European music world of 1790? It is now! Plus, without the film, we wouldn’t have had Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”:

Amadeus-Amadeus. Amadeus.
Amadeus-Amadeus. Amadeus.
Amadeus-Amadeus, oh oh oh Amadeus.

La Bamba (1987)
Don’t expect much – they screen this movie in my mom’s nursing home back-to-back with a Tom Jones TV special from the 1970s. Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a solid characterization of doomed rocker Ritchie Valens. Los Lobos recreated all of Valens’ music (“La Bamba” reborn) and we even get Bo Diddley and a new recording of “Who Do You Love?”

The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)
I can’t make an extended stay in Carpenter World. I can’t even do a drive-by. Cynthia Gibb plays Karen Carpenter. I would know who she was if I had ever watched Fame. There was a Karen Carpenter movie in 2016, Goodbye to Love, but I can’t go near that one, either.

The Doors (1991)

The Rat Pack (1998)
Sinatra, Dino, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Joey Joey, and Peter Lawford. Any questions? Yes, why can’t they sing songs I like? Would it have killed one of them to cover “Louie, Louie”? I haven’t seen this picture. The soundtrack lineup reads well if you like this sort of thing. Don Cheadle, who plays Sammy Davis, also plays Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (see below).

Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), and Get on Up (2014)
Basically the same movie: one man (Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Brown) fights his way out of the hellhole he was born in and reaches the top of his profession, all the while battling alcohol, drugs, haters, and schemers. The actors (Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chadwick Boseman) and the soundtracks are phenomenal. I recommend them all, but be warned, Get on Up is tough to watch. There is no redemption for the Godfather of Soul.

Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for playing June Carter Cash.

Love & Mercy (2014)
Brian Wilson’s rise and fall and leveling off. According to Love & Mercy, he was saved by the wife James Brown couldn’t find. John Cusak plays the genius behind The Beach Boys in a film that backs him with actors who can match him, including Paul Giamatti and Elizabeth Banks. The soundtrack includes only a few Beach Boys songs. The fewer Beach Boys songs, the better the movie.

Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s salute to The Four Seasons. Excuse me while I deploy my air-sickness bag.

Miles Ahead (2015)
I can’t comment on this film because I haven’t seen it. I could comment on the soundtrack, a mix of edited Davis tunes and new songs based on Davis’ early music, but frankly, if the names Miles Davis and John Coltrane make you want to build a 2,000-mile-long border wall, you’re better off watching another movie. It’s definitely your bag if, like me, mid-’60s bop makes you want to stage-dive at your company’s next all-staff meeting.

Green Book (2018)
The story of a black jazz pianist, Don Shirley, and the white members of his trio as they try to survive a road trip through the Confederacy in the early 1960s. Mahershala Ali plays the proud Shirley, a man who keeps the world at arm’s length because he knows if he gets any closer he’ll get a boot to the head. Viggo Mortensen is his white driver, Tony Lip. Tony hates violence, except when it comes his way and then he loves it. He’s basically Zorba the Greek. I was spellbound.

I attended this motion picture with a person who would rather sit through a PowerPoint on optimizing multichannel marketing platforms than listen to jazz – I’m not naming names, but I might be married to her – and she loved it. The jazz, which was several shades more accessible than what you’ll find in Miles Ahead, didn’t make her long for a root canal. There is no higher praise.

Subcategory: Biopics about non-Beatles starring actual musicians

Cadillac Records (2008)
The Chess brothers started off by selling records from the trunk of their Cadillac. They were a pop-up record label. Chess Records deserved better than this inconsistent film. Etta James is played by Beyoncé, who is good; Chuck Berry is played by Mos Def, who is not. Two non-musicians, actors Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, steal the show.

The soundtrack is strong in places thanks to the veteran back-up musicians, but nobody needs the anachronistic hip-hop tracks. Some interesting stuff in this film about starting your own record company in the analog age, but overall, you’d do better with any Chess Records comp.

Next: Our series ends with Totally fictional biopics and Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Remember, you’re a Yankee…Doodle…Dandy.


Tonight’s very exciting post is all about – not music in movies, but movies about music!


Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Starring Rami Malek as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, Gwilym Lee as guitarist and hair farmer Brian May, Ben Hardy as singing drummer Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as dorky bass player John Deacon, and Branson from Downtown Abbey as Super Bad Gay Dude.

From the moment I saw the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, I knew I wanted to see it, even though I have never wanted to see Queen.

My enthusiasm waned when I realized no one could make a movie about Queen without including the dreaded music of Queen. I pictured myself wrapped in a ball beneath my seat while the house speakers pummeled me with “I’m in Love with My Car” (“With my hand on your grease gun/Mmm, it’s like a disease, son”) and “Fat-Bottomed Girls” (“Heap big woman, you done made a big man of me”).

But on a rainy night when our only other choice was Mary Poppins Returns, we grimly fastened our safety harnesses, faced the camera, said, “Let’s do this,” and walked in slow motion into the suburban multiplex while cars and helicopters exploded behind us.

(Is there a musical line I won’t cross? Oh yes, and I know exactly what’s on the other side: Close to the Edge, the Yes biopic.*)

Two and a half hours later, we left the theater wrapped in a happy rock-and-roll daze. What a film! Rami Malek, who had barely heard of Queen before he was hired, resurrected Freddie. When people in the far future envision Freddie Mercury (which they will, despite everything I’ve said about him here in the present), they will think of Rami Malek.

I didn’t like how the film played with Queen’s actual history – Freddie didn’t break up the band by being selfish, Freddie broke up the band by being dead – and there were zero mentions of the glam rock and art rock worlds that birthed them, but I still give this film Four Paws Up for its superlative performances, exceptional sound, and riveting scenes that give us a notion of what it was like to be in the band. The recreation of Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 was a spectacle on a level with the “Once in a Lifetime” sequence in Stop Making Sense or the chariot race in Ben-Hur.

Can I do the fandango? Yes, but I prefer not to.

I wanted to see Bohemian Rhapsody because I love films about bands. Naturally, I’ve made a list of all the ones I’ve seen (and some I haven’t). I’ve divided my list into four handy categories (with two subcategories). I don’t claim this list is complete – your nominations are welcome, and will be ridiculed.

Note: Documentaries are off-limits. So no mention of the legions of Beatles docs (such as Imagine: John Lennon and George Harrison: Living in the Material World) or the Decline of Western Civilization movies (punk and metal).

Also, I am arbitrarily striking off all the Star Is Born and Phantom of the Opera movies, including Phantom of the Paradise. This is just too much work.


Tonight, Category A:

Biopics about The Beatles

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The ultimate band movie, this one about a day in the life of a band that’s very like but not exactly like The Beatles, played by real Beatles. A Hard Day’s Night will not be equaled until they start making fantasy RPG movies where you can be Paul’s grandfather.

Birth of the Beatles (1979)
This was the first movie about The Beatles after their break-up. The songs were recorded by a Beatles tribute band with contributions from Paul McCartney. I don’t recall this film as amounting to much of anything, but it might be nostalgic to rewatch it. We’re probably better off with the next entry, even though like most people I can only handle a finite amount of Pete Best:

Backbeat (1994)
Young Beatles on a rampage in Berlin. The film is only above average, but the soundtrack – ooh-la-la! Alt-rock musicians covering The Beatles covering black R&B hits. Sweet.

Now for Beatles films I haven’t seen:

The Hours and the Times (1991)
Two of Us (2000)
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Lennon Naked (2010)

There are no Beatles songs on these soundtracks. The first two don’t even have songs, just the music that follows the actors around. The other two have some Lennon solo tracks. I can’t claim I’m in rush to see them.

Where are the Ringo movies??

Subcategory: Biopics about bands based on The Beatles

Head (1968)
Correct me if I’m wrong, Princess Internet, but A Hard Day’s Night and Head are the only movies about a band in which the band is played by the band (The Beatles and The Monkees, respectively). Unfortunately for The Monkees, the distance between A Hard Day’s Night and Head is about as wide as the distance between the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. A living-room full of stoners would vote to watch Mary Poppins Returns.

The opening track, “Porpoise Song,” is a representative sample of late-’60s psychedelia, but other than that, I recommend you watch The Monkees’ old TV show.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)
The first Beatles parody. My problem with Beatles parodies is that after I hear the first song, I want the real thing. I’m afraid if tonight I watched All You Need Is Cash, I’d be disappointed.

In our next movies-about-music posts we’ll tackle Biopics about non-Beatles, Totally fictional biopics, and Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Until then, we will, of course, rock you.

The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make sense, but, to be fair, neither does “I Am the Walrus.”

* There is no Yes biopic. I just said that to scare you.